'We've heard it all before' - Offaly councillors speak out during IDA presentation
Offaly County Councillors hit out at the IDA during the October meeting of the local authority on Monday, October 15, where the investment promotion agency gave a presentation.
Denis Curran, Divisional Manager, Corporate Governance and Legal, EIT and Regional Business Development; Anne-Marie Tierney Le Roux, Head of Regional Development; and Ken Whitelaw, Regional Business Development Manager, Midlands, attended the council chamber to deliver a progress report on the IDA's work in the region and the county.
Speaking to councillors, Denis Curran, pointed out IDA targets as part of a 2015-2019 plan, which include the ambition to create 80,000 new jobs from 900 investments, bringing foreign direct investment employment in the country to 209,000 during the lifetime of the plan.
Mr Curran delved specifically into the number of jobs secured through IDA client companies across the region, revealing that the Midlands region had the lowest number of any region. He pointed out that the 4,327 jobs in the Midlands represented a 1.2% increase, while figures for the rest of the country appeared a lot healthier.
The West has 23,286 jobs created by IDA client companies, the Border region has 11,469, Dublin and the Mid-East has 101,222, the Mid-West has 17,787, the South-West has 37,434, while the South-East has 14,918. The growth achieved in the Midlands was also the lowest at 1.2% with the figure for the South-East and the Dublin Mid-East regions standing at 9.2% and 5.7% respectively.
Denis said the IDA was making strides in the Midlands, revealing that there are 34 IDA client companies currently operating in the region. His presentation also referenced the Live Register figures for the region, which have fallen from 6.3% in January of this year to 5.3% in September.
Pointing to the criteria used by the IDA and ultimately companies when deciding on a location, Mr Curran mentioned population mass and regional centres; talent pools; property stock; educational institutions and facilities; regional infrastructure like roads; financial support and stability. Referencing population specifically, he said Irish locations were competing with international areas where population centres of over one million people can are more widely available.
In conclusion, Mr Curran said the IDA plan from 2015 to 2019 is there "most ambitious ever," and insisted the organisation has achieved "impressive results" to date.
The presentation drew a strong reaction from the chamber with Cllr Tony McCormack saying, "We've heard it all before from different members of the IDA at different times."
Cllr McCormack said he had met with the IDA in various roles, including as President of the Tullamore Chamber of Commerce and previously as a member of the old Tullamore Town Council, reiterating that "little has been done for Tullamore and Offaly" in that time.
He said he admired the work being done by the IDA, even referencing his own dissertation where he says he "praised the IDA for attracting foreign direct investment to Ireland."
"My gripe, however, is with the lack of work being done to bring it to Tullamore and Offaly. We are just twenty minutes from Athlone IT, forty minutes from NUI Maynooth and an hour from Dublin Airport and yet Athlone is getting the lions share of jobs announcements," Cllr McCormack continued.
"All we want is balanced growth in our region. We have great amenities, schools and facilities, as well as an able and willing workforce. You won't sell it unless you market it," Tony said as he criticised the IDA for failing to promote Offaly as a destination similar to Athlone.
The Tullamore councillor concluded by saying, "I will keep beating this drum until you are fair to Tullamore. We will hold you to account until Tullamore gets a fair crack of the whip."
Cllr Eddie Fitzpatrick echoed those sentiments by saying, "We don't seem to be getting the full support we need," asking whether the IDA was instructed to "push Athlone as the hub for the Midlands." In response, Denis Curran said, "it is simply not true to suggest we're not promoting this reason. We don't take any county and promote it in isolation."
"When companies come to view locations, they want to view multiple sites at one time. So, if they come to view Tullamore, they will also want to see Athlone, that's just the harsh reality of it," the IDA official said.
Cllr Noel Cribbin pointed out the considerable landbanks currently in the possession of Bord na Mona that "could be used for IDA sites." He said, "there is a 750-acre Bord na Mona site in Rhode, two minutes from the motorway. Is that on the IDA's radar? You could put anything you like in there."
In response, Anne-Marie Tierney Le Roux, Head of Regional Development with the IDA, said the organisation met with Bord na Mona last year. "The IDA has been fully briefed on Bord na Mona's land portfolio and we keep negotiations live with our commercial property team. We are fully aware of the site in Rhode."
Cllr John Foley claimed the IDA had simply "forgotten about Offaly," suggesting the investment promotion agency has "bypassed it, much like Enterprise Ireland."
"Motorways in this country are all heading in one place and they are a carpark every morning and evening. My understanding when the motorways were being built was that they were going to open up the Midlands," he said.
Referring to the building of IKEA in Dublin, Cllr Foley claimed, "they changed the rules to put an exit onto the M50 for IKEA."
"We, on the other hand, are being left behind - motorways are meant to go both ways, not one," he concluded.
Cllr John Leahy criticised the IDA for making just one site visit to Offaly in 2018, while making 307 in total around the country. He asked if pumping companies into Dublin was sustainable in terms of the housing crisis and travel congestion.
In response, Denis Curran said the IDA has in fact made four visits to meet with Offaly County Council officials this year to date and that they were working on new promotional material. He also indicated that the final two quarters of the year would see an improvement in terms of visits to Offaly.
Cllr John Carroll followed that by asking for a meeting between Offaly County Council and the IDA once a year for "frank discussion" and for councillors and council management to receive feedback on "what has been done and what can be done to secure more foreign direct investment."
"We have to work together going forward," he added.
After a number of other councillors asked the IDA to spell out what they could do at council level to make Offaly more attractive for foreign direct investment, Tony McCormack stood once again to vent his frustration at the lack of action.
"I admire you, Denis, for standing up there with your lovely words, but we've heard it all before," he commented.
In conclusion, Denis said Brexit was "at the forefront" for the IDA and would be "constantly monitored," but also said it could present opportunities for Ireland if a number of companies choose to relocate from the UK as a result.
In terms of what councils and councillors can do, he suggested "a stronger message for FDI into the future," as well as a factual housing stock directory. He said projects like the one planned to turn the Tullamore Harbour into a Grand Canal Dock-style mixed-use development would also be of benefit going forward.
The Chief Executive of Offaly County Council, Anna Marie Delaney thanked the delegation for attending. "I can understand the level of frustration with slow progress on this front. A collaborative approach between Offaly County Council and the IDA will hopefully pay dividends," she commented.
She also said that Offaly County Council has contributed to a data centre survey from the IDA which aims to find suitable and possible locations for future data centre developments.