Regional policies hurting the places they should help

Irish people care a lot about places. Most conversations begin or quickly move on to establishing where you are from. Our sports are based on parish and county allegiances and our politics are essentially local.

Regional policies hurting the places they should help

By Declan Jordan

Irish people care a lot about places. Most conversations begin or quickly move on to establishing where you are from. Our sports are based on parish and county allegiances and our politics are essentially local.

This attachment to place has contributed to ineffective regional and spatial policymaking. Our regional policies often end up hurting the places that they should be helping.

Our spatial policies focus on reallocating resources from richer places to poorer places. Instead, regional development should be about supporting local development based on their own strengths.

We pay lip service to spatial policy, while maintaining centralised control over resources and keeping any real economic power away from local or regional authorities.

Our local authorities have no significant tax and spending powers and rely on the goodwill of central government for key economic and social services in their areas.

Creating many of the conditions for strong local economies are outside the influence of local policymakers.

The regional assembly areas are not functional economic areas, and their structure comes from the need, several years ago, to maintain ‘Objective One’ status for EU structural funds for as many counties as possible.

The sporting and political regional rivalries, that condition how we think about places, have created a zero-sum game perspective on local and regional development. This assumes that if one county or community gains, then another must lose. If one county gets a new road, a new school investment, or retains hospital services, then other counties lobby the Government for the same.

Pressure is applied and politicians are very open about the need to cater to local concerns to ensure their re-election.

Whether the goodies they deliver for their constituents are the best use of taxpayers’ money seems largely irrelevant. Regions look to the central government to provide services and to solve the problems in each area.

This is often seen when politicians and local lobby groups appear on television after a factory closure to demand the Government find a replacement investment. However, a region can grow and develop without damaging other regions. Regions don’t compete like businesses or sports teams.

Not all places can be equally well equipped to support industry and services in all sectors.

Sometimes, accidents of history or geography, can endow places with particular strengths. These are things to build upon and harness for sustainable local development.

We have city, county, and regional plans that all aspire to create, for example, high-technology, digital, and green energy sectors.

Instead, these plans should emerge from real engagement with businesses, colleges, and local stakeholders to identify what areas are good at, where opportunities lie, and what is needed to transform local strengths into viable, sustainable sectors.

The concept of smart specialisation is now widely accepted across the EU as an effective mechanism for sustainable regional development. Smart specialisation is a place-based strategy that seeks to enable regions to identify and develop their commercial and social advantages, through a bottom-up process engaging everyone in the region.

The advantage does not need to be based on cutting-edge technology or science. We have a national-level smart specialisation strategy which identified 14 priority areas for science and research funding.

The Irish strategy has no regional or spatial element. This demonstrates the lack of appetite in central government for real place-based policies.

What is clear, however, is that current approach to regional development is unlikely to generate the needed balance to the Dublin powerhouse.

Declan Jordan is director of the Spatial and Regional Economics Research Centre in Cork University Business School

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