Capital spending plan: A capital plan but a manifesto by any other name

Many of the projects listed are worthwhile but there was electioneering in the air, writes Juno McEnroe

WITH the fastest-growing population in Europe, Ireland needs an investment plan with a backbone that will ease overcrowded cities, congested traffic routes, and fix recession-hit dilapidated facilities.

The Coalition’s capital plan is gilded with multibillion-euro projects in transport, housing, health, and energy but many have been announced before.

Some were rewrapped and rebranded yesterday for the unveiling of a proposed six-year spending spree.

But let’s call the capital plan what it is: A manifesto by another name.

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin could not identify how much of the €27bn plan would be spent or actually invested by the time the Fine Gael-Labour coalition goes to the people possibly, at the latest, by next spring. Some of the spending plans also go all the way to 2027, or at least two elections away.

Capital spending plan: A capital plan but a manifesto by any other name

But, facing EU spending restrictions this year and a “prudent” budget, very little of the capital spending will come out of departments over the coming months.

Instead, what we had yesterday was a roll call of the Coalition’s big-ticket spending promises and how much would be pumped into them — provided the Government is re-elected.

We already know about Construction 2020, the Rural Development Plan, social housing spending plans, and promises of rolling out broadband in rural areas.

Furthermore, commitments have already been made for the new maternity hospital in west Dublin, many of the road upgrades in rural areas have been talked about for years, and the 1916 commemoration plans have been well flagged too.

As Howlin admitted, the announcement was all a bit boring.

Capital spending plan: A capital plan but a manifesto by any other name

“There are no white elephants in this,” he said. “There are things that everyone knows are required in our economy. So there’s a boringness of knowing there are bottlenecks that need to be addressed. We all know the roads that we need to sort out, we all know the hospitals that need upgrading and investment. So it a common sense package of measures, a very expensive common sense package of measures but highly affordable.”

Nonetheless, these calculations up until 2021 are needed, especially with projections that Ireland’s population will rise above 5m over the next decade.

Already, parts of Dublin and Cork are at a standstill during peak traffic hours, demand for rental accommodation and home purchases is driving up prices beyond the reach of young buyers, office space is limited for new companies, and school places are increasingly hard to secure for families with young children.

Undoubtedly, the jewel in the crown of the plan was the promise for a fast, efficient rail service to and from the airport. It is unimaginable really — a train line, like in other modern cities such as London, Paris or even Hong Kong, where visitors could step off a flight and be in the city within half an hour. In fact, the promised link would bring passengers through north Dublin in 19 minutes, taking 9,500 people either way every hour. It’s almost unfathomable and would cost €2.4bn. But construction will not properly begin until after 2021, with the first passengers after 2026. That’s a long way off.

Capital spending plan: A capital plan but a manifesto by any other name

Indeed, that was part of the problem with the Coalition’s shiny new spending promises. It was a big wishlist — as Fianna Fáil argued — with limited if not very distant timelines.

There’s also some scepticism about another €15bn in spending plans for the projects which will rely on private sector funding.

Few, if any, of the first bricks and starts to these projects will be on the ground by the time the election comes around.

There’s also the warning that the plan is Dublin-centric, much to the neglect of the South and West.

Should an outgoing government be promising what will be spent in 10 years’ time? Despite an insistence by Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday that this is not about political capital (to gain those all-important votes), there was definitely electioneering in the air as ministers spoke about splashing out billions of euro in years to come.


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