Friday 18 January 2019

Only time will tell if blueprint is genuine vision or a work of fiction

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking at the Cabinet meeting and launch of Project Ireland 2040 at IT Sligo. Photo: James Connolly
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking at the Cabinet meeting and launch of Project Ireland 2040 at IT Sligo. Photo: James Connolly
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

When I left Dublin to live in rural Co Donegal in 2012, the country was in the grip of a major economic crisis. Moving to one of the most beautiful but geographically peripheral parts of Ireland, visible signs were all around of the crash and the financial pain it caused people.

Businesses and shops were closing. Unemployment was high. People were not spending money. A new wave of youth emigration had begun.

The last six years has seen massive change in the economic fortunes of the country and there are very positive signs of improvement in our area. But there are real challenges too.

Big changes are afoot in our cities and rural areas as the population increases and ages. Connectivity to cities is hugely important for country dwellers, whether it is roads or broadband.

Project Ireland has very worthy aims. The plan is conscious of the need to invest in the capital city, while also being aware of its inability to absorb a disproportionate explosion in population.

The Government is right to try to ensure there is balanced growth around the country and our regional cities are the best place to start. The capital investment programme tries to ensure that rural Ireland is not left behind in that future vision for the country, with a new €1bn fund for regeneration of towns and villages.

The cities themselves need investment and there is a €2bn urban regeneration fund. Project Ireland tries to find a solution that is as workable for someone in Dungloe as someone in Donnybrook.

But there are problems with this plan too. Economic momentum is with Dublin and the eastern region. Interfering too strongly to counterbalance this momentum may be difficult and indeed impossible. And our track record in delivering capital projects on time and on budget is pretty awful. There is lots of scope for mistakes or non-delivery in a €116bn plan.

One way of spreading the growth is to invest heavily in the regional cities themselves and not just in infrastructure aimed at linking the cities together. We don't want motorways to under-developed regional cities that will encourage urban sprawl, traffic congestion and a poorer quality of life.

There is a long-held view from Black Lion to Bandon that if we can link up as many places with motorways as possible, then industry will follow. Roads don't start businesses, people do. The proposed Atlantic Corridor may not deliver as much as many hope.

The biggest driver in attracting investment is the availability of people in that area with the required skills. So keeping people in rural places is as much about making these communities attractive for people to live in as it is about providing regional access to suitable education.

The initiative to link up three institutes of technology in the north west is a positive move.

Large swathes of rural Ireland are about commuting to bigger towns and cities. There are fewer farmers who are able to live and work in their home parish. We have a new generation of part-time farmers. They will probably be succeeded by non-farmers, as the children of part-time farmers are less likely to stick with it.

Cities like Cork, Limerick and Galway are doing well, but they now face quality of life issues like traffic congestion and the high cost of housing.

Other parts of the country are naturally more peripheral. A recent study found that 22 of the Monaghan football panel were based in Dublin. For Donegal, the figure was 18, as it was for Mayo.

This reflected how, when it comes to employment or university education, there are fewer opportunities for young men in these areas. We need to accept the growing influence of cities for jobs and investment. But we cannot abandon rural Ireland either.

There are worthwhile measures in this plan, whether it is the €500m disruptive technology fund or the commitment to regional airport investment and the supports for Brexit-affected businesses.

Living in the country involves sacrifices. As the population grows, city dwellers are making sacrifices too, be it the higher cost of living or lack of affordable housing. Some towns are thriving and will continue to do so. Look at Kilkenny city, with its rich farming hinterland and Glanbia plc, or Westport with a combination of tourism, FDI and indigenous enterprise. Individual business successes can transform towns but the problem is that entrepreneurs like those don't come along very often.

The biggest single factor in future growth is making your place an attractive one to live. That is a local challenge as much as a national policy issue.

Dublin is heading for an infrastructural, housing and commuting shambles. It is up to rural places to attract new people to their communities or help locals to stay. This plan is a good start in that it sees the problems facing urban and rural Ireland and has some solutions. Time will tell if it is a work of fiction or a genuine blueprint for the future.

Irish Independent

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