Taoiseach Micheál Martin has defended the Government’s new multibillion euro plan for infrastructure and said “it is not a wish list”.
At the launch of the new €165 billion National Development Plan (NDP), Mr Martin said that while a lot depends on a project's journey through the planning and statutory process, the Government is committed to a large-scale capital investment over the coming 10 years.
His comments came after the Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said earlier on Monday that not all road projects would necessarily go ahead, and also amid criticism that some major projects such as the MetroLink do not have costings or timings in the plan.
Speaking at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Mr Martin also said that housing is the most urgent and important social issue facing the country right now and that 300,000 homes would be delivered by the end of 2030.
The plan warns, however, that there is “a risk that investing too much over a given period could add to inflationary pressures in the construction sector and crowd out some desirable private sector investment, for example, in housing.”
Mr Martin said there will be challenges on the inflation side particularly over the coming months and a watching brief will have to be kept on that.
Separately, he said there was scope for the State the be more ambitious and this would see increased investments on retrofitting and decarbonising the energy supply. Mr Martin said the State has to “get better at actually delivering infrastructure projects that are important”.
The NDP promises €165 billion in spending between now and 2030, including:
* €35 billion investment in transport, including €21.6 billion on new projects, to be weighted 2:1 in favour of public transport, cycling and walking over spending on new roads.
* The Cork commuter rail programme has an estimated completion date of 2026. But there are no definitive costs or timeframe for the long-promised MetroLink project in Dublin, nor for the planned expansion of the DART.
* BusConnects is to be rolled out to all five cities with construction of core bus corridors to be “substantially complete” by 2030.
* The M20 Cork to Limerick motorway and Galway City Ring Road are among 30 projects listed “subject to further approvals”.
* In housing, the NDP reiterates the goals of the €4 billion-a-year Housing for All plan including a commitment to deliver 33,000 new homes on average a year.
* On climate action, €5 billion is to be invested in energy efficiency including the National Retrofit Plan.
* Spending to implement the Sláintecare plan is included, along with investment in the delayed new National Children’s Hospital which is listed with a commissioning completion date of 2024.
* Other measures include at least €1 billion under the Taoiseach’s Shared Island initiative by 2030.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the Government needed to anticipate what the Ireland of 2040 would look like, "what our jobs will be, how we travel, how we live."
“This is the largest ever investment in transport infrastructure in the history of the State with…for new public transport, new roads, new active travel projects and continued investments in international connectivity through our seaports and airports.”
“The 2:1 spending ratio in favour of new public transport and roads is maintained.”
Mr Varadkar said a new enterprise green transition fund would be set up by his department to help companies with climate measures.
He said the Government would borrow to invest in public infrastructure in schools, healthcare and housing. “I’m convinced this is the right approach, it is what the Biden-Harris administration is doing in the United States.”
Mr Ryan said for him some of the key projects involve investing in Cork, Galway, Limerick and other counties outside of Dublin.
He gave the example of the metropolitan railway system for Cork and also using rail lines in Limerick. He also indicated that lower carbon projects would be advanced at a quicker pace.
Mr Ryan said the development of “active travel” was critical so that it was safe for children to walk or cycle to school. Greenways would not just be for tourists, he said, but must be for locals in the first instance.
In relation to new roads, Mr Ryan said there would be a range of projects to come but he indicated that bypasses were projects that could be considered to meet Government objectives.
He said that when the Government is asked about the cost and timelines for particular projects, it is “better to be honest” and say that exact costs would become clear when the project comes through the planning phase. He said there should be competitive tension at local level.
Mr Ryan also said the plan would see Ireland become a low carbon renewable efficient economy.
Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath said that economic recovery after Covid-19 represents “an enormous task” and the economic investment and stimulus in the national development plan will help with that. He said 81,000 people would be working in direct and indirect construction to implement the plan.
In order to ensure costs on large projects do not spiral out of control, Mr McGrath said there would be a new major projects advisory group with members appointed through an open and competitive process.
Mr Ryan was asked earlier on Monday if all of the projects contained in the plan would actually happen.
“Not necessarily no,” he replied. “I don’t expect they will because to be honest there are so many road projects already committed to that if we spent on all of them we wouldn’t have money for anything else. But I am not ruling them out, I am not saying definitely no.”
He said bypasses in particular deliver on all of the objectives that the Government want to achieve.
The NDP was the subject of much debate and discussion at Cabinet but all parties in Government are committed to tackling climate change and the plan is “green through and through”, Mr Ryan said.
Speaking at a press briefing at the Shakey Bridge in Cork with Green Party Ministers and local Green Party Councillors in advance of the launch of the NDP, Mr Ryan pointed to the 2:1 investment in public transport over roads as what he said was proof of the Government’s commitment to tackling climate change.
And he singled out the investment in suburban rail transport in both Dublin and Cork as an indication of how proper planning can lead to better outcomes with housing located close to rail lines and public transport hubs to minimise commute times and the need for private cars.
“The public transport projects are critical to solving the housing crisis. What we want is transport led development where you put the housing in beside where the high quality public transport is and putting house beside public transport shows how we can tackle the climate crisis at the same time,” he said.
Mr Ryan refused to be drawn on the likely cost of the Dublin MetroLink project connecting Dublin Airport with Dublin city centre or on when it was likely to be completed but he did re-iterate that the Government was fully committed to the project.
“We have to be careful in this NDP. I didn’t want to go down the route of saying ‘It’ll cost exactly this’ and ‘It will be built exactly then’. Firstly, you don’t want to tell people who are bidding in that this is what you are willing to pay? You want competitive tension.
“Also, being honest, it takes a long time to get through the Irish planning system. When you start, how long it takes depends to a certain extent on planning and whether you are subjected to legal challenges,” he said.
“I have been working on MetroLink for 25 years. We started 25 years ago on the planning for it. It won’t be 25 years - it won’t be anything like it. We are going t build it as quickly as we can - this entire NDP as quickly as we can because we need it.”
Mr Ryan said that integral to the entire plan will be a massive ramping-up of Ireland’s house building programme, in particular the provision of social and affordable homes to tackle the housing crisis that has plagued the country since 2010.
There was a broadly positive reaction to the plan from business and community groups, although some criticism over lack of detail in certain areas.
Dr Anthony Soares, the director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies and convenor of the Ad-Hoc Group on North-South and East-West Cooperation described the cross-border commitments in the NDP as “both welcome and timely as we seek to rebuild relationships across these islands from the impact of Brexit and the pandemic.”
“The commitment of €3.5 million to cross-border spending demonstrates the power and potential of cooperation across this island to change the lives of people who live and work here.”
He said the commitment shown by the Irish Government to cross-border projects “underscores the need to cooperate across all three strands of the Good Friday Agreement.”