Ireland’s National Development Plan isn’t compatible with climate action

— It might be the largest Development Plan, but it’s not fit for climate action.
— At a time when public transport projects should be accelerated, the Government is overseeing delays.

COMMENT & ANALYSIS / LONG READ: Ireland’s new National Development Plan (NDP)  announced today does not look like it has the footprints of a Green Party on it. At least not one which is taking the recent warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change seriously.

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Reports that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were in battle with their junior coalition Government partners the Green Party shows that while criticism might be levied at the Greens, the senior parties in Government are still in the denial stage of climate change. This should be worrying for the Greens as it is for anybody who wants to see climate action.

Continuing the €360m per year investment into cycling and pedestrian infrastructure was expected and is to be welcomed, but that alone does not make the National Development Plan (NDP) climate action ready.

The Programme for Government promises a “committed to a 2:1 ratio of expenditure between new public transport infrastructure and new roads over its lifetime.” The headline figure of €12bn on new public transport construction compared to €6bn on new roads construction seems to fit with this promise, but the figures just don’t add up.

The figures are not very clearly outlined in the plan, but RTE reported that Eamon Ryan said that €11.6bn is for public transport infrastructure and a further €3.8 billion on the repair, maintenance and fleet purchase of buses. While €8bn will be spent on maintaining existing roads and €5.8bn on new roads.

That’s €15.4bn on public transport vs €13.8bn on roads, including maintenance for both. There’s also €4bn on walking and cycling infrastructure. A huge improvement but things are not that clear.

But the €15.4bn vs €13.8bn includes more than just new construction, so, that does not fit with the Programme for Government promise. But as we said, the €6bn on new roads does not add up. The maintenance figure also includes more than just maintenance, this is problematic.

This is a key point by the Dublin Commuter Coalition: “We’re told that all road projects from the previous NDP will be included plus some new ones. The previous NDP included €11bn+ worth of roads. Even without cost inflation, it’s not possible for the new NDP to have more roads in it for only €6bn.”

Dublin Commuter Coalition in a press release expressed frustration with the lack of clear spending breakdowns. Public relations officer Feljin Jose said: “This mysterious €13bn maintenance allocation is a departure from the previous NDP. The two ‘road protection & renewal’ programmes listed in the NDP includes “traffic enhancement measures to improve the efficiency/capacity” of roads and ‘targeted improvements’ in addition to maintenance. The €80 million M50 traffic flow improvement programme is also to be included in this. We’re concerned that this will result in road expansion and road capacity projects being classified as maintenance.”

It was well flagged — via political correspondents in various media outlets — at least the major projects will be subject to climate assessment. The Green Party claim that this will mean that all the roads will not go ahead. This is not credible when we hear RTÉ Radio report that Michael McGrath, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, is nearly in real-time contradicting Green Party leader Eamon Ryan on the issue of if the all the roads projects will go ahead.

At the very least there are huge unresolved issues between the three Government parties.

Even if you are inclined to think that some roads need to be upgraded, the plan includes some highly unjustifiable projects such as the N3 Clonee to M50 road widening and N/M11 road widening — both of these projects aim to add motoring capacity towards the M50 and Dublin City Centre when the M50 and roads within it do not have any capacity to fit more cars. It was claimed recently that the M50 traffic flow mentioned above was for safety, but it seems capacity is the stronger motive.

Overall, even if new roads were only to be used by electric cars, electric cars are still cars
and still mean congestion. It still pushes unsustainable building of large roads and unsustainable land use. For example, the above two mentioned projects will drive future calls for further widening, road links between areas outside the M50 and likely even road tunnels in the city.

It is a good thing to look for means to evaluate projects climate impact as is claimed, but the Green Party — as well as FG and FF — cannot keep acting as if it is ok to defer climate action. That is what the Government parties are doing every time it stands over a delay to sustainable transport projects and possibly including extra road building in the country’s plan for development.

A development plan can have impacts where housing and employment are built even if the road or public transport is not provided. So, saying some projects will never be built is not good enough. That’s not sustainable planning.

The plan has no timeframe for MetroLink, a metro railway between Dublin city centre and Swords, or any part of the Dart+ project, which includes electrification and capacity improvements to existing railways around Dublin. Both projects in some form have been proposed again and again at different stages for the last 40 or 50 years or so.

Think about that: Action delayed for half a century and we still have no timeframe when we’re told climate action requires action now.

Some version of the Dart Underground tunnel is now part of Dart+, but the other elements can go ahead first and faster than proposed if there was the will to do so. Dart+ is something the Greens should have fast-tracked but it is nothing short of breathtaking that the party is being so publicly blasé about the delays with it and MetroLink.

Many advocates for public transport were already disillusioned about decades of delays after further delays on MetroLink and Dart expansion plans for Dublin. The recent reports by the Mail on Sunday about the project being delayed allowed the long-disillusioned people to say “I told you so” to the still hopeful and recently disillusioned people. The Government taking a full week to accept there would be delays rub the salt in their wounds.

Regarding the Dublin-Belfast railway service, the Enterprise, the plan promises that the “current fleet will be replaced by 9 new sets” in 2027 to allow for an hourly service. Sounds great? Not to anybody who has been following transport in Ireland for long. Darran Marshall, a BBC Politics Producer, posted a screenshot of a 2004 news article to Twitter showing that such a project was planned to be funded by a previous development plan and it was to be delivered by 2008.

So, if the Government meet their new 2027 target, they’ll have delivered the project 18 years late. This mainly entails ordering new trains which can take around three years, but we know that current train orders have been delayed for political rather than technical reasons.

The previous National Development Plan promised “delivery of the full BusConnects programme for all of Ireland’s cities” by the end of the plan in 2027, but that has been both delayed and downgraded to “there will be significant progress made on delivering BusConnects with the construction of Core Bus Corridors expected to be substantially complete in all five cities by 2030.”

As has reported before, the designs in the BusConnects core routes for Dublin — the project to redesign roads and streets — is not fit for Cycling For All and does not comply with the Design Manual for Urban Roads and Streets on pedestrian priority especially at many junctions. Indications show that more of the same is coming to Cork, Limerick, and Galway.

BusConnects is also not fit for the new appreciation people have gained over the pandemic for streets and the value of public space — and clearly does not follow the healthy streets approach as the project’s starting point is fitting transport in before anything else.

A re-focused, more radical and faster rollout of BusConnects could be a core part of climate action. This new approach would value public space more, value designing for Cycling for All, and would be more about reallocating space and less about compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) and expanding road space. The use of CPOs could be a secondary project where needed. But this requires an acceptance that the current approach isn’t working and that urgency is needed.

There are new public transport projects mentioned in the plan today, especially for Limerick and Cork. Semi-announced things that have been given a firmer footing. But the experience of decades of delays and further delays under a Green Party transport minister shows that these project announcements should be taken with a bucket rather than a pinch of salt.

It seems that FG, FF and Department officials are running circles around the Greens. Even if it really should not be just a Green Party issue. Climate action needs to be the focus of all parties.

Political commentators have asked what will the Green Party do when other parties start to take up the policies that the Greens have pushed the most — a short while ago the answer to that was nobody else was championing such policies. But if the Greens continue down this road they risk making more people disillusioned about providing public transport.

This is hugely damaging to climate action as climate communicators say that delay is as bad as denial and the public transport delays will breed defeatism. The sad thing is that indications so-far is that Green Party members are in denial of how serious these issues mentioned above are. They need to change tack on this.

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  1. There is a long list of road projects in the NDP that are carried over from previous plans. As you can see on p64, a small number are either under construction or expected to begin construction in the next 6 months.
    All other road projects are “subject to further approvals
    What is the process for being approved?
    On p33, you can see that all projects have to be assessed for climate and environmental impact, and rated A, B, or C. All road projects are rated C.
    On p35, there is a section “Reform of the Public Spending Code”. All projects with a cost of over 20 million euro must quantify the effect of the project on greenhouse gas emissions. Those emissions are then priced based on the cost to society of offsetting those emissions.
    It was politically impossible for FG and FF to announce that road projects would be cancelled. But the changes in the NDP mean it is impossible for most of those projects to be funded.

  2. Hi Ray… yes, the assessments are mentioned above. But, as outlined above, there’s too many other issues with the funding and with public transport delays to have a huge amount of faith in the assessments to block projects when the leading Government parties want to go ahead with projects.

    Using the Netherlands as a negative example for a change: The roads-mad Government there are still trying to push ahead with major motorway widening around Utrecht even where Court-mandated carbon budgeting is in place and both the city and regional governments in Utrecht are against the project. FG and FF have weaker (ie not Court-mandated) loop to jump, and local governments which are mostly supportive of more roads. The Greens have yet to make it clear there is any red line issue.

  3. Do we know if DPER/DoFinance will be using the WHO HEAT tool in the assessment of roads projects?
    Pretty important that this will be the case.


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