It’s investment in human capital we need not €6bn in capital projects

Surely all investment should be accompanied by a highly public cost benefit analysis before we commit, writes Fergus Finlay

It’s investment in human capital we need not €6bn in capital projects

When I was 16 I commuted once a week with my father between Cork and Dublin. My dad worked in Cork then and I was doing my Leaving Cert, while the rest of the family lived in Dublin.

We’d set off for Dublin after his work on Friday in his battered Austin A40. There were no by-passes in those days, and there was a hump-backed bridge in the middle of Horse and Jockey. We still made it to Dublin in four hours, and sometimes a bit less if there were no roadworks on the Naas dual carriageway (and if the car didn’t break down – often a minor miracle).

A lot of years later, I still make that journey constantly – often up and down in the same day. The Naas dual carriageway and the Dunkettle roundabout are like two book-ends in the journey of my life. It’s much quicker now, of course (although you still allow three and a half hours for any door-to-door journey). We’ve invested billions over the years in making the journey as fast as it can possibly be.

Along the way, we’ve managed to turn it into the most boring journey on the face of the earth. I can still remember the first view on the old main road of the Rock of Cashel, or the sight of Cahir Castle’s walls looming up in front of us. All that, and more, is gone now. It’s just mile after mile of flat road.

But it’s quick enough. From the edge of Cork city you can accelerate to 120k per hour and not slow down until you reach that giant sculpture that looks like a big football as you pass Naas. Then you have to slow down a little bit – to 100k an hour – for the last 16 miles or so. No problem as long as you stay awake and alert.

So why, I wonder, are we proposing to invest more tens of millions in further upgrades to the Naas dual carriageway and further widening of the road as it passes Naas – and more still in the Dunkettle interchange? It’s very difficult to figure out how much that is going to cost, because neither the relevant government departments, nor the National Roads Authority, published figures on a cost-per-mile basis for projects like this.

But all told, we’re proposing to spend €6 billion – that’s €6,000,000,000 or if you’d like it another way, €1,305 for every man, woman and child of us – over the next five years, to make the journey faster and easier between some of our towns and cities. Westport to Turlough; Ballyvourney to Macroom; Collooney to Castlebaldwin; Dungloe to Glenties – they’re all going to get a share of it.

And at both ends of the Dublin-Cork journey, not just the Naas dual carriageway but also the Dunkettle Interchange (that’s the posh name for it) are both going to get a few tens of millions put into them. Do them both, and I reckon it might take 10 minutes off a journey that’s already quick enough.

When we’re confronted with these investment announcements, we never seem to ask why. Do we really need to have the journey from Cork to Dublin shortened by another few minutes at a cost of tens of millions? Sure, if there are major bottlenecks that make people’s live miserable and make commerce impossible, then investment might be worthwhile. But surely all such investment should be accompanied by a highly public cost benefit analysis before we commit to spending the money.

A few years ago, when money was apparently no object, we decided to build a super-duper prison somewhere north of Dublin. I think I may have been the only one in Ireland (here in the Irish Examiner) to call for a cost benefit analysis of that project. None was ever carried out. Last week the Comptroller and Auditor General reported that we had spent €50 million on the project. According to the Department of Justice, that expenditure included €30 million on the land, and €7.87 million on professional, legal, planning and other technical fees, €3.08 million on site preparation and various surveys, €500,000 on perimeter planting and €500,000 on security.

Where’s the prison? It’s not there, and it’s never going to be there. But they’ve planted trees around the perimeter.

Of course, if we had built that prison – intended to hold 1,200 prisoners – it would have cost around €100 million a year to run. That’s a billion in its first decade – and I’ve made the point here before that in its second decade we’d be starting to populate it with kids we’re neglecting now.

That’s the essence of the argument. We never question any spending on bricks and mortar in this country. In fact over the years, when we haven’t wanted to spend the money ourselves, we’ve incentivised it with tax breaks instead. We built a property bubble, of course, by never stopping to question whether it was a good idea to pour taxpayers’ money into capital project after capital project.

But we constantly query the value of investing in human capital. If you add the cost of the Dunkettle roundabout and the Naas dual carriageway together, you’d have more than enough money to make certain that every primary school child in Ireland had everything they need to give them the best possible start in life. That money would more than cover the cost of every school book you’d ever need, and it would enable every primary school in Ireland to be warm and comfortable without the need to beg voluntary contributions from hard-pressed parents.

Why are choices like that never considered? Ireland’s new Child and Family Agency was set up a little more than a year ago to deal with a crisis in child protection that we all knew about – and to deal with a long legacy of failure in this area. The first thing it was given, on day one, was a financial deficit, and now they’ve had to issue very stark warnings about what will inevitably happen if they’re not put on a proper financial footing.

I wonder has the Chief Executive of the agency, Gordon Jeyes, ever stopped to wonder how much easier his life would be if his job was building roads? All he has to do, after all, is find a way to make sure that an under-funded agency can still reach every child who needs protection from abuse or neglect, and still ensure that his people are in a position to intervene early and appropriately.

You can be absolutely certain that when Gordon Jeyes makes his case for more resources, he will be rigorously interrogated – by civil servants, ministers, and parliamentarians.

If his under-strength agency fails to protect children as we believe they should be protected, he and they will be hung out to dry.

Nobody ever gets hung out to dry if there’s a massive over-spend on a prison that never gets built.

Nobody ever gets asked serious questions about whether we need another upgrade on the road to Cork.

Why not, I wonder? Could it just possibly be that we have our priorities upside down?

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