Wednesday 29 January 2020

Capital gains: how developing the regions would relieve Dublin and benefit the nation as a whole

James Ring is Limerick Chamber CEO
James Ring is Limerick Chamber CEO

James Ring

THERE is a story many of us would have heard as children; the story of the lion with the thorn in his paw. It’s debilitating for the lion and, surprisingly, it’s a mouse that comes to the rescue, removing the thorn and relieving the pain.

The moral of the story is that the Lion, despite his size and imperiousness, couldn’t do it on his own and needed to turn to others – even a much smaller creature –for relief.  It’s a story that parallels strongly with the Ireland we live in today.

Right now, the country is watching to see who will be the next Taoiseach. Whose promise will give them the privilege of running our country?  The election hasn’t been short of promises and we will proably hear in the fullness of time an admission that, ‘well, we simply don’t have the money now but it’s on the agenda’.

I recently attended events to mark the 100th birthday of the late Dr. Brendan O Regan, whose contribution to regional development is unrivalled for any one individual and, in making it so, gifted the world phenomena such as duty free airport shopping and free trade zones.

He was, as the bust of him unveiled at Shannon on the centenary of his birth states, a visionary and innovator.  Cut from the same cloth as Dr. Ed Walsh, founder or UL, he had vision, drive and a determination to go beyond just dreams and deliver what nobody else could even imagine.

At the celebrations a video clip of Dr. O’Regan recorded all of 13 years ago struck a massive chord.   He said: “The location of Shannon on the west…..and associated with the struggle that is going on between the capital and the rest of the country, is very important because Ireland’s greatness in the future depends, I believe, on a successful outcome to that struggle because otherwise we damage our whole country by a congested capital, which is no longer a very pleasant place in which to live because it has unbalanced the population in the rest of the country.”

It’s shocking to think that not alone has that struggle not been resolved but, all of 13 years, it has deepened and is strangling national prosperity.

Dublin is ground down with congestion, has prohibitive housing prices, restricting quality of life and having legions who migrated there for jobs yearning to return home. Large swathes of the regions are, meanwhile, still lingering in early post-crash trauma, struggling to scrape themselves off the ground.

Dublin is a great city to be in and it deserves to be known as such across the world. But it is not a great city to live in. It was overheating when Dr. O’Regan took aim at regional economic imbalance all those years ago, has simmered ever since to the point that one fears it is about to boiling over.

And what’s worse is there’s no sign of relief.  For all the money spent on it, the problems deepen. More and more is spent and the cycle just continues.  A merry go round spinning out of control; no direction, just relentless spinning, leaving those on board dizzy with the chaos. 

Ireland needs a very strong capital city if it’s going to compete at international level. If we just doing the same thing we have been doing for decades now, Dublin’s appeal will be wiped out.

That’s why the National Planning Framework has such import for the incoming Taoiseach. It will define where people live and work over the next 25 years – a quarter of a century to  correct the malaise and imbalance we currently experience as a nation, spread growth to the regions,  relieve the pressure on Dublin and create one of the greatest nations on the earth to live in.

Announcing the plan in February, Minister Simon Coveney, under whose brief this rests, said that that three-quarters of the projected population increase of more than one million would be focused on Dublin and the east coast unless action was taken, such as driving the growth of regional cities like Cork, Galway Limerick and Waterford.  The NPF vision extends to Sligo becoming a city over the next 25 years, anchoring the North West.  If we fail to do that, the chaos not alone continues but deepens.

When he spoke first, last December, about the plan, Minister Coveney went as far as to say that three-quarters of the anticipated growth should take place outside Dublin.

Ireland and the regions need a strong Dublin, but right now, Ireland and Dublin need strong regions even more.

The focus must be on developing regional cities, their growth freeing up Dublin and putting it in the league of the great international cities. In turn, this drives economic prosperity in the regions, with a natural benefit to their hinterlands across rural Ireland. 

Problem solving rather than problem creating.  It seems obvious as obvious as the Rock of Cashel but perhaps it’s a case heretofore that there’s no so blind as those who would not see.

A perfect example of lack of foresight has been the continuous undermining of Brendan O’Regan’s successful model all those years ago, a model that built on growing industry and tourism around an airport, i.e. Shannon.   It was a model that was good enough for China to replicate eights over but what have we done since – allowed it to be squeeze by Dublin’s growth.

Dublin Airport is currently at capacity, with a monopoly that is choking our other airports, each crucial to the development of their region. Their market share drops as Dublin’s soars. And what’s the plan?  No surprise….. make Dublin Airport even bigger monster, with a new runway and a third terminal.  At the same time, Shannon, Cork and Knock all have huge capacity.

If the perception is that passengers can fly into Dublin and travel across the country to the regions, then surely the opposite can also apply. But, moreover, why not fly people whose destination is the regions, into those regions.  And imagine the genius of this – avoiding another outrageous capital spend.

Another priority is the M20. It is badly needed, heavily promised – including in the Fine Gael leadership campaign – yet not formally on the agenda.  Linking Cork and Limerick with the motorway, with the Limerick-Galway M18 almost ready, will mean a two hour commute between the three cities. The synergies that will bring, especially regarding a common labour pool and shared services, cannot be overstated.

Another example – there’s an opportunity and desire to build an LNG terminal in Ballylongford, Co. Kerry, something Minister Denis Naughten has recognised like none of his predecessors.  It would give Ireland energy security, reduce costs to the consumer. It has planning permission, licensing, etc. in place.  Yet, somehow, the regulator has stepped in and decided that the operators must pay a tariff for the east-west interconnector that they will never use.  It makes the investment cost prohibitive and we have yet another lose-lose.  Bizarre!

These are just a few examples of how simply policy change could deliver very significant regional and national gain.  But there’s a perception that all this would be anti-Dublin policy.  In fact it’s the most pro Dublin and pro Ireland thing that the new Taoiseach can focus on. 

There are those who say all conventional wisdom suggests that the migration towards Dublin will be relentless. It will only be so if we continue to facilitate it like we have been in the past, which has done Dublin and the nation no favour.

People like Dr. O’Regan, Ed Walsh have shown that you don’t have to follow convention; you can set it yourself. 

Taoiseach elect, it’s in your hands.  Life doesn’t have to be complicated, often the solutions are staring you in the face.

Life isn’t as simple as one of Aesops fables but a shared characteristic between the fantasy and reality is that essential ingredient of courage.  That’s one thing a lion is supposed to have!

James Ring is Limerick Chamber CEO

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