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1 February 2007 Edition

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National Development Plan: Short of new ideas, long on promises

Bertie Ahern at a press conference after the launch of the National Development Plan

Bertie Ahern at a press conference after the launch of the National Development Plan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coalition goes back to the future with NDP

BY ROBBIE SMYTH

 

Ever get the feeling you have been here before or maybe just heard it all before? Well if you took the time to wade through either the acres of newspaper coverage on the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat new National Development Plan, or actually read or downloaded the text, you would quickly realise the new strategy leaked systematically in the weeks since the new year and launched with much hype last week was short of new ideas, long on hard to keep promises and seriously in danger of repeating past failures.

The plan titled called Transforming Ireland, A Better Quality of Life For All promises to spend nearly €184 billion over the next seven years. The vast bulk of this money is yours and mine and will come from the tax revenue garnered annually by the government so any mistakes or failures will come from our pockets.

 

PAST FAILURES

The past failures not mentioned in the new plan include the finally opened Port Tunnel, the Westlink/M50 fiasco and Dublin’s LUAS lines, all delivered massively over budget and late.

The 5.6km Dublin Port Tunnel was due to open in 2004 and should have cost €446 million, now open the project has costs running to at least €752 million, with another €200 million in expenditure the subject of a contractual dispute between the builders and Dublin City Council.

Then there is the Westlink Bridge on the M50, the daily scourge of literally hundreds of thousands of motorists, National Toll Roads (NTR) were allowed sign a 30 year lease to build and run the facility. The state invested €1 billion in the M50 road while paying NTR €38 million to build the Westlink Bridge and toll booth plaza.

NTR will at current profit levels generate over €1 billion in revenue by the time their contract runs out in 2020. NTR will make a return of more than 2000% on their initial investment. It might not surprise you that there is no mention among the €20 billion in road projects in the new plan of the hundreds of millions of euro that the Dublin Government are currently in negotiations with NTR over in an effort to buy out the Westlink lease. This probable €500 billion payoff will be an additional cost on the Irish tax payer.

Then as we gear up for the promised Metro, there are the questions of what lessons were learnt from the LUAS project, the final cost of which was €775 million but was originally budgeted at €269 million. It too was many years late on delivery.

 

WHAT’S BEING REPEATED?

So while Transforming Ireland doesn’t readily acknowledge past failures, it does acknowledge a lot of old friends. So we are welcoming back the Metro Project, the extension of the LUAS, the re-opening of the Dublin to Navan railway and that old chestnut the Heuston Connolly link which this time will be an underground railway!

Also dusted off is Michael McDowells’ new super prison at Thornton Hall, no mention though of the overpaying to buy the site and $2.3 billion has been allocated to build the replacement prison for Mountjoy, with some of the money earmarked as extra Garda spending.

The Lansdowne Road stadium is included with a €191 million price tag, as is what the government now calls the Abbotstown Complex but what the lay person might once remember as the Bertie Bowl.

€6.1 billion is earmarked for spending on scientific research, but this includes the already announced €3.8 billion Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation which was launched last summer with much hype. Then there are the proposals for 50,000 new childcare places, which were already announced by minister for children Brian Lenihan last October.

Nearly €20 billion of public money will be spent on social and affordable housing with a promise of delivering 100,000 units over the seven years of the plan. There is no space given in Transforming Ireland to discussing the failures of the past, or the U-turns by the coalition government on social housing, particularly the repeal of Part V of the 2000 Planning act, or the incredibly slow build of social housing by the Department of the Environment over the life time of this government.

 

PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP

An important part of the plan and one not dealt with much in the media coverage of the launch is the use of public private partnerships to build infrastructure. It raises the question as to who will own what will be vital economic and social infrastructure in the years to come.

A prime example of this folly is the M50 and the Westlink Bridge. The government spent over a billion euro building the M50 and Westlink yet the NTR have made millions from their few hundred metres of road. How many more Westlinks are in this new plan?

Public Private Partnerships permeate this strategy and despite the value for money issues raised by the Comptroller and Auditor General the coalition have steamed ahead and are still using PPPs, particularly in building education infrastructure where €550 million will be private sector funding.

In fact the value for money issue is not fully addressed in the plan. Brian Cowen has promised that any project costing more than €30 million will be subjected to a cost benefit analysis. However it is unclear if this applies to the Metro project, which will cost hundreds of millions of euro or why he did not include blanket criteria that all projects to be funded should be subject to proper appraisal.

 

ALL IRELAND DIMENSION

Where the government has been on a learning curve is the inclusion finally of an all-Ireland dimension to the plan, however none of the projects include any specific costings and overlooks key projects such as the Dublin Derry rail line or a firm commitment to upgrade the Dublin, Derry/Letterkenny road to a dual carriageway.

Also missing is an all-Ireland link up in business development strategy, the 26-County plan involves considerable new funds being allocated to enterprise and research and in last year’s British Irish Government’s study on the all-island economy the need for a collaborative all Ireland national innovation and enterprise strategy was clearly demonstrated. However it is not addressed in this plan and this seriously detracts from the efficiency of the spending proposals.

Fianna Fáil and the PDs have produced an expensive election manifesto, ignoring past project failures and the expert advice of bodies such as the ESRI who asked them to slow down construction spending, they have rehashed a range of existing plans safe in the knowledge that it will be the tax payer not them who carries the cost of any future failures.

 

 

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