Sunday 22 September 2019

Conor Skehan: 'Broadband is only one part of the joined-up thinking needed to best serve all of Ireland'

The debate about the value of the €3bn National Broadband Plan must be about more than just money, writes Conor Skehan

'Taxation is treated as a taboo subject in the land of ''one-for-everyone-in-the-audience''. Taxation for planning is making sacrifices today for the good of tomorrow' (stock photo)
'Taxation is treated as a taboo subject in the land of ''one-for-everyone-in-the-audience''. Taxation for planning is making sacrifices today for the good of tomorrow' (stock photo)

Spending €3bn on a National Broadband Plan is not enough. What is the point of a small remote place having high-speed broadband connections when it has inadequate water or sewage connections?

The current debate highlights, once again, the lack of a clear and consistent plan for how to facilitate the emerging future of Ireland. It lays bare our unwillingness to examine the true costs and consequences of our dreams. It exposes our inability to articulate ambitions. It reveals the inconsistency and inadequacy of the analysis - even at the heart of government - of how we rationalise budgetary provisions for the future.

Why do we describe the €30bn spend on our national motorway system as ''investment'' while the current debates about national projects like the Children's Hospital or the Broadband Plan are inevitably described as ''expenditure''?

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Why is there so much recent analysis that suggest ''either/or'' choices - say, between broadband or road maintenance; between hospital or school building? Why not both? The usual answer is that we can't afford both.

Affordability arises from available funding - which is the money that we can borrow or earn from taxation. We can't continue to be a low-tax and low-spend economy while adhering to the ''one-for-everyone-in-the-audience'' approach. Insert the catch-cry ''...for all!'' after the words housing, broadband, schools or hospitals and the scale of the problem starts to become clear. Our sense of entitlement is outgrowing the reality of affordability.

These debates about large-budget projects are sterile unless and until we view the broader canvas of our national ambition. Ireland 2040 - our national planning strategy - was a rudimentary start but it was fatally flawed because it lacks a detailed budget that examines the cost of the elements and, most crucially, a strategy for borrowing or earning the money to pay for these ambitions. Minister Murphy was not about to write a 20-year taxation plan for Minister Donohoe.

We have evolved to a stage in our national thinking where we require large-scale and long-term planning, real planning. Once we overcome a fear of big numbers as well as fear of taxation, we will begin to be able to enjoy the benefits of the type of virtuous long-term investment that enriches the fabric of the nation.

This is also the type of spending that anticipates and provides for regular economic cycles - by putting in place long, slow and gradual spending on seemingly endless projects like public housing and water services. All over the world, wise and mature economies continue to build throughout recessions by spending on social infrastructure. This provides counter-cyclical economic activity that blunts the worst effects of economic downturns.

Taxation is treated as a taboo subject in the land of ''one-for-everyone-in-the-audience''. Taxation for planning is making sacrifices today for the good of tomorrow. That future generations have no votes today is the understandable fear of politicians - explaining why taxes need to increase is not easy. But mere difficulty is no reason not to try something ambitious - as JFK said about the plans to put men on the moon.

High-tax, high-spend economies are dismissed as the rantings of swivel-eyed socialist loons by red-blooded entrepreneurs who will say that this approach will drive away the inward investment that is the life blood of the Irish economy. This is not wrong, but it is not the full picture either. Factors such as the affordability of housing, traffic congestion and quality of life are now all equally important ''pull factors'' for inward investment. These will only become more important for Ireland as the EU's drive for tax harmonisation inevitably erodes this aspect of Ireland's competitiveness. The best path will be that which makes these changes in a phased way that ensures that the gradual loss of one type of competitiveness is replaced by another.

What will this type of real joined-up planning look like? For a start, it's not a plan that we need - but a process for making a plan. We need a way to articulate and agree values (what we want to bring with us) as well as visions (where we want to go).

''Nobody left behind'' is a common populist catch-cry - impossible to disagree with - but it is important to question and to qualify this ambition because it is no basis for a workable plan. The promise of ''one-for-everyone- in-the-audience'' is a formula for very unwise allocation of assets. It is completely undiscriminating - taking no account of different needs.

Unwise systems of income redistribution are ineffective - because resources are not distributed to best effect. More fundamentally, they are unfair if they are unwise. The original meaning of ''discrimination'' has long been hijacked - but it remains an important word in public policy. Fairness is a fundamental tenet of justice. Many rules and much regulation seek to make society fairer by balancing advantages to make everyone more equal.

Equality does not mean the same. Equality means that opportunities are the same - but not outcomes. Many sports have systems of handicaps, but none exclude or prevent winners. In planning, similarly, there will be places that will do better than others. It is a matter of ambition, not scale or location. Small out-of-the way places can put themselves on the map - like Creggs with their amazing rugby facilities on the border of Galway and Roscommon; like the renowned McGill summer school in Glenties at the remote heart of Donegal. Anywhere can be the best at something - with the right ambition.

The wise use of assets is a central part of discussions of economics. Assets, in turn are given priority by their value. Scarcity, demand and usefulness are all factors that confer value.

Value, instead, is a statement about what we think is important. It can be measured by how much a society is willing to pay for something. We have heard last week that the National Broadband Plan may entail spending up to €11,000 to connect each of the last 27,000 houses in Ireland - at a total cost of €300m (equivalent to a week's spending of the Department of Health). This is how much we value those most peripheral areas.

What do we ''get'' in return for investing in disadvantaged areas?

The short answer is that we get to keep the whole of ourselves. Society and culture are neither born, nor do they die in one great act. We keep or lose ourselves one little bit at a time. If we cherish all of the nation's children equally, including the last 27,000 homes, we cherish ourselves.

We cannot debate national broadband provision in isolation from a clear and costed national plan for all of Ireland - including rural Ireland. That debate will need to include considerations of what we value and why - as well as value for money.

Sunday Independent

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