Ireland’s regional imbalance needs to be addressed with targeted investment and infrastructure improvements
Where Ireland is now
Ireland is becoming a city state. The population size of Dublin in proportion to the rest of the country is decidedly imbalanced in comparison with other countries in Europe. Economic vitality, investment, infrastructure and population are concentrating in the Greater Dublin Area. Dublin is overheating, much of the east coast is a commuter belt sprawl without necessary public transport and the west and border region is emptying. In the north of Ireland west of the Bann suffers significantly from lack of investment and infrastructure. Centralisation is suffocating the capacity of regions and communities to promote enterprise creation and to plan for sustainable development based on their own embedded strengths. Decisions on revenue and investment are almost wholly outside of their control.
Young people are relocating at startling rates from rural areas to large urban areas, mainly to Dublin and Belfast. This relocation is driven by the concentration of jobs in these cities and the necessity for young professional couples to achieve two incomes to buy a house.
This population shift is leading to a parallel migration of services. It is estimated that currently 500 Post Offices are economically unsustainable. 139 Garda Stations have been closed. We have also seen the closure of many banks, shops and pubs in rural Ireland. Schools are closing in the west leading to pressure and new builds on the east coast.
Infrastructural funding must meet the needs of today’s demand for sure, but it also needs to disrupt trends and create and anticipate future demand. The government must decouple the strict relationship between infrastructural investment and current demand. What is occurring across rural Ireland is a consequence of the neglect and underinvestment of the government in these regions; running down the population and capabilities of towns on the basis of centralisation, and flawed planning and spatial strategies. Aontú will campaign to reverse this deeply negative process and spearhead the revitalisation of rural Ireland, including ensuring that these needs are incorporated into the European Regional Development Fund and European Social Fund after 2020, while ensuring Dublin continues to be a great international city with sustainable levels of growth.
National Infrastructure funding must meet the need for homes, jobs and ICT services countrywide. It must also dampen existing unsustainable trends and anticipate, as well as plan for, future demand. Aontú’s priorities are shaped by key trends and opportunities, specifically:
Dublin is a great international city. It is in many ways the economic engine of the state. We must ensure its continued development and growth, however this must happen in a sustainable fashion. Dublin has already become overheated resulting in a shortage of housing, inadequate water supply, unaffordable rents and severe traffic congestion. The M50 is already unfit for purpose; taking both the inward and outward city traffic as well as the north-south traffic flows and the arterial routes to the rest of the country. An accident on the M50 disrupts all of these traffic flows at once and movement comes to a standstill. Within the Greater Dublin Area infrastructure must be provided to meet demand and the National Transport Authority needs to apportion investment to immediate needs.
The Construction Industry Federation stated that in terms of the south of Ireland, the greater Dublin region attracts 48% of all infrastructural spending such as roads, including motorways, rail and utilities. Large urban populations such as Cork and Limerick came 5th and 8th respectively in the distribution of infrastructural spend. This infrastructural imbalance needs to be addressed with a higher regional investment, this would energise the regional hubs that can then support Dublin in its position as a strong capital city in a European and global economy.
The island of Ireland can expect to hit a population of 10 million by 2050. We need an ambitious plan to ensure that this expansion of the population occurs in a balanced way that addresses existing regional disparities in jobs, per capita incomes and service provision.
Ireland is second from the bottom of the EU in infrastructure spend. A renewal of disadvantaged regions which have not benefitted proportionately from government EU funded spending will require significant additional investment. The key to resolving this imbalance lies in significantly increased investment regionally. Firstly existing infrastructural demands need to be met. Infrastructure also needs to be built to disrupt current demand patterns and provide for future spatially balanced demand that does not exist currently. A special formula or weighting mechanism must also be provided for the provision of infrastructure in strategic locations in the rest of the state.
The Regions – Urban
To counteract the over-dominance of Dublin and Belfast on the social and economic development of the island, Aontú believes that the National Planning Framework should consider the development of two major international cities in the western sector of the island that have the necessary economic and population mass, to be internationally competitive in their own right and to energise their own regions. The selection of these International Objective Cities is of course politically fraught. Their selection needs to be on the basis of independent competition. The spatial criteria for this competition should be decided upon by international planning experts.
Denmark had found itself in similar demographic distribution difficulties and yet it has achieved its aim of developing Aarhus, a new significant urban centre able to act as a balance to Copenhagen.
The urban areas outside of Dublin should be the framework for four Development Designations as follows:
International Objective Cities
Two International Objective Cities should be developed. One in the North of Ireland and one in the South of Ireland. These cities should become the default cities for new technology, infrastructural innovations and pilots. A specific Spatial Development Fund for infrastructural investment should be focused on these two cities. It should include the necessary road, rail, air, water, waste, energy and communications infrastructure that supports them.
National Objective City
These cities will act as an economic substructure to the International Objective Cities in a mutually energising economic relationship. There should be no more than three of these cities selected.
Regional Development City/Town
These towns will ensure an even spread of the social and fiscal benefits that come from effectively planned and costed decentralisation. It is important that no region should be left behind at this level. There should be no more than 4 of these cities/towns.
County Development Town
No county should have to face the next 20 years without an opportunity to grow. As a result, each county that has not met the criteria of the previous 4 categories will have the town best suited to growth within it designated as an Opportunity Town.
The four levels of development create a sustainable and balanced economy using a viable grading of infrastructure spread across the country in a way that fosters both rural and urban areas, allowing each to grow to their best potential economically while not overheating one location. This would re-energise rural living and provide jobs and housing demand in areas currently struggling to offer local populations opportunities.
The Regions: Rural Ireland and the Agri-economy
Agriculture which remains the backbone of rural areas is flatlining. According to Teagasc only 37% of farmers are independently economically sustainable. The small number of very large factories and retail chains leverage enormous supply power over farmers thereby dictating prices. Added to this, Area Aid is distributed in a manner that favours larger farmers. For rural Ireland to remain sustainable it is important to make small and medium size farming economically viable. This requires farmers receiving a larger proportion of the income that they generate. This can be achieved by the development of farmer co-operatives and fairer supplier-buyer profit splits, as well as expanding more into foreign markets and alternative or supplementary enterprise such as energy.
Given the untapped natural energy resources farmers could avail of, it is ludicrous that no feed in tariffs have been created by the government to allow farmers to supplement their incomes from anaerobic digestion, bio energy, solar or small scale wind generation. This results in Bord na Móna importing millions of euro of biomass every year. Farmers are well placed to meet a portion of Ireland’s energy needs. Small scale wind generation, solar power, bio energy and bio digestion can be integrated into traditional farming practices and add significant income to farming families. The urgent creation of a feed-in tariff is needed to allow this sector to develop.
There is also a steady flight of young couples to the Greater Dublin Region leading to a significant age gap between east and west. The average age of a person in Killarney is ten years older than that of someone living in Balbriggan. This demographic reprofiling is subverting farming and the agri-economy across rural Ireland. In addition, it is contributing to an erosion of the capacity of rural farming communities to develop competitiveness in specialised niches including organis farming. Aontú advocates a significant expansion of the Organic Farming Scheme.
An Post management have declared that 500 post offices are not economically sustainable. 139 Garda stations have been closed. Credit Unions have been prevented from matching the billions of euro at their disposal with housing needs and rural business development.
Broadband speeds in certain parts of the country are up to 36 times slower than other areas in the state which is seriously hindering economic progress in the regions. Yet the government do not seek to accelerate the Broadband delivery date and cannot guarantee that we will all be connected by 2022.
The Western Development Commission is a successful development organisation and the government should consider the rolling out of this structure to other regional and rural areas.
Additional Investment Micro-initiatives on an all Island basis
Aontú urge a number of specific initiatives to complement and reinforce our Regional and Spatial strategy, including an all island dimension.
Both Governments should immediately release the promised funding for the Dublin to Derry (N2/A5) dual carriageway.
A cost benefit analysis of the Sligo to Greenore Port, Dundalk route needs to be undertaken including the N16/A4 (Sligo to Ballygawley) road section.
An Island wide Flood Defence Plan must be developed. Many of the border areas currently suffer from a lack of joint management of rivers and flood plains.
An Island wide Coastal Erosion Management Plan must be developed.
An island wide National Greenway and Blueway Plan should be included.
Establish an Island wide strategy that seeks to develop our local water ports.
Establish an Island wide strategy that seeks to develop our local water ports. Investment and upgrading of Rosslare Europort. In the context of Brexit, this port is our closest point to the European mainland. It needs to be upgraded to become a Tier One port and management of the port should be taken from Irish Rail and vested in a publicly owned Port Authority.
The Dublin to Belfast rail route needs to be upgraded to an hourly service and the morning service into Belfast does not allow for citizens to attend 9am meetings in Belfast. This is in contrasted to the Edinburgh to Glasgow route which has a 15 minute service.
Create Memorandums of Understanding between third level education institutes on both sides of the border to identify what shared services could be provided more efficiently.
Educational Training Boards and Local Enterprise Offices in the South to plan, deliver and accept applicants on an All-Island basis
There must be All Island Spatial Planning and Development. A joint spatial planning process drawing from both parts of the island would benefit from the harmonisation and integration of key datasets such as population, employment, transportation, housing, retailing and environmental indicators.
Aontú supports the conducting of a feasibility study into a high speed rail connection along the Derry-Belfast-Dublin-Cork line.
Government Departments in both jurisdictions need to be directed at a statutory level to collaborate and proof development on an All-Island basis. Local Authorities north and south need to be jointly responsible for achieving national and regional spatial planning objectives through the delivery of local plans, programmes and projects. The Local Authorities who are responsible for the 11 Border counties need also to be directed on a statutory level to collaborate and proof development on an All-Island basis.
Border Development Zone
The Irish Border runs for a total of 499 kilometres from Lough Foyle in Donegal to Carlingford Lough in County Louth. The creation of the Border had the effect of cutting off hinterlands from their market towns and cities and creating two separate economic jurisdictions where originally there was one. This particular region is also most affected by the Troubles and Brexit is an immediate threat to this region.
Distance and Remote Work
Many jobs and professional roles can now be delivered remotely by workers. This provides advantages to employers in that it can reduce accommodation overheads. It also relieves transportation congestion, reduces CO2 emissions, reduces housing pressure in cities and can breathe new life into rural communities. There are examples around the state where it has been achieved in a structured hub based system. This is useful as it allows for cross pollination of ideas amongst workers. It also can happen with workers working from home. The key ingredient is good telecommunications infrastructure. Broadband needs to be upgraded significantly across regional Ireland in order to facilitate and support remote working, both in rural areas and in town based hubs. It is unacceptable that the government do not seek to accelerate the Broadband delivery date and cannot guarantee universal connectivity by 2022.
All Ireland Agriculture Market
Brexit is a significant threat to agriculture in the whole of Ireland. If the north of Ireland is taken out of the EU the agriculture sector in the north of Ireland will operate under different regulations. This will mean that products will have to be stopped and checked along the border. This will radically damage a whole range of industries from beef to milk powder. The government must ensure that the north of Ireland operates under the same regulatory system as the south.
International Trade Agreements
A number of international trade agreements from CETA to the Mercursor negotiations seek to allow access to the EU market of tens of thousands of tonnes of beef and other agricultural products from Canada and South America. These products will not be produced under the same regulatory standards as Irish agricultural produce, and so to allow these products into our market makes it considerably more difficult for Irish farmers to sell their produce while undermining our own required standards. It is important that competition function on a level playing field and that sub regulatory product not be allowed access to the EU market.
Sustainable Towns and Villages
Out of town shopping centres have contributed to the empting of towns and villages. This is due in part due to free and abundant car parking. It is necessary for the government to consider imposing a commercial rate on out of town car parking spaces. It is also necessary for the government to consider the inclusion within the business rate of a financial weighting to incentivise businesses to operate in certain locations.
Dereliction and Vacancy
Dereliction and Vacancy is gutting many towns and villages in rural Ireland. Massive housing need sits side by side with empty houses and vacant commercial units. These buildings blight towns and villages and fuel antisocial behaviour, vandalism and crime. The government should introduce funding and grants in order to bring housing units back onto the market. A vacant house tax and a stronger vacant site tax should be implemented immediately.
New Internet Shopping Networks
Retail is migrating online. This is having a negative effect on business in general in Ireland as the majority of this retail is to locations outside of Ireland. It is also negatively affecting rural retail centres. Local Enterprise Offices should be tasked with helping towns provide online retail platforms for local retail outlets. The provision of broadband in rural areas is also important to allow these platforms to compete.
Current sources of commercial investment are naturally impatient. They seek repayment timelines that do not necessarily suit long term rural development projects. The state needs to introduce a culture of prudent ‘Patient Investments’ in certain rural projects. Credit Unions are currently highly regulated and are prevented from participating in large areas of banking activity. It is necessary for the government to help provide the management and governance expertise to the Credit Unions to facilitate the development of critical mass within the sector and to allow them to meet the needs of people in rural areas.
Outreach University Campuses
3rd Level Education is a significant driver of enterprise development. The lack of 3rd Level Education in certain regions is one of the causes of ‘youth flight’. Encouraging 3rd Level Institutions to provide outreach campuses in regional towns would allow for young people to remain living in local areas and could facilitate the development of enterprise and industry in those same areas.