Monday 17 December 2018

Richard Curran: Battle for soul of country as hard choices between cities and rural Ireland lie ahead

Mark Schutte of Dublin in action against Killian Burke of Cork in the hurling league – a recent study found there were only two hurlers on the Cork panel based outside the county and none in Dublin, but not every county has the jobs and educational infrastructure to keep its young men so close to home. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Mark Schutte of Dublin in action against Killian Burke of Cork in the hurling league – a recent study found there were only two hurlers on the Cork panel based outside the county and none in Dublin, but not every county has the jobs and educational infrastructure to keep its young men so close to home. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

In Ireland we don't do planning very well. It may be a cultural thing or a political mindset borne out of politicians worried about making it through the next election. It could simply be a case of "don't put off until tomorrow what you can put off until next month". The other great weakness in our future proofing is when we come up with excellent plans but never actually put them into practice.

This is where 'the plan' serves as a convenient piece of fiction instead of a workable policy.

There are few issues as politically sensitive in the Irish political system as the urban/rural divide. It isn't such a big issue elsewhere because many other countries developed differently. They became urbanised earlier.

What is rural is perceived as somehow the soul of the country here and it must be preserved at all times and at whatever cost. As someone who grew up in and now lives in rural Ireland I can appreciate the value of this kind of thinking.

But it cannot be above analysis and scrutiny.

The Government is facing a proverbial perfect storm over the National Planning Framework report which aims to outline a set of goals of how it would like the country to develop over the next 20 or so years. The Department of the Environment received 1,000 submissions. You can just imagine how incompatible many of them were.

The new plan should replace the old National Spatial Strategy introduced under the Bertie Ahern government back in the noughties.

The fact the Government had to extend the deadline for submissions from interested parties last autumn was deeply ironic. Imagine something as important as future planning for the country, and yet interested parties couldn't get their submissions in on time.

Once the numbers '2040' were in the title, things got pushed back by interested groups.

Yet the document is vitally important. The original National Spatial Strategy identified nine targeted urban areas, called 'Gateways' for investment and growth. These were supported by a further nine 'hubs' which were smaller towns.

The plan back in 2002 was to ensure that Dublin did not hoover up too much population and economic growth, while also seeking to prevent the explosion of one-off rural housing. It failed badly on both of those scores.

It was doomed to fail. It was widely criticised by experts for including too many towns and by rural representatives for not including enough.

This time round, the number of targets has been strategically chopped back to five cities - Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. In the draft version, there weren't other specific hubs or gateways, something which has already drawn criticism from politicians up and down the country.

Targeting just five cities is a bit of tough love for the regions, but it perhaps makes the plan a little more realistic. You cannot include every town in a targeted plan because it just won't work. But there are fundamental problems with the proposals too.

It aims to rebalance regional development by maintaining population ratios in different parts of the country. It is expected there will be an additional one million people living in Ireland by 2040. Under the plan, the percentage of people living in Dublin and the surrounding area would be held to current levels of around 50pc.

This would see an additional 500,000 people living in the eastern and midlands region: a further 175,000 in the northern and western region: 375,000 more living in the southern region.

The problem is that the momentum is with Dublin and the eastern region. Interfering too strongly to counterbalance this momentum may be difficult and indeed impossible.

One way of achieving this goal would be to invest heavily in the regional cities themselves and not just in infrastructure aimed at linking the cities together.

By targeting just five cities, the authors of the report are acknowledging the extent to which people are moving to cities in growing numbers and those who live in rural Ireland have to commute.

For example, one in three of the working population of Co Cavan work outside the county. Politicians will say it is extremely bad to have rural Ireland consisting of commuter towns. It isn't ideal, but it is still better than having it made up of empty towns.

Those who live in rural Ireland are already only too familiar with the challenges of having to commute to bigger towns or cities for work. That will not change any time soon.

So it is hard to take criticism of the plan from let's say a TD from rural Co Limerick, saying it won't do anything for towns in that county, when Limerick City (just down the road) has had 8,000 FDI job announcements in the last five years.

A recent study found that 22 of the Monaghan inter-county GAA football squad were based in Dublin. For Donegal the figure was 18, as it was for Co Mayo.

This reflected how, when it comes to employment or university education there are few opportunities for young men of inter-county playing age in many areas.

For Cork, there were just three footballers and two hurlers on the panel based outside Co Cork, and none of them were in Dublin. This showed how Co Cork had the jobs and educational infrastructure to keep so many of its young men in the county. Good for them.

Cork city and county now has 18 TDs, while the entire province of Connaught has just 20. This is purely (and fairly) based on population but shows how things are changing.

Accepting the growing influence of cities for jobs and investment is a difficult and painful issue for many people in rural Ireland. It is vitally important that at the very least, future jobs are spread around all five cities and not just Dublin.

But what if you live in the north-west, from north Mayo, to Sligo and Leitrim or Donegal. None of the five cities targeted for growth is a reasonable commutable distance from those counties, unless you get married to your car.

The plan will do very little for communities in those counties, which as things stand, do not have a city in that entire region.

This is where other factors come into play. The National Planning Framework is not an investment and jobs plan. It cannot fix everything. It is about where people will live. These rural areas need support from other mechanism beyond this report.

For example, in Cavan they say that when it comes to tourism, they are not covered by either the Wild Atlantic Way brand or the Ireland's Ancient East brand. Donegal is beginning to do well out of the Wild Atlantic Way brand for tourism, but surely coming from such a low base, compared to Kerry or West Cork, it needs a bigger financial leg-up.

These are all initiatives that can be looked at outside the constraints of this report.

Some towns are thriving and will continue to do so. Look at Kilkenny city, with its rich farming hinterland and Glanbia. Take Westport with a wonderful tourism and FDI offering. Kilorglin has Fexco. Individual business successes can transform towns but the problem is that entrepreneurs like those don't come along very often.

The biggest single factor in future growth is making your place an attractive one to live. I have no doubt that Dublin is heading for an infrastructural, housing and commuting shambles. It is up to rural places to attract people to their communities. Some of them will create businesses and employment.

Announcing the National Planning Framework alongside the capital investment programme makes sense, but is also convenient for giving out some goodies for TDs to take back to their constituencies.

It might ease the brickbats some rural TDs will face. Expect trouble over this one.

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