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Statement on the Review of the Regional Development Strategy

9 June, 2008


In a statement to the Assembly today, the Sinn Féin Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy MP MLA announced details of his Review of the Regional Development Strategy (RDS).

Mr Murphy said:

"I am making this statement today to mark the start of our review of the Regional Development Strategy.

"I want this review to be inclusive and to hear and benefit from a wide range of views and opinions. Whilst we may, from time to time, have differing views, what unites us is our stewardship of the North. We have a responsibility to our children to step back from the day to day management of government. To step back and consider what we want for the North in the longer term.

  • What sort of place do we want our children to inherit?
  • How many people will live here?
  • How do we help grow our economy?
  • Where do we want them to live, work and play?
  • What do we mean by regional balance, and how can we work towards it?
  • How should we respond to climate change?
  • How can we obtain the most benefit from our investments in our infrastructure?
  • How do we position the North in a North/South, East/West, European and world context?
  • How do we better respond to the speed of change all around us?

"These questions take us beyond the timeframe of our Programme for Government. We need a long-term vision within which all our actions can fit. For, a vision without clear direction of how it can be achieved, is not worth the paper it is written on. Our vision needs to include clear strategic direction about how it can be achieved by numerous small steps now and in future years.

"This is what I see as the role of the Regional Development Strategy.

"I and my Executive colleagues have discussed and agreed the need for a fundamental review of the Regional Development Strategy.

"A new regional strategy will be very different from the current one - one which is relevant to key stakeholders, flexible enough to deal with changing circumstances, yet robust enough for decision making. It will set priorities and list a selected number of key infrastructure projects essential for economic growth.

"It will take account of, and be relevant to, structures and functions emerging in the Review of Public Administration.

"It will also take account of the many changes happening all around us. What strikes me is the speed of change. To stand still is not an option. We must embrace change and be a part of it, influencing and guiding our future.

We are a growing population.

"Projected population levels are showing growth greater than previously expected. By 2012 we will have a population of over 1.8 million in the north. It is possible that the population could exceed 2 million by 2030.

"However, where people choose to live is changing. Years ago many fled Belfast through fear caused by intimidation and violence. Over the ten years between 1995 to 2005 its population fell by almost 25,000 to 268,000, a drop of more than seven per cent. In this period all other councils experienced population increase.

"Belfast was, for a time, one of the greatest cities in these islands. It should be our goal to make it great again. Does the success of the North now depend upon it?

"I do not see a strong Belfast as a threat to other areas. For many years we have argued over funding being allocated to Belfast at the expense of other areas. There is an imbalance in the infrastructure between the east and the west. This is an imbalance that I am addressing through investment in roads and rail. But, we need to get away from narrow sectional debates and look more broadly at our region, how our cities, towns, villages, and countryside support and interlink with each other. How all are important. We need a discussion about what regional balance means, and how we unlock our potential to grow as a region.

"This might be a difficult issue for us to tackle as there are different political perspectives on it. But, it is an issue that we cannot and should not duck. I am determined to lead the debate upon it, and, in doing so, will set the tone for a mature debate - one that is evidence driven - one that will benefit the people of the North.

"Derry, the regional capital of the North West. A City of over 90,000 people - a City sitting in a magnificent setting on the banks of the Foyle - a City with a rich and long history.

"The original Regional Development Strategy recognised its role for the first time and I want to develop this even further.

"The Executive has endorsed the cross border work in the North West, recognising the linkages between Donegal, Derry, Limavady and Strabane. Joint investment by both Governments in the airport, joint investment in the road linking the North West to Dublin, dualling the road from Derry to beyond Dungiven, are but some of the projects linking the North West better into the Island as a whole. How can we maximise the potential of these projects? How can we attract more investment to the North West? "These are but some of the issues the review of the Regional Development Strategy will look at.

"In the South East, the City of Newry has seen amazingly strong growth in recent years. Ideally, sitting as it does between the two main Cities on the Island, Dublin and Belfast, it has benefited from the economic corridor. Like Derry, it is developing its cross border linkages with Louth and Dundalk, recognising the potential of working together.

"Again, I want to explore how we can support and develop the further growth of Newry and its surrounding area.

"Stretching North from Newry, places like Banbridge, Craigavon, Dungannon, Cookstown and Magherafelt, have experienced strong population and economic growth in recent years. Together these Councils have experienced a population growth of more than 9% which is well above the regional rate. The strong growth of this band running through the middle of the region brings with it new issues about the delivery of services and infrastructure.

"Further to the West, Omagh has also been performing strongly. The development of the A5 and A4 will open up new opportunities for Tyrone and Fermanagh. My role is to ensure that we maximise the potential of this investment.

"In speaking about the different areas you always run the risk of offending somebody by leaving their area out. The people in those areas I have highlighted are no more important than people anywhere else.

"For one of the things that makes this land so special is our settlement patterns. We have strong links to land and place, we have a more dispersed settlement pattern than other areas.

"Whilst this is what makes us so special, it does bring with it challenges. It makes us heavily dependent on the car. Year by year more and more cars are being driven on our roads.

"Between 1992 and 2006 the number of cars on our roads increased by 80%. 800,000 cars on our roads. More journeys being made, within the region and beyond. People commuting further and further to jobs and schools, more routes to new destinations from our airports.

"How do we manage this growth? For example, how do we improve access to our ports and airports which are so important to an Island economy?

"Part of the answer undoubtedly is better roads, but, increasingly, we also need to focus on public transport. We need to think about reducing the need to use the car by better planning of where homes, jobs, schools and shops are built. I am also initiating a review of the Regional Transportation Strategy that will look in detail at these issues.

"The environment, and our response to climate change, influence all our actions now and in the future. We are privileged to live in a place that has a rich natural environment. The Causeway Coast and Rathlin Island, the Mournes, the Lakes of Fermanagh, to name but a few.

"Our approach to our environment needs to find the balance between its protection and unlocking the potential for tourism.

"Increasing demand for new homes, sometimes in unsustainable locations, more cars on our roads, increasing demand for energy, all impact on our environment. Transport is a key contributor to carbon dioxide emissions seeing a 41% increase between 1990 and 2005. We are already doing much to improve and protect our environment, but can we do more?

"Before setting out a new approach to regional development, I wanted to make some comments on the existing Regional Development Strategy.

"It was the first regional spatial plan produced in England, Scotland, Wales and the South, and in many ways set new approaches which were later applied in these other jurisdictions. It was recognised at that time as a best practice document, and it reflected the emerging European thinking on planning for regional development.

"It is something we can all be rightly proud of. But time moves on, and it is time for change.

"I inherited from Direct Rule a 5 year review of the Strategy. This considered the need for detailed adjustments. It did not address the principles and the regional framework itself. The results of this review are adjustments to some aspects of policy on economic development, tourism and rural areas. This work will be published this month.

"This 5 year review was not a fundamental assessment of the Strategy. For timing reasons, there was not the opportunity to take account of significant issues which have recently emerged which influence how we plan for the future. These include higher than expected population levels, the need for more houses, climate change, and how to plan to maximise the use of existing infrastructure and facilities in our cities and towns.

"It is clear that, while many of the policy directions in the existing RDS are sound, the Strategy has not had the influence which was anticipated. This is due to a combination of factors, including insufficient detail and clarity on matters such as housing need, rural development, the growth of cities and towns.

"There has also been criticism over the use of housing figures in the Strategy. Many see them being unnecessary and restrictive in terms of forward planning. Others want some indication of housing need, but in a way which better reflects local need and the growth potential of particular areas.

"We need to better understand the contribution that the rural parts of the region make to regional success. How we can support its cities, towns, villages and countryside beyond Belfast and the North West to prosper and grow.

"The RDS can only be delivered through the plans and programmes of individual Departments and agencies. I do not see it as a DRD strategy, but as a strategy for all of Government and beyond. Many of its policies are taken forward through Development Plans prepared by DOE. However, for a variety of unforeseen reasons, the roll out of the Development Plan Programme has been slower than hoped for, and the rate of impact of many RDS policies has suffered.

There is now an opportunity to learn from past experience and prepare a new Regional Development Strategy which is fit for purpose, and which takes account of recent emerging trends affecting how we plan for the future.

"With the unprecedented levels of expenditure we are planning to make over the next five to ten years, we have an opportunity to influence this land much more than previous generations. Over 3.5 Billion pounds will be spent on Transportation alone. That is our challenge and that is our responsibility to our future generations.

"I am conscious of the need for this major review to be concluded quickly. It is essential that new policy directions are developed to a point where they can inform work on the next Investment Strategy which is planned for 2009. While the review is planned to take up to two years, I will be assessing ways to shorten this process where possible. I am, however, very aware of the need for the involvement from all Government Departments and key stakeholders and that this does take time.

"This is a challenging timetable. I have set up a number of groups to take the review forward. The Executive has agreed to a Ministerial Sub-Group and a first meeting with Ministerial colleagues is due to be held shortly.

"I am also keen to benefit from the considerations of the Regional Development Committee who received an initial briefing on 28 May.

"I have also reformed an Interdepartmental Steering Group of officials at a more senior level and welcome the commitment given by Departments to this approach. The first very constructive meeting of this Group was held on 28 May.

"I have also extended the membership of the External Working Group which provided important input to our work on the 5 year review.

"There are other important initiatives which I will take into account. The DOE is presently undertaking a reform of the planning process and I will be meeting with Minister Arlene Foster to discuss the important relationship between the RDS and Development Plans.

"I am also fully aware of the need to take account of structures emerging as part of the Review of Public Administration. While Regional Planning and Policy Statements will remain a central Government function, it is clear that the relationships with local planning and development management must be structured in a way which is efficient and effective.

"The Strategy deals with a wide range of environmental, social and economic matters. It affects the working of all involved in regional development. I am therefore aware of the need to consult widely and effectively. I will want to ensure that this is managed in a way which allows the timely emergence of revised policy to inform budgetary and investment decisions.

"I said at the start of this statement that we need a long-term vision within which all our actions can fit. The vision must include clear strategic direction about how it can be achieved.

"My aim in producing a revised RDS is for a regional strategy which can accommodate the economic growth now expected in the medium to long-term. This means a strategy which sets directions for the location of jobs, houses, businesses, public services and facilities across the whole region.

"It must seek to make Belfast a great City once more, build on the significant opportunities for growth in the North West and its hinterland, and provide connections for North / South and East / West development.

"It must better recognise the roles of all our cities and towns, villages and countryside, and how they all support and work together with each other. This approach might, for example, include identifying key regional projects which are considered essential for balanced economic development.

"In dealing with all these issues, the RDS must set out a clear high level vision for the North as a place. It will have a strategic focus. It must be an aspirational document which sets out the actions needed to translate the vision into reality. It will focus on developments of regional significance including population, environmental issues, telecommunications, housing, economic development and infrastructure developments.

"It must be an enabling document which sets out the Executive's interventions required to make it happen. It is not a DRD document rather it should become the Executive's spatial strategy and plan.

"The RDS is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It must be about implementation, about the actions and priorities necessary to deliver the vision. It must set out how connections can be made to deliver more sustainable development in the future.

"It will have a key role to play in informing how places are shaped and developed at the local level.

"This review is clearly a very challenging piece of work. It is however a timely piece of work which gives us the opportunity to shape the future of the North over the next 20 years.

"I am looking forward to working with my Ministerial colleagues and Assembly as the work develops." ENDS

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