Creaking public services mean we can’t sit on our laurels

Our universities are underfunded yet overly bureaucratic. The whole system needs to be rethought, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.

The winter solstice and Christmas festivities are behind us. The business data for the year is being crunched and chewed over by the statisticians.

One marvels at all the prosperity and at the numbers of people who have been left behind by the new economy.

I am fortunate to live in Dublin 8, within walking distance of both St Stephen’s Green and the Grand Canal, but I also get to roam more widely across the capital city.

The pace of change is rapid. Within a mile on either side of my home, new hotels, offices and student complexes are springing up. Several hundred thousand square feet of new space is currently under construction.

Artists are being displaced as their workplaces fall prey to redevelopment. Informal work groups are being broken up, lives are being dislocated.

There are new threats to the urban heritage as the property people cast their net more widely for sites. Low rise buildings, restaurants and pubs there for centuries fall prey to the constructor’s axe.

This is what is happening in vibrant urban centres across the globe. Change can be jolting. With the gains come the losses. Hopefully, cumulatively, such losses do not amount to the removal of much that is distinctive about our larger cities and towns.

Have our officials and Government politicians got a real grasp on what is happening, or are they simply being swept along by events as the economy and wider society face waves of change?

Only time will tell. The challenges posed by Brexit have been set out in detail elsewhere. Suffice to say that Brexit should not serve to distract us from a host of other challenges coming down the tracks.

Ireland’s success in attracting investment from US high tech firms is, indeed, something at which to marvel.

In November, the biggest single office letting ever in Ireland was secured when Facebook entered into an agreement with Ronan Group Real Estate to take over AIB’s headquarters in Ballsbridge. When the redevelopment is completed in 2022, there will — it is claimed — be room for an additional 5,000 employees on top of the current 4,000-plus people currently on the books at Facebook and its associates, WhatsApp and Cork-based, Oculus. Google, meanwhile, now has around 8,000 people on the books.

Such investment is helping to fuel our economy. A wave of corporate taxation is lifting the national boat — for now.

But there are downsides to all of this. Dublin risks turning into a cooler version of San Francisco where the median price of a home is now in excess of $1.25m (€1.08m) and the numbers of people living on the street are soaring. It is calculated that a worker in that city would now have to work in the equivalent of 4.7 fulltime jobs to afford a two-bed apartment there.

Increasingly, high-skilled young workers in the US are moving to cities like Austin and Toronto, where the cost of living is lower. The investment is following them. The authorities, here, must work hard to offer lower-cost urban alternatives to skilled workers and investors.

Economist Edgar Morgenroth of DCU has written of the importance of “deconcentrating” activity and of shifting investment away from the capital. The reality is that the ability to attract foreign capital has become, if anything, more central, at a time when many existing industries face the prospect of huge disruption as a result of the Brexit process.

The State could set an example. The McCreevy decentralisation programme became rapidly discredited. It was rightly seen as a crude attempt to buy votes in outlying parts of the country by means of the dispersal to selected towns of public service jobs.

But a well thought out programme would involve shifting jobs to larger centres, such as Athlone and Limerick, where house prices are lower, but where plenty of services currently exist. Our large universities are running out of space. They could establish spin off ‘satellites’ in attractive towns such as Kilkenny which have good transport links to Dublin.

It is hard not to feel that there is a bit of hype out there regarding housing. The State certainly needs to get its act together when it comes to meeting the needs of people at the bottom of the market. A mixture of neglect and policy misjudgement has led to a rapid contraction in the number of properties available to let. The authorities need to be more decisive when it comes to making available publicly-owned land.

Architects could be more closely involved in designing public housing solutions for the many single people in need of accommodation. But further up the chain, one wonders whether in some parts of the market, we could end up with an oversupply of certain types of accommodation.

The planners need to take a much broader view when deciding on the grant of permissions. The industry needs to get together to plan for the huge change coming down the road as a result of the pressing need to meet climate change commitments.

The arrival of the long-serving minister Richard Bruton into the climate change portfolio could turn out to be providential given that politician’s proven work rate and technocratic abilities.

His experience in cabinet government dates back to the mid-1990s. He has already been meeting with experts to discuss an overhaul of policies.

Certainly, the Government needs to raise its game after what many view as a missed opportunity in the budget.

The country has made some wrong turns, not least in agriculture where the focus on achieving ambitious dairy output targets in the wake of the lifting of milk quotas appears, in retrospect, to have not been sufficiently thought out.

Irish farming is in need of a huge overhaul. The competition authorities have not done anything like enough to protect smaller producers in their dealings with the large retail groups, in particular.

The wider goal of securing a shift from the tax of labour to taxes on land, other real property, and on carbon production is one that simply must be achieved, yet is fraught with political danger. The Government needs to think more about how best to incentivise people to move out from the crowded cities and sprawling suburbs — where schools are over-subscribed — to under-populated areas with available services.

However, this will require a reboot of the broadband programme. An ongoing retooling of the workforce will be needed. Already, gaps in the labour market are opening up.

School leavers need to be aware that there are many alternatives to our existing academic-based third level institutions. Too many head too soon into third level courses that offer little to the entrants at their stage in life.

It might be a good idea to offer every citizen a third level educational voucher which they can cash in at any stage during their life — this is surely preferable to funnelling them prematurely into courses simply so as to satisfy some politician’s box-ticking exercise.

Our education system performs well when assessed in comparative international studies. Irish pupils have high literacy levels. Our primary schools rank particularly high, but something appears to be going wrong with Irish schooling, in its latter stages, as examination imperatives kick in.

Our universities are underfunded yet overly bureaucratic. The whole system needs to be rethought.

In the 1960s, major reforms were initiated in the third level sector following economic studies. The result was much wider access through the O’Malley free school fee scheme — introduced in 1966 by then education minister Donogh O’Malley — and the network of institutes of technology. We need to engage in a similar exercise again. The current model is creaking. In this rapidly evolving world, we simply cannot afford to sit on our laurels.

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