Tuesday 20 August 2019

Transport prime example of economy going off the rails

The State needs to make its services deliver, or get rid of them and pay somone else to do it, says Brendan Keenan

Brendan Keenan

Brendan Keenan

GUESS who will pay any forthcoming bill from the alleged crushing of a bit of competition by Dublin Bus? That's right, you will. Even if you never ride on Big Blue, this one could end up in the taxpayer's lap.

Should Circle Line -- the firm which went out of business alleging Dublin Bus flooded its few routes with extra buses -- decide to sue, it would appear to have a strong case, based on complaints from none other than the Department of Transport about the State company's actions.

Then there is the Competition Authority and the EU Commission, both of whom are taking an interest in the case, after RTE unearthed it under the Freedom of Information Act. Should they penalise Dublin Bus, the unfortunate owners of Dublin Bus -- that's us -- will have to pay.

The company denies any wrongdoing. Its defence will presumably be the same one its chief executive offered the Department -- that what it was doing was perfectly legal. Should that defence fail, and we have to foot the bill, the least Transport Minister Noel Dempsey should do is ask for the resignation of Dublin Bus CEO Joe Meagher. It might or might not be his fault, but it's long past time that senior people in the public sector took the responsibilities that go with their big six-figure salaries.

Should Mr Meagher be proved right in law, Mr Dempsey should offer his resignation. The problem was not on his watch, but the same principle applies. After the story broke, Mr Dempsey said he would review the 1932 legislation. That is not a misprint -- the basic law governing public transport dates from 1932. Almost everyone who knows anything about public transport has called regularly for such a review, but without success.

As luck would have it, on the same day the Oireachtas Transport Committee produced its report on how to give Dublin an efficient bus network. It noted a "lack of urgency and coordination between various agencies when it comes to tackling Dublin's congestion problems."

The Committee noted gloomily that the objectives set out in the short term action plan from the Dublin Transport Office have yet to be met. They were to have been met by 2000. The short-term has become long-term and actual long-term plans stretch into eternity.

Do not for a moment think that this is just a local issue, or a question of commuter convenience. This paralysis of public administration and services, which can be cited almost anywhere one looks, is now the key issue for the Irish economy.

The high-faluting talk about competitiveness, skilled workforces, science, R&D and all the rest of it, is meaningless unless Ireland begins to operate more like an advanced economy. Only if it looks like one, walks like one and quacks like one, will there be any chance that it is one.

The point is made in the new report from the National Economic and Social Council (NESC). This is the Government's official think-tank -- a role many wrongly ascribe to the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) -- whose function is to "analyse and report to the Taoiseach on strategic issues relating to the efficient development of the economy and achievement of social justice", along with setting the framework for national agreements.

One often feels sorry for NESC in its role of analysing and reporting on behalf of the social partners. The media looks for things which will cause trouble (in this case the suggestion of a property tax), while the social partners largely ignore its analyses when they get down to real negotiations.

The report says, with considerable evidence, that labour costs are not the competitive problem in the Irish economy. But almost everything else is. "Property costs, utility costs, IT, accountancy and legal services, electricity, waste and professional services" are all high by international standards. That would be bad enough, except that most of them are also well below best international standards in terms of what they deliver.

The report, like others, notes that quality of life is now a key factor in retaining and attracting skilled workers. Here, too, we are falling further behind. Dublin's public transport is only a symptom -- albeit an important one -- of a far wider problem.

Either the State gains control of its services and servants, and forces them to deliver -- or it gets rid of them, and pays someone else to do the job. Personally, I do not mind which, but I mind terribly what I am putting up with now.

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