Friday 20 September 2019

Conor Skehan: 'Do we need value for money... or money for values?'

Massive projects like the National Broadband Plan need big spending in the future

It is easy to raise the trope of a Government spending excessively out of fear of displeasing the rural vote. Stock photo
It is easy to raise the trope of a Government spending excessively out of fear of displeasing the rural vote. Stock photo

Conor Skehan

Reports suggest that there has been considerable tension between senior officials and the Cabinet about the cost of the National Broadband Plan: €500m was originally budgeted for a plan that is now expected to cost more than €3bn. In return, that plan will neither connect every home, nor will it yield an asset to the State.

It is easy to raise the trope of a Government spending excessively out of fear of displeasing the rural vote. But this issue is part of a raft of similar controversies about the costs of large projects such as the Metro or the Children's Hospital. All important, if very expensive, projects that will benefit many while strengthening the national fabric.

''Meganumerophobia'' - an anxiety about big numbers - is a well-documented psychological disorder. It can also be a policy and political disorder that is characterised by anxiety and indecision - exactly as reported in connection with the broadband issue.

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This is an undebated national question about who and what decides our national development planning priorities. Such decisions play an increasingly central role in rapidly urbanising and modernising countries like Ireland.

It will be a messy and raucous debate - though not the imagined one of gombeen versus egghead.

It will be one of those deeper debates, like recent national ones about the social mores of same-sex marriage, abortion or divorce. It will be about whether we are guided by narrowly utilitarian goals or broadly social ones.

One corner will be dominated by a small group of experts, economists, accountants, managers and those who quite rightly tell us what we can afford. In the other will be a much larger grouping of social activists, advocates, dreamers, amateurs and enthusiasts who tell what we should strive to afford.

Over and over, one group will insist on value for money while the other will demand that we find the money for what we value. Neither are likely to have a monopoly on either truth or rationality. Ideals have costs, but increasing costs can only be borne by growing vibrant societies.

Unwittingly, liberal spendthrifts can drive a country towards penury, resulting in the necessary correctives of higher taxation, greater government control and less personal freedom.

Unsurprisingly, prudently managed economies tend to lead to more stable societies that can implement the type of long-term planning and development that seems to best address deeply rooted issues like homelessness, regional underdevelopment and lack of social equity.

It's easy to overlook or forget that Ireland is internationally renowned for the effectiveness with which our tax-and-spend system re-distributes wealth. For some reason, no Irish media appear to have covered the recent report in The Economist (13/04/2019) which demonstrated that Ireland's taxation and redistribution system is, by far, the best in the OECD countries at removing inequality between rich and poor.

We use terms like ''edgy'' and ''far-out'' to describe things that are radical - but we must remember that all new things come from the edge while most things that are now at the certain centre are destined to soon be left behind. We need to accept that values change, today's heresy will indeed be tomorrow's orthodoxy. We need to be open to ideas that are new or difficult to swallow.

This is no advocacy for a bohemian society that rushes to satisfy every whim. We already live in a world of ever-increasing entitlement - often the result of a litany of opinions rooted in unexamined ideas of ''fairness''. Instead, it is suggested that we need to put in place pathways for an open-ended dialogue about what kind of future we are choosing. Such a pathway will include the professional and expert advisers who appeal to our head as well as the idealists who have a hold on our hearts. A recognition that we need dialogue is the start of that journey. For the avoidance of doubt, such a pathway will have no resemblance to the "decide-announce-defend" type of public consultation that accompanied the preparation of the National Spatial Strategy.

If we, as a society, choose to spend an awful lot of money to provide equality of digital opportunity to as many of our fellow citizens as possible, then this is an expression of our values of striving for generosity, inclusiveness and equality. Politics is how we have these national ''heart-over-head'' conversations.

There is another reason to err on the side of letting our hearts rule our heads - especially on big social projects. Such projects are multipliers of future unforeseeable opportunities. Ireland's canal network was originally an eye-wateringly expensive private investment, that quickly failed. It was hardly completed when privately-funded trains took over, that failed when trucks took over.

Canals and trains and trucks strung together the fabric of our towns and villages. The binding sinews of these same routes and places are now being renewed by broadband fibres. None of these projects, individually, guaranteed the future, all eventually failed and were replaced by a new connective technology. But this process of repeated failure misses the point. The project of constantly renewing our faith in the future of these places - against all odds - is what matters.

Conor Skehan is former chair of the Housing Agency and lectures about causes and effects of development in rural and urban areas at Technological University of Dublin

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