Any economic upturn should be used to regenerate our towns and villages, according to one Tipperary member of the EU's Committee of the Regions, which takes local issues on board in Brussels.
Cllr Hughie McGrath has voiced his fears that the planned National Planning Framework, Towards 2040, is too heavily focused on the bigger cities.
“The focus must be on the rural towns. If the tide is rising they should rise with the tide,” said Cllr McGrath.
However, he emphasised that he was not sure how local representatives could influence the CoR to allocate funding directly to counties and rural towns under the EU's Cohesion Funding.
“I don't think Brussels will have any influence on what level a town should or shouldn't be at. They will say that's domestic politics, sort it out yourselves. I think our TDs, our Southern Assembly members need to be active in that,” he said.
The Southern Assembly, which is based in Waterford, covers the Munster region and is made up of an executive and local councillors nominated by their local authorities.
However, he agrees that there is a problem in getting EU money down to the regions for local development, with the perception that moneys that come to central Government are then being used only in the larger cites such as Cork, Waterford and Limerick.
“That's the problem I've seen since I joined the CoR. It's the way the money travels. How does the county get the money and then how does Nenagh get the money. There is a lot of pulling and dragging. The fear I have, and it goes back to the new National Planning Framework, is you are not going to be seen under the current draft. Clonmel is seen as the only major town in Tipperary and the rest are rural. That's a worrying factor for us,” said the Independent councillor.
He pointed out that when North Tipperary was separate from South Tipperary, Nenagh was seen as a principal town.
“My fear is we are not going to be seen as a principal town in the new plan. It could put us back down the ladder as regards looking for funding. I raised my concerns about Nenagh losing its status with the county manager Joe McGrath directly,” said Cllr McGrath.
At a recent Nenagh Municipal District Council meeting, the general feeling was that Nenagh should hop on the coat tails of Limerick for investment and infrastructure, but Cllr McGrath is not happy that the town should be competing with its bigger neighbour. But how can he feed that sentiment back to Brussels?
“That needs to be discussed at the Southern Regional Assembly,” he stated.
However, despite not wanting Nenagh to be seen merely as a hub for Limerick Cllr McGrath is puzzled as to why greater emphasis is not placed on developing Shannon Airport and Foynes port when it comes to helping counties such as Tipperary.
“I was kind of surprised that Shannon Airport or Foynes Port were not being pushed under the National Planning Framework. I think something could be done for them under Cohesion Funding,” he said.
But is there any point in developing those facilities without proper infrastructure such as roads and railways to take trucks and commuters off the road?
Cllr McGrath agreed that there was no point in developing Shannon or Foynes if people were going to sit in a traffic jam in Nenagh, saying there needed to be “joined up thinking”.
“In the last month or two I have been asked to look at potential for funding for our Ballybrophy line. I asked (In Brussels) to use it as an example. The response I got wasn't favourable. I was kind of told go talk to your politicians in Ireland, they have the say, not Brussels.
“Brussels will tell you if there is a proper presentation, if there is a policy, to be supported they will look at that, but they expect the Irish Government to put forward what they want. The Ballybrophy line is just not on the radar,” he said.
And his belief was that this was not forward thinking.
“I think it is short sighted. We should be looking at it as if it was just like a bus into Limerick and then making your connection to Shannon. Make Shannon an awful lot bigger for tourism, because, if tourists come into Shannon, they are fair game for Clare, Galway, Kerry and it is up to us to get them out to Lough Derg,” he said.
Cllr McGrath believes that Shannon is the key to the whole Mid West and that if there was a proper plan for Shannon, then out of that would come the idea that, we have a rail network from Limerick to Ballybrophy, let's see can we get that railway out to Shannon.
The former Mayor of Nenagh said that one of his platforms on the CoR was to look at getting funding for tourism, heritage and to enhance where we live, but he was not over-optimistic of EU funding for a scheme such as the now defunct Living over the Shops programme will ever return.
“There was a grant previously. A good few shops in Nenagh got their premises done up. I have raised that with Commissioner Phil Hogan and without blinking an eye he said: 'That one is not coming back',” he said.
Cllr McGrath brought his European Alliance grouping in the CoR to Nenagh last year, and, he said: “They seemed to get what I was talking about, but the problem is you can bring over projects to Brussels, but it comes back to being on the national agenda for funding.”
And, locally, Cllr McGrath said he had raised the prospect of those with shops accessing the new scheme under which the local authority will pay a maximum of €40,000 in funding to bring a retail premises back to residential for renting.
“I spoke to the housing executive at Tipperary County Council and I asked if someone wanted to change the upstairs of a shop into an apartment would they qualify, and, in fairness to Clare Curley, the director of housing, she didn't rule it out,” he said.
In relation to heritage projects, Cllr McGrath said he had looked into a call by his council colleague Cllr Seamus Morris to se what EU funding was there to revitalise Nenagh's military barracks, but, unfortunately, Clonmel had more potential at the time because it had been still a working barracks, and they availed of the funding.
When it comes to EU Cohesion Funding, Cllr McGrath said he was “hopeful” that a sign would go up saying the €16m Latteragh road realignment project would be part-funded by the EU.
“Latteragh is one of the worst stretches of the spinal route from Portumna bridge to Carrick-on-Suir. The first part of funding is in place. Whether it s being part-funded by Europe I'm not sure at this stage, but you are right we don't see the signs that we saw for years. The EU still do fund projects, but I think we need to bring it back down into our local authorities more. They have to become more active in searching for these Cohesion Funds and what's out there for stand alone projects,” he said.
Many of those EU funded local projects were highlighted at the recent opening session of the European Week of the Regions, but Irish projects didn't feature, so does Cllr McGrath think the Minister for European Affairs is not as clued in as they should be?
“I assume the Southern Assembly and our executive in Brussels is accessing funds for different projects,” he replied, pointing out that Tipperary Energy Company would be quite good at accessing energy saving grants for homes.
“I would encourage other companies to take a leaf out of Tipperary Energy Company's book. We can assist them if the want. The one thing that Joe McGrath set up for me was to forward information about grants or anything I think might be of benefit to the county. I try keep my county aware of what is out there,” he said. But, Cllr McGrath warned, Brussels looks for State structures in applications such as LEO or LCDCs.