THERE was a time when you had to know your “gateways” from your “hubs”. But that was all of 15 years ago and it did not last long.
We are talking about planning for balanced regional development — or the lack of it, to be more precise. No disrespect to everyone living and working in rural Ireland, but the reality is that since the 1971 Census we have known that the majority of Irish people live in urban rather than rural areas.
Since the late 1960s, we have also had various well-argued proposals to stop the ad-hoc growth of the greater Dublin area at the expense of the rest of the country.
Some of that growth is also to the detriment of Dublin itself. But the various proposals and plans were sadly ignored, and nobody remembers the 1969 Buchanan Report, for example, which talked some really good sense.
In Cavan on Saturday, the Fine Gael party gave it a bit of “one more time with feeling” as they published ‘Building a Republic of Opportunity’. Five of its 48 pages are devoted to the question of balanced community and regional development.
This is all at the early stages. But it is full of good stuff which can form the basis for something we have rarely seen in this sector: action.
Hopefully, it can be dovetailed with other moves already afoot in that sector, including work being undertaken by the redoubtable Michael Ring who is the new Minister for Rural & Community Development.
My reference to “gateways and hubs” dates back to November 2002 and the publication of the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) by the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition.
This defined nine economic “gateways” and a similar number of smaller economic “hubs”.
By then the State’s five main cities — Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick-Shannon and Waterford — had already been identified as “gateways”. The NSS added the towns of Dundalk, Sligo and Letterkenny, while Athlone, Mullingar and Tullamore were to act as a “linked” gateway.
The nine “hubs” were strategically located medium-sized towns whose population could ideally be drawn upon to support the economic activity of the gateways.
The theory was that economic development would spread through the gateways to the hubs.
So, the gateway/hub arrangement would offer possibilities for employment, training and quality of life. We now know that if any of these things actually happened, it was largely accidental.
Any anxiety about remembering the difference between a hub and a gateway quickly dispersed.
The strategy, which was to span almost two decades, 2002-2020, was in fact always very ropey. Some people who really care about this issue insisted that any potential good was spread far too thin.
Politicians feared that favouring Town A over Town B would be electorally fatal. So both towns nominally got something, which in practical terms turned out to be nothing for either place.
The reality is that good planning needs to move beyond these local rivalries. This is not about GAA championship derbies, and the reality is that one town can feed off a nearby town’s development.
In any case, the entire thing was gonged 13 months later, in autumn 2003, when Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy sprung his notorious decentralisation plans.
That “back of the envelope” dispersal of public officials was itself abandoned amid staff resistance and the grim realities of the economic crash.
It’s back to the drawing board.