Posts

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

What are the levers for effective regional development?

‘What are the levers for effective regional development?’  was one of the most interesting questions posed recently by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community & Local Government in its recent ‘Issues and Choices’ consultation paper for the National Planning Framework.

In our WDC Submission to the consultation, we drew on previous WDC analysis including the WDC Policy Briefings ‘Why care about regions? A new approach to regional policy’, ‘Education, Enterprise & Employment – How Can Better Integration Of The 3Es Drive Growth In The Western Region?’ and ‘e-Working in the Western Region: A Review of the Evidence’ to answer this question.

In our submission we argue that Infrastructure, the ‘3Es’ (Enterprise, Employment and Education) and Innovation are the key levers for effective regional development.   The central aim of regional policy, the National Planning Framework and the upcoming Regional Economic & Spatial Strategies should be to provide the conditions for regions to grow and realise their full potential.  Developing infrastructure, the 3Es and innovation is the way to do this.  When these three areas complement and support each other, they drive regional growth.  Each has a distinctive role, and needs its own policy focus, but they are most effective when addressed through an integrated regional policy approach.

Infrastructure

Investment in infrastructure has always played a prominent role in regional policy.  The expectation that improvements in physical infrastructure will generate productivity gains for local businesses and increase the attractiveness of an area for investment and for tourism has been a recurring theme.  Less developed regions need to have a similar quality of infrastructures for their residents and businesses as is available in more successful regions. Infrastructural connectivity has a critical influence on choice of location for both indigenous and foreign investors.  The Western Region, and particularly the North West, is disadvantaged in terms of several forms of infrastructure.  For example Sligo was the only NSS Gateway which was not connected to Dublin with a motorway under the Major Inter-Urban motorway investments between 2006 and 2010 and was the only NSS Gateway or Hub to have a 0 improvement in its ‘accessibility to employment’ score as a result of this period of intensive investment, according to research by Transport Infrastructure Ireland.

In its submission to the NPF, the WDC makes a range of specific recommendations in relation to infrastructural investments needed to facilitate development in the Western Region.  The proposed investments include transport (national roads, regional and local roads, public transport (rail and bus), air and ports), communications (broadband and mobile coverage) and energy (electricity and natural gas).  These infrastructure investments are also highlighted in the WDC’s submission to the Mid-Term Review of the Capital Plan.

While infrastructure is critical, OECD[1]  work emphasises that transport and other infrastructure developments are not enough by themselves; to have an impact on regional development they need to be associated with, and complemented by, human capital and innovation developments.

The ‘3Es’: Enterprise, Employment and Education

Regions are successful because enterprises in these regions are successful.  When enterprises grow, employment grows and this depends on skilled and educated people.  Policy to support the ‘3Es’ of enterprise, employment and education must work together at both national and regional level to create dynamic regions.[2]

One of the most important issues that needs to be recognised and addressed by the NPF is that narrow definitions of ‘job’, ‘work’ and ‘employer’ as a full-time permanent employee travelling every day to a specific work location is extremely limited and does not recognise either the current reality of ‘work’ or the dramatically changing patterns likely to emerge up to 2040. Self-employment, the ‘gig’ or ‘sharing’ economy, contract work, freelancing, e-Working, multiple income streams, online business are all trends that are dramatically redefining the conception of work, enterprise, and their physical location.

A study conducted for Vodafone in 2016 found that nearly one in four broadband users in rural Ireland use the internet at home in relation to their work and one third have remote access to their company network. An estimated 150,000 rural workers avoid commuting some or all of the time because they can connect to work remotely.  This trend is likely to continue.

If the NPF mainly equates the term ‘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 a small proportion of the State’s population and labour force, and will not help to achieve effective regional development. The NPF must recognise and support existing and new sole traders, micro-businesses and freelancers working in sectors where lagging regions have comparative advantage or which are not location dependent.

Quality of life is a key determinant in the location decision of many people and current trends in the world of work and technology will increasingly help people to work from the same location where they want to live.

Enterprise

Enterprises create most jobs.  The NPF must recognise the need to enable and support the diversification of the Irish economy.  It must provide a support framework for indigenous business growth.

Many of the references to enterprises in the NPF Issues and Choices paper focus on high value, high skill exporting enterprises, which are central to export-led growth and tend to cluster in cities and larger urban centres.  However such enterprises cannot provide a full solution for regional development or jobs growth.  While they play a significant role, and have considerable multiplier impacts in other sectors, direct employment in such enterprises only accounts for one in five jobs nationally (2016 there were a total of 400,985 jobs in IDA and Enterprise Ireland supported companies nationally (DJEI) which was 19.5% of total employment (QNHS, Q4 2016)).

Enterprises in employment-intensive, lower-skill sectors are central to maintaining and growing employment both nationally and regionally.  This is termed a ‘whole of enterprise’ approach acknowledging that enterprises across all sectors have the potential to innovate and increase productivity but vary in how they contribute to growth and employment.  If the NPF focuses too narrowly on high skill, high growth enterprises and/or Foreign Direct Investment it will not lead to effective regional development.  Recognising the role and needs of entrepreneurs in local and personal services is important for sustaining as well as creating jobs, in particular in smaller centres and rural areas.  93.1% of registered enterprises in the Western Region are micro-enterprises, employing fewer than 10 people, and in general the region is characterised by smaller enterprise size (CSO, Business Demography 2014).

While Ireland has emerged from recession, enterprise numbers are not back to pre-recession levels and even more so in the Western Region and particularly more rural counties.  Between 2008 and 2014 (latest data available) the Western Region lost 8.6% of its enterprises, compared with a loss of 2.4% nationally. Construction, Wholesale & Retail, Professional Services and Accommodation & Food Service are the largest enterprise sectors. Indeed fewer than 5% of the Western Region’s enterprises are in the Financial & Insurance and Information & Communications sectors combined.  The region’s enterprise base is currently quite concentrated and diversification of the enterprise base is a key objective.

Employment

As stated in the NPF, a skilled workforce will attract high value enterprises to a region, but a skilled workforce are less likely to locate in a region unless the job opportunities already exist.  In reality this relationship is not so straightforward.  Job opportunities are a critical, but not the only factor in people’s decisions on where to live, many other personal and social factors influence this decision.  In Ireland many people have selected to live in one location but commute to work elsewhere in some cases e-Working for a number of days a week. Equally, areas with large pools of skilled labour e.g. counties in the wider Dublin commuter belt, have not necessarily been able to attract employers to locate there instead.  40% of workers living in the Mid-East region work in a different region.

In general, lagging regions have substantial reserves of unmobilised labour, indicated by higher unemployment rates and lower participation rates.  During the Celtic Tiger this pattern was largely reversed in the Western Region with rising participation rates, falling unemployment and high levels of inward migration as many people returned to the region on response to economic growth opportunities. The WDC’s LookWest.ie campaign effectively illustrated many case studies of individuals and enterprises who (re)located to the region at that time.  Labour markets in lagging regions have the potential to respond very positively to improved economic circumstances and stimulus.

The recession however led to high out-migration, which is particularly detrimental to lagging regions, as the propensity to migrate is higher among the more skilled, depriving the region of their skills and leaving the less skilled more dependent on local employment opportunities.  The creation of job or entrepreneurial opportunities for graduates in lagging regions will help retain and attract a highly skilled labour force and, in turn, stimulate further growth and employment.

A key characteristic of the Western Region is that 1 in 5 people who are at work in the Western Region is self-employed (75,000 people were self-employed in the Western Region, QNHS special run, Q1 2016). While farming influences this to some extent, self-employment is higher in the region across most sectors and is particularly important in the most rural counties.

Between 2012 and 2016 the number of self-employed in the Western Region grew by 31.3% but the number of employees only increased 0.6%.  Practically all recent jobs growth in the region has been driven by self-employment. In more rural areas and smaller towns, people who wish to continue to live in these areas have created their own job.  The NPF must both recognise and support this trend.  The Local Enterprise Offices, local development companies and local authorities are most active in supporting this type of business. It would be important to continue and expand initiatives to support them such as:

  • Roll-out of fibre broadband.
  • Provision of serviced, shared workspace including through Community Enterprise Centres, at a reasonable cost.
  • Mentoring and provision of grants for start-up and established businesses.
  • Network facilitation to allow self-employed, particularly in more rural areas who may be quite isolated, to connect with others in other own or other sectors.
  • Training and upskilling for owner/managers and self-employed across all sectors including personal services (hairdressing, childminding), building trades, retail and hospitality.

What is most interesting in recent trends is that since 2012 there has been quite strong growth in the numbers self-employed who are employing other people (from 14,200 up to 19,000) showing the potential for the self-employed to be job creators.

Education

Further and higher education has an important role to play in regional development.  Educational institutions build a region’s human capital assets, attract and retain talent.  Further education and training have a particular role in up-skilling those with lower education levels, who face higher unemployment rates and are at greater risk of long term unemployment.  Lagging regions generally have a greater share of their labour force with lower levels of education.  In 2011 54.7% of adults in the Western Region had only secondary level education or lower, compared with 51.9% nationally.

Higher education brings knowledge creation, knowledge transfer, cultural and community development and innovation to regions.  It can also stimulate entrepreneurship. Within the Western Region, NUI Galway is a key regional asset and economic driver. It greatly contributes to the attractiveness and economic development of Galway city and its wider hinterland.  To the North West the three Institutes of Technology of Letterkenny, Sligo and Galway-Mayo, are collaborating on the Connacht/Ulster Alliance, an initiative that has the potential to expand the contribution of higher education to regional development in this area.

The broader role of further and higher education, touching on innovation, enterprise and employment, needs to be a key focus of regional policy.  Where this works effectively it becomes part of a virtuous cycle producing graduates and skilled workers, and enabling them to find employment in developing enterprises.

Innovation

To remain competitive, manufacturing and service firms must continually upgrade skills and capabilities, access new ideas and technologies through industry networks, tap the knowledge of their workers, suppliers and customers and search for new market opportunities. This is all innovation.

Innovation policy is often focused on scientific and technological research, but while leading OECD regions produce several hundred patents per year per million inhabitants, more than one third of OECD regions generate fewer than ten patents per year.  Lagging regions need a different kind of innovation policy, one that emphasises absorption capacity and innovation by adoption.

Policy needs to address the issues of regions that are not innovation leaders.  A substantial element of innovation policy should be focused on adoption of innovations developed elsewhere and on initiatives in areas such as human resource management or implementation of new processes.  It should stimulate innovation activity in areas where rural regions have particular strengths such as renewable energy and agri-food.

Regional policy which addresses the levers of effective regional development – Infrastructure, the 3Es and Innovation – through a co-ordinated, place-based, cross-sectoral  approach is needed if the so-called, ‘business as usual’ spatial pattern of growth is to be disrupted and all regions facilitated to realise their potential for economic growth and provide sustainable livelihoods for those who live there.

 

Pauline White

[1] OECD, 2009, How Regions Grow: Trends and Analysis; OECD, 2009, Regions Matter: Economic Recovery, Innovation and Sustainable Growth

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

Call for Papers: Annual Conference of RSA-Irish Branch in partnership with WDC & NUI Galway

The WDC is delighted to be partnering with the Regional Studies Association (RSA) Irish branch and NUI Galway for this year’s RSA Annual Conference.  It will take place on Friday 9 September at NUI Galway.

This year’s theme is Planning for Regional Development: The National Planning Framework as a Roadmap for Ireland’s Future?

As the process of developing a new National Planning Framework – to replace the National Spatial Strategy – seems to be gathering pace after the hiatus caused by the election, it seems appropriate to focus on the NPF at this year’s conference.  The approach taken to the NPF and the closely linked Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies, should have significant impacts on the future spatial pattern of development in Ireland.  How much of an impact will very much depend on the implementation systems that are put in place.

The conference will examine best international practice in spatial planning and consider what should be at the heart of Irish regional development and planning policy.  It will ask what vision for Ireland should underpin local, regional and national development over the next 30 years.

WDC_LOGO NUI_Galway_LOGO

 

 

 

Call for Papers:

A call for papers is now open. We are seeking presentations from policymakers, academia and practitioners active in the field of regional studies.  Post-graduate students are encouraged to submit.

Potential themes for presentations include:

  • The new National Planning Framework
  • One island, two jurisdictions
  • Visioning Ireland
  • The NPF and Governance
  • The NPF and Housing
  • Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies
  • Local and regional economic forums
  • New approaches to regional development
  • International comparator cases

Other contributions dealing with the topic of regional studies are invited and will be included in focussed sessions.

Submissions:

Proposals for presentations (in the form of a 250 word abstract) should be submitted through the Regional Studies Association – Irish Branch online portal by 31st July 2016. Submissions should be forwarded to chris.vanegeraat@nuim.ie

Further details on the conference will be updated on the Regional Studies Association, Irish Branch website

E-Work and New ‘Work’

In a previous blog post, E-Working – what are the trends? I examined the data available on e-work, also termed tele-working. Much of the data, especially the trend data available from the Census, only measures those workers who work ‘mainly at or from home’ and as discussed this only captures a small element of the workforce which we know, frequently work from home.

Capturing the extent to which people e-work is related to how the question is phrased; so for example if the Census question was changed, to ask whether a person worked on one or even a ½ day per week basis, it is likely to significantly increase the number reporting that they are e-workers.

Rural E-working

A recent report commissioned by Vodafone and conducted by Amárach Research, Connected Futures (3.8MB) examined the extent to which broadband has influenced those working in rural Ireland. The research found that nearly one in four broadband users in rural Ireland uses the internet at home in relation to their work (about 430,000 people). Among those remotely accessing work from home, most use the internet to check email and organise their work diary. Nearly half use the internet at home to work on reports and presentations. These e-workers report that with internet access, they can avoid commuting to work, which the research indicates typically occurs about two days a week.

Entirely Home-based E-work

The use of communications technology and more importantly its widespread availability at home has allowed new forms of work to emerge.

An early use of home-based working which is conditional on the availability of a minimum level of broadband speed has been the outsourcing of work where the employee is entirely home-based. For example Amazon and Apple were reported as requiring applicants to have a minimum 5Mbps download speed for home based customer support jobs. This and the need for universal high speed broadband is discussed in the WDC Report, Connecting the West, Next Generation Broadband in the Western Region (Low Res 1.5Mb).

Enforced Flexibility

A new report, published last week by TASC, Enforced Flexibility? Working in Ireland Today, (609kb) discusses an emerging practice where employees work entirely from home, though not by employee choice. For at least one of the high tech multinationals an emerging practice is to place some of their customer service workers in their own homes.  While traditionally the choice to work from home was perceived as a positive option, in this case the decision was made by the organisation rather than the individual: it was not an option as there was no possibility of working in an office. (p.62).

E-working has generally been considered in a positive light from the employee perspective, enabling more flexibility in working hours which can be more family friendly, reduced commuting time as well as fuel and carbon savings. However the TASC report notes that e-working which is wholly and entirely conducted from home, without the option of working in an office may not offer the same degree of flexibility. Constantly online during their shifts they were subject to the same tight supervision as those based in a traditional call centre environment. While it is difficult to establish what proportion of customer service workers now work in this way, there is evidence that the numbers are growing (p.62). In some instances these employees are self-employed contractors even though they are entirely contracted to the one employer.

The ‘Gig economy’

Measuring the extent of e-work is further complicated by the changing nature of work. The evolution of communications technology which has enabled the increased possibility of e-work, has evolved even further to allow new forms of ‘work’ to emerge.

Broadband and online platforms have allowed the development of new types of work and service delivery variously termed the ‘gig economy’, ‘sharing economy’, ‘crowd working’ and ‘uberisation’. Previously ‘gigs’ were how musicians earned a living, now the ‘gig economy’ includes all those who rent out their property, possessions or services for a fee, all of which is managed online!

The ‘gig economy’ is another form of e-work as it relies on electronic communication, though with the increasing use and availability of smartphones and mobile broadband this type of e-work is often less tied to a fixed location, whether this is at home or elsewhere. The ‘gig economy’ can also be seen as entrepreneurial, allowing individuals to initiate a process of selling goods or services and increasing the potential for self-employment.

Much of this type of work and service delivery is likely to be more developed in large urban centres, with significant critical mass. So far, within Ireland, Uber is just in Dublin and Cork – though the IDA announced a significant jobs announcement by Uber  in Limerick earlier this year.

However while parts of the ‘gig economy’ are urban driven, it is by no means exclusive to it. Airbnb can operate anywhere and maybe very popular in more rural areas with more limited supply, especially in high season.

As a type of employment, the ‘gig economy’ has raised questions about workers’ rights and protections such as guaranteed income, health care and pensions. Hillary Clinton, US Presidential candidate, when outlining her economic plan noted, This on-demand, or so called gig economy is creating exciting economies and unleashing innovation. But it is also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.

Evidence of the ‘Gig Economy’

To what extent the ‘gig economy’ is changing the nature of work is not clear. Some argue that while more are choosing to earn income from this ‘gig economy’, it is not clear whether this is in the absence of another job or to supplement existing paid employment?

Research undertaken by the University of Hertfordshire has tried to quantify the extent of the ‘gig economy’ in both the UK and Sweden.

The research found that in the UK around 5 million people are engaged in the ‘gig economy’. In the UK online survey 21% say they have tried to find work managed via so called ‘sharing economy’ platforms such as Upwork, Uber or Handy during the past year, equivalent to around 9 million people or almost one fifth of the adult population. Around 1 in 10 (11%) of respondents said they had succeeded in doing so, equivalent to around 4.9 million people.

Almost a quarter (24%) of UK women responding to the survey claim to have sought work via online platforms, and one third (33%) of 25-34 year olds.

3% of respondents claim to find paid work via online platforms at least once a week, equivalent to around 1.3 million adults, with 4%, or around 1.8 million finding work at least once a month.

Main source of income or a supplement?

A quarter of all those workers in the ‘gig economy’ say they rely on this income as their sole or main source of income.

Only 10% of those workers in the ‘gig economy’ were students, a proportion that dropped to 6% among those working in the ‘gig economy’ weekly. This is in line with the general proportion of students in the adult population of the UK (at around 8%).

The range of work is extremely broad, from high-skill professional work at one extreme to running errands at the other. The most common type of work, undertaken by more than two thirds is office work, short tasks and ‘click work’ done online. However a significant proportion are doing professional work, creative work, providing taxi services or a range of other services in people’s homes.

Where is the ‘Gig economy’?

From a geographic perspective, the largest numbers are in England with one in five based in London, just under a quarter each in the South, the Midlands and the North with 7% in Scotland and 3% in Wales. This reflects the general distribution of the UK population.

The Swedish online survey found a similar pattern to the UK survey. In Sweden 12% are working in the so-called ‘sharing economy’ for platforms such as Upwork, Uber or Skjutsgruppen, equivalent to around 737,000 people. Twice as many people (24%) used such sites in the hope of finding work – equivalent to almost a quarter of the working age population.

Conclusions

E-work can describe a variety of employment types ranging from ‘traditional work’ conducted at home or on the move, through to occasional engagement in online activity to generate additional income.

This can include a traditional employment relationship between an employee and an employer with the employee working from home possibly one or two days per week. It can also include the ‘new’ types of work and service delivery associated with the gig economy’, where people are often self-employed.

E-working of all types and the more recent growth in online platforms which has enabled new forms of income generation are all dependent on the widespread availability of broadband. The research to-date indicates that this type of employment and income generation is a very significant and growing element of the economy and labour market. The evidence cited from rural areas suggest that online participation for work is as prevalent, if not more so than in urban areas. This reinforces the need for the universal availability of quality broadband, another reason for the speedy rollout of the Government’s National Broadband Plan.

Deirdre Frost

Why Broadband is so Important – Insights on the Digital Economy

Insights from the Digital Economy Conference, May 2016

The Digital Economy Now

The WDC has consistently argued for improved broadband infrastructure and services for the Western Region and indeed all rural areas. The WDC believe that broadband is the single most important infrastructure priority and has advocated investment in next generation broadband over the last few years in various reports, submissions and blog posts.

A conference in Dublin earlier this month provided a useful reminder – beyond Netflix and Youtube – of why broadband services are so important and will become even more so. Organised by Eolas, the conference highlighted the potential of the Digital Economy both in terms of the applications that are and will be available, as well as other countries’ experiences.

Digital Engagement

Some notable highlights included a presentation by the chief digital adviser to the Irish Government, Dr. Stephen Brennan who outlined the Government’s National Digital Strategy. This is aimed at facilitating citizens to get online and he cited some interesting facts, for example;

  • While 75% of the population uses the internet daily, 65% are concerned about data privacy. This is one of the key challenges of the Digital Economy (and Society), where digital communications is so pervasive but there is also widespread concern about the uses to which data is put.
  • 45% of those over 50+ years of age are online daily, again demonstrating how pervasive digital communication is, but also how important it is as a method of communication and that the various barriers to access; lack of broadband, access to devices and lack of technical know-how/ skills, are overcome.
  • Another interesting finding is that 9% of adults run a business from home and close to 2 in 5, 39% of the population, do some work at home. This highlights the importance of adequate telecommunications infrastructure at home, so as to enable self-employment and home-working on a frequent basis. The WDC is examining eworking/ teleworking, the extent to which it is occurring and the policy implications (forthcoming).

Dr. Brennan also highlighted the benefits of the Government’s Trading on-Line scheme which has supported over 4,000 participants and issued over 2,000 Trading Online vouchers, supporting small businesses to develop their online presence. This has led to a 20%+ increase in sales.

Lessons from Norway

There was a particularly interesting presentation on Digital Government in Norway. Heather Broomfield, a Senior Adviser to the Norwegian Agency for Public Management and eGovernment (Difi) outlined the progress of the Digital Economy in the Norwegian public sector.

Norway is not dissimilar to Ireland in that it has a population of 5 million people, yet digital engagement by the average citizen is much more widespread than in Ireland. This is despite its geography which is not conducive to high speed fixed line broadband deployment. Norway has a very long coastline, extending into the Arctic circle and is very mountainous.  Norway has a very low population density, with 13 persons per km2, compared to Ireland’s 65 km2. It is also interesting that much economic activity is dispersed and located around the coastline, with oil and gas exploration important sectors as well as the fishing industry.

Another important difference between Norway and Ireland is the greater degree of decentralisation in Norway which devolves power to 19 counties composed of 422 Municipalities.

In Norway in 2014 there were 38.8 fixed broadband subscriptions (per 100 people), compared to Ireland’s 26.9%. Close to 90% of Norwegians access the internet daily and there is very extensive online engagement with public services. For example, over 80% of individuals interacted online with the public authorities in the last year, compared to a European average of just over 40%.

Digital Inclusion

The importance of good design in promoting online engagement was highlighted by Dónal Rice of the National Disability Authority. In a survey it was found that 42% do not use or have difficulties engaging with public sector websites. Key factors are age and disability with the survey showing that persons with disabilities are three times more likely to encounter difficulties using public sector websites. However if basic good design is used in creating websites it can help ensure more efficient service delivery with more citizens self-serving online compared to queries by phone.

Another example of online service delivery promoting inclusion are some of the services delivered by Local Government.  Ruth Buckley, Head of ICT and Business Services at Cork City Council highlighted some new developments including a new online service for those on the housing list, where they can search online themselves for appropriate properties. Another innovation is the operation of litter management services which are now done electronically. This has been more effective in identifying offenders as well as significantly reducing the administrative burden.

Of particular interest is the extent of innovation occuring at individual local authority level in online service delivery, but more importantly the extent of collaboration and sharing of ideas across Local Authorities.

Michael Bunyan, from the Department of Social Protection outlined some significant developments in the delivery of public services. The Department of Social Protection is one of the largest Government Departments, engaging with most citizens at one point or another. It is also widely located with 400 locations across the country. The rollout of a new smartcard, the Public Services Card was described as well as the development of MyGovID which is designed to provide safer, simpler and faster access to multiple government services. Both of these initiatives are in the early stages of rollout.

In Autumn 2015, the Department of Social Protection was tasked with administering delivery of the Water Conservation Grant to individual households on behalf of the Department of the Environment. There was a very short timeline and online communication was a key delivery channel. Of nearly 900,000 applications, 77% were made online, with the remaining 23% by phone. There were no ‘paper’ based applications. The grant payment was mostly paid electronically, with 85% of payment by electronic fund transfer, and the remaining 15% by cheque. The extent of online engagement illustrates that this is now the communication method of choice.

The potential for delivery of health care using online access was described by Prof. Neil O’Hare, of St James’s Hospital. The ability to access online health records can provide for more effective delivery of health care as well as giving individuals greater ownership of their records. This can reduce the administrative burden as well as reduced costs for filing space in cramped hospitals! There are various developments across the health sector developing more efficient delivery across Ireland but the need for improved rural broadband now was emphasised by Prof. O’ Hare.

Conclusions

The conference highlighted that there are huge potential savings and benefits to be realised via online engagement and service delivery. This will benefit all who have access. The widespread deployment of  next generation broadband as well as supports for those who find online engagement challenging are needed so as to ensure these savings and benefits can be realised by all. The Norwegian case study clearly demonstrates that very low population density and difficult geographic terrain are not significant barriers to effective high speed broadband deployment and large scale online citizen engagement.

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

 

 

Developments in Rural Policy: Charter for Rural Ireland

In January, the Taoiseach launched the Rural Charter, A statement of Government Commitment to support Rural Ireland’s regeneration and to underpin the future sustainable development of Ireland’s rural communities.
Maybe the attention was already focussed on the upcoming election, but given the recent focus on rural Ireland and the perceived two speed recovery; where the recovery in urban areas and especially Dublin is not being felt in rural Ireland, the launch of the Rural Charter received remarkably little attention.

The Charter for Rural Ireland January 2016 (pdf, 1,261 kb) is a short document (13 pages) containing 10 commitments and aims ‘to support and accelerate rural Ireland’s regeneration’ (p.3).

The commitments include

  • the development by the end of 2016 of a Rural Development Policy Framework, the preparation of which will include ‘full and comprehensive public consultations’, as well as the involvement of Government Departments and State Agencies. This framework will also feed into the development of the forthcoming National Planning Framework.
  • the Rural Development Policy Framework will include ’a mandatory system of assessment to ensure that future Government policies are designed with full and stated consideration of their impact on Rural Ireland’– a type of rural proofing.
  • the introduction of a robust reporting mechanism requiring each Government Department to report on actions as they relate to rural Ireland.

At the local level

  • Guidelines will be introduced for local community development committees (LCDCs) to support participation by rural dwellers in local economic development.
  • All stakeholders will collaborate and seek to eliminate barriers to rural enterprise development.

The Rural Development Policy Framework aims to create systems which will provide a basis for all stakeholders to work together to support enterprise development, job creation and a high quality of life. Government Departments will be required to ensure that impacts on rural Ireland are fully considered and policies and strategies will be amended if they are seen to be impacting negatively on rural areas.

The commitments in the Rural Charter recognise the need for action at national and local levels, they seek to include all stakeholders and actions are required within a short timeframe, all of which are welcome.

In this election campaign rural issues are an important theme, with the need to spread the recovery to all regions a constant refrain. It will be important that rural policy, whoever is returned, builds on the extensive work that has been done to-date.
There has been much analysis and research of what the problems are and what can be done for Rural Ireland. Most recently, the Commission for Economic Development of Rural Areas (CEDRA), chaired by Pat Spillane and supported by the WDC and Teagasc, has done extensive research on what are the problems and what are the solutions during 2012-2014. The associated publications and research is available at www.ruralireland.ie.

On various policy issues there has been a lot of work going on behind the scenes. Where policy improvements have been instigated, these should be supported.

For example, the most significant infrastructure barrier facing rural Ireland is quality broadband. There is the National Broadband Plan, currently at procurement phase, with rollout to commence towards the end of this year. This aims to deliver future proofed broadband to all. The planned rollout is often compared to rural electrification in its significance and while the timescale is not fast enough for many, its objective is to solve the rural broadband problem for a generation or more. This compares with previous interventions which only ‘fixed’ the problem for a couple of years at most. It will be important that this policy is continued and fully supported by the new Government.

There are other policy areas where more needs to be achieved. The publication of the Rural Charter and the commitments it contains is very welcome. Its continued implementation needs to be supported following the election to ensure that Rural Ireland can contribute to and benefit from continued economic recovery.

 

Deirdre Frost