Over 12,000 people took to the streets of Waterford in an unusual show of solidarity last week.
Apparently every strata of society and life in the city and surrounding hinterland took part in what has been described as a major display of strength for a population that has not always acted in a co-ordinated way. The source of the anger is primarily the proposed plans to significantly downgrade the regional hospital, but there are many other justifiable sources of dissatisfaction.
I went to boarding school in the city and hence try not to visit it too often as I have too many bad memories. However, whenever I do visit, the lack of economic life in the city is very palpable and very depressing. The local rate of unemployment is estimated at over 20%, which is well above the national average of 14.8%.
It is sometimes possible to cross the quay, the main thoroughfare through the city, mid-morning without even looking right or left to check for traffic, such is the lack of economic vibrancy. It does improve during the summer due to the development of the Waterford Crystal Visitor Centre and the Viking Triangle. However, for much of the rest of the year, it tends to be devoid of real economic vibrancy.
In the now discredited National Spatial Strategy of 2002, Waterford was designated a ‘gateway’ in the south-east, supported by Kilkenny and Wexford as hubs. A gateway is described as a ‘strategic location, nationally and relative to its surrounding areas, and provides national scale social, economic infrastructure and support services’, with the ultimate aim of ensuring that the chosen gateway acts as a national and regional engine of growth.
The people of Waterford can ask what became of this vision. The answer is very little. It was just a pipe dream of Bertie and Martin.
Waterford is under-performing much of the rest of the country. There are many reasons for this and also many possible solutions, but very little official interest.
The campaign to create a University of the South East centred in WIT with strong educational hubs in Wexford, Kilkenny and possibly Carlow, has died a death. Based on how universities have been used in Finland to drive economic growth and development, the creation of a high quality ‘real’ university would have given a major boost to Waterford and the south-east, but the powers that be have little real interest.
The proposal to amalgamate the two councils in Waterford is also eliciting a lot of anger. Personally I believe we have way too many local authorities. Our system of local government is expensive to run, imposes an unbearable burden on business in the form of commercial rates and other charges, and is arguably not very efficient. However, I wonder why Waterford is just one of three council areas due to face amalgamation? On a positive note, one local authority may give Waterford a more powerful voice and greater clout in the face of an obvious desire to undermine the city.
The intention to significantly downgrade the regional hospital is, however, the last straw. It would seriously undermine the quality of healthcare and the general quality of life in the region.
It would be a strong statement from our policy makers that they have about as much interest in balanced regional development as they have in creating a world-class education system — none.
The people of Waterford are very right to be angry and it is about time that this ‘quiet people’ stood up and got counted.
Waterford has the misfortune of being surrounded by two powerful ministers in Wexford and Kilkenny who are clearly more interested in their own patches than the greater good.
‘Protest and Survive’ will have to become the mantra for the people of Waterford, of which I am a proud member.
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