John FitzGerald: attractive urban centre key to regional development

Skilled professionals can only to be lured to locations which offer careers with lifestyles

Dublin Castle during Culture Night in 2016: in choosing where to settle down, individuals will consider the range of job opportunities and the potential lifestyle. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Dublin Castle during Culture Night in 2016: in choosing where to settle down, individuals will consider the range of job opportunities and the potential lifestyle. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

One of the little appreciated features of the Celtic Tiger years was the fact that employment grew even more rapidly in regions outside Dublin than in the capital itself. While in the early years, up to 1998, Dublin grew faster, in the latter years of the boom, the rest of Ireland – especially the Border Midland and Western (BMW) region – outpaced Dublin.

Between 1993 and 2007, employment nationally and in the BMW region grew by 83 per cent, while employment growth in Dublin was 75 per cent.

Some of the growth outside Dublin reflected a “greater Dublin” effect: employment in the Midland and the Mid-East regions more than doubled. Thus, measured in terms of employment, the Celtic Tiger years saw pretty balanced regional development.

While the financial crisis had a more adverse impact on the BMW region than on Dublin, if the current recovery follows the pattern of the 1990s, Dublin’s earlier bounce-back may be followed by a catch-up in the other regions.

However, the adverse effects of Brexit may affect regional Ireland worse, while Dublin may capitalise on any transfer of financial services. A new tightly focused National Spatial Strategy will be needed to counterbalance any differential regional impact of Brexit.

Graduate employment, which has risen steadily since the early 1990s, even through the recession, is closely related to the rise in importance of the skilled services sectors, such as IT, business, and accountancy services. These services predominantly choose to locate in our cities, where they have a range of talent to draw on.

Growth model

A generation ago, growth was predominantly based on manufacturing – government could promote regional development by nudging factories to locate in towns like Killarney or Letterkenny. Today, the changing nature of employment, and the importance of skilled services to our growth model, makes things rather different.

A crucial factor for such businesses in choosing where to locate is where they will be able to get a pool of suitably qualified employees with a diverse mix of skills. In turn, this means that these firms will gravitate to places where graduate employees want to live.

In choosing where to settle down, individuals will consider the range of job opportunities and the potential lifestyle, and not just where they grew up. The choice of location for their first venture into the work place often spans the globe.

For the generation reaching adulthood today, their aspirations are difficult to meet outside cities, especially as they tend to come as couples. Finding jobs for both a biochemist and a lawyer or an accountant and nurse in one location can only really be met in cities or large towns.

It is not just in Ireland that young graduates are tending to seek city life. This is true across Europe. For example, smaller urban centres, such as Milton Keynes in the UK, are losing out among the younger generation to city living.

As in the Celtic Tiger years, Dublin’s success will be the essential driver of growth: Dublin is not competing with the rest of the State.

Under these circumstances, a strategy for balanced regional development must promote the complementary growth of cities outside Dublin: Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford. (Derry could play a key role in the northwest but its development is the responsibility of Northern Ireland.) Only these cities really have the scale and diversity of resources, including cultural resources, to potentially attract large numbers of young people, wherever they grew up. A new National Spatial Strategy needs to concentrate on making these cities attractive to employees and employers alike.

Liveable communities

However, while developing a small number of cities will be crucial to achieving balanced regional development, resources also need to be invested in making the other towns in Ireland attractive to live in, so they can share in the growth story. This will require a combination of local community initiatives with public and private investment, to create attractive liveable communities.

The Tidy Towns competition has transformed the appearance of many of our towns and villages, drawing on strong volunteer efforts. There are also excellent examples in the arts where communities have mobilised and created more exciting places to live. We need to build on the local dynamism that such efforts have unleashed. The Government’s “Action Plan for Rural Development” offers a promising start in that respect.

If we are to attract our young adults from the bright lights of Sydney or Berlin to make their life in Ireland’s regions, we need to offer vibrant attractive places to live.

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