Bat­tle for soul of coun­try as hard choices be­tween cities and ru­ral Ire­land lie ahead

Irish Independent - Business Week - - COMMERCIAL PROPERTY -

IN Ire­land we don’t do plan­ning very well. It may be a cul­tural thing or a po­lit­i­cal mind­set borne out of politi­cians wor­ried about mak­ing it through the next elec­tion. It could sim­ply be a case of “don’t put off un­til to­mor­row what you can put off un­til next month”. The other great weak­ness in our fu­ture proof­ing is when we come up with ex­cel­lent plans but never ac­tu­ally put them into prac­tice.

This is where ‘the plan’ serves as a con­ve­nient piece of fic­tion in­stead of a work­able pol­icy.

There are few is­sues as po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive in the Ir­ish po­lit­i­cal sys­tem as the ur­ban/ru­ral di­vide. It isn’t such a big is­sue else­where be­cause many other coun­tries de­vel­oped dif­fer­ently. They be­came ur­banised ear­lier.

What is ru­ral is per­ceived as some­how the soul of the coun­try here and it must be pre­served at all times and at what­ever cost. As some­one who grew up in and now lives in ru­ral Ire­land I can ap­pre­ci­ate the value of this kind of think­ing.

But it can­not be above anal­y­sis and scru­tiny. The Govern­ment is fac­ing a prover­bial per­fect storm over the Na­tional Plan­ning Frame­work re­port which aims to out­line a set of goals of how it would like the coun­try to de­velop over the next 20 or so years. The De­part­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment re­ceived 1,000 sub­mis­sions. You can just imag­ine how in­com­pat­i­ble many of them were.

The new plan should re­place the old Na­tional Spa­tial Strat­egy in­tro­duced un­der the Ber­tie Ah­ern govern­ment back in the noughties.

The fact the Govern­ment had to ex­tend the dead­line for sub­mis­sions from in­ter­ested par­ties last au­tumn was deeply ironic. Imag­ine some­thing as im­por­tant as fu­ture plan­ning for the coun­try, and yet in­ter­ested par­ties couldn’t get their sub­mis­sions in on time.

Once the numbers ‘2040’ were in the ti­tle, things got pushed back by in­ter­ested groups.

Yet the doc­u­ment is vi­tally im­por­tant. The orig­i­nal Na­tional Spa­tial Strat­egy iden­ti­fied nine tar­geted ur­ban ar­eas, called ‘Gate­ways’ for in­vest­ment and growth. These were sup­ported by a fur­ther nine ‘hubs’ which were smaller towns.

The plan back in 2002 was to en­sure that Dublin did not hoover up too much pop­u­la­tion and eco­nomic growth, while also seek­ing to pre­vent the ex­plo­sion of one-off ru­ral hous­ing. It failed badly on both of those scores.

It was doomed to fail. It was widely crit­i­cised by ex­perts for in­clud­ing too many towns and by ru­ral rep­re­sen­ta­tives for not in­clud­ing enough.

This time round, the num­ber of tar­gets has been strate­gi­cally chopped back to five cities – Dublin, Cork, Gal­way, Lim­er­ick and Water­ford. In the draft ver­sion, there weren’t other spe­cific hubs or gate­ways, some­thing which has al­ready drawn crit­i­cism from politi­cians up and down the coun­try.

Tar­get­ing just five cities is a bit of tough love for the re­gions, but it per­haps makes the plan a lit­tle more real­is­tic. You can­not in­clude every town in a tar­geted plan be­cause it just won’t work. But there are fun­da­men­tal prob­lems with the pro­pos­als too.

It aims to re­bal­ance re­gional devel­op­ment by main­tain­ing pop­u­la­tion ra­tios in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try. It is ex­pected there will be an ad­di­tional one mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in Ire­land by 2040. Un­der the plan, the per­cent­age of peo­ple liv­ing in Dublin and the sur­round­ing area would be held to cur­rent lev­els of around 50pc.

This would see an ad­di­tional 500,000 peo­ple liv­ing in the eastern and mid­lands re­gion: a fur­ther 175,000 in the north­ern and western re­gion: 375,000 more liv­ing in the south­ern re­gion.

The prob­lem is that the mo­men­tum is with Dublin and the eastern re­gion. In­ter­fer­ing too strongly to coun­ter­bal­ance this mo­men­tum may be dif­fi­cult and in­deed im­pos­si­ble.

One way of achiev­ing this goal would be to in­vest heav­ily in the re­gional cities them­selves and not just in in­fra­struc­ture aimed at link­ing the cities to­gether.

By tar­get­ing just five cities, the au­thors of the re­port are ac­knowl­edg­ing the ex­tent to which peo­ple are mov­ing to cities in grow­ing numbers and those who live in ru­ral Ire­land have to com­mute.

For ex­am­ple, one in three of the work­ing pop­u­la­tion of Co Ca­van work out­side the county. Politi­cians will say it is ex­tremely bad to have ru­ral Ire­land con­sist­ing of com­muter towns. It isn’t ideal, but it is still bet­ter than hav­ing it made up of empty towns.

Those who live in ru­ral Ire­land are al­ready only too fa­mil­iar with the chal­lenges of hav­ing to com­mute to big­ger towns or cities for work. That will not change any time soon.

So it is hard to take crit­i­cism of the plan from let’s say a TD from ru­ral Co Lim­er­ick, say­ing it won’t do any­thing for towns in that county, when Lim­er­ick City ( just down the road) has had 8,000 FDI job an­nounce­ments in the last five years.

A re­cent study found that 22 of the Mon­aghan in­ter-county GAA foot­ball squad were based in Dublin. For Done­gal the fig­ure was 18, as it was for Co Mayo.

This re­flected how, when it comes to em­ploy­ment or univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion there are few op­por­tu­ni­ties for young men of in­ter-county play­ing age in many ar­eas.

For Cork, there were just three foot­ballers and two hurlers on the panel based out­side Co Cork, and none of them were in Dublin. This showed how Co Cork had the jobs and ed­u­ca­tional in­fra­struc­ture to keep so many of its young men in the county. Good for them.

Cork city and county now has 18 TDs, while the en­tire prov­ince of Con­naught has just 20. This is purely (and fairly) based on pop­u­la­tion but shows how things are chang­ing.

Ac­cept­ing the grow­ing in­flu­ence of cities for jobs and in­vest­ment is a dif­fi­cult and painful is­sue for many peo­ple in ru­ral Ire­land. It is vi­tally im­por­tant that at the very least, fu­ture jobs are spread around all five cities and not just Dublin.

But what if you live in the north-west, from north Mayo, to Sligo and Leitrim or Done­gal. None of the five cities tar­geted for growth is a rea­son­able com­mutable dis­tance from those coun­ties, un­less you get mar­ried to your car.

The plan will do very lit­tle for com­mu­ni­ties in those coun­ties, which as things stand, do not have a city in that en­tire re­gion.

This is where other fac­tors come into play. The Na­tional Plan­ning Frame­work is not an in­vest­ment and jobs plan. It can­not fix ev­ery­thing. It is about where peo­ple will live. These ru­ral ar­eas need sup­port from other mech­a­nism be­yond this re­port.

For ex­am­ple, in Ca­van they say that when it comes to tourism, they are not cov­ered by ei­ther the Wild At­lantic Way brand or the Ire­land’s An­cient East brand. Done­gal is be­gin­ning to do well out of the Wild At­lantic Way brand for tourism, but surely com­ing from such a low base, com­pared to Kerry or West Cork, it needs a big­ger fi­nan­cial leg-up.

These are all ini­tia­tives that can be looked at out­side the con­straints of this re­port.

Some towns are thriv­ing and will con­tinue to do so. Look at Kilkenny city, with its rich farm­ing hin­ter­land and Glan­bia. Take West­port with a won­der­ful tourism and FDI of­fer­ing. Kilor­glin has Fexco. In­di­vid­ual busi­ness suc­cesses can trans­form towns but the prob­lem is that en­trepreneurs like those don’t come along very of­ten.

The big­gest sin­gle fac­tor in fu­ture growth is mak­ing your place an at­trac­tive one to live. I have no doubt that Dublin is head­ing for an in­fras­truc­tural, hous­ing and com­mut­ing sham­bles. It is up to ru­ral places to at­tract peo­ple to their com­mu­ni­ties. Some of them will cre­ate busi­nesses and em­ploy­ment.

An­nounc­ing the Na­tional Plan­ning Frame­work along­side the cap­i­tal in­vest­ment pro­gramme makes sense, but is also con­ve­nient for giv­ing out some good­ies for TDs to take back to their con­stituen­cies.

It might ease the brick­bats some ru­ral TDs will face. Ex­pect trou­ble over this one.

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