New city is pie in the sky, we should build on what we have
Ciarán Hancock: Cork and Limerick are ripe for expansion
As part of the national framework planning, it has been mooted at various stages that a new city might be created.
Having taken over as Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government in the recent Cabinet reshuffle, Eoghan Murphy now finds himself responsible for developing a national planning framework out to 2040.
This plan was first announced by his predecessor Simon Coveney, with a central aim being to achieve regional economic balance. This would have two positive impacts by taking the pressure off the greater Dublin area, which is groaning under the strain of various infrastructure shortcomings, while promoting development in the regions.
Some cynics from the midwest that I’ve spoken to have wondered why regional development has been left to a Minister whose constituency office is situated in the leafy suburb of Ranelagh but his advisers assure me that he’s a Minister for all of Ireland and not just Dublin 6.
It is perhaps more pertinent to wonder if Murphy should be charged with mapping out the new Ireland into the long term, when he also has the substantial task of solving the housing crisis in the here and now.
Anyway, he briefed his Cabinet colleagues on the plan last week. The backdrop to this exercise is that the population is forecast to grow by 900,000 or 19 per cent by 2040, and, since the crash in late 2008, Dublin has taken an even bigger slice of the national pie with other parts of the country being left behind as the economy continues to recover.
Dublin’s population is estimated at 1.35 million and growing and it currently accounts for 38 per cent of the population.
As part of the national framework planning, it has been mooted at various stages that a new city might be created, with the midlands and Sligo floated as possible locations.
This would make no sense. With a population of just 4.8 million, the last thing the Republic needs is a new city.
Instead, the focus should be on developing what we already have. The Cork-Limerick corridor is the obvious counterbalance, possibly extending north to Galway.
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Census figures show Cork and Limerick have a combined population of 183,941 while the county council areas have an aggregate 553,430. Put them together and you have a combined population of 737,371.
And with Cork being the largest county in Ireland in terms of square kilometres there’s plenty of scope for growth.
The area is book-ended by international airports (Cork and Shannon) with connections to Europe and the United States (helped by the recent launch of low-cost services by Norwegian), large ports (Cork and Foynes), good universities (University College Cork and University of Limerick) and institutes of technology, and excellent motorway connections to Dublin.
The obvious infrastructure deficit is the long-talked-about M20 motorway between the two cities, but that now seems to be a priority for the Government.
There are also existing clusters of industries both domestic and multinational, including in agri-foods, aviation, financial services and pharma/biotech. Not to mention tourism.
Houses are also cheaper, and commuting is a lot less stressful and time-consuming than in the capital.
The other question is what to do with the northwest, notably Donegal, which is geographically challenged in relation to the rest of the country.
The county is clearly a hotbed for enterprise as evidenced by the success of Ardara-based food company Promise Gluten Free, which this week sold a majority stake to Mayfair Equity Partners in a deal valued in the tens of millions of euro. The company has quietly built a workforce of 200 and is now well positioned for further growth.
Tourists also rave about Donegal but getting them there is a challenge, with no rail link to Dublin and only a small regional airport in the county.
The obvious solution is to create a stronger cross-Border economic link with Derry but Brexit and the current stalemate in the Northern Ireland executive have massively complicated that issue.
Murphy has plenty to ponder as he charts his plans for regional development. It is set to be linked to the Government’s 10-year capital plan for infrastructural development, which could form a central plank of Paschal Donohoe’s Budget 2018 speech.
Either way, we’ll have a better idea of the shape of the plan by the end of this year.
Whether or not the minority government gets to execute its new regional strategy remains to be seen. Fianna Fáil might force an election before Murphy’s plan ever sees the light of day. Of course, Micheál Martin would require the support of Independents or other parties to become taoiseach.
No doubt the Healy-Rae brothers would be happy to assist him in drafting a new national framework in return for their support. No better men to build new roads or other infrastructure on behalf of taxpayers.