AS the political parties prepare to outdo each other in spin and sound-byte in the run-up to next year’s election, they will display the art of a gymnast in their creative use of figures.In the coming months, billions of euro will be spent. Potholes will be filled, schools renovated, hospital bed-numbers increased. The politicians will avail widely of the cramped confines of television and radio studios to boast of their achievements and promises.
December’s budget will be moulded and manipulated to seduce a public drugged by the spoils of the Celtic Tiger. Here in the west, the under-spend of the monies allocated to the Border-Midlands-Western (BMW) region under the National Development Plan 2000-2006 (NDP) will be an exhausted political football by polling day.
In spite of all the talk of under-spends and the associated irretrievable losses, Government experts say the statistics are not so damning. They claim total expenditure, nationally, under the current NDP until the end of December 2005 was approximately €44.5 billion. In the BMW region it was around €12bn, and in the Southern-Eastern region (S&E) it was approximately €32.4bn.
These figures translate into 97 per cent of projected spending in the S&E and 82 per cent in the BMW, a serious acceleration of spending since the mid-term review in 2003, at which point a significant regional disparity was exposed: a little less than a half of projected infrastructural funding spent in the BMW in 2002, with an overspend of almost 140 per cent in the S&E.
In spite of these assurances, some claim the region will never recover the money owed for infrastructural development. Amid the negativity, however, it is important to note that some of that funding has not yet been lost. Monies allocated under the present NDP, co-financed by EU Structural Funds, can be spent until 2008, and Senator Martin Mansergh told The Mayo News, at the recent Fianna Fáil think-tank in Westport, that the Government was committed to spending all the funds owed to the region.
“The Minister for Finance [Brian Cowen] has said that every penny of money will be spent that is due to the west.”
He further stressed that the Government’s position regarding the west was not as indicated in recent articles in the Irish Times, which contended that the Western Rail Corridor was not viable and would never be built.
“The Irish Times is a metropolitan paper that doesn’t always take into consideration the needs of the regions well away from Dublin,” said Mansergh.
On his election last July, the new Cathaoirleach of the BMW Regional Assembly, Cllr Terry Brennan, said he ‘would champion the cause of more balanced regional development ... and would call on Government to ensure that all monies allocated to the region would be spent and more importantly that any under-spend in the current round would be adequately addressed in the next NDP’.
He also said he would lobby the Government to ensure the BMW received its fair share of EU Structural Funds which will concentrate on the Innovation and Knowledge Economy under the next NDP 2007-2013.
The reality is that Structural Funds in the next period will almost be negligible - two per cent of NDP in comparison to ten per cent of NDP in this period. Still, Western Development Commission (WDC) Chief Executive, Gillian Buckley, insists it is time to look forward to the new focus on improving the competitiveness of the region and the opportunities and challenges in County Mayo for advantageously using the knowledge economy.
“The knowledge economy should not be viewed in narrow terms as only relating to high-tech industry and services and relying on high-level research. For example the food processing industry and aspects of farming are part of the knowledge economy,” explained Ms Buckley.
To highlight the fact that the knowledge economy is not such an alien concept, she cited examples of Mayo-based knowledge firms already functioning and prospering, such as CMS Peripherals in Kiltimagh, Lionbridge Technologies in Ballina and WDC-funded AMT3D Ltd in Louisburgh.
The Institutes of Technology Bill 2006 will significantly broaden the powers of institutes such as the GMIT to facilitate research and introduce new areas of study, and this has been broadly welcomed. The fact that Mayo has no university will no longer be an inherent flaw in its third level research capacity and activity in the knowledge economy.
“GMIT will use the opportunities provided by the Bill to develop its Business Incubation Services at Castlebar, and the completion of the new Health Science building at Castlebar will also allow for new programme development,” said GMIT Director, Marion Coy. She added that the NDP’s emphasis on the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation will greatly increase opportunities for graduates in the region.
CSO population projections indicate the west will be the second fastest-growing region in the country, increasing its population by 35 per cent by 2021. Recent census figures indicate that 1,000 immigrants per month are moving into the Council for the West region, according to Dr Seamus Caulfield.
It seems a new opportunity looms to redress the regional development imbalance. In WDC-speak that means ‘government must prioritise investment-based expenditure and not just demand-led spending’.