Regional development plans: A real chance to build a fairer society

In a world of pressing uncertainties is seems reasonable to suggest that we can rely on ever fewer bulwarks — international, national, social, political, religious, cultural or even personal — to endure.

One continuum we can rely on though is the relentless, ultimately self-destructive acceleration in human population growth and the challenges that pressure-cooker world will bring.

Fifty years ago, when a blind Éamon de Valera inspected the guard of honour at celebrations marking 1916, the world’s population stood at 3.4bn. This year, as the 1916 centenary was celebrated that population reached 7.5bn.

Demographers predict that by the time our children will, if they even choose to, mark 1916’s 150th anniversary the world’s population will have passed the 10bn threshold. As climate change and water supply issues make more land — and seas — on this finite, bruised planet unproductive and eventually uninhabitable that population will be concentrated on ever smaller liveable areas.

Cities, like most of those on this island, built around estuaries seem particularly vulnerable in the longer-term.

We are not immune. A similar explosion in population is anticipated on this small island, one that imports around 90% of its energy and is not food independent. Today’s population stands at 4.6m but that will increase by something around 1m before 2040.

If that growth follows today’s pattern and is concentrated around Dublin the unhealthy imbalance apparent today will be exacerbated. This challenge, a known unknown, has the capacity to cause huge difficulties so it is reassuring that a new “national planning framework” is about to be finalised to try to cope with tomorrow’s world.

Minster for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney proposes that regional cities will be the focus of expansion plans stretching over the next quarter of a century. A new Midlands city is a possibility in a series of measures designed to drive regional growth.

This scale of this imagining is as necessary as it is welcome but it will be judged against the last grand scheme intended to reshape the country — Charlie McCreevy’s ruinous festival of patronage fondly known as decentralisation. We cannot afford another fiasco like that and the lessons it offered must be applied irrespective of which lobby group squeals “foul”.

One of those lessons is that “the market” cannot be relied on to provide housing. The homelessness scandal confirms that and the shameful Christmas food queues underlined it.

To achieve the admirable targets Mr Coveney seems to have set it will be necessary to reorder relationships. Planning laws will have to be reformed to make them less cumbersome but the protections they offer citizens cannot be diluted, indeed they may need to be strengthened.

The property rights regarded as sacred, especially those that facilitate the hoarding of development land contrary to the common good, must be matched with tax initiatives that make this kind of exploitation unattractive.

Mr Coveney’s plans to rebuild the country may offer an even more important opportunity— the chance to remake it in a fairer, better way. Let’s hope that the opportunity, like so many others, is not wasted.


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