To address our challenges, Cork needs much more autonomy and freedom to shape its future prospects, argues Dr Frank Crowley.
Between the Censuses of 1911 and 2011, the population of County Dublin has increased by 332%, well above the state average increase in population of 46%. The population of Leinster over that period increased by 116%, with Kildare (216%), Meath (183%) and Wicklow (125%) experiencing exceptional population growth.
In contrast, the counties of Cork (32%), Galway (38%), Limerick (34%) and Waterford (36%) have experienced modest population increases recording growth rates below the state average.
Over time, the hierarchy of cities in Ireland has stayed stagnant with a particular divergence in favour of the Capital city. The regional disparities in population, GVA per worker, GDP per capita and disposable income are wide.
For the past 100 years, Dublin has been a magnet for people, firms and wealth. This clustering and scale effect is getting stronger in recent decades, with younger, more educated people flocking to the capital to reap the economic rewards that the capital city creates.
Consequently, with each passing day Dublin grows in stature and prominence over other cities. Clearly, a key underlying driver of future success of a place at any point in time is the position it is starting from. Through time, city regions have caught up a little with one - another and then grew apart.
But overall, the successful places are becoming more successful and the problem places are becoming more problematic.
Given the historical trends in population growth towards the capital, the objective of Ireland 2040 to rebalance future population growth on the island in favour of the provincial cities such as Cork is ambitious but very unlikely to be successful.
Unfortunately, the 2040 plan is loaded with more of the same old rhetoric, ideas and outdated interventions of the past. Each place, urban or rural is encouraged to put their best shiny projects and ideas forward, get out the ‘begging bowl’ and hope that the cherry picker looks their way and fill their bowl. It hasn’t worked in the past; why would it work now?
The overwhelming problem is that the political framework of ‘how we do business’ is still as centralised as before and thus this monopolised mind-set will continue to sort Dublin as the leader of the pack. If Project 2040 wants to achieve its objective, then it radically needs to change where power is located and who possesses it.
Ireland is one of the most centralised states in Europe and power resides in the Capital. How many reports do we need to have before we heed this message?
The European Council and the OECD have criticised the lack of powers and make-up of local government in Ireland. The European commission have previously ranked us last of 39 European countries for local autonomy.
We have even told ourselves time and time again, for example, the White Paper on Local Government reorganisation (1971), the Barrington Report (1991), Better Local Government report (1996), Indecon report (2006) and Putting People First Report (2012) and so on. The list of reports is long.
How many reports will it take for us to realise that autonomy matters for the places that are lagging behind? They have complex local needs and problems and they need local resources, local expertise and local solutions to solve them.
Much rhetoric is frequently spouted regarding the convenience and liveability of our provincial cities and that Dublin is full to capacity.
Let’s be honest, on the global scale, Dublin is small fry. And, we are not only competing with Dublin. We are competing with cities throughout the world that are more liveable, compact and green.
Many local authorities throughout Europe have a broader responsibility, than their Irish counterparts, and in many different areas such as social services, the provision of local amenities, education, health, childcare, public transport, industrial policy, policing and tax raising powers.
It’s the age of clustering effects and critical mass and these effects are becoming more and more the precursor for the survival of the fittest cities. How can smaller cities compete with larger city agglomerations?
Through our overly centralised system, we mirror the policies of Dublin, creating mini Dublin’s in our provincial cities. These cities are also sprawling, suffering from segregated inefficient development between workplaces and communities, they are highly car dependent and they are suffering from congestion.
If people are to be attracted to provincial cities as a lifestyle choice, for liveability, convenience and unique amenities, then mini Dublin’s are unlikely to be attractive in the long run. We need to wake up.
Our provincial cities need to innovate in the areas of residential service provision and industrial planning, differentiating themselves from one-another, and from Dublin.
Cork needs to provide a unique alternative place experience to other cities. Our exceptional ‘Corkness’ won’t save us in the long run. To address our challenges, Cork needs much more autonomy and freedom to shape its future prospects.
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This contribution is part of a series of thought-provoking essays, which will be published free with the Irish Examiner in a special supplement on Friday, April 26. The supplement will explore the opportunities and challenges facing one of the country’s fastest growing regions and is part of a cross-platform initiative in which we hope to start a public conversation on what makes a city great and the decisions and joined up thinking needed to get us there. Please feel free to send us your own contribution on what you feel that future holds, what direction you feel the city is heading and what you want Cork to be in the decades ahead? Find out how to send your readers blog contribution for consideration here.
Dr Frank Crowley is a lecturer in economics and Research Associate at the Spatial and Regional Economics Research Centre at UCC