Monday 26 September 2016

Taxpayers can't afford to subsidise rural way of life

If it is to prosper, Ireland must become a 'global city' says former Department of Finance Secretary General John Moran

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

'Ireland itself is going through a transformation, which is speeding up every year'
'Ireland itself is going through a transformation, which is speeding up every year'

We live in a rapidly changing world. In 1990 there were only 10 cities with a population of five times or more of Dublin's. Those cities housed 15 million people each on average. By no later than 2025, none of the world's top 15 megacities will be in Europe. Tokyo will have grown 5pc to 39 million, New Delhi 43pc to 33 million and Shanghai 40pc to 28 million.

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Ireland itself is going through a transformation, which is speeding up every year. Just under half of those employed in Ireland around the time of the 1916 Rising worked in agriculture compared to 5pc now. Even manufacturing which also was somewhat dispersed around the country had about 25pc working in 1916 compared to 9pc now. Are we sure we have adjusted our policy thinking to take account of these and other changes?

Future economic growth in an advanced economy depends on innovation, ideas and creativity. Global cities will be the turbo charged engines of this growth, and much of the rest of the world will either benefit from economic spill over from those areas or risk economic stagnation if they cannot.

Ireland must not prioritise the subsidisation of rural living patterns (especially one-off housing) if that comes at the cost of using the resources to develop at least one city reputed to be world class.

Successful cities will be those that create melting pots of ideas by successfully attracting smart, innovative entrepreneurial people, in part by becoming urban theme parks embracing diversity.

Successful urbanisation of our population is the formula to contain our carbon emissions footprint and to generate economic growth in the 21st century. This requires a major revision of our relationship with cars and our idea of what desirable living is.

We need to create a symbiotic co-existence of our global urban engine with our regional cities and a further symbiotic relationship between these urban areas and what we might call rural Ireland.

We have just elected the most diverse Dail ever. It was a moment for our politicians to have a measured debate about this important issue. Instead, they seem to want to talk about turf cutting concessions and how we subsidise the provision of the highest speed broadband to every house, however remotely dispersed, across the country.

Balanced regional development doesn't mean one for everyone in the audience or an IDA factory in every town. It should mean helping regions to counteract the typically subordinated position of non- central regions.

Where is the measured debate on how to provide policing and home care solutions for our ageing population, many of whom are living in rural one-off housing? Shouldn't we look at investing in in-town, high-end, ageing-friendly, independent-living solutions, with concierge help and in-house medical services which would allow the residents to stroll down to the shops or market? Wouldn't this be a better and more cost-effective way to care for our elderly rather than continuing with spending on services caring for people who chose years earlier to live in isolated housing but now live in fear of a break-in or of falling sick before a doctor can get to them?

It's time to shout 'stop' and have a mature debate about what we need to do - and can do -within our resources. Of course, we need to think about tradition and to consider that these are choices which impact on people's lives.

This is not an easy message for rural Ireland, and there will be casualties in terms of life as we have known it. I grew up in rural Ireland, but I believe trying to swim against the tide of global trends will in 50 years' time look just as outdated as the policies pursued by Eamon de Valera with his 'maidens dancing at the crossroads'. To get things right, we need to do the following:

• Reverse policy choices which encourage growth in secondary cities/towns based on becoming dormer towns with people commuting daily to the centre of Dublin.

• Release excessive constraints on building in downtown areas of Dublin so people can live there in affordable, attractive housing.

• Resist the growth of suburban industrial parks. These are especially unsuited for many service industries requiring innovation and creativity.

While some will still choose to live in the countryside, they must accept that their personal choices come at a considerable cost to all. Are we rich enough as a country to subsidise these choices, or should we prioritise spending to make urban living more attractive?

When the reputed architect Jan Gehl was asked to design new city districts for Copenhagen, he and his team set out thinking about form and efficiency, the supply of water and light and lawns. Jan was fortunate. His wife was an environmental psychologist who worried architects rarely considered the 'animals' who were about to inhabit their spaces.

Luckily for Copenhagen, Gehl and his wife received a grant to study medieval towns in Italy. There, they were able to think about the differences between the sterile streets back home and Italy's medieval cities which bustled with life long after their original design. They realised the design of these old cities with their piazzas was set up to draw people together.

Copenhagen, in contrast, could rival any US city in how it had embraced dispersal. Everyone aspired to buy a car and the suburbs radiated out of the city. Copenhagen did its best to accommodate the daily inflow of private vehicles, until all its available space was turned into car routes and parking lots. Its streets were seized up with cars, noise and car fumes. Under Gehl's guidance, Copenhagen banned cars from the spine of downtown and from a string of its market streets. While disaster was predicted, the city was instead transformed.

Which brings me to human choices and how that should dictate our own thinking.

Studies show that given the choice, people will choose to sit near one another even when they have the choice of being alone. Think of your own preferences - sitting at a crowded cafe front in Paris or an empty one? Sitting on a quiet empty street or a busy one?

We have to put people mixing with each other before cars. This means reversing our suburban sprawl and bringing to an end planning and infrastructure choices which have made our capital a car commuter's city.

We can redesign the way our downtown operates, to increase the density around exciting new urban spaces that allow us to accept greater density, smaller personal living spaces and return to a world where the provision of government services can be done more efficiently. In doing so, we must design our cities not just for twentysomething year-old 'Googlers' but for all of our population, from the very young to the very old.

Which brings me to the more controversial part of my proposals.

In the 1960s, Colin Buchanan recommended the development of a small number of Irish cities, expecting that by 1980, Limerick and Cork would be on their way to becoming 600,000 person cities. He argued for a concentrated allocation of resources. Sadly, thanks to our 'one for everyone in the audience' political system, his report got shelved.

The reluctance of our politicians to follow Buchanan's blueprint has seen Dublin suffer many of the problems I described for Copenhagen. This has been compounded by acute shortages of investment in infrastructure in recent years, with the result that, as our economy recovers, our capital city is groaning under the strain of ineffective public transport, a lack of proper health systems, a chronic housing shortage and the prospect of a future shortage of the most basic necessity: water.

I believe it is time for us to have a robust, evidentiary-based debate on Buchanan's idea of building at least one other 'urban engine' in Ireland. We should do this by testing this idea quickly and at scale in a test environment. This would allow us to explore and develop solutions which work within an Irish context.

I believe that with determination, we could ease the scale of our Dublin problems by slowing the influx of people to it. We might convince people this 'test city' is a better place to live than Dublin. We might manage to attract more jobs there and set in train a virtuous cycle.

We could encourage this migration from the capital through the policy choices we make in other areas such as education. Perhaps we might allocate funding for the next 10,000 third level places to our 'test city' rather than to other universities, particularly those in Dublin. The problem of accommodating students in Dublin would be solved in part by moving them.

We could ease pressure on public sector wages by convincing public sector workers with better quality of life options to move to that cheaper environment and so establish that 'test city' as a real centre for public administration, centralising mid and back office services in one location rather than the scatter-gun approach taken by Charlie McCreevy with decentralisation.

We could ensure that all the new ways we want to provide health, education and child care services get trialled in this city first, allowing us to perfect our new model of Irish urban living. We could up the ante until this city is recognised as 'the place' where people want to raise kids, work and have fun and grow old.

And of course basic market economics would help too, given the short-term difficulties in Dublin. More importantly, success also brings release from macro issues like those we saw in the last crisis. For example, the Government has said it needs to deliver 25,000 new homes a year. At the same time, it is estimated Dublin will see another 400,000 people flood into its catchment area. I imagine most of those new homes are being planned for Dublin. With 25,000 new houses annually in Dublin we will see families in the capital paying an aggregate of €6.25bn, with most of that money having to be borrowed. That is a lot of debt for families and a lot of pressure on wages.

A braver policy decision might see this housing demand and supply relocated to another city where average prices are only €150,000 at present. This would see the cost of purchasing these homes halved from the €6.25bn required in Dublin to just over €3bn - marking a considerable release in pressure on those families and on wage demands and considerable additional spending power for our economy.

We need to have a calm debate about how we might go about this. Should we have a totally new city in a green field somewhere near Portlaoise or Athlone? I think it is fair to say that Cork could legitimately claim to be our second city. But is Cork the city where we do this?

The development of our 'new city' could take place mid-way in a spot which is less than one hour from both Galway and Cork, not much further from Waterford and less than one hour from Portlaoise, Ennis, Roscrea and Tralee.

I am on the Limerick Economic Forum so I cannot pretend to be un-biased, but a Limerick metropolitan area encouraged to grow rapidly to a vibrant urban area of 600,000-750,000 or more would not only provide considerable relief to Dublin but would ignite not just rural Clare and Tipperary, but also Galway and Cork which would find new services only an hour away rather than the more than two hours to Dublin. Limerick already boosts Shannon airport, Foynes port and the type of edgy urban downtown much better suited to this new urban space than for example the green fields of Milton Keynes. It is more San Francisco than Palo Alto. I would suggest taking Limerick, a city already experiencing a mini renaissance to help focus our resources until we have a solution which can be deployed elsewhere.

A bit of extra focus on improved high-speed connectivity will then mean that to the casual observer looking at our little island from Beijing or San Francisco, this new Ireland with its better distributed population across multiple cities separated by journey times not much larger than those in London or Paris, starts to look like one of the coolest global metropolitan areas with some of the best "urban" parklands imaginable by 2050.

Let this be the '100-day plan' for our new Minister for Rural Affairs - not just to clamour for services for rural Ireland but to work out first how Dublin can continue to prosper and secondly define a new model for rural Ireland.

This is an edited extract from John Moran's speech at the Ireland's Urban Future Event. Full transcript available at: www.dubchamber.ie

Sunday Independent

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