General elections can be frustrating for those who care about balanced regional development.
The campaign highlights the damaging mindset that underpins how we think about regional growth and prosperity.
Outside of election campaigns, there are often commitments to supporting the regions and to providing a counterbalance to the greater Dublin area. The emptiness of these commitments is laid bare in the cold light of an election.
Regional development in Ireland seems to be another term for redistribution. In this view of regional policy, central government’s role is to share out the fruits of economic growth. This is done with an eye on marginal seats and, where the electoral arithmetic is tight, on appeasing vocal independents.
On the other side, the role of public representatives is to grab as much as they can for their constituents. They are seen to have ‘delivered’ when they can demonstrate what they got from Dublin. Ideally, it is more than they got in neighbouring regions.
Politicians from all parties will push leaflets through letterboxes to claim credit for new facilities and infrastructure in their constituency. The implicit, and sometimes explicit, message is that the candidate is the one to send to Dublin to bring back the goodies.
This redistributive view of regional development is damaging for several reasons. It distorts how we decide to most fairly allocate resources to benefit as many people as we can and it produces a dependency narrative within the regions that their growth depends on what they get from Dublin.
For our regions to prosper and to develop an economic counterbalance to Dublin, we need to have greater decentralisation of power to the regions.
Ireland is among the most politically and economically centralised countries in the OECD. There is strong evidence that countries with more centralised power have higher levels of regional inequality. This decentralisation must be more than the redeployment of public servants and state agencies outside of Dublin.
It must mean that decisions are made at the lowest regional level possible.
Decisions that affect people’s lives must be made at the appropriate level. Some types of decisions must be made at national level.
There are other decisions that are best made at a regional level, such as those on enterprise supports, local transport, housing provision, and local taxation.
Each region has different strengths and potential and regional policy must be focused on allowing each region to realise that potential. There isn’t a zero-sum game here. Regions are not competing with each other, except in the current model where they compete for centrally controlling funding.
Regional and city-level policymakers should be responsible for sustainable and appropriate local transport networks, including active commuting and public transport routes. Central government and local representatives continue to see motorways and ring roads as elements of regional development.
It seems the climate emergency and the problems of car dependency and sprawl are not something to be worried about when there are votes to be had.
It would be heartening in this election campaign for us to debate what real regional development looks like and how it can be achieved. Based on the campaign so far, I have very little hope thatthis will happen and that scissors and ribbon will remain one of the important tools for public representatives.
Declan Jordan is director of the Spatial and Regional Economics Research Centre at Cork University Business School