Wednesday 16 October 2019

John Moran: 'Cities must work together to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dublin'

Recently appointed chair of the Land Development Agency John Moran says we need to radically rethink how we will work, rest and play in Ireland 2040

FORWARD THINKING: John Moran in his native Limerick. Photo: Oisin McHugh
FORWARD THINKING: John Moran in his native Limerick. Photo: Oisin McHugh

John Moran

Time is running short. Leadership is needed from our political classes, both in Dublin and across the country, to rise above local self-interest.

Two simple steps are required. The National Planning Framework for Ireland 2040 (NPF) recognises both.

We must pull more national levers for a more inclusive recovery and fairer society. This means better managing the growth of Dublin for continuing success and creating other communities of equal opportunity across the country.

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The two go hand in hand.

We must stop competing with each other to compete successfully in the world.

Countries where individual preferences take backseats to the common good and wellbeing lead world rankings in liveability and sustainability indices.

Can Ireland cast aside self-interest and Nimbyism to implement bold change?

DNA hard-wiring of our country and its development will not easily be reversed. This was the real mismanagement of Ireland during my lifetime. Worse than any fiscal or bank crisis.

But it must be reversed or we face the disruptive paths of our neighbours, the United States and the United Kingdom. Additionally, we face continuing destruction of our environment and ever less acceptable lifestyles for our citizens. The decisions are upon us.

Consultation for the Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy (RSES) of the Southern Region (think Munster and South Leinster) has just concluded. Over 300 pages of big choices.

Elected councillors now carry a heavy responsibility beyond looking for funds for local community centres or roads. They must show leadership, build cross-party support and advocate for a regionally optimised strategy, not just the needs of their own city, town or parish region.

They must govern using robust evidentiary-based economic analysis. They must resist appeals to emotion sometimes better suited to win votes. They must demand more of national government to achieve objectives better for all.

A frustrated generation of school children now protest the inaction of our generation to face up to climate change.

Hopefully, they read this key document and will support its better provisions.

Have their parents and grandparents read it to ensure they, the custodians of our island at the moment, are supporting the right decisions? Will they vote only for braver politicians no longer prioritising local interest?

Dublin must succeed on the international stage. Recently, it has, as the cranes on its skyline will show. But disproportionately so compared to other parts of our island.

Ironically, success is now a problem for Dublin itself. The solution ignored by national governments since the Buchanan Report in the 1960s still remains the right solution.

We need an effective counterbalance to give better choices and opportunity for all. As the NPF put it, "the potential of other locations must be harnessed".

The RSES also calls for a counterbalance. Unsurprisingly, since Dublin's dominance has impacted badly on the region. But the difficulty is to pick how to harness "the potential of other locations".

True polycentric development of the Southern Region creating scale to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dublin requires a much clearer direction by the RSES and supporting an aligned investment.

Should we (a) back Cork and rapidly grow it to scale, (b) choose another city, such as Waterford or more centrally located Limerick, and have it grow even faster to catch up, or (c) back an agglomeration whose four cities packaged and working together already have scale to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dublin?

Two parameters help identify any counter-balance. These are "the relative distance or ease of accessibility to larger centres of population" and "the scale of concentration of activity".

The key is whether these parameters apply to each city on its own - an approach which favours the largest all the time and which has served Dublin well to date - or to a region comprising interconnected cities.

Strategies cannot be vague on such an important issue. The RSES must call it without reservation.

Cork is home to over 200,000 people and nearly 29,000 enterprises. Despite impressive growth, on its own it remains so far behind Dublin it would be very difficult for it to be viewed as a credible alternative without further decades of growth.

Even if it were to succeed, rapid growth could generate similar problems as Dublin has now. More probably, it would continue as has been the case in the last couple of decades to fall further and further behind and with it, the entire Southern Region.

Businesses in the cities recognise this in their submissions: "We are now facing a time of tremendous growth and it is clear the cities of Waterford, Limerick and Cork in the Southern Region will be instrumental in that vision of the Southern Region being a counterbalance to Dublin…however a much greater level of collaboration and cooperation should now be encouraged," was how the South East Chambers put it.

"It is striking to note that the draft strategy is rather silent on the need to exploit the unique situation of having three cities in the one region by encouraging much greater levels of collaboration and cooperation between the cities," said Waterford Chamber.

"The role of the Southern Assembly region as a counterbalance must involve the collaboration of the regional cities including Galway," added Limerick Chamber.

So with business onside, can politicians now follow?

The triangle of three cities, within about an hour from each other, house nearly twice as many, 366,365 (22pc), of the region's total population. This tri-city area provides more proximate opportunity than coastally-located Cork for the region's 78,000 active enterprises and almost 1.6m inhabitants who could reasonably expect to continue to live and work near home in a more diversified region.

At a national level, Ireland 2040 agreed polycentric development was the way forward. It acknowledged Cork might be well placed to "complement Dublin" but noted it "requires significantly accelerated and urban-focused growth".

It pointed out, therefore, "it will require the combined potential of all four cities to be realised at an unprecedented rate, to create viable alternatives to Dublin". That's my emphasis added. If integrated with Galway, an hour away from the tri-city area, this new agglomeration boasts:

• Two million people;

• Three (soon to be four) universities;

• Two international and two regional airports;

• All tier 1 and tier 2 ports of national significance outside of Dublin;

• A veritable green playground of the Burren, Connemara, Dingle, Cashel, West Cork, all three National Tourism Corridors;

• Companies such as Apple, Dell, Glanbia, Kerry, J&J, Medtronic, Pfizer, and Uber;

• Ireland's largest film studio, Troy;

• One of Europe's richest agricultural heartlands;

• Some of Ireland's best quality-of-life locations for homes.

This is firepower that will grab attention globally.

Dynamic and successful Cork remains key. But a larger interconnected cluster working together would catalyse tens of billions of public and private investment for all four cities and their hinterlands. This would give sustainable and affordable living choices in medieval, Georgian, traditional or modern urban settings, cultural facilities and world-class health and education services and more vibrant rural towns and villages within easy commuting distance of one or more of these four cities, themselves no more than an hour away from the centre of the cluster.

Decisions must serve the greater region, not just one or other city. This includes roads' infrastructure. Notably, a submission to support upgrading the N24 (which overlaps much of the function of the N20) was signed by all of Limerick, Kilkenny, Tipperary and Waterford councils.

With leadership, the lives of the two million people being left behind in 2019 could be radically improved but also better choices would present for the extra one million looking for homes in our country by 2040.

No longer would Dublin be the most obvious option.

Reduced pressure would subdue price inflation and better accommodate those required to be in Dublin.

To drive this, national level services, agencies and third level places and related housing should be relocated in scale to this cluster of cities with so much untapped brownfield potential to house tens of thousands in attractive inner city living. Private sector companies would follow.

More radical decisions like why port trade taking up Dublin land which might support housing for over 100,000 could not be relocated to Cork could now be addressed seriously. It would also facilitate tailored solutions for the North-West depending on Brexit negotiations and the role of Derry.

But it would require true political leadership. National politicians must lead but four currently sub-scale regional cities must also put aside their differences, stop battling each other and instead work closely together as a unit to become that attractive scaled counterbalance to stand shoulder to shoulder with our over-burdened Dublin.

John Moran is CEO and founder of RHH International. His views are personal.

Sunday Independent

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