Wednesday 28 September 2016

Can the Midlands become our Northern California?

We have the potential for a powerhouse of innovative start-ups right on Dublin's doorstep, writes Manchan Magan

Manchan Magan

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

Future: Wind turbines can replace turf-burning power stations
Future: Wind turbines can replace turf-burning power stations

Longford-Westmeath can be to Dublin what Sonoma County in northern California is to San Francisco, an area exceptionally rich in resources and ripe for profitable, sustainable development, right beside a thriving metropolis of tech innovation and international commerce. Brandenburg serves a similar role for Berlin, as does Vancouver Island for Vancouver. These rugged, naturally beautiful areas, known for their ecological commitment, provide the breathing room and recreational space for innovative start-ups and creative entrepreneurs to explore new ventures on the threshold of the chaotic urban melee.

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Longford-Westmeath is ideally suited for this role, once it re-orientates itself towards innovation, sustainability and enlightened social services, just as Sonoma, Brandenburg and Vancouver Island have done. Five strands must be implemented simultaneously: 1) locally-owned renewable energy; 2) sustainable horticulture and artisan food; 3) adventure tourism that is heritage-rich; 4) start-up hubs for tech, arts and small enterprises; 5) and a social care system that is enlightened, holistic and community-led.

Where will the funding come from? Primarily, a mix of public/private funding through a new network of regional-based public banks modelled on the German Sparkassen (like credit unions, but for SMEs), whose remit will be to fund local public projects and return the profits to the local area. EU Rural Development Funds and the EU's Life Programme will be a secondary source: both committed to promoting social inclusion and sustainable economic development in rural areas. (Both are currently well-funded as the ECB tries to flood the market with quantitative easing). In addition to this, investment funds such as Silicon Valley Bank have expressed clear commitment to fund innovative, long-term sustainable projects here; ideally combining a mix of visionary entrepreneurship with local government support.

1) Energy: First step is to replace the turf-burning power stations with wind turbines, solar fields and farm-based biogas digesters that are at least 20pc locally owned. International companies, such as Apple in Athenry are already insisting on 100pc renewable energy. The Midlands will offer it. Prof David Connolly of Aalberg University estimates in Green Plan Ireland that transition to renewable energy will create 100,000 jobs in Ireland in projects such as district heating units to replace town gas and the installation of heat pumps in rural homes in lieu of oil burners. Ireland imports €6bn worth of petroleum annually and may have to pay millions in carbon taxes unless we divest now.

2) Farming: Rather than risking the reputation of our grass-fed beef and dairy by doubling production, we must diversify, making Longford-Westmeath a centre of pioneering horticulture and profiting from some of the €850m spent annually on imported vegetables and fruit. We can gain world renown as a premium brand of organic frozen vegetables grown in the heart of Ireland - the Kerrygold of vegetables. Likewise, we can supply some of the 50 million apples, pears and plums bought here each year; not to mention walnuts, hazelnuts and Asian vegetables sought by our immigrant community.

Diversification will break-up the flood-prone fields into biodiverse, multi-crop patchworks of trees, orchards, vegetables and polytunnels, with pigs and rare-breed cattle grazing free range in woodlands and wetlands. Farmers' markets and online artisan shops can ensure a fair price, until such time as the quality and integrity of the Midlands brand earns it a premium on the international market.

3) Tourism: our undiscovered wonderland of woodland estates, wild water realms and alluring peatland is ideal for community-led tourism aimed at discerning travellers. We will offer immersive outdoor activities with intelligent cultural insight and affordable boutique accommodation. By engaging with tourists in a genuine and intimate way, Longford-Westmeath will set itself apart from Ireland's more over-developed, impersonal tourist centres.

4) Business: Attracting innovative business is a natural corollary of the proceeding steps. Yet, we also need to encourage small-scale start-ups and creative entrepreneurs with a network of enterprise hubs in prominently-situated, prestigious buildings in Longford, Athlone and Mullingar.

5) Social care: Our care for the most vulnerable must be pioneering, with new, enlightened forms of nature-based, holistic childcare, eldercare and mental care running in tandem with more conventional clinical services. A network of self-sufficient community farms would have Men's Sheds, maker labs and outdoor-focused facilities for counselling and youth support. Engagement with nature would be at the heart of social, health and educational services.

These steps can ensure the future viability of the Midlands for generations, but they require an enormous commitment from the entire community.

Manchan Magan reports on travel for Newstalk's Right Hook, and has presented dozens of documentaries on world culture for TG4, RTE & Travel Channel. He lives in Collinstown and is running for the Green Party in the Longford-Westmeath constituency.

Sunday Independent

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