The National Planning Framework focuses on Dublin to the detriment of the regions. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be, says the ex-minister who initiated it, Alan Kelly.

It’s fair to say that, instead of giving us a satellite view of what a new and well-planned Ireland would look like, the recently published National Planning Framework (NFP) draft has collapsed like a punctured balloon.

It gives me personally no satisfaction to say this, not least being the then minister who initiated the process, but the much-anticipated NPF is a bit like those Halloween pumpkins we all lit last Tuesday week; looks good on approach but pretty much empty inside.

The expectation was so different. It was to be the plan that would ensure our nation would be developed through investment and infrastructure in a sustainable way so that current crises such as those affecting our health services, homelessness, and, for large swathes of the country, jobs, would not be endured again.

Last December, when my immediate successor in office, Simon Coveney, began to roll out the vision for NPF Ireland 2040, there was universal excitement about the prospect. He talked of the 1m population growth for the timeframe of the plan, but, moreover, how three-quarters of the growth would take place outside Dublin.

In counties that have seen a limited bounce from the economic recovery, there was a sense that the future would, at least, be sorted. And for Dublin, too, there was a promise to lift the chaos and congestion, making it one of Europe’s most liveable cities.

Counties, including my own Tipperary, as well as large stretches of coastal Ireland, particularly the Atlantic seaboard, were finally getting their share.

We could forgive what had happened across the early years of the recovery; a bit like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke, it was all about plugging holes left by the previous administration that led us into economic chaos. But now, with the leaks filled, it was time to step back and look ahead. It was time to plan for the future.

The NPF would be the blueprint. It would set out how we would build Ireland as one of Europe’s great regionally balanced economies.

What has emerged in the first draft, however, has been underwhelming. If it comes to pass, the boy will be busy again, plugging leaks all across the capital and its commuter belt as it bursts at the seams.

If we wanted to get an idea of just how close we are to the Dublin bubble bursting, all we have to do is look across the water. There’s a clamour growing in Britain to stop London from sucking in the rest of the nation’s economy. Yet Dublin, according to Dublin Chamber’s website, boasts 40% of Ireland’s GDP — London accounts for 20% of Britain’s. Go figure!

Also outrageous, the NPF proposes setting the population threshold for urban status at 10,000 people. In my own county, that would mean that not a single town, save for Clonmel, would qualify for town-related development and the consequent potential of inward investment, jobs and growth. Have the authors of this document ever even driven beyond the Pale? Do they not know that the rest of Ireland is made of towns and villages, none of whom can be denied the right to growth?

Take the town I went to school in, Nenagh, which is home to approximately 9,000 residents. This is a thriving business town with a good agriculture and tourism hinterland. It is 14 minutes from Limerick by road now. Nenagh has attracted the world’s largest fintech company, First Data, to set up its European research and development headquarters there. Yet it would come under this ‘rural town’ classification. Crazy.

For me, to plan an economically sustainable Ireland, with an even geographical spread, you must firstly look at where you want your growth to take place.

The NPF is suspiciously vague in that regard. It introduces into national planning, for example, a region called ‘Eastern & Midlands’, running from Dublin to Longford. For me, that merely disguises a reality that perhaps up to half of the 1m population growth is going to happen in what we would consider Dublin and its commuter belt — which includes counties Wicklow, Kildare, Meath, and Louth, and is seeping into Laois, Westmeath, and Cavan.

If that is to happen — and there’s absolutely nothing in the NPF that targets its avoidance — it will be twice the projected growth for Waterford, Cork, Limerick, and Galway combined.

Aviation is one of the great influencers of regional economic growth but the only airport for which any recommendation is set out in the NPF is — yes, you guess right — Dublin, set to benefit from NPF support for proposals around the development of additional runway and terminal facilities as well as the Metro North.

Dublin Airport is currently eating up Shannon, Cork, Knock, and other airports’ business, its market share rising to 85% over recent years. And what does the NPF do? It suggests more of the same. Yet we know that more than 40% of US FDI, for example, is serviced by Shannon Airport.

It may be no coincidence either that the politicians with the biggest role in this are Taoiseach Leo Varadkar,Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government Eoghan Murphy, Transport Minister Shane Ross, Enterprise and Innovation Minister Frances Fitzgerald, and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. The Dublin five.

We’re being walked by them into a future where Dublin gets bigger and more chaotic and more expensive — and the regions struggle.

  • Alan Kelly is a Labour Party TD


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