MINISTER for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath has said that there is “a window of opportunity for Cork” in terms of development that needs to be seized.
Speaking during Cork Chamber’s Business Breakfast Live event, the minister said that the National Development Plan (NDP) “would be very good for Cork”.
It came as Mr McGrath welcomed “a really strong rebound” from an economic perspective and the positive position that Ireland now finds itself in following the successful rollout of the vaccination programme.
He said that after additional Covid-related expenditure of €30bn across last year and this year and Covid spending of around €15bn this year, that the plan for next year is to halve spending to around €7bn but that the commitment made by Government through the National Economic Recovery Plan that supports would remain at their current rates to the end of the year and that those supports would not “fall off a cliff” would remain in place.
Mr McGrath said, however, that “a tapering and winding down” of exceptional Covid spending would bring finances back to a safe place.
Speaking of the projects under way in Cork as part of the NDP, he said that with a budget of €11bn for next year, “there will be a lot of money available to get things done” but that focus has to be on the bottlenecks and delays in the system in getting projects through the pipeline.
“For me, and one of the real learnings in the last 18 months in this job, is that money isn’t always the real constraint, it’s having projects that are ready to go and in Cork I think that’s going to be one of the real challenges for us,” he said.
He said that funding underpinning the NDP has now been fully approved by Cabinet and that the bulk of the €165bn out to 2030 is direct exchequer funding and a contribution from the commercial state sector.
“We’re lucky to have two major road projects under construction at the moment to the value of about a half a billion euro, with the M22 Macroom bypass Ballyvourney and of course Dunkettle, and there will be a lot more investment over the next number of years so I think the NDP would be very good for Cork, very positive, a lot of ambition there,” he said.
Mr McGrath said that he hopes to see a review of the NDP published within the next four weeks before Budget 2022 on October 12 and that a draft has been prepared and shared with the three Coalition party leaders, whom he will meet to discuss outstanding issues and seek to move iron to a final draft stage so it can be published and launched.
Speaking about the Cork Metropolitan Area Transport Strategy (CMATS) 2040 plan, he said it is a “really ambitious and exciting plan for Cork and the wider region” and that the Government’s commitment to it is underlined by the fact that in its submission to the European Union’s National Recovery and Resilience Facility the Government singled out and got approval for the Cork commuter rail plan.
He said that the funding of over €160m will help to accelerate that plan which is about developing a commuter rail network and improving the rail network with additional platforms at Kent Station, double-tracking, and electrification which he said is also “an important part of the NDP”.
He said the CMATS project can be moved forward more quickly by “every single day making sure that all the different elements of it are inching forward” but that the process can be painstaking.
Mr McGrath said the development of the docklands is also “a key challenge” for Cork and that he is well aware of the viability issues that are there and the fact that Cork City has not had a major apartment development since the Elysian.
He said that public funding that is being made available through the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund (URDF) for the Cork Docklands “will help get it done” and will “improve the overall variability and attractiveness of developing apartments in the city centre”.
“That’s a very important and a very substantial investment by the exchequer in the vision that we have which is that the city is a place for people to live as well as to work and as well as availing of all the facilities and services and hospitality within our city centre and implementing the CMATS and sustainable travel plan and so on,” Mr McGrath said.
He said it is not a small or modest challenge but a quite significant one and that the Government is “throwing a lot of public money at this to see if we can make it work”.
Mr McGrath has said that the Government has committed “to almost double the annual intake of apprenticeships to 20,000 a year”.
It comes as the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform acknowledged that without workers, “we’ll struggle to meet the potential that is there”.
He said that there is an action plan on apprenticeships from this year to 2025 which was launched in recent months and that the ambition is to almost double the annual intake of apprenticeships and that the funding to do so is in place through the Pathways to Work programme.
He said the programme is being driven forward by the Department of Further and Higher Education working with all the stakeholders and the Department of Social Protection “because at the end of the day if we don’t have the workers to do the work, and we all know the labour pressures that are there at the moment in a range of sectors, then we’ll struggle to meet the potential that is there”.
He said that it is also anticipated that the country needs about 27,000 more construction workers involved in residential building.
“At the moment we have in the region of 43,000 construction workers building homes for people all over the country.
“We believe an extra 27,000 would be needed and there are still over 10,000 people unemployed whose last job was in construction so through the Pathways to Work programme we have to enable them to return to work,” Mr McGrath said.
“I think it is also likely that we may well see in line with the changes in work practices, a degree of a shift from office construction towards residential construction over the period ahead and I think we do need to examine our work permit visa system to make it a more user-friendly streamlines system to enable us to bring talent into Ireland.”