Friday 19 January 2018

Special report: Could Limerick become our second city?

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

Rising from the ashes: Tech entrepreneur David Jeffreys, pictured with his wife, UL medical lecturer Dr Sarah Harney, says Limerick has a bright future. Photo: Liam Burke
Rising from the ashes: Tech entrepreneur David Jeffreys, pictured with his wife, UL medical lecturer Dr Sarah Harney, says Limerick has a bright future. Photo: Liam Burke
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

David Jeffreys is among a growing number of optimists who believe Limerick has a bright future as the country's second city.

He came to Limerick to study computers. With university friend John Savage, he set up his own tech company, Action Point, which now employs 80. His wife, Dr Sarah Harney, also moved to the city to take up a job at the University of Limerick as a lecturer in medicine after previously working at Trinity College Dublin.

Although Limerick still has some of the world's worst unemployment black spots, Jeffreys believes the city of today is a million miles from the place portrayed in the media in the past.

"There are great advantages to working here," says the entrepreneur from Laois. "I can get home from work in minutes to where I live in Cloonlara, Co Clare, and I am looking at cows in fields. I can cycle there in 15 minutes.

"There are new companies opening here, unemployment is declining, and young people moving in are making the place more vibrant.

"Limerick is a proud, passionate place," says the businessman. "I believe the challenges that the city have faced helped to pull people together."

Surveying the property prices in Limerick, it is easy to see why cash-strapped Dubliners might be tempted. Three-bed semi-detached homes commonly cost between €100,000 and €200,000, and there is also the option of living in neighbouring counties such as Tipperary and Clare, with relatively quick commuting times.

Cork may baulk at the idea and think it laughable, and others might live with the hoary stereotype of 'Stab City': but there is a growing clamour in Limerick to develop the city as a reinvigorated hub of the South West that can ease the pressure on Dublin.

John Moran, a Limerick native who guided the country's fortunes as Secretary of the Department of Finance, has even suggested Limerick could be a city of up to 750,000 people, acting as the ideal counterweight to Dublin.

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

In the coming weeks, we are likely hear more about how a handful of regional cities are to be earmarked by the Government for expansion over the next quarter of a century as the country's population grows by a million.

The new National Planning Framework will try to ensure that Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway, as well as a potential new city in the midlands, see greater population growth, more jobs and increased investment in transport links.

During the last wave of decentralisation in 2003, the then Fianna Fáil/PD government relied on what was dubbed a "Late Late Show strategy" - with something for everyone in the audience" - by trying to decentralise to 52 locations.

With that aborted strategy now commonly considered a disaster, planners are encouraging the Government to focus on regional cities instead. If the cities are allowed to expand, the hope is that they will bring spillover benefits to surrounding regions.

The latest approach to revive the regions in order to ease the pressure on Dublin could be described as "Buchanan for slow-learners".

Back in the 1960s, the British town planning consultant Colin Buchanan produced a planning blueprint for Ireland's future development.

He advocated the rapid expansion of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and about nine other "Poles of Growth" large towns. At the time, he said Cork and Limerick-Shannon should grow to 250,000 and 175,000 respectively by 1986, but the cities have still fallen short of these targets.

Dr Brian Hughes, an urban and regional economist and adviser to the Government on population, says the Buchanan plan was never implemented, and this has had profound consequences, particularly for the west. The region has been left without a sizeable city, and this has led to fewer job opportunities and increased emigration.

Dr Hughes believes Buchanan's plan to develop the regional cities was scrapped because of political pressure from parish pump politicians, who thought they would benefit their own town and country areas by encouraging development there.

In fact their short-sightedness had the opposite effect, according to Dr Hughes.

"Healthy regions depend on a sizeable city. Without that, a region cannot thrive.

"If the cities grow, they attract more population to that region, and the area as a whole benefits."

So can a city like Limerick expand rapidly, and what changes will have to be made to make it feasible?

Lorcan Sirr, lecturer in Housing Studies at Dublin Institute of Technology, says it makes sense to develop cities such as Limerick but it will not just be a matter of colouring the map red and saying it is going to happen.

"All these cities will have to improve their public transport and make themselves more attractive. Limerick still has a lot to do, and Galway is one of the most frustrating cities to get around in because there is too much dependence on cars."

Moves to boost the population of Limerick are likely to focus on revamping the centre of the city rather than concentrating on building housing estates on greenfield sites.

In a recent speech to the Limerick Chamber of Commerce, John Moran, the former secretary of the Department of Finance said: "Today's millennials are turning their back on the suburbs and on the countryside, and want to live like Sex and the City in urban spaces, where everything is walking distance away."

Whether Limerick and Sex and the City should be mentioned in the same breath is likely to be a matter of some debate, but there is a new influx of young people into the city to work for multinationals such as Uber. Originally from Manchester, Matthew Thomas has no regrets about moving from New York to the area to become chief executive of the Shannon Group, which runs the airport and other operations in the region.

"I have a two-year-old boy and this is the kind of area where I would like him to grow up.

"If you look at it from a quality-of-life point of view, it's a good place to live. It's easy to get around and you are not living your life in traffic jams. There are also favourable property prices.

"I was living in Manhattan in a 1,000sq ft apartment on Fifth Avenue. You could buy a castle for that in this area."

Those making the case for Limerick to be the second city believe its position between Galway and Cork, with an international airport and transatlantic links, make it ideal. A new motorway linking Galway and Limerick is due to open next year, making the driving time less than an hour.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney believes large areas of Cork can also be redeveloped, including the city's docklands, and he has advocated a new light rail network for the city. He has also said Waterford has the potential to double in size.

Dublin's infrastructure is under such pressure that Irish Water wants to pipe water from the Shannon to Dublin in order to ease future shortages.

But would it make sense to send people in the opposite direction? Proposals for a new city in the midlands have also been floated.

Back in 2002, the National Spatial Strategy advocated the development of the ATM triangle in the Midlands - Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar. But regional economist Dr Brian Hughes believes that Port Laoise should have been chosen as the main urban centre.

"It's in a supremely good location because it is at the heart of the Irish rail system and on the Dublin- Cork-Limerick lines. It has grown faster than the ATM towns."

Dr Hughes says the ATM towns are too far apart to develop as a city. He says Tullamore has problems with waste water treatment, Athlone is at risk from flooding and Mullingar is too small.

Over the coming years, the Government will have to decide which cities and towns are ripe for redevelopment. Making those choices will require political courage, and in previous generations, politicians showed that they were not up to the task.

During the past decentralisation drive in 2003, Ciarán Rohan was a senior civil servant in the Department of Education, and he faced the prospect of his job being moved from Dublin to a proposed new headquarters in Mullingar. He is now general secretary of the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants.

"I had a young child at the time, and I would have had to commute to Mullingar every day. So, I decided not to move."

In the end, the decentralisation of the department never went ahead, along with many other plans to move government offices.

Rohan says some of the decentralisation moves of 2003 were ludicrous.

"The Department of the Marine was to be moved to Cavan, even though it is one of the only land-locked counties.

"It did not make sense to move whole departments far away because the senior civil servants have to meet ministers and be in the Dáil. So you had staff travelling up and down all the time, or they stayed in Dublin.

"It makes sense to move some government offices to regional cities and satellite towns around Dublin. But staff should be consulted.

"Last time we had decentralisation, it was kept very secret and there was very little involvement of civil servants. There is no point in picking places where people don't want to go."

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