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The future of Ireland is urban – but can our politicians accept this?

We need to face up to what’s gone wrong with spatial policy in this country.

IRELAND IS ALREADY following the worldwide trend of having more of its population living in urban areas, currently being about 60% urbanised. At the moment this pattern is naturally driven, but to maximise its benefits for the State, which is the logical thing to do, it would mean a radical change in direction of our planning policy.

Ireland’s previous policy, the now-defunct National Spatial Strategy (NSS) of 2002-2020 had as its primary focus ‘balanced regional development’ which was naively designed to ‘help’ every area to achieve its full potential. Predictably – as it had no evidential basis in an Irish context, merely a political one – it failed. Here’s why.

Look at the spatial distribution of jobs or ghost estates 

Balanced regional development is defined as ‘developing the full potential of each area to contribute to the optimal performance of the State as a whole – economically, socially and environmentally’. The problem with this statement is that it is self-contradictory: the optimal performance of the State is critically dependent on that of its primary contributors (ie, the four main cities) and their ability to generate spillover. To focus attention and resources on anything else immediately reduces optimal performance.

Not alone has this policy of balanced regional development not worked – look at the spatial distribution of jobs or ghost estates, for example, not much balance there – it has arguably held up economic recovery in many areas, especially the border region. Balanced regional development works when you have cities balancing each other, not marbles balancing a bowling ball.

Ireland still has an enormous national debt to deal with

Although the Troika is gone, Ireland continues to have an enormous national debt, one that will consume much of the State’s taxation revenues in debt-servicing. Ireland therefore needs an economic and spatial policy that can address the burdens that Ireland will confront for the foreseeable future. A decent spatial policy makes enormous economic sense.

However, this will mean the need to focus what is a very constrained capital programme into winners, and not into wasteful, expensive and often daft projects (à la decentralisation). The EU is also likely to be far more vigilant in future in this regard.

So, we need to face up to what has gone wrong with spatial policy if real competitiveness is to be attained. Not to so do will mean another cycle of repeating the same mistakes, as we seem keen to do with housing.

Stagnated populations in small towns 

Our failed spatial strategy has led to a proliferation of over 200 new villages and small towns since 1996. Yet, many of the 750 villages and small towns of up to 3,000 in population have stagnated, leading to closures in post offices, schools, pubs, shops and the other essential services and supports for normal living. Many of them still await high-speed broadband, essential for modern-day business and job creation.

Indeed, stagnation has also befallen some larger centres, including NSS-designated ‘Gateways’: in 1996, Sligo was the twelfth largest urban centre in the State, but by 2011 it had slipped back to twenty-fourth position.

At the same time, Ireland’s cities have failed to keep up with the State’s average population growth.

The failure of the ‘scattergun’ approach

A significant ‘legacy’ issue is that since the foundation of the State is the fact that no government has supported its cities or planning system. In 1969, the visionary Buchanan Plan for designated ‘Poles of Growth’ was rejected. Instead, that government opted for a ‘scattergun’ branch plant industrial policy in every town. Almost all such factories have long since disappeared as the nature of manufacturing has changed, and in the absence of necessary support leading to clustering and up- and downstream spin-offs.

In 2003, less than one year after the launch of the National Spatial Strategy, the government announced a policy to decentralise 11,000 public sector jobs from Dublin to nearly 60 locations, ignoring most of the ‘Gateway’ and ‘Hub’-designated towns of NSS. As only 3,000 people moved, this too was a failure.

Will government change the direction of spatial policy?

It’s not certain that any lessons have been learnt, however.

The need for industrial and services concentration of larger scale is now well-established throughout the western world. But will the Irish government continue to persist with strategies like that of ‘balanced regional development’, or will it change the direction of spatial policy to focus on cities and large towns, by implementing ‘lumpiness’ and concentrating investment to achieve beneficial agglomeration?

What changes could such a policy shift have brought?

It is most likely that the Buchanan Plan would by now have resulted in a number of intermediate-sized cities of say 200,000 to 600,000 in population. These same regional cities would have been able to create economic and employment ‘spillovers’ for their sphere-of-influence towns in ‘metropolitan city-regions’, and would therefore be much better able to attract the multinational companies to provide large-scale employment, such as is now largely confined to the Greater Dublin Area.

Focus on residency and employment

This would still mean that many employment opportunities would be confined to such cities. However, the key question is whether it is preferable that Irish people could find both residency and employment in an Irish city or large town in the border or west, or emigrate to a Birmingham or Boston?

Letterkenny, was little over one-third of the population of Sligo in Buchanan’s time. Now it is larger, reinforced by its relative proximity to the city of Derry. Likewise, will there be the vision to recognise the benefits of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in exploiting spatially, the all-island asset of the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor?

Let’s push for a broader view

Politicians, for good or ill, are largely responsible for making the strategic spatial decisions that will determine what type of future Ireland achieves. Will their emphasis continue to be on both local and short-term horizons based on their self-survival re-election prospects, focusing on economically (and ultimately socially) unviable interests at the expense of the whole?

At this stage, no politician can plead ignorance about the benefits of large cities and towns to both the country and the regions. But have they the courage to embrace it? Let’s hope the next plan – or indeed plans, for maybe there should be more than one – can take a broader view.

Dr Brian Hughes is an urban and regional economist and member of the government’s expert group on demography.

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