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By Graeme McQueen, 20 July 2017
4pm Session 20.07.2017: Strategic planning for this country is more vital than ever.
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This year’s summer school takes place in a context of great uncertainty. Ireland has three crucial relationships that anchor its place in the world. But today, the UK, the EU, and the US are all pulling in distinct directions, leaving global politics in flux. To see out this period of international tumult, Ireland must marshal its internal resources with intelligence. Now, more than ever, Ireland needs to plan strategically to secure the wellbeing of future generations.
The new National Planning Framework offers an opportunity for Ireland to take a truly strategic approach to Ireland’s development, optimising social and economic outcomes by taking heed to global trends in advance. Our past form in this area is poor - there is widespread recognition that the National Spatial Strategy was a failure. It tried to undermine growth in our capital city, whilst also trying to spread growth so thinly – like butter over too much bread - that no city could achieve critical mass. Politicians and policy-makers must learn from the past. Ireland cannot afford another NSS.
Ach is fearr amharc amháin romhat ná dhá amharc i do dhiaidh. So, what does the future hold? What will the world look like in 2050? And what are the global trends Ireland must adapt to if it wants to deliver for its people?
The most important one is urbanisation. For the first time in human history, the majority of the world’s population now lives in cities. Cities are the engines of economic growth and the gateways to travel and trade. By their very nature, they provide an aggregation of labour, capital, and market access that naturally leads to greater wealth and opportunity. Urbanisation is an overwhelming global trend, and it is accounted for by this simple fact.
For well over a century now, the world has seen a demographic shift towards cities, and this is set to continue. The trend is driven by ordinary people – not Government. And Ireland is no exception.
Ireland faces an urban future. This is clear. The rate of urbanisation has now reached the European average, and the UN estimates that by 2050 three out of every four people will love in a town or city.[ii]
The big question facing policymakers is how intelligently Ireland manages the urbanisation process. Does it squander limited resources in an effort to combat a world-wide trend? Or does Ireland acknowledge and accept this trend, and instead focus on getting it right? Let’s embrace urbanisation and the benefits it can bring, but focus on managing it effectively to ensure that we raise productivity and living standards.
So what happens if you don’t live in a city? The urban-rural divide need not be a zero-sum game. With a realistic national plan that is wisely managed, rural Ireland can thrive within its own distinctive sphere.
Firstly, we need to ensure that all parts of Ireland are connected properly to their nearest city. This will also allow more rural areas to strengthen their natural competitive advantage in lucrative industries such as agri-food and tourism. Secondly, ongoing developments in ICT are steadily reducing the need for geographic specificity in many occupations, allowing a growing number of people to work from rural areas if they choose. We need to support this trend. The Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen is an exciting example of what a modern and innovative rural regeneration plan would look like. Offering ‘hot-desking’ and office facilities with internet connectivity at a speed of 1 Gigabyte per second, the hub makes Skibbereen an ideal location for urban professionals seeking well-paid remote employment with the benefits of a rural lifestyle. Government needs to make this a viable option throughout all rural Ireland by prioritising high-quality broadband access in rural towns and villages.
In terms of population growth, rural areas cannot compete directly with cities. But, they do benefit from proximity to a strong urban region. For example, Eastern and Midlands counties such as Meath, Kildare, Carlow and Wicklow have become more attractive places to live and work precisely because of their proximity to a thriving capital.
In the long-run, the best development model to secure the prosperity of rural Ireland is a balanced regional distribution of strong cities, as the extended hinterlands of these cities will benefit from the outward spread of wealth, employment, and infrastructural development.
Yet rather than thinking of urban and rural Ireland as complementary, the relationship is too often framed as a competition. Deprivation in rural areas is used to justify underinvestment in urban areas, which only compounds the problem by undermining economic growth.
No part of Ireland illustrates the illogicality of this approach more than our host county of Donegal. Very often, people think of Donegal as an example of rural isolation, when in fact it adjoins the second largest city in the North. Donegal lies within the natural economic hinterland of Derry – a city with an urban area of almost 100,000 people and a metropolitan area of over 200,000.
Why is it that we don’t think in these holistic terms?
Undoubtedly, the border has been an obstacle in Donegal’s case. And the Irish Government needs to be bold and ambitious in pushing for an all-Ireland approach to planning. The commuter belts of Dublin and Belfast have already converged. With upgraded transport links, we could unleash the natural synergy between these two centres.
Ultimately, however, it is all too easy to blame partition and other factors over which we have little control. More often, our own tendency towards parochialism is to blame.
Ireland is characterised by a strong sense of local identity, reinforced by family, cultural ties, and sporting tradition. This plays a valuable role in community cohesion at parish and county level, and will remain a feature of Irish life in the years to come. However, in a highly competitive and increasingly urban world economy, the well-being of our people will depend on our ability to transcend local divisions and put Ireland first. Ní neart go cur le chéile!
The global competition for jobs, talent, and investment is now as much between city regions as between nation-states. Irish cities play a critical role in driving national competitiveness. Ireland’s success depends on the success of its cities.
Above all, we need to recognise the importance of our national capital. The Greater Dublin Area generates 53% of Ireland’s GDP. And rural Ireland will continue to rely on the capital city region to generate the income we need to fund rural services.
Looked at in global terms, Ireland is geographically peripheral and demographically insignificant. Brexit threatens to worsen this status. Without a city of international consequence to act as a gateway to the world economy, we risk becoming like another Cyprus, cut adrift from the economic core of the EU. To remain relevant in the global economy, Ireland requires city regions of international scale.
Given our small population, achieving critical mass in multiple areas will be a challenge. I would be delighted to see Limerick double in size. But not at the expense of the one city region that can put Ireland on the map globally. In terms of foreign direct investment, what is lost to Dublin is often lost to Ireland. And for the talk of Dublin being oversized, it remains a small city by global standards.
The growth of Ireland’s cities, including Dublin, should be intelligently supported through proper planning and investment, not frustrated.
Contrary to received wisdom, however, our cities do not receive a proportionate share of public investment. Meanwhile, the Government withholds data that would strengthen the case for urban investment.
Capital investment should be focused on urban areas, which generally offer the greatest return in terms of cost-benefit due to higher populations. For example, public transport funding is more efficient in high-density areas. In practice, however, cost-benefit analyses are scarce, and those released are often heavily redacted.
According the last data made publicly available, Dublin receives the lowest level of capital investment in public infrastructure per head of any Irish region. This data shows per capita investment in Dublin standing at just two thirds of the national average.
Ireland’s capital has been ranked as the 7th most congested city in Europe, with public transport usage by commuters standing at barely a fifth. The European Commission has warned that urban Ireland is suffering as a result of shortcomings in transport infrastructure, and warned that the situation will be further aggravated by population growth.
The underinvestment in Ireland’s population hubs has a serious impact on both the national economy and quality of life. The Department of Transport recently estimated that traffic congestion in the Greater Dublin Area costs the Irish economy €350 million each year, rising to an annual figure of €2 billion by 2033.This is undoubtedly a conservative estimate. Back in 1997 the Dublin Transportation Office estimated the cost at c. €1.2 billion today adjusted for inflation.
Both among high-income and low-income groups, levels of life satisfaction are actually lower in Irish cities than in rural areas. Other research has found that Dublin has one of the lowest levels of self-reported life satisfaction in Ireland.
If Ireland is to succeed in a fast-changing world, we must start providing our city-dwellers and commuters with the same high standard of urban living that can be expected elsewhere in Europe. Home to 40% of the State’s population, the Greater Dublin Area has a central role to play in meeting Ireland’s future needs.
Looking ahead to 2050, Dublin Chamber is determined to do its part. This summer, we launched the Great Dublin Survey, asking Dubliners want they want from their future city. We have already received over 10,000 responses and the initial findings make for fascinating reading. We notice, for example, a generational shift in attitudes towards housing, with younger people more positive about apartment living and desiring greater proximity to the city centre. We will be studying the data in the coming months to develop a vision for Dublin 2050.
Government must take a similarly long-term view for the nation as a whole. To safely navigate the choppy waters that lie ahead, Ireland needs a change of course. We need a new maturity both in our approach to planning and investment.
With the lowest proportional capital spend in the EU and one of the most unstable capital expenditure patterns in Western Europe, Ireland’s policy on capital investment is clearly not working.
As a guiding principle, Government should allocate national resources in a way that respects and reflects where Irish people actually live in their greatest numbers. A first step would be to allow a proper debate on capital investment choices, informed by clear data on the relative costs and benefits of proposed projects. Dublin Chamber proposes that all infrastructure projects be publicly ranked according to their cost-benefit ratio. This could be done in the form of a simple list, without revealing an estimate of cost in monetary terms.
Many of the large infrastructure investments required in urban Ireland are, in fact, national projects.
Dublin Airport, for example, is of paramount importance to the country’s global connectivity. With over 80% of overseas visitors arriving through the facility,it is effectively Ireland’s national airport. Improved connectivity will be an imperative for the whole island in the years ahead.
Specifically, Ireland is in urgent need a direct rail link between the national airport and the capital city, allowing travellers to connect quickly with the central business district and the wider public transport network. The absence of this modern amenity makes a poor impression on business travellers and potential foreign investors.
Similarly, DART Underground is a not an urban project but a national one. By connecting the capital city’s main train stations, it would finally unify Ireland’s rail network, seamlessly connecting Sligo to Rosslare, and Tralee to Dundalk. This project is crucial to an integrated public transport system both for the capital and for the island as a whole. But the proposal has now been under consideration for over four decades. Real action is long overdue.
Above all, Ireland needs to embrace long-term planning and joined-up thinking. The present Capital Investment Plan has a 6 year timeframe, which is shorter than the project lifespans of some of its biggest projects. Ireland should adopt a 20-year Capital Investment Plan, aligned to other national strategies like the NPF, and supported with long-term fiscal commitments.
Patrick MacGill often wrote poignantly of his early life in Donegal, but his poems were marked by the nostalgia of the emigrant. Like so many others, he left his native land and did not return, spending his last days in the United States. Our challenge is to ensure that Donegal’s next Patrick MacGill has no such need to leave his country. With hard-headedness and a holistic vision, Ireland can make this hope a reality.