Selecting regional cities for concentrated development is a sound strategy
Opinion: Northwest was justified in its concerns about first draft of National Planning Framework
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar launching Project Ireland 2040; the National Planning Framework and the 10 year National Development Plan at Sligo Institute of Technology. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
The National Planning Framework (NPF) aims for a more balanced regional development and seeks to address rural decline by selecting regional cities as centres for concentrated development outside Dublin. These cities should serve as energisers for regional development. This is a sound strategy. Economic growth sectors, notably those related to the informational economy, have been observed to gravitate to sizeable urban centres that provide access to producer services, infrastructural connectivity, education provision, and a quality of life for workers - requirements which can only be catered for in a select number of centres.
The NPF by necessity must make hard choices and has identified four regional centres that should grow by at least 50 percent over the next 20 years: Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford. This seems logical in that these are the main regional cities where much existing infrastructure and economic activity is already concentrated.
But the northwest of Ireland was justified in its concerns regarding the content of the first draft of the NPF. The city-led regional development strategy involved large swathes of the country being effectively overlooked by the framework. The northwest has a problem in that it is one of the most vulnerable regions, characterised by rural and peripheral decline, and it has no urban centre of the scale deemed necessary for a regional growth centre. Relying on the northwest city-region, focussed on Derry, has not been a particularly successful strategy to drive development in the northwest thus far and is unlikely to enjoy greater success in a post-Brexit landscape.
Sligo city should be nurtured as a regional centre - not because it is of the requisite size, or will reach this size during the NPF planning period, but for regionally strategic reasons. A certain level of infrastructure, quality of education, advanced producer services and quality of life are needed to support informational-type economic activities and businesses. In the absence of a centre that can provide these items, certain economic activities will not operate in the region and specific groups of workers will migrate out of the region. If these resources are lost, the region risks entering a vicious circle of regional economic decline.
In the first draft of the NPF, targeted population growth for Sligo, as a large town in the Northern and Western Regional Assembly area, was 40 per cent. With a current population of about 20,000, Sligo would still be far smaller than the other five cities by 2040. But if supported by focussed infrastructural investment, it could function as a regional centre, providing important employment opportunities in the informational economy for a large hinterland.
Most crucial is investment in connectivity - to Dublin and other cities, internationally and, as importantly, to smaller centres within its own hinterland. International air connectivity is one of the main location factors for multinational investors. The travel time to Knock Airport needs to be shortened and services out of the airport should be upgraded. Investment in the highest capacity broadband connectivity is important for companies of all sizes. At least equally important is connectivity to Sligo’s hinterland. For Sligo to have an employment function for a large hinterland, workers need to be able to commute into Sligo from that extensive hinterland.
But Sligo is already among the most congested urban centres in Ireland. Therefore, it will only work if we plan for more concentrated development in the hinterland - as opposed to one-off housing - which would allow for the provision of quality bus commuting services into Sligo.
For Sligo to function as a centre of employment, additional investment is required in urban functions, “liveability”, and focused third level education. Finally, the enterprise agencies play an important role in stimulating and directing investments to specific locations. The IDA building programme, involving advance office buildings and advance technology buildings, is a particularly strong tool. With such concentrated investment, in spite of its relatively small population, Sligo will attract investment in the important informational economy sectors and play its role in the development of the northwest of Ireland.
In the final report of the NPF, Sligo is not identified as one of Ireland’s regional cities but, although the document is careful not to use the term “designate”, Sligo is specifically identified as a regionally significant centre that should lead the growth in its region. This is important. Not because it will allow for greater population growth over the planning period, but because it will influence national investment planning, sectoral investment priorities, and the policy frameworks of government departments. It puts Sligo in a better position to compete for projects funded by the €2bn Urban Growth Fund earmarked to support compact development of urban centres. It secures continued effort of IDA Ireland to promote Sligo as a location for foreign direct investment.
Finally, it provides guidance to the Northern and Western Regional Assembly. The Regional Assembly now has the unenviable task of fleshing out the NPF in their Regional Economic and Spatial Strategy. The identification of Sligo as a regionally significant centre will make it easier for the Assembly to make politically sensitive, hard, choices at the regional level. However, the parish-pump game is yet to start at the regional level!
Dr Chris van Egeraat lectures economic geography at the Department of Geography, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, and is a member of the Ireland 2040 Ministerial Advisory Group.