Project Ireland 2040: Substantial . . . and full of waffle

Pat Leahy: Success will eventually come down to the nitty-gritty of implementation

Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan discuss the needs of rural Ireland versus Dublin as the National Plan 2040 is released by the government. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

Part hype, part hope, part genuine effort to do things differently in an area in which Ireland has conspicuously failed in the past, Project Ireland 2040, the long-term planning and investment framework launched by the Government yesterday, is, Ministers say, the most important thing they will do in their term of office.

It is certainly comprehensive, running to two documents – a combined 300 or so pages – and encompassing plans that run for more than 20 years and investment pledges that over 10 years commit a whopping €116 billion.

But plans, like governments, come and go. And this plan, more even than its many predecessors, will only be as successful as the nitty-gritty of implementation makes it.

An awful lot of the projects had already been signalled, announced, heralded and flogged to death by Ministers and TDs

The full force of the Government’s considerable communications artillery was brought to bear on the launch of the plan, in Sligo, where Ministers vied to outdo one another in their praise for the historic nature of the undertaking. “A future of wellbeing, equality and opportunity,” boomed one of the (several) promotional videos. This is the trouble with the marketing-and-public-relations approach to politics. It always gets carried away with itself before long.

Instant judgments are the clumsy weapons of political debate and the requirement of commentary. They are usually incomplete. The documents published yesterday are substantial, comprehensive and far reaching; they are also repetitive and full of waffle. The development plan – all €116 billion of it – contains an awful lot of projects that have already been signalled, announced, heralded and flogged to death on local media by Ministers and TDs, and not all of them from this Government or the last one, either. The Government has thrown the kitchen sink at it.

But, for all that, it’s not the Marshall Plan, either.

Even on the dizzying numbers, some realism is required. Capital spending of €116 billion over the next decade sounds like an awful lot of money. And it is. But in reality the increase in funding is steady rather than spectacular, rising from 2.9 per cent of national income this year to 4.1 per cent in 2027. That’s a fair increase, but for a country whose capital investment was slashed during the austerity years it’s hardly breathtaking.

Conscious of the deadly political charge of ignoring parts of the country, the reports’ authors were careful to list dozens of projects and priorities that stretch across all regions.

To that extent there is something for everyone in the audience, but the big prizes, and the major strategic moves, are much more targeted. If that balance was predictable, it is both necessary and well executed.

There is guff aplenty. “Mechanisms will be put in place to ensure a plan-led and delivery-focused approach to securing compact growth, including sectoral investment in infrastructure and place-making initiatives to make it very attractive to deliver the homes and job locations that people want in our established city, town and village cores, and in both urban and rural settings.”

The planning framework is littered with such platitudes. Harmless enough, perhaps, but hardly a road map for the future.

More important is the establishment of a “National Regeneration and Development Agency”, which will be pivotal in translating that well-intentioned guff into rules and decisions that some people may not like. Which is why the role has been given to a new quango, often the mechanism of choice for governments contemplating difficult but necessary jobs. Think Irish Water, think Nama. The statutory empowerment and independence of this agency will be essential if the plans announced yesterday are to make the difference the Government intends.

At least some of the plan’s lofty aspirations will be mugged by reality. Some of them, such as the national broadband plan, already have been

The plan is not a juddering break with the past, whatever Ministers say. It says, for example, that 40 per cent of all new housing should be built in the existing built-up areas of cities, towns and villages, on infill or brownfield sites. But that still means 60 per cent of new homes will continue to be built at the edge of existing towns and cities and in rural areas.

It will be another year before regional plans are produced, and local plans won’t come until after that. So there’ll be a few years of development – and several billion euro – that the plan won’t cover.

At least some of the plan’s lofty aspirations will be mugged by reality. Some of them already have been. Here’s national policy objective 24: “Support and facilitate delivery of the National Broadband Plan as a means of developing further opportunities for enterprise, employment, education, innovation and skills development for those who live and work in rural areas.” You can see how well that’s going.

Perhaps a bigger danger is that an economic downturn, even a temporary one, ends up with capital funding’s being slashed. That’s certainly what has happened in the past.

Such heretical thoughts were nowhere to be seen in the Sligo extravaganza. As the Taoiseach said: “We now have a 20-year framework for planning that will match people, places and potential across the whole country. Today, in announcing its publication, I look forward to its full implementation for the benefit of people and communities all over this country.”

Though, actually, that wasn’t Leo Varadkar yesterday. It was Bertie Ahern at the launch of the National Spatial Strategy in 2002. He and his government completely ignored that in the years that followed. It isn’t the well-choreographed and energetically tweeted announcement that will decide the success or failure of this plan: it is how the Government and public bodies and agencies follow it in the future.

The significant thing is the combination of planning and politics – planning for the future combined with the political imperative of delivering projects and investment around the country. It’s trying to achieve this in accordance with a coherent strategy. How robust will this be? Will the Government and its agencies insist on difficult and unpopular decisions? That’s impossible to tell.

But it is at least a promise to do so, and a road map, however incomplete, for movement towards that goal. It deserves a cautious and critical welcome.