Irish governments are often in a damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don’t position with regard to how to distribute investment. Concentrate too much on Dublin and they’re accused of neglecting the rest of the country. Distribute investment throughout the country and they’re accused of adopting the old “one for everyone in the audience” approach to buying off potential voters.
Both accusations can be unfair. Since Dublin is home to 40 percent of the country’s population, neglecting them is hardly an option, but neither is neglecting the rest of the country.
To address the issue the government has announced, with much fanfare, its Project Ireland 2040 plan. This is a national development plan aimed at putting a coherent vision around future growth. Liberal use of the word “rebalance” emphasizes the point that Dublin has reached a critical mass that is sucking in vast numbers of people from the rest of the country, and that the opportunities that attract people to the city need to be made available elsewhere.
Fianna Fail’s criticisms of the plan have been dismissed by the government as “opposition for opposition’s sake.” Michael Martin, the Fianna Fail leader, has complained about the government using taxpayer-funded “expensive marketing” to promote a plan that looks more like an election manifesto. This is somewhat harsh. In a democracy such plans require public buy-in if they are going to be a success, and it is entirely appropriate for the government to communicate its ideas clearly.
Nor is it fair for Mr Martin to criticize the government for not putting the plan to a vote in the Dail. There has already been ample public consultation over the last three years, and forty public meetings later is a bit late to be complaining about a lack of input.
So what is in the plan? It addresses ten areas.
First is the establishment of a National Regeneration and Development Agency for compact growth. The aim is to incentivize more development that is clustered together as opposed to one-off housing, or “bungalow blight,” that makes it so difficult and expensive to provide essential services. One-off housing made some sense in the days when agriculture was labor-intensive and needed large numbers of people living on the land, but today few people have a compelling reason to live in an isolated house far from any others. Elsewhere in the world, to live in the country is to live in a village where services are easier to provide.
Second is an enhanced road network to better connect towns and cities. Third is a Rural Regeneration and Development Fund of €1 billion to balance out growth between Dublin and regions, plus a National Broadband Plan to provide internet access to villages, rural areas and islands. Given the expense of building a broadband network, where delivering to larger towns makes more economic sense, this is one area where the government may have over-promised.
Fourth is a “Sustainable mobility” plan aimed at improving transport options within towns and cities. Flagship projects include the long-awaited Metro Link in Dublin, parts of DART expansion, and an overhaul the current bus system nationwide. Segregated cycling and walking facilities and networks are also included, all of which will require extensive stakeholder input. Poorly-designed bike lanes are a great way to waste money since they often go unused, but can take thousands of cars off the road when implemented properly.
Fifth is giving equal priority to encouraging local entrepreneurship as opposed to attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). If this is delivered, it will be a sensible change in policy and has the potential to make the biggest economic impact. Ireland has for too long depended on companies to do the innovating in places like Silicon Valley and then sought to attract some of the resulting ancillary jobs. While this has helped to improve employment numbers, locally-grown innovation has the potential for the next Facebook or the next Google to be an Irish endeavor. A high profile technology firm born and headquartered in Ireland would add more value to the Irish economy than the crumbs that the country currently gets from the US-based technology table.
Point six of the plan focuses on international transport links, namely airports and sea ports, and part seven deals with culture. The idea is that towns and cities need more than good roads and buildings. They need a soul, and culture is a crucial ingredient in adding to quality of life. A national cultural and sporting infrastructure plan is envisaged for towns and cities for the next decade.
Part eight is a €500m Climate Action Fund to address greenhouse gas emissions, primarily focused on the transport sector, and to shore up flood defences. Lofty ambitions here include getting half a million electric vehicles on the road by 2030, banning the purchase of diesel-only buses by July 2019, and phasing out non-zero-emission cars by 2045.
Part nine, dealing with water management, reads like a description of everything Irish Water would like to do, and interestingly the phrase “water charges” appears nowhere in the report.
Finally, part ten deals with healthcare, education, and childcare. Health gets €10.4 billion, education €8.8 billion, and childcare €0.4 billion.
When hacking through the buzzword-compliant fluff of the report, there is some good quality policy insight to be found. However a disappointing aspect is the relegation of railways in favor of roads. While some investment in roads is always welcome, it is disappointing that rail travel seems to have been treated as an afterthought. A true commitment to compact growth would have seen villages clustered around train stations such that people could potentially live in a village, work in a nearby city, and not need to use a car on a regular basis. Yet the plan spells out in great detail which roads are going to be expanded but gives railways lip service in the form of feasibility studies for high speed intercity rail and continued maintenance of existing tracks and signalling. There is not even any mention of electrification of heavy rail lines; instead we are to get more diesel-electric trains, which conflicts with environmental goals. For intra-city transport and quality-of-life improvements, bike and pedestrian infrastructure would be front and center.
Critics have said that Project Ireland 2040 is a repackaging of existing spending plans, and there is some justification to that. While it shows some areas of promise, it is not as visionary as Leo Varadkar would have us believe.