Rural Ireland not served well by unfounded claims on 'balanced regional development'

Balanced regional development – the Late, Late Show of regional planning with something for everyone in the audience – will ultimately fail Rural Ireland, argue Dr Brian Hughes and Dr Lorcan Sirr.

People living in rural areas are not served well by well meaning but unsubstantiated claims around balanced regional development, it has been suggested.

More than that 'balanced regional development' will never work in Ireland for plenty of proven reasons and politicians, especially rural ones, and planners know this.

Yet some still persist, trying once more to delude their constituents, articulating this wasteful practice as if it was a viable solution to the problems of rural Ireland.

We have years of proof demonstrating that trying to balance Dublin with small towns around Ireland simply does not work: Dublin is too big and the towns too small to balance each other.

On the Claire Byrne show after last week’s RTE documentary, The Battle for Rural Ireland, there were classic examples of politicians supporting something that cannot work in the interests of being seen to fight for rural Ireland.

This is disingenuous political opportunism. During the RTE documentary, there was a black and white clip of an interview from the late 1960s with Britain’s pre-eminent town planning consultant, Colin Buchanan.

Buchanan had just presented Ireland’s first modern spatial strategy, which had had advocated a rapid expansion of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and about nine other Poles of Growth large towns, or ‘lumps’ of development.

Of course, all of these ‘settlements’ had much smaller populations in those days – nearly fifty years ago – when national planning strategy was quite novel and the state’s population was just over sixty per cent of its current level.

Nevertheless, the political system instinct for survival was, and still is, the same: short-term and local mandates. Thus, the urban-centric Buchanan Plan with its city-growth focus was firmly rejected by the government of the day.

A more populist industrial branch plant in nearly every town-strategy was substituted in the early 1970s, including the building of advance factories, some of which were never occupied. Most such factories have long since gone, and the nature of manufacturing has changed.

As a result of that unsustainable ‘scattergun’ approach, Irish cities did not receive the growth that would have resulted from concentrated investment and development.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Dublin and Cork suffered from the demise of most of their ‘sunset’ manufacturing industries and the provincial cities grew at a lower rate than the overall population expansion of the state.

Dublin, then with nearly six times the population of Cork and twelve times that of Limerick, continued to capture new initiatives, most notably the commencement of the International Financial Services Centre in 1987 followed by the arrival of the knowledge ‘Cloud’ of Google, Facebook and other cyber activity in the 2000s.

However, the legacy of slow growth continues and Ireland’s provincial cities and towns still have populations that are much below what Buchanan had specified for their ‘targets’ for optimal growth by 1986.

Cork and Limerick-Shannon, for example, were projected to grow to 250,000 and 175,000 respectively. Yet in 2011, Cork was still below 200,000 and Limerick was just 92,000 compared with Dublin’s 1.1 million.

If in 2015 Irish provincial cities were now 200,000 to 600,000 in population, as could reasonably have been expected with Buchanan’s plan, their own regions would be much wealthier, creating economic spillovers which would have counteracted enforced emigration whilst providing many more employment opportunities locally.

Repeated calls by some politicians for development to be spread evenly throughout the countryside, portrays a complete misunderstanding of post-industrial society with its necessity for city growth.

These politicians warn of the ‘dangers’ of urban concentration. The reality is because of spillover effects, ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’, what is good for cities is very good for all the country.

The fatal blow to balanced regional development, almost as soon as it was born in 2002, was dealt by Fianna Fail.

The decision by the then Minister for Finance to provide for public sector decentralisation from Dublin intended for 12,000 jobs transferring into over fifty decentralised locations, was totally un-coordinated with the locations nominated for growth in the brand new National Spatial Strategy.

In the end, just over three thousand jobs decentralised in what was simply a politically motivated (and ultimately very wasteful) manoeuvre.

This was blatant political opportunism at the expense of those they purported to rescue: rural Ireland. Throughout the western world, city-located high-tech producer and information-led services has replaced the former branch plant factories.

These are the creators of wealth, without which their tax-earning revenue resources would be unavailable to assist the poorer areas of Ireland.

Specific industrial and services clusters, facilitated by large and skilled workforces are characteristic of city and large town growth centres.

The long- awaited replacement for the National Spatial Strategy has to include provisions to assist the formation and implementation of such growth centres, especially in Ireland’s lagging regions in the west and north-west of the State.

Now that the Troika has gone and some financial and fiscal stability is being restored, the last thing this state’s recovering economy needs is another attempt to implement a latter-day form of balanced regional development.

This would merely continue to spread the limited ‘jam’ so thinly as to be totally ineffective and wasteful of the available investment resources, scarce resources that need to be concentrated, if they are to be effective.

The future is lumpy, not even.

* Dr Brian Hughes is an urban and regional economist and member of the government’s expert group on demography. Dr Lorcan Sirr is a lecturer at DIT and currently visiting professor of housing at the University of Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona, Spain

READ MORE: Demography is destiny in rural Ireland

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