Sunday 20 May 2018

'Time to turn back to projects shelved during our decade of economic crisis'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

It is time to "turn back on" the projects that had to be shelved during a lost decade, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

As he launched 'Project Ireland 2040' and a €116bn spending spree over the next 10 years, Mr Varadkar declared: "We have the vision, we have the plan and we have the money, so let's get on with it."

Opposition parties dismissed the document as spin and little more than an unachievable wish list.

But Mr Varadkar insisted it marked "a significant milestone in our country's development, the point at which we put the lost decade behind us and move forward into a new decade of expansion".

The project sets out a framework for growing the population by one million people over the next two decades.

It involves the construction of 500,000 new homes; a €2bn urban regeneration fund for the country's five main cities; three new hospitals to tackle waiting lists; a series of road upgrades and €22bn for climate change initiatives.

A series of late changes to the document also saw the Cabinet shift a big emphasis onto rural Ireland with Sligo, Letterkenny and Athlone designed as 'regional centres'.

Mr Varadkar admitted that many of the individual schemes flagged in the document are already in the public domain - but said now was the time to make them a reality.

"Metro North was postponed because it had to be by me as transport minister because of the fact we were in a financial crisis. We're now out of that financial crisis and in a position to invest again.

"That allows us to turn back on projects that had been stalled, including Metro," he said.

Asked by the Irish Independent how the Government intends to proceed with a multi-billion investment plan at the same time as the country is experiencing a shortage of construction workers, Mr Varadkar pointed toward migration.

He said the post-crash lack of tradespeople is "a potential constraint on the ability to build new houses or the ability to invest in new infrastructure".

"One of the ways that we were able to expand our construction [workforce] so successfully back in the day when we were building 80,000 houses a year was through migration. Having construction workers come in from other countries.

"We're going to need that. One of the few upsides of Brexit might be the fact that construction workers who are now welcome in the UK mightn't be able to get in there in a few years' time. That makes us more attractive," he said.

The Taoiseach denied that a highly choreographed event in Sligo IT amounted to an expensive election manifesto launch.

"Electoral cycles tend to be quiet short-term. I imagine over the course of the next 10 or 20 years there will be many elections. This is a long-term plan and not an election manifesto," he said.

But Fianna Fáil's finance spokesman Michael McGrath warned the plan would prove to be mere aspiration, if economic forces take a turn.

He said recent economic uncertainty and fluctuating interest rates will have an impact.

"I would not be confident that the Government has a handle on the full cost of Ireland's changing demographics in terms of pension, education and health costs," he said.

"All these risks are very real and we need to be cognisant of them if today's plan is to come to fruition. While the Government will not spell it out, the reality is today's plan is predicated on assumptions that are largely beyond the control of a small, open economy like Ireland."

The Labour party said the plan was "another cock-up".

Housing spokesperson Jan O'Sullivan questioned its publication before the law to put it on a statutory basis is passed.

Irish Independent

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