Friday 19 October 2018

We must turn regions into economic powerhouses

With Dublin firms finding it harder to recruit staff as rents soar we must invest across the country

Since the inception of the Irish state, Dublin has attracted the lion's share of investment, both indigenous and foreign. Stock image
Since the inception of the Irish state, Dublin has attracted the lion's share of investment, both indigenous and foreign. Stock image

Orla Moran

By nearly every metric, Ireland Inc is on the up. Unemployment is at its lowest level in a decade. Consumer spending is on the rise. Multinationals continue to invest heavily. We're the fastest-growing economy in the EU, and PwC projects that we'll stay the fastest-growing economy in the eurozone until 2024.

The newly-announced Project Ireland 2040 shows that the Government is keen to maintain this skyward trajectory.

The plan - a hugely ambitious vision for Ireland's development over the next 20 years - promises new hospitals, new schools, new transport infrastructure, new development funds, and widespread job creation. It is keenly focused on balanced regional development and drawing investment and jobs away from Dublin, which is increasingly at risk of overheating.

Since the inception of the Irish state, Dublin has attracted the lion's share of investment, both indigenous and foreign.

The banks of the mouth of the River Liffey alone boast two major business hubs, one for tech and another for finance.

This investment hasn't come without its challenges. Dublin now has a desperately low supply of housing, competition for school places is fierce, and transport infrastructure is under immense pressure.

With Ireland's population set to swell by an additional million people by 2040, the Government is determined to encourage further growth in other urban centres.

Increasingly, employers in our capital city are finding it impossible to secure qualified staff to fill critical roles - particularly as unemployment has continued to fall month-on-month.

However, Ireland's impressive unemployment rate, at 6pc, masks the fact that unemployment in some parts of the country remains staggeringly high.

Harnessing unemployment blackspots

In July last year, the CSO published data which identified the country's worst unemployment blackspots, so called because these electoral areas (all 79) had, at a minimum, unemployment rates of at least 27pc.

In one area, it was as high as 58pc. Limerick city had 18 such blackspots, followed by Waterford with 9, with others located in more rural counties such as Longford, Mayo and Tipperary.

Yet from a more positive perspective, this tells us that in many areas of the country there is an ample pool of potential workers, who with investment in education, training and upskilling, could meet at least some of our current labour market shortages.

Put simply, Ireland's regions need investment. The Government doesn't create jobs, but it does help to create the social and economic conditions for them.

Access to education and training, back-to-work initiatives, upskilling opportunities and affordable childcare services are all critical to ensuring those who may be currently excluded from the labour market can participate in it.

Capital investment is also crucial

Without the modern infrastructure in place that businesses need to truly prosper, such as motorways, railroads, air links, high-speed broadband, most if not all of which Dublin enjoys, then Ireland's economic growth will remain limited and centralised.

An example of essential new infrastructure is the M20 motorway, a new road proposed in Project Ireland that links the economies of Cork and Limerick.

Right now, using regional roads, drivers can expect a trip of at least an hour-and-a-half between the two in ideal conditions.

It's long enough to discourage commuting and raise transportation costs.

The motorway, when or if it is built, could cut that down to an hour or less - this has obvious benefits for businesses and workers.

Many young professionals simply don't have the luxury of waiting for these projects to begin. The rising cost of accommodation in Dublin is pushing many people out to surrounding counties and further afield.

But while they may live outside the city, most will commute back into it.

Poor broadband in regional areas means that remote working is often difficult if not impossible. A fast internet connection is a priority in today's world, and the Government can no longer afford to delay broadband rollouts where they are most needed.

Creating national competition between cities

Ultimately, increased investment in regional infrastructure will allow more national competition between cities. This is a good thing for every Irish professional and business.

It helps to drive down prices, spur on job creation, create new markets for products and services, and encourage a more even spread of urban and rural development across the country.

Project Ireland sets big goals for Ireland.

It is an acknowledgement that the country's economic recovery and strong growth cannot be taken for granted. It is becoming almost physically impossible for Dublin to remain the only major business and social centre.

To ensure the plan's targets are met, our regions need to truly come into their own as economic powerhouses.

Their capital cities-Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Galway - need to develop to a point where industries and professionals recognise them as places of opportunity and move freely between them and the capital, as we see in Stockholm, Malmo and Gothenburg in Sweden, or Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp in Belgium.

The groundwork is already there - now we just need to start building.

Orla Moran is the general manager of IrishJobs.ie

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