Monday 19 March 2018

'It's essential for the rest of the country that Dublin is doing well'

The recovery has not been felt in equal measure around Ireland, and many will welcome a planned bid to rejuvenate the regions. But shouldn't the capital - arguably our best hope in the post-Brexit storm - still be our focus?

On the up: Economist David McNamara says Dublin accounts for 40pc of the country’s GDP. Photo: Damien Eagers
On the up: Economist David McNamara says Dublin accounts for 40pc of the country’s GDP. Photo: Damien Eagers
Feeling the buzz: Fashion designer Emma Manley. Photo: Gerry Mooney
John Meagher

John Meagher

Jim Power remembers the occasion like it was yesterday. The well-known economist was addressing a public meeting in Co Cavan two years ago and was talking about the recovery he felt was well and truly under way in Ireland. But he was soon shot down by an audience member, angered by what he was hearing.

"He was not a happy man," Power recalls.

"He said it was all very well for me in my Dublin 4 ivory tower to talk about economic recovery, but it wasn't being felt by him."

It's an argument Power has heard time and again in the past five years - this latest boom is Dublin-centric - and while he insists that every part of Ireland has experienced recovery, especially when it comes to jobs, Dublin has clearly prospered most.

Feeling the buzz: Fashion designer Emma Manley. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Feeling the buzz: Fashion designer Emma Manley. Photo: Gerry Mooney

But a new government initiative due to be unveiled later this month will for many be a welcome first step in redressing the balance.

The National Planning Framework will target Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway, as well as a potential new city in the midlands, in a bid to bring about greater population growth, more jobs and increased infrastructure investment for regions outside of the capital.

Power insists, however, that a strong Dublin, is essential for Ireland Inc.

"It's so blindingly obvious, it hardly needs saying: for Ireland to fully recover, it needs Dublin to fully recover - and Dublin has certainly been heading in the right direction for the past few years."

David McNamara, research economist at Davy stockbrokers, is just as unequivocal.

"When investors ask us about the importance of Dublin," he says, "we tell then that Dublin is more important to Ireland than London is to the UK. And that's down to GDP."

Dublin, he says, accounts for 40pc of Ireland's gross domestic product "and when the commuter belt is factored in, that's closer to 50pc".

"It's essential for Ireland," he adds, "that Dublin is doing well and there's certainly a strong feeling internationally that the city is on the up."

Five years ago, few cranes pockmarked the Dublin sky - now they're everywhere. A sign of the frenzy for commercial construction can be seen just outside the Davy HQ on Dawson Street - across the road, vast swathes of Molesworth Street are being rebuilt. These gleaming office complexes will open later this year.

Real-estate firm Savills estimates that 136 office buildings are currently under construction in Dublin, cumulatively capable of housing 100,000 staff.

Some of the new builds are likely to become iconic, including the mixed-use Capital Dock, at the mouth of Liffey which, at 79m, will be the tallest building in the Republic when it is completed by year-end. And, by 2019, it will be joined, on the other side of the river, by the Exo Building, which, at 73m will be the tallest office building in the country.

Such blue-chip development is just what Dublin needs in order to prosper into the future, ­especially in a post-Brexit world.

"Dublin is ­Ireland's only hope in a Brexit storm," says urban planner Paul Kearns. "It's a serious challenge for Donegal, but it's a real opportunity for Dublin.

"It's time Dublin decision-makers started talking up all the opportunities… it's a capital, English-speaking city with considerable attraction for London banks and financial services."

Kearns, co-author with architect Motti Ruimy of the visionary book Redrawing Dublin, adds: "The city, not just the IDA, needs to get out and sell itself. The city council should demand a 10-year seat at the Cabinet. Currently, there is woeful ambition and civic leadership as to what the city could be."

Dublin's status as a tech-hub has been well established over the past decade and big employers like Google and Facebook have likely helped pull in the large numbers of foreign workers that help swell the population.

More than 500,000 ex-pat employees call Ireland home, according to a HSBC survey, and the majority of those are Dublin-based.

"Dublin is seen as an attractive place to visit and to live," says David McNamara, who says it's little surprise that so many overseas employees are attracted to its bright lights.

"While it can't be compared to the Londons or Parises of this world, it can be compared very favourably with a Manchester, Glasgow or Copenhagen."

For young fashion designer Emma Manley, Dublin is the only place in Ireland in which to run her business because it's a true international city renowned abroad for its creativity.

"I came back to Dublin five years after working in New York and then London [where she had an 18-month stint at fashion powerhouse Alexander McQueen], and the recession could really be felt in the city, but it's very different now. There's such a buzz here and an incredible entrepreneurial spirit.

"Fashion isn't one of those industries that can be decentralised in Ireland, so it has to be Dublin if it's going to be anywhere."

Manley is based at the Guinness Enterprise Centre - right next to the brewery - and says she loves working in such a fabled part of the city. "The old and new mingle here and while the past is all around you, there are lots of people doing new, creative work."

She lives a short walk away in Kilmainham, but knows only too well that others aren't as lucky. "For all that's great about Dublin, the housing crisis is a real problem. The rents have become so astronomical that many young professionals are struggling to afford to live here. One of the people that works with me has to commute in from Cavan every day. Do we want a city where only those who make high incomes can afford to live here? Dublin badly needs a far greater supply of accommodation at all levels, including executive-type property."

It's a sentiment echoed by Laura Erskine, the 'Mum-in-Residence' at Mummy Pages, the country's most popular parenting website. "The cost of living in Dublin has become exceptionally high," she says, "and it's a situation that's especially tough for parents.

"It's not uncommon for people with two children to be spending in the region of €2,000 per month on childcare alone.

"For those in negative equity and in a home that no longer serves their family's needs, that's particularly difficult."

Paul Kearns says there's huge room for improvement. "Dublin continues to sprawl as a low density city and despite welcome investment in Luas and Dublin Bus, it still lags behind other European cities in terms of a high quality public transport network. It's still the only capital city in EU without a rail link to the airport."

Kearns says the potential of the city's heart hasn't yet been realised. "We haven't cracked inner-city urban-living yet. Despite astronomical rents, the quality of life for a family living inside Canal Ring is relatively poor compared to other west European continental cities."

He says there are large tracks of unused land in the city that, with careful planning, could help alleviate Dublin's severe housing problem.

Read more: 'Healthy regions depend on a sizeable city, without that they cannot thrive'

For Jim Power, it is imperative that such land is utilised properly if Dublin is to alleviate the severe housing shortage and cater for the ever-increasing population.

"Former Lord Mayor Oisín Quinn did a lot of work in highlighting the unused land and there really is a lot of it," he says.

"For any capital to be vibrant, you really need to insure there's more than adequate housing, but also really good infrastructure and a strong public transport system. Dublin is really lacking on all those fronts at present, but they need to be tackled urgently because we need to continue to grow Dublin and to make it an attractive place to live and work. That's the mark of a successful city."

Dublin has a long way to go to be considered one of the world's most liveable cities. According to the latest Mercer Quality of Living survey, it languishes in 33rd place. It was 26th in 2010.

The survey tracks the quality of life of cities for multinational companies, informing them where to locate and how much to pay staff. The data examines social and economic conditions, health, education, housing and environmental factors. It also includes a personal safety ranking based on internal stability, crime levels, performance of local law enforcement, and the home country's relationship with other countries.

Aidan Sweeney, senior executive at the business and employer organisation Ibec, says he is not surprised that its comparatively poor placing.

"The city lags way behind places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam when it comes to quality of life. Dublin comes 15th in a poll [commissioned by TomTom] for the world's most congested cities. That's not a statistic to be proud of.

Read more: Moving in the wrong direction: the decentralisation debacle

"The infrastructure needs to be a lot better too. A lot of the visionary schemes from the boom years were shelved in recession, but with a rapidly growing population, they need to be addressed."

Sweeney believes successive governments have been blindsided by the rapid population growth. Of the country's 4.75 million population, an estimated 2 million live in Dublin or within its commuter belt. "We estimate that the population of Ireland will increase by 30pc by 2040, with the rate even higher for Dublin."

Sweeney questions how wise it is for Dublin to be under the jurisdiction of four councils and believes a directly elected mayor - as they have in London - would help with the joined-up thinking he feels is so important.

"But we shouldn't lose sight of all that's really great about Dublin," he insists.

"It's location is really great and there's such recreational scope, when you factor in the parks and so on. All that helps make a city a more desirable place to live. The broadband is excellent too - so much better than somewhere like London."

Dublin's population far outweighs that of all other Irish cities put together and many contend that it's to be expected that the lion's share of the development and business opportunities that happen in Ireland will occur in its capital.

"Opportunities should be greater for any great city," says Paul Kearns. "Dublin should stop apologising because cities matter and there is no other 'international competitive city' on the island.

"For the economic success of Ireland, we need a higher proportion of investment in Dublin to make it a world-class city."

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