Friday 23 March 2018

Brendan Keenan: New kind of politics needed to halt Dublin's dominance

Dublin skyline
Dublin skyline
Brendan Keenan

Brendan Keenan

I won't name the small town, because there are many others just like it. Suffice it to say that it is in Leinster - indeed in what might be regarded as the outer limits of Dublin commuting. Yet it was a shock to see the number of empty buildings in its centre.

It was a useful reminder of the difficulty of defining this economic recovery. All the numbers are good. The job figures show an economy motoring at full throttle, which means there is little slack left which might fill the empty spaces.

It is already a different kind of economy from the one which crashed in 2007.The two main ingredients of the crash were the collapse of the building industry and the steep fall in consumer spending. Construction is recovering, but not in those many places which experienced a housebuilding bubble - defined as houses for which there was no demand.

Leaving construction aside, Irish output suffered a not untypical recession by EU standards and foreign investment has helped to give it a better than average recovery. Spending too much time in Dublin, where building never played as big a role, it is easy to forget what happened elsewhere.

That does not mean, as much of the present fierce debate might suggest, that it is about Dublin versus the rest. That implies a contest, where the success of one means losses for the other but Dublin's stronger recovery has nothing to do with the difficulties of that town I mentioned.

It is about two different kinds of economy which are already on view; the one which Dublin illustrates, and another which has few prospects as things stand and where old-style tax breaks and make-work investments will not make much difference in the end.

So far, though, not much else has been on offer for the less-favoured regions and it will be tomorrow before we see whether the combined, re-worked national plans which provide a credible alternative.

Last week was not encouraging. The Taoiseach explained that, because there is more money for capital spending, no railway lines will close. Not even a hint that it might matter whether the lines are of any use or not; just, if we have the money we'll spend it.

Fianna Fáil spokesman Barry Cowen said the Government was making a dog's dinner of the rural broadband scheme. Well, if anyone knows about canine cuisine, it is Fianna Fáil.

Its de-centralisation scheme was possibly the most naked piece of political jobbery in the crowded history of political jobbery. It is worth recalling its origins, as we venture into those murky waters again.

As long ago as the 1990s, it was recognised in government circles that economic power and potential was shifting to the urban centres. De-centralising public services, especially higher education, may be one of the best ways of spreading economic activity; provided it fits into an intelligible education policy and government structures are adjusted to make dispersed systems worked.

None of that happened. Instead, in a most extraordinary display of vote-grubbing, the activities went to ministerial constituencies, making a right dog's dinner of the whole thing.

That, in turn, followed the fatal undermining of the National Spatial Strategy because of the idiotic assumption that, if somewhere is not mentioned by name, it is going to lose out and the foolish affection for irrelevant things like railway lines, whether old or new.

It has to be recognised that slowing population movements towards over-large cities is not easy. It requires not just specific policies but highly sophisticated ones. The numbers living in the big regional cities of Britain have fallen dramatically, while London swells ever greater.

The French have a number of vibrant cities across their large geographical area but all their elaborate planning has been unable to halt the decline of village life. The Scottish Highlands, with an ageing population of less than a million people scattered across a fifth of the UK landmass, make the west of Ireland look like Tokyo.

Every country needs a different answer to the problems of concentration. Ireland has a quarter of the population in one urban sprawl , with the rest spread among very small cities, tiny towns and open land, and a style of politics all its own.

Sophisticated problems require sophisticated politics. The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) analysis headed by Prof Edgar Morgenroth, which provided the base for the new plans, contains a fine example - housing. It finds evidence that, if policies change the supply of housing so that they become cheaper in some areas than others, those areas can be expected to attract more workers and jobs.

Oops. Leaving aside the little difficulty that the Government has not found a way to influence house construction anywhere, a policy designed to make housing more affordable in some places, but not others, would take a lot of political explaining. But this is all about explanation.

No-one has succeeded in convincing enough people that State-funded water supplies inevitably mean not enough investment to go round. The more favoured regions will get the bulk of what is available to protect existing jobs and meet growing demand.

Or that the political stunt of offering free connections for rural broadband is a major reason why it is still not in place, leaving rural Ireland further behind in the game. Or that one-off housing, while it may be financially and culturally attractive for the individuals involved, creates inefficiencies which add to unemployment, emigration and de-population in their communities.

It is necessary to find an Irish solution to this Irish problem. Deep attachment to our local areas and a heightened sense of injustice are part of what we are. National plans must take account of that, but not by handing out expensive, often worthless, trinkets.

Instead, the plans must start from the bottom up, explaining how each small place fits into a bigger place around it, and they in turn into regional, provincial and national centres. Done this way, for instance, there was no need to give the impression that the north-west was not included. Launching the plan in Sligo is not enough to compensate.

It could be argued that the north-west should be the test bed for strategy, as the area with the most obvious geographical disadvantages. What mix of traded, non-traded and government business is feasible? Not every region can perform above average but how much below average is feasible or acceptable?

It is noticeable that most regional investment demands, however couched, are for conveniences for the inhabitants; hardly ever for anything which might discommode them for the good of their region as a whole.

That's politics. It takes a lot of wishful thinking to expect it is going to change. On the slightly brighter side, the ESRI analysis does not find any scenario which turns large chunks of the country into the Scottish Highlands. But it would be nice to see one more - probably final attempt, to build a better balanced economy and keep the political dogs away from the bowl.

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