Complacency over regional investment must be arrested

In Britain over the past 90 years there has been a structural shift in economic activity and populations away from regional cities and towards London, writes Joe Gill

The population of Manchester is down 25%, in Liverpool it has slid almost 40% and in Glasgow it is over 40% below levels at the beginning of the 20th century. At the same time the London population has mushroomed.

This phenomenon is evident in Ireland, too, whereby Dublin continues to thrive while regional cities, including Cork and Limerick, languish behind. It is tempting to accept this change as a given that cannot be reversed but I beg to differ.

Technology and politics are the weapons to deploy if a more balanced economic and social future is to be engineered in Ireland and other countries.

The prize worth fighting for is an empowered regional focus that brings jobs and prosperity to areas in dire need of an injection.

The logic behind a more radical approach to regional development is inescapable. Cities like Cork are less expensive to live in and have quality of life attributes that are often better than in the capital.

Housing is cheaper and ample land exists on which the city’s footprint can be expanded. An entire landbank exists on the waterfront close to the centre that is ripe for development too.

It seems often ignored that a city like Cork offers identical financial attractions for foreign direct investment to those in Dublin. The corporate tax regime is the same, IDA support is clear and political interest in attracting investors to Cork is high.

Moreover, some of the leading global IT companies are already running EMEA operations from Cork. If the likes of Apple and Dell EMC find the communications infrastructure competitive why not others?

Despite these facts the pace of expansion in Cork, Limerick and Galway seems to be lagging that of Dublin. The centre of gravity in large scale investment projects continues to revolve around the capital. This marks a failure somewhere in the institutional system that needs to be addressed urgently.

Complacency could be part of the problem. Because the Irish economy is far exceeding the projections that were in place after the global financial crisis, a sense of urgency around economic development has faded.

With Dublin booming, and most of the population resident there, it is easy to see why the political system is accepting of the status quo. That is a dangerous mistake.

Without a fundamental shift in the collective mindset of civil servants and politicians, Dublin is at risk of overcrowding and pricing itself out of the international fight for new foreign investment.

A more enlightened campaign to diversify the stream of investments to areas that keep new companies hyper competitive in the global marketplace is urgently required.

We could start with large IT companies located in Dublin that are contemplating expansion. How hard can it be to convince them that having a facility less than three hours away in the same time zone but in a location far cheaper to operate from is attractive?

Why is it that we do not hear ever louder voices from the cities outside Dublin advancing credible fact-based analysis asking why more is not happening in the regions?

Are we creating an Ireland that after the horrors of 2008-2011 has reverted to an increasingly Dublin-centric agenda? Has too much power returned to civil servants in Dublin who simply cannot avoid the bias that such positioning entails?

If so, we need stronger and more emboldened voices to avoid the vortex created around Dublin which is at risk of sucking oxygen out of the regions.

Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.


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