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Exploring Energy Infrastructure: Natural gas connections and use

The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has recently commissioned a study of wider costs and benefits of the extension of the natural gas grid (see here for more information).  The WDC welcomes the commissioning of this study, as quality energy networks are important elements of the essential infrastructure required to underpin and stimulate economic development of the Western Region, much of which currently does not have access to the gas network.  Figure 1 below show Gas Networks Ireland’s pipeline map, which highlights the lack of connection to towns in the North West.

Figure 1: Natural Gas Pipeline map

The WDC has long advocated the extension of the natural gas network to towns in the North West of Ireland and made the case in some detail the 2011 study Why invest in gas?.  A natural gas network is, in many situations, an essential infrastructure without which a region may struggle to develop.  Towns connected to the natural gas grid have the reduced energy costs over the longer term resulting in greater competitiveness for businesses, as well as greater attractiveness for new industry which may choose to locate in towns with natural gas.

Where natural gas has become available large users (e.g. Allergan in Westport, Baxter Healthcare in Castlebar) quickly switched to natural gas. As the gas grid expands nationally and more consumers (both industrial and domestic) gain access, the availability of natural gas will be taken for granted. Lack of gas infrastructure may become a disincentive to investment, reducing a region’s competitiveness and increasing existing disparities.  As Gas Networks Ireland notes:

Industry depends on natural gas and gas availability is a key criteria for international companies when they are deciding where to invest. Having natural gas supplied to a town enhances its attractiveness and opportunities for growth and job creation. Many large employers in Ireland are also large users of natural gas.

Thus the WDC sees natural gas as a key enabling infrastructure for economic development of the North West.  It is therefore useful to understand natural gas connections and natural gas consumption in more connected parts of the Western Region and in other parts of Ireland.

Where is networked gas used?

The CSO provides detailed data on networked gas consumption, by type of user and by county.  The map below (Figure 2) shows the locations of residential metered connections across Ireland, and provides a very clear indication of the urban nature of the connections.

Figure 2: Location of Residential meters

Source: CSO 2016 Networked Gas Consumption

Of the seven Western Region counties three (Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim) have no networked natural gas connection and Roscommon only has connections in the Monksland part of Athlone (a total of 72 residential connections and 2 non-residential connections (see Table 1 below, Western Region counties in bold)).  Galway, Mayo and Clare have more extensive networks.  Both Galway (6,795) and Clare (4,797) have significant numbers of residential connections while Mayo has fewer than 713.  Residential connections are most likely to be made when new houses are built, and many of the towns in Mayo were just connected as the rapid housing construction of the early part of the century slowed down.

Table 1: Number of Meters by County for Non-Residential and Residential Sectors 2016

Source: CSO 2016 Networked Gas Consumption

Mayo has a significant proportion of non-residential connections (Figure 1 below); in fact it has the highest percentage of non-residential connections of all counties (with the exception of Wexford where dwellings only began to be connected in late 2016).

The CSO publication shows the proportion of networked gas used in power plants (62%), non-residential (24%) and residential (13%) in 2016.  Details of power plant consumption are not available by county but it is interesting to compare residential and non-residential consumption for each county with the proportions of the two different connection types.  Clearly non-residential consumption per meter will, in most instances, be higher than residential consumption but, as Figure 3 shows, there is significant variation in this across counties (Western Region counties are in green).  This is largely dependent of the type of non-residential users connected in the different counties.  The CSO intends in future to add NACE codes to the non-residential connection records in order to provide a more detailed analysis of non-domestic customers.  This will be very useful giving better understanding of the types of non-residential users.

Figure 3: Percentage meters which are Non Residential Meters and Percentage of consumption which is Non Residential 2016

Source: CSO 2016 Networked Gas Consumption

While a quarter of meters in Mayo are non-residential, they account for 98% of the consumption.  In many more rural counties (Mayo, Cavan, Monaghan, Kilkenny and Tipperary) non-residential consumption can be very significant (over 85% of all consumption in the counties named above).  This is in contrast to Dublin, Laois, Meath and Wicklow where non-residential consumption was 51% or less of total consumption.

Figure 4: Natural gas Consumption by County Non Residential and Residential (Gigawatt Hours)

Source: CSO 2016 Networked Gas Consumption

As these are gross consumption figures, and are of course dependent on the number and type of connections, there is very significant variation.  Not surprisingly the ‘Dublin Postal District’ has the highest level of both residential and non-residential consumption.  This area has more 12,294 non-residential connections (Table 1) which is significantly larger than Cork which has the next largest number of non-residential connections (3,497) and it can be inferred that many of the non-residential connections in this area are smaller commercial premises and not larger process users. This is borne out by average consumption per connection for each county in Figure 5 below. Roscommon (which has very few connections in a very small part of the county (75 in total)) and Wexford, which has very recently been connected (8 connections in this data) have been excluded.

As discussed above, Cork has a very significant total non-residential consumption (3,154 GWh) but only comes in sixth place for average consumption per non-residential connection shown in Figure 3.

Figure 5: Average Non Residential Consumption per meter (2016)

Source: CSO 2016 Networked Gas Consumption

Cavan has only 114 non-residential connections but among them are some very significant gas users.  It has the highest average non-residential consumption per connection, and indeed this has grown significantly (by 53%) since 2011.  Wexford has a small number of large users (whose consumption justified making the network connection in recent years) while other quite rural counties show high levels of consumption per connection (non-residential).  In some cases (Mayo, for example, this is closely associated with high tech industry use of process heat, but significant agri-food processing in other rural counties are likely to contribute to the high average demand per connection.   In contrast, Wicklow, Dublin and Meath have generally low average consumption per connection.

While much of the variation in non-residential consumption will depend on types of connections and the type of activity being carried out, residential consumption levels are more comparable and Figure 6 below shows median consumption by county.

Figure 6: Networked Gas Median Consumption by County for Residential Sector 2016

Source: CSO 2016 Networked Gas Consumption

According to the CSO[1] the median consumption can be regarded as typical usage as it is not influenced by outliers in the same way as the average is.  Median residential consumption varies from 10,910 in Meath to 6,686 kWh in Mayo (Wexford has been excluded from the chart as it has only 3 residential connections).  This large variation suggests that residences in Meath are using 63% more natural gas than residences in Mayo. It is not clear what is causing this variation but lower median consumption in counties like Mayo may indicate a higher proportion of other fuels being used for heating.  Given the very significant variation in median use this is certainly an area for further investigation.

Roscommon which only has 75 residential connections in the west of Athlone also shows high median levels of consumption, but this may relate to the characteristics of the housing connected or the greater incentive for larger residential users to switch to natural gas to save on the cost of energy.

Conclusion

The importance of natural gas connections in many counties is shown by the meter and consumption data.  Clearly there are some very significant natural gas users outside cities often associated with agri food processing.

The IDA has significant targets for investment in the regions and meeting these targets could give rise to additional commercial demand in urban centres not currently connected.  Indeed the IDA strategy notes in relation to its development of utility intensive strategic sites, that these require significant capital investment in utilities including natural gas.  The most recent GNI development plan highlights:

Natural gas as a clean, secure, low cost energy source is a key driver of job creation and economic growth. Industry depends on natural gas and gas availability is a key criteria for international companies when they are deciding where to invest. Having natural gas supplied to a town enhances its attractiveness and opportunities for growth and job creation. Many large employers in Ireland are also large users of natural gas.

This regional development effect needs to be measured when assessing the development of a natural gas network.  Furthermore, in addition to commercial demand, residential users can be important.  The DCCAE study, being carried out by KPMG, is not examining any one particular place, but under the Draft National Planning Framework- Ireland 2040 (NPF) there are targets for significant population growth in larger towns and cities including ones which do not currently have access to natural gas.  Both Sligo and Letterkenny (neither of which have networked gas) are targeted to have 40% increase in population by 2040 (both to increase to 27,000) and, given the emphasis on consolidation of urban centres in the NPF, it is expected that this additional population will be accommodated in these towns and should be ideal for  compact distribution networks.

With this in mind,  it is likely that the important of natural gas as a key regional infrastructure will be recognised in the Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy for the North West Region  (which is currently in preparation by the Northern and Western Regional Assembly).

____________________________________

[1] See Background Notes to Networked Gas Consumption publication (CSO, 2016)

Capital Infrastructure priorities – Broadband remains top of the list!

Engineers Ireland recently published The State of Ireland 2017, which focuses on the state of Ireland’s infrastructure and the extent to which it is fit for purpose. This is timely as the Government are in the process of considering the capital infrastructure priorities to be funded over the next few years.

This State of Ireland 2017 report, download here (3.4MB), is the seventh in a series of annual independent reports, on the state of the country’s infrastructure, informed by panel discussions and expert advisory groups.

This year’s report focuses on two key sectors, transport and communications though the report also makes separate recommendations on the infrastructure areas of energy, water supply and wastewater; flood management, water quality and waste infrastructure.

Transport

Ireland’s transport system was awarded a ‘C’ grade – meaning it is of mediocre standard: It is inadequately maintained, and / or unable to meet peak demand, and requiring significant investment. The report notes that investment in Ireland’s transport infrastructure is simply too low to support economic growth and jobs and more investment is needed to reduce congestion and increase sustainability.

Communications

The WDC was a member of the Communications Advisory Group which considered the coverage and connectivity of Ireland’s communications network and how Ireland’s communications network rates with the country’s needs.

As is evident from the report, unlike any other infrastructure considered, the quality of the broadband and communications network was graded spatially. A different grade was awarded depending on whether the infrastructure was located in urban, intermediate urban or remote rural areas which highlights the different quality of the infrastructure depending on location.

The urban areas are classed as the five major cities of Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. Intermediate urban areas are those other urban areas and surrounding townlands. The third category, rural including remote rural are the hinterlands of towns and remote locations.

Considering the question How would you rate Ireland’s communications network with the country’s needs, urban and intermediate urban were awarded a ‘B’ grade, whereas rural areas were awarded  ‘D’, conveying a poor, below standard poorly maintained, frequent inability to meet capacity and requiring immediate investment to avoid adverse impact on the national economy. The report notes that in rural and remote rural areas, State intervention is needed and the Government’s NBP programme must intervene for 542,000 premises representing 21% or one million of the national population.

For those of us who have long advocated that intervention is needed and that the National Broadband Plan needs to be implemented speedily and comprehensively, none of the report’s finding are a surprise. However the fact that the Communications Advisory Group, composed of companies such as the main telecoms providers, the telecoms regulator and Google among others, highlights the universal agreement that investment is needed as a matter of urgency.

Census 2016

Elsewhere, publication of Census 2016 data provides county data on broadband use in households.

Census 2016 Summary Results Part 1 Section 9, download here (1.1MB) shows the increasing take-up of broadband nationally, from 20% in 2006 to 70.7% in 2016.

The report also highlights the rural – urban divide where 61.1% of households in rural areas have a broadband connection compared to 76.2% of urban households. Looking at counties in the Western Region, all have a broadband rate lower than the state average of 70.7%, apart from Galway city, see Fig 1 below. Leitrim and Roscommon have the lowest broadband rates across the Region with 58% and 59.8% respectively.

Fig 1. Percentage of households with broadband internet access, Western counties 2006-2016

The National Broadband Plan

These same counties are relatively poorly served with broadband infrastructure. As the State of Ireland 2017 report shows the more rural areas are often the least well served. Under the National Broadband Plan the Western Region counties are among those requiring the most state intervention in rolling out high speed broadband networks. While 23% of premises nationally will be included in the National Broadband Plan ‘Intervention Area’, the rate is much higher across the Western Region with an average of 36.5% of all premises. Counties such as Roscommon and Leitrim are particularly dependent on the National Broadband Plan with 48% and 51% of premises respectively in the NBP Intervention area. The state intervention area in the other counties of the Western Region extends to 44% of premises in Mayo, 36% in Sligo, 34% in Donegal, 34% in Clare and 29% in Galway.

How Ireland Compares Internationally

Data recently released from the OECD highlights the need for urgent investment in Ireland’s fibre based broadband infrastructure. As Figure 2 below shows, Ireland is nearly at the bottom of the pile for the percentage of fibre connections as a share of total broadband subscriptions.

Fig 2. Percentage of fibre connections in total broadband subscriptions, December 2016

Located 4th from the bottom of OECD countries, this data published in July 2017 relates to December 2016 and there is likely to be an improvement since then, however the relative position of Ireland in the OECD group shows how far we are from being in the top tier. Without a doubt, investment in fibre connectivity throughout the country is needed. These data and additional comparative data across the OECD are available for download here.

 

Deirdre Frost

What are the Capital Infrastructure Priorities for the Western Region?

Last week the WDC made a Submission to the Public Consultation on the Mid-term Review of the Capital Plan 2016-2021.

The consultation sought views as to what should be included in the current Plan (€42 billion), over and above what is already included – arising from additional resources (€5 billion) being made available.

In addition, an interesting and welcome aspect was that the Consultation also sought views on the criteria which should inform consideration of the capital investment choices to be made. This was in the context of the remainder of the current plan, but also and arguably of more importance in the context of a longer term 10 year Capital Plan.

This idea of a longer term 10 year Capital Plan acknowledges another important Public Consultation underway – the National Planning Framework (NPF) and the need to consider investment priorities which would align and support the final NPF. A draft NPF is due for consideration over this Summer.

In discussing the Considerations for the Mid-Term Review of the Capital Plan (Section 2), the WDC highlighted the importance of infrastructure for regional development where all regions need quality infrastructure to compete effectively. The WDC submission also noted;

  • The importance of long-term planning, as decisions made on infrastructure now have very long term impacts.
  • The need to invest to join existing networks together and complete ‘unfinished sections’. For example once the Gort-Tuam motorway is complete, the priority should then be to improve the outstanding sections between Tuam and Sligo to ensure a high quality road network.
  • Identify and utilise existing available capacity before considering new investments at congested sites. For example there is international air access capacity available at Shannon and Ireland West Airport Knock. Another example is to develop more attractive services on the rail network, which is a valuable transport asset with capacity to ease congestion on the road network and help us meet Ireland’s climate change obligations.
  • Develop inter-regional linkages. While connectivity to Dublin from most regions has improved considerably in the last decade, inter-regional connectivity is relatively poor. By improving inter-regional connectivity, such as improving the road network between the urban centres in the Mid-West, West and North West then the investment potential of the key urban centres there can be enhanced.

The WDC submission also notes the importance of appropriate appraisal and evaluation methods when considering alternative investment projects. The capital appraisal and evaluation methods determining the costs and benefits of different investment projects need to be re-examined. The traditional cost benefit approach will naturally favour the larger and often largest population centres as the impacts are likely to be felt by a greater number, wherever the project is being delivered. To realise better spatial balance, there will need to be a change to the conventional appraisal and evaluation methodologies which are typically used to determine what projects proceed. The impact on the wider spatial balance of the country should be factored in.

In the section examining the prioritisation of Capital Expenditure and Selection of Projects/Programmes in current Capital Plan (Section 3), the WDC focused on the infrastructure areas it considers critical for Western development.

Key priority infrastructural investments include:

  • Funding to deliver and complete the National Broadband Plan as soon as possible to ensure high speed broadband for all.
  • National primary road improvements including N4, N5, N6, M17, M18, incorporating the Atlantic Road corridor.
  • National secondary roads see WDC Submission for specific priorities.
  • There is a need to increase regional and local roads funding to allow road maintenance programme to be enhanced.
  • The importance of Bus services and the Rural transport programme to citizens in the Western Region is highlighted.
  • Continue investment is needed to support increased rail frequencies and service levels on routes serving the Western Region.
  • Ongoing support for improvements and access to Ireland West Airport Knock and Shannon.
  • Investment in the electricity network and natural gas infrastructure is made through the commercial state sector, but it should be co-ordinated and monitored through the Capital Investment Plan.
  • Apart from completing all energy commitments in the Capital Plan there should be investment to connect to the natural gas grid at Athenry, Ballyhaunis and Knock, all three of which qualified for connection in 2006.

In Section 4, Long-term Capital Investment Framework (10 years), the WDC Submission examines the longer-term considerations needed for effective capital investment. The WDC believes that capital investment which is by its nature long-term investment should be undertaken within the context of a longer term planning framework as is proposed in the National Planning Framework 2040. The WDC has made a detailed submission to the NPF (4.5 MB) consultation conducted by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.

Other considerations include:

Capital spending on new infrastructure should focus on supporting better spatial balance as well as supporting those citizens and that part of the country which is relatively poorly served. Quality infrastructure is one of the necessary conditions for regional development.

Investment in road infrastructure to join existing networks together and complete ‘unfinished sections’. For example in the West/North West. These are often infrastructure requirements needed to satisfy current as well as future demand.

As outlined previously, the state should capitalise on the capacity already available and ‘sweat’ the state investment already made, such as in transport, for example the rail network and the international airports with spare capacity such as Shannon and Ireland West Airport Knock. Other examples include educational infrastructure (Institutes of Technology), Health facilities and Housing.

Policy will also influence the infrastructure investments needed. The need to lower carbon emissions will help influence infrastructural investments (for example supporting cleaner transport modes).

Another consideration is to enable greater policy integration and joined up investment decisions across all sectors, for example planning, employment and transport policy sectors, which are proven to help to make sustainable and active travel more attractive alternatives to the private car.

A good example is the benefits which could be realised through increased e-Working, see WDC Policy Briefing No.7 (748 KB) which can reduce transport demand, traffic congestion and emissions. It has been estimated that if just 10% of the working population of 2.1 million were to work from home for 1 day a week, there would be a reduction of around 10 million car journeys to work per annum[1]. Benefits arising from higher broadband speeds and greater levels of e-Working include time savings, enhanced communications, increased sales and productivity gains[2]. To promote greater take-up, e-Work needs to be prioritised as a policy objective and a cross departmental approach is required. Lead departments would include the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Communications, Climate Change and Environment.

The WDC Submission is available for download here (4 MB).

Deirdre Frost

[1]Department for Transport, Smarter Travel: A Sustainable Transport Future, A New Transport Policy for Ireland 2009-2020 http://www.smartertravel.ie/sites/default/files/uploads/2012_12_27_Smarter_Travel_english_PN_WEB%5B1%5D.pdf#overlay-context=content/publications. p.35

[2] Indecon International Economic Consultants, July 2012. Economic / Socio-Economic Analysis of Options for Rollout of Next Generation Broadband. Analysis undertaken on behalf of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (DCENR) as part of the Government’s National Broadband Plan, 2012. http://www.dccae.gov.ie/communications/SiteCollectionDocuments/Broadband/National%20Broadband%20Plan.pdf

Key Issues for the National Planning Framework – Submission from the WDC

The WDC  made its submission on Ireland 2040 – Our Plan: National Planning Framework   yesterday.  The Issues and Choices paper covered a wide range of topics from national planning challenges to sustainability, health, infrastructure and the role of cities and towns.  A key element of the paper considered the future in a “business as usual” scenario in which even greater growth takes place in the Dublin and Mid East region with consequent increased congestion and increasing costs for businesses and society, while other parts of the country continue to have under-utilised potential which is lost to Ireland.  The consultation paper therefore sought to explore the broad questions of alternative opportunities and ways to move away from the “business as usual” scenario.

The WDC submission considers these issues from the perspective of the Western Region, the needs of the Region, the opportunities its development presents for Ireland’s economy and society as a whole and the choices, investments and policy required to achieve regional growth and resilience.

This post highlights the key points made in the submission.  The complete, comprehensive submission on the National Planning Framework by the WDC can be read here (4.5MB PDF).  A shorter summary is available here (0.7MB PDF).

 

What should the NPF achieve?

  • The National Planning Framework (NPF) provides Ireland with an opportunity to more fully realise the potential of all of its regions to contribute to national growth and productivity. All areas of Ireland, the Capital and second tier cities, large, medium and small-sized towns, villages and open countryside, have roles to play both in the national economy and, most importantly, as locations for people to live.
  • While spatial planning strives for ideal settlement or employment patterns and transport infrastructure, in many aspects of life change is relatively slow; demographics may alter gradually over decades and generations and, given the housing boom in the early part of this century, many of our existing housing units will be in use in the very long term. If the NPF is to be effective it must focus on what is needed, given current and historical patterns and the necessity for a more balanced pattern of development.
  • To effectively support national growth it is important that there is not excessive urban concentration “Either over or under [urban] concentration … is very costly in terms of economic efficiency and national growth rates” (Vernon Henderson, 2000[1]). Thus it is essential that, through the NPF, other cities and other regions become the focus of investment and development.

Developing Cities

  • As the NPF is to be a high level Framework, in this submission the WDC does not go into detail by naming places or commenting on specific development projects, as these will be covered by the forthcoming Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies (RSES). The exception to this, however, is in relation to the need for cities to counterbalance Dublin.  In this case we emphasise the role of Galway and the potential for Sligo to be developed as the key growth centre for the North West.
  • The North West is a large rural region and Sligo is the best located large urban centre to support development throughout much of the North West region. With effective linkages to other urban centres throughout the region and improved connectivity, along with support from regional and national stakeholders, Sligo can become a more effective regional driver, supporting a greater share of population, economic and employment growth in Sligo itself and the wider North West region.

Developing Towns

  • While the NPF is to be a high level document and the focus is largely on cities it is important not to assume that development of key cities will constitute regional development. All areas need to be the focus of definite policy, and the NPF should make this clear.
  • While cities may drive regional development, other towns, at a smaller scale, can be equally important to their region. Recognising this is not the same as accepting that all towns need the same level of connection and services.  It is more important to understand that the context of each town differs, in terms of distance and connectivity to other towns and to the cities, the size of the hinterland it serves and its physical area as well as population.  Therefore their infrastructure and service needs differ.
  • Towns play a central role in Ireland’s settlement hierarchy. While much of the emphasis in the NPF Issues and Choices paper is on cities and their role, for a large proportion of Ireland’s population small and medium-sized towns act as their key service centre for education, retail, recreation, primary health and social activities.  Even within the hinterlands of the large cities, people access many of their daily services in smaller centres.  The NPF needs to be clear on the role it sees for towns in effective regional development.

Rural Areas

  • Rural areas provide key resources essential to our economy and society. They are the location of our natural resources and also most of our environmental, biodiversity and landscape assets.  They are places of residence and employment, as well as places of amenity, recreation and refuge.
  • They are already supporting national economic growth, climate action objectives and local communities, albeit at a smaller scale than towns and cities. But a greater focus on developing rural regions would increase the contribution to our economy and society made by rural areas.
  • The key solution to maintaining rural populations is the availability of employment. It is important that the NPF is truly focused on creating opportunities for the people who live in the regions, whether in cities, towns or rural areas.

Employment and Enterprise

  • In the Issues and Choices paper a narrow definition of ‘job’, ‘work’ and ‘employer’ as a full-time permanent employee travelling every day to a specific work location seems to be assumed. This does not recognise either the current reality of ‘work’ or the likely changes to 2040. Self-employment, the ‘gig’ or ‘sharing’ economy, contract work, freelancing, e-Working, multiple income streams, online business are all trends that are redefining the conceptions of work, enterprise and their physical location.
  • If the NPF mainly equates ‘employer’ with a large IT services or high-tech manufacturing company, many of which (though by no means all) are attracted to larger cities, then it will only address the needs of a small proportion of the State’s population and labour force.
  • Similarly the NPF must recognise the need to enable and support the diversification of the Irish economy and enterprise base. It must provide a support framework for indigenous business growth across all regions and particularly in sectors where regions have comparative advantage.

Location Decisions

  • While job opportunities are a critical factor in people’s decision of where to live, they are by no means the only factor. Many other personal and social factors influence this decision such as closeness to family (including for childcare and elder care reasons), affordability, social and lifestyle preferences, connection to place and community.
  • Many people have selected to live in one location but commute to work elsewhere or, in some cases, e-Work for a number of days a week. The NPF needs to recognise the complexity of reasons for people’s location decisions in planning for the development of settlements.

Infrastructure

  • New infrastructure can be transformative (the increase in motorway infrastructure in recent decades shows how some change happens relatively quickly). Therefore it is essential that we carefully consider where we place new investments.  To do so, capital appraisal and evaluation methods determining the costs and benefits of different investment projects need to be re-examined if we are to move from a ‘business as usual’ approach.
  • Investment in infrastructure can strongly influence the location of other infrastructure with a detrimental impact on unserved locations. The North West of the country is at a disadvantage compared to other regions with regard to motorway access. This situation will be compounded if investment in rail is focused on those routes with better road access (motorways) in order for rail to stay competitive, or if communications or electricity networks are developed along existing motorway or rail corridors.
  • The WDC believes that the regional cities can be developed more and have untapped potential, however better intra-regional linkages are needed. The weaker links between the regional centres – notably Cork to Limerick and north of Galway through to Sligo and on to Letterkenny, are likely to be a factor in the relatively slower growth of regional centres in contrast to the motorway network, most of which serves Dublin from the regions.

Climate Change

For the future, the need to move to a low carbon, fossil fuel free economy is essential and needs to be an integral and much more explicit part of the NPF.  The National Mitigation Plan for Climate Change is currently being developed, and it is essential that actions under the NPF will be in line with, and support, the actions in the Mitigation Plan.

How should the NPF be implemented?

  • While much of the role of the NPF is strategic vision and coordination of decision-making, in order for the Framework to be effective it is essential that the achievement of the vision and the actions essential to it are appropriately resourced. The Issues and Choices paper does not give a detailed outline of how the NPF implementation will be resourced, except through the anticipated alignment with the Capital Investment Programme.
  • It should be remembered that policy on services and regional development is not just implemented through capital spending but also though current spending and through policy decisions with spatial implications (such as those relating to the location of services). Therefore it is essential that other spending, investment and policy decisions are in line with the NPF rather than operating counter to it.
  • While the NPF is to provide a high level Framework for development in Ireland to 2040, it seems this Framework is to be implemented at a regional level through the RSES. The Framework and the Strategies are therefore interlinked yet the respective roles of the NPF and the RSES are not explicit and so it is not evident which areas of development will be influenced by the NPF and which by the RSES.
  • In order to ensure that the NPF is implemented effectively it is important that there is a single body with responsibility for its delivery and that there is a designated budget to help achieve its implementation.

 

It is expected that a draft National Planning Framework document will be published for consultation in May.  Following that a final version of the Framework will be prepared for discussion and consideration by Dáil Éireann.

 

As mentioned above the full WDC submission on the Issues and Choices paper Ireland 2040 Our Plan- A National Planning Framework is available here (PDF 4.5MB) and a summary of key point and responses to consultation questions is available here (PDF 0.7MB).

 

 

Helen McHenry

[1] http://www.nber.org/papers/w7503

New WDC Publication: WDC Policy Briefing No.7 e-Working in the Western Region: A Review of the Evidence

The Western Development Commission (WDC) has published its latest Policy Briefing WDC Policy Briefing No.7 e-Working in the Western Region: A Review of the Evidence, which is now available for download at the following link here.

e-Work is a method of working using information and communication technology in which the work is not bound to any particular location. Traditionally this has been understood as working remotely from the office, usually from home, whether full-time or for a period during the working week. e-Working can provide particular opportunities in regions like the Western Region where many are living some distance from key employment centres.

The WDC Policy Briefing, which includes case studies from companies and individuals, examines:

  • The extent of e-Working.
  • The way in which weaker broadband access in more rural locations impacts on the rate of e-Working.
  • Factors driving e-Work.
  • Recommendations on how e-Working can be further promoted.

This Policy Briefing shows that e-Working is a widespread practice but somewhat hidden from official statistics. It also shows that while there is demand for greater e-working, broadband speeds need to be improved.

The WDC Policy Briefing contains recommendations to support more e-Working, including priority rollout of the National Broadband Plan to those counties with the lowest broadband speeds. Additional case studies are also available for download from here.

Deirdre Frost

2017 – A very important year for Broadband and the National Broadband Plan

2017 – Contract Signing and Build Commencement

2017 is the year when contracts are to be awarded to one or two telecommunications companies to rollout a high speed broadband network as part of the much awaited National Broadband Plan.

For those companies and citizens across regional and rural Ireland trying to operate with very basic broadband services, this is a really important milestone. Not only will it signal the start of an actual physical build out of the network, it will also provide some reassurance that Government policy is actually starting to deliver.

It had been expected that contracts would be signed in June 2017, though late last year the bidders (there are three), indicated they may need more time to prepare their bids. See Dáil Q&A.

Notwithstanding the scale of the project and process, the bidders have had years to prepare for this bid and it is imperative that contracts are awarded and the build commences. Rural businesses have had to endure poor services for too long and in a global marketplace where online connectivity is a basic pre-requisite, rural businesses have to work harder than their urban counterparts to stay in business. Recent research highlights the significance of broadband infrastructure compared to other infrastructure in supporting local enterprises and their development.

Report of the Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce

In the meantime, just before Christmas 2016, the Report of the Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce was published. This report seeks to address the gaps in the current delivery of telecoms infrastructure and is focused more on addressing improvements in the short term, in addition and separate to the National Broadband Plan which is over a longer time frame.

This is a very welcome initiative, not least because there is a lot of dissatisfaction with mobile phone coverage, especially in rural areas. Also, anything that can ‘fill gaps’ in existing broadband provision should be progressed, as even when contracts for the NBP are signed, some will be waiting years for the planned new broadband infrastructure.

There are 40 actions aimed at assisting the rollout of mobile services and high speed broadband, to homes and businesses. These include measures to streamline planning procedures for telecoms infrastructure, actions to build out new ducting along the M7/M8, and measures to help consumers directly.

Key actions include:

  • The Department of Communications, Climate Action & Environment will work with telecoms operators and ComReg (Commission for Communication Regulation) to identify mobile blackspots and come up with measures to address these blackspots.
  • All local authorities are to assign a Broadband officer who will act as a single point of contact for engagement with telecommunications operators building out infrastructure.
  • ComReg will develop and publish a new network coverage map, and develop a testing regime to measure the performance of mobile phone handsets which will help people to make informed choices on products and services they purchase.
  • There will be a new licensing regime to allow people to install high quality signal repeaters on their buildings – homes and businesses, which will boost their connectivity.
  • Work on building 95km of duct along the M7 / M8 Motorway, which will complete the ducting on the Cork-Dublin route is being undertaken by Transport infrastructure Ireland.
  • From Q1, 2017, all Local Authorities will apply waivers in respect of development contributions for telecoms infrastructure developments.
  • Other key actions include the review and updating of the relevant statutory planning guidelines to ensure consistency by local authorities, and the introduction of an online system to streamline the planning application process.

Spectrum Developments

  • ComReg expects to allocate spectrum in the 3.6GHz band in 2017. This will release an additional 86% of spectrum capacity, allowing fixed wireless and mobile operators to deliver services.
  • It is expected that by 2020 the 700MHz spectrum band is to be made available for use by the telecoms sector which will be particularly important in rural areas.

Finally, there is to be an Implementation Group established which is to drive and monitor the implementation of these actions.

 

For rural users, in the Western Region and across the country, lets hope 2017 will see delivery of these actions, that NBP contracts are awarded and the building of the National Broadband Plan Network commences.

Deirdre Frost

Infrastructure Priorities: What to Invest in and Where?

Though the media attention is now largely focussed on what is in Budget 2017 and how it affects individuals, an interesting conference on investment in Ireland’s infrastructure took place on 27th September. Infrastructure Ireland, organised by Eolas, convened a range of speakers with expertise across various Government departments as well as industry bodies and funding agencies.

There were three broad themes emerging from the speakers;

  • the extent to which infrastructure investment should be spatially or geographically targeted,
  • how large infrastructure investments can be funded,
  • and the sectoral delivery of infrastructure investment and its impacts.

Overview and Context

Mr. Robert Watt, Secretary General, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, outlined the current planned priorities for infrastructure investment and how it is spread across different sectors. He noted that there needs to be a debate about what are the key priorities for future investment. There are recognised deficiencies in some areas such as water infrastructure and education. The findings from Census 2016 should also help inform where investment is needed. Mr. Watt argued that capital investment is an enabler of sustainable long-term growth and should not be seen as a driver, in terms of construction industry investment for example. Finally Mr. Watt noted the potential importance of the new National Planning Framework in guiding investment. There is to be a mid-term review of the Capital Plan in 2017 and there should be more long-term strategic infrastructure planning.

Danny McCoy, Chief Executive of Ibec discussed the importance of infrastructure investment as a key driver of sustainable economic growth. He argued that the potential growth rate is actually greater than generally considered but that infrastructural deficits will impede or constrain this potential. He also argued that there is a false narrative that as a country we have no money to invest. Our debt to GDP ratio has been dramatically reduced and there are plenty of institutional funding agencies willing to invest in projects (Some examples were outlined by other speakers, see below).

Mr.McCoy argued that Ireland is in danger of becoming a society of ‘private affluence and public squalor’, a phrase coined by the economist JK Galbraith. Our public infrastructure stock is being diminished while private wealthy in increasing. For an economy to function well it needs good public infrastructure.

Mr. McCoy argued that greater investment is needed in the road infrastructure and not on the radial routes to and from Dublin. Growth is skewed too much towards Dublin with it accounting for 40% of national output. London is seen as an outlier with 22% of the UK’s output, most European capitals account for less than 20% of their national output. The other urban centres in Ireland need to be supported in their growth.

He also noted that infrastructure such as further development of our road network, is also a social benefit and the social use of infrastructure should also be valued and highlighted.

Addressing Ireland’s infrastructure gap, Tom Parlon, Director General, Construction Industry Federation, also took up the theme of the concentration of economic activity in the Dublin region, agreeing that it is unhealthy for the national economy for so much to be concentrated in Dublin. A key infrastructure project that should have proceeded is the Cork-Limerick motorway, with benefits outweighing costs by a factor of 2:1.

Mr. Parlon suggested there should be consideration of an Infrastructure Commission which could properly evaluate the infrastructure needs over the longer-term. Mr. Parlon also suggested that the new National Planning Framework should actively support the development of the urban centres of Galway, Limerick and Cork among others so as to distribute economic activity across the state.

Funding Mechanisms

There were a series of presentations on the various funding mechanisms which can be considered.

Brian Murphy, Chief Executive of the National Development Finance Agency, discussed the future outlook for the PPP (public private partnership) market in Ireland. He outlined the recent successes of this model in funding a range of infrastructure investments including much of Ireland’s motorway network, 23 schools, the Dublin Convention centre as well as development of the courts and primary care health centres. He noted that there is a lot of interest by funders and the outlook for more PPPs in Ireland is good.

The Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) is another source of funds for Irish infrastructure. Donal Murphy, Head of Infrastructure and Credit Investments, explained the criteria that the ISIF use when deciding to invest; it must make a commercial return, have an economic impact and not displace other funds. A key sector they are interested in is fibre optic deployment, though they invest in a range of sectors including energy and transport infrastructure, housing and care centres.

A European perspective on funding models for strategic infrastructure projects was provided by Tanguy Desrousseaux, from the European Investment Bank. The EIB funds projects across the EU and beyond across various sectors. From an Irish perspective they have provided finance for Dublin Port development, primary care centres, flood protection and educational investments in Trinity College and UCD. Further investments in Irish infrastructure are planned.

Sectoral Investments and Impacts

The detailed sectoral impacts of some of these funding mechanisms were outlined in a series of presentations.

Jim Curran, from the Health Service Executive, outlined the plans for investing in healthcare for better services, focusing on the delivery of primary care centres as well as investments in hospital facilities.

Larry McEvoy, Technical Manager at the Department of Education and Skills, outlined some of the key education infrastructure projects that have been delivered and are in planning. Education is one of the largest recipients of capital funding with an allocation of €3.82bn planned between 2016 and 2021. Schools (both primary and secondary) account for nearly 80% of the funding and this in turn is in response to demographics, with projected enrolment at primary and secondary level continuing to increase up to 2025 at least. For example in 2011 enrolment at primary level was 510,000 children and this will increase to over 570,000 by 2018. Mr. McEvoy outlined the various milestones in the delivery of schools and noted that the building projects beyond 2016 would be announced by the Minister in November.

Peter Walsh, Director for Capital Programmes, at Transport Infrastructure Ireland, discussed the importance of transport infrastructure and outlined the investment planned. Mr.Walsh identified the positive impacts of the development of the motorway network, in terms of journey time savings, better access to employment as well as a reduction in road casualties.  He outlined the need for better public transport infrastructure around Dublin and some ideas on how to manage congestion on the M50. Current and planned roads projects were outlined. Transport Infrastructure Ireland have also been heavily involved in helping to devise regional transport strategies such as the Galway Transport Strategy.

Bob Hanna, the Chief Technical Officer from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, outlined the importance of our energy networks to both the residential and commercial sector. He discussed National Energy Policy and in particular the New Energy White Paper published last December (2015). This White paper highlights the need to decarbonise our energy supply as well as ensuring security of supply and cost effective delivery.

Details on the plan to upgrade Ireland’s water infrastructure was outlined by Elizabeth Arnett, Head of Corporate Affairs & Environmental Regulation, Irish Water. There is a seven year business plan (2014-2021) with key milestones and deliverables set out, including nobody on boil water notices, nobody to be at risk of water contamination as well as the ending of discharges of raw sewage into the sea. There was also an outline of proposed capital investment projects by county between 2007-2021. Within the Western Region, a spend of €356 million is envisaged over the period.

Conclusions

Now that as a country we have emerged from recession, there can be consideration of what capital investment is required and what should be prioritised. The conference highlighted the different perspectives, the sectoral needs as well as funding mechanisms. Above all however, recognising the need to agree a National Planning Framework or Strategy to identify and direct where growth needs to be supported so as to optimise the country’s development is critical.

The most recent plan for capital investment Building on Recovery: Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2016-2021 was published in September 2015. A mid-term review is planned next year. Work on the new regional economic and spatial strategies and the National Planning Framework is underway. A key theme from the conference is that the mid-term review and other decisions on capital spending need to be informed by the National Planning Framework and Regional strategies, both to give effect to them and to ensure that investment is not just sectorally driven. The WDC will be considering regional priorities and inputting into these regional and national processes.

The regional economic and spatial strategies and the National Planning Framework should provide a strong framework as well as input into consideration of the key infrastructural priorities needed to optimise growth, economically and socially, for all citizens and spaces across Ireland. Without this framework, investment will be piecemeal and ad hoc, sectorally driven and relatively inefficient.

 

Deirdre Frost

Transport 2016 – Issues and themes

Transport Ireland 2016, a conference organised by Eolas last week included a wide range of speakers on a range of transport issues, providing an update on public transport investment plans as well as technological developments, for example electric vehicles and alternative fuels.

The conference programme is available here.

A couple of the following presentations were of particular interest to the WDC and the Western Region.

Ethna Brogan from the Department of Transport outlined some of the transport commitments of the Capital Plan 2016-2021 Building on Recovery noting that unlike other elements of the Plan which cover a 6 year period, Transport covers a 7 year period to 2022.

The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport received an allocation of €9.6 billion for transport investments comprising €6 billion for roads and €3.6 billion for public transport. The stated objectives of the transport investments are two fold

  1. Develop and maintain transport networks to the required standard to ensure the safe and efficient movement of people and freight
  2. Encourage modal shift to ensure transport makes a contribution to Irelands’ climate mitigation targets.

The objective of greater modal shift is welcome given the significance transport has in Ireland’s energy emissions. As noted in a recent WDC Insights publication (245kB) though Agriculture is the single largest contributor of emissions in Ireland (33.3%), it is followed by Transport (19.5%) and more importantly, in the last fifteen years (1990-2014), Transport has shown the greatest overall increase in emissions – by 120.9% over the period.

Therefore, the Transport sector represents a major contributor to energy emissions which is forecast to increase further in line with economic growth, for example emissions from transport have increased by 2.5% from 2013 to 2014. With this in mind, and along with the urgency to tackle climate change, the questions arises as to whether we have we got the balance right between conventional and alternative and more sustainable modes of transport?

That being said, the WDC Western Region is a largely rural region, requiring significant investment in maintenance and improvements in the roads network, national, regional and local roads, which support bus transport as well as car travel. For example the continued funding for the Gort-Tuam motorway and other roads projects is very welcome.

Edgar Morgenroth from the ESRI gave a presentation on The Regional Development Impact of Transport Infrastructure noting that ‘significant accessibility differences remain across Ireland’ and he noted that much of the North West along with West Kerry are the only regions were accessibility to a motorway junction is 120 minutes drivetime or more. There was also reference to the positive effect of transport infrastructure in national and regional economic development, with roads having the largest productivity effect in contrast to other transport modes.

Martin Nolan, CEO of Bus Éireann noted that Bus Éireann services are particularly important to regional and rural Ireland. There are three aspects to their business; public service obligation (PSO) routes, Commercial and School Transport services, which all combined delivered 79 million customer journeys in 2015. He noted that while lower fuel costs benefit the company’s operating costs, they also impact on some of their customer base, making it more attractive to travel by car!

One of the most interesting presentations and the only one to exclusively examine rural transport was by Carmel Walsh of Kerry Community Transport Ltd, soon to be renamed Local Link Kerry. She outlined the Rural Transport Programme and its work since 2002, the various changes it has undergone and its current status, managed by the National Transport Authority and now delivered nationally by 17 Transport Coordination Units (TCUs).

In 2015 there were 1.76 million passenger journeys delivered by 400 private operators who are mainly local businesses, with a strong knowledge of their community and their needs. There is a focus on ensuring accessibility but the service is for and is used all the community, young and old. There is recognition that further integration with Bus Éireann services will improve services for Rural Transport users.

Technological developments will be important in reducing transport emissions and many of the speakers focused on the ways in which technology can reduce urban congestion.

One technological development which will impact on regional and rural areas is the electric vehicle. According to Declan Meally of Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), while the technology is now available, the price is somewhat prohibitive. This looks set to change in the next few years.

Finally, a study entitled Greening Transport is actually looking at a fairly logical option – lowering transport emissions by reducing transport use, through behavioural changes such as more telecommuting. The WDC is also examining this in forthcoming research on tele-working/e-working.

 

Deirdre Frost

 

 

Sustainable Transport and Rail Freight

Just last week, the Minister for Transport, Paschal Donohoe, T.D., announced the allocation of €13.5 million in 2016 for sustainable transport projects in our regional cities. The Minister noted, ‘Providing more sustainable travel options in our regional cities is becoming increasingly important as congestion levels are on the increase again’.  Projects that will benefit are road improvements and junction upgrades to improve bus priority, the provision of additional cycle infrastructure and improvements to railway and bus stations.

Another option for promoting more sustainable transport, saving on CO2 emissions and relieving our congested road network is to support greater freight traffic by rail.

It is not well known that three of the four rail freight services currently in operation start or finish in the West. A report published last month by the Western Development Commission (WDC), Rail freight and the Western Region notes that rail currently moves less than 1% of surface freight across Ireland and most of this rail freight originates in the Western Region[1]. Irish Rail plans to quadruple national rail freight traffic within 4 years and much of this traffic could be from the Western Region. In the short-term this could double from 4 to 8 trainloads per weekday and each trainload removes approximately 18 truckloads from the road network.

Rail freight, where available, offers several advantages over road transport. It generates less than a quarter of the emissions of road haulage, removes heavy goods traffic from the road network  and it can provide an alternative and efficient route to market for business, avoiding congested routes and availing of the existing rail network.

The WDC report identifies traffic which could be transported by rail and also identifies the policies needed to support this growth.

Demand for new rail freight services comes following a period of continued under-investment and rationalisation of rail freight infrastructure and rolling stock. To assist Irish Rail develop the traffic potential and associated direct / indirect benefits to the country, the WDC report highlights some policies which can support the growth of this sustainable mode including:

  • A policy framework for freight transport is needed which sets out the multi-modal context of road, rail, air and sea which is central to supporting the wider economy.
  • Safeguarding and/or enhancing rail access into ports is needed – Dublin and Waterford have played a valuable role in the recent growth of rail freight. Policy support and investment in other ports such as Shannon Foynes, Galway and other ports, will be needed to reduce potential congestion and/or over-dependency on Dublin.
  • Maximising the use of the existing rail network such as using longer trains, use of the rail network at night, and engaging a bigger fleet of traction and rolling stock will all help grow the traffic volumes carried by rail.
  • Across many counties there have been initiatives to support new rail freight services – in Europe this has been largely based on the environmental benefits of rail freight compared to road freight. This has been done in absolute terms for example the European Commission’s former ‘Marco Polo’ mode shift programme (which closed in 2013) provided grants to offset the costs of starting up new intermodal and multimodal freight projects, the level of grant based on rail’s societal advantage over road estimated at €0.004 per tonne km. The Commission is currently considering a possible replacement for the Marco Polo programme.
  • In the UK supports are available based on the benefit:cost ratio (eg 4.27:1 for Great Britain rail freight revenue support grants[2] and 12.51:1 for Marco Polo mode shift grants[3]). Most of the intermodal services in the UK serving maritime and domestic customers have at some stage received revenue support grants.

The Government needs to de-carbonise the economy and the transport sector represents a major contributor to energy consumption and emissions. If greater efficiency is to be derived from freight transport, both road and rail will need to be exploited to their maximum extent, with the rail network having considerable untapped capacity. This is even more apparent with the increasing congestion evident on parts of the road network.

It seems the Department of Transport is now considering whether and how rail freight can play a greater role. According to Building on Recovery: Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2016-2021 (September 2015) the Government will commission a feasibility study to examine options for expanding freight transport on the railways. This is to be welcomed and it is to be hoped work on this will commence very shortly so that opportunities to move traffic more suited to the rail network will not be lost.

While rail freight will continue to play a relatively small role compared to road transport, there is potential to grow volumes which will not only capitalise on our existing rail network but will also deliver wider public and societal benefits in terms of lower emissions and reducing traffic on the congested road network.

 

Deirdre Frost

 

[1] WDC counties; Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, Galway and Clare

[2] Department for Transport Review of Revenue Support Freight Grant Schemes Summary Report, Arup 2014

[3] Ex ante Evaluation Marco Polo II (2007-2013), Final Report for the European Commission, ECORYS Transport June 2004, section 10.4