Cork’s small problem: the real issue for the real capital is its size

‘Any notion that Cork is in some sense a “chosen land” is preposterous’

Earlier this year, Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly appointed an independent committee to make recommendations on whether the Cork city boundary should be extended to incorporate outlying towns such as Ballincollig, Blarney, Carrigaline, Glanmire and Glounthane.

The statutory committee, under the chairmanship of former Beamish & Crawford chief Alf Smiddy, has also been asked to examine whether Cork city and county councils should be merged to form a unified authority, as happened already with Limerick and Waterford.

But the committee’s report, expected within nine months of its appointment, will essentially be an exercise in housekeeping – akin to rearranging the chairs in a parish hall – when what’s really needed is a decision on Cork’s role in this State and how it can be enhanced.

The fact is that Cork, the “real capital” – a delusion in itself – seriously lacks the critical mass it needs to be a successful European city.

In all the recent blather about Cork, mostly written by nostalgic Cork people living in Dublin for many years, there wasn’t a line about this.

Sure, the relative smallness of Cork was listed by some writers as one of its most charming qualities.

But the centre of Dublin is also a place where you’re likely to bump into friends in, say, Grafton Street. The difference is that Dublin as a whole is immensely larger than Cork.

Cork city had a population of 119,230 in 2011 and census figures show that it has been falling for three decades (by an average of 0.45 per cent per year). Growth has been happening on its fringes, boosting the population of “metropolitan Cork” to a grand total of 289,740.

Given these figures, any notion that Cork is in some sense a “chosen land” is preposterous. If it were true, the city (combined with its suburbs and the outlying towns) would have twice the population it now has so that it could compete with Dublin for inward investment.

Growth centres

That’s what was envisaged by the Buchanan report on regional development way back in 1968. Commissioned by the government, it proposed designating both Cork and Limerick/Shannon as “national growth centres”, to counterbalance the development of Dublin.

But although Athlone, Drogheda, Dundalk, Sligo and Waterford would have formed a “second tier” of growth centres – to spread the benefits more widely – there was such a fierce backlash from rural Ireland that politicians in power gave up and opted for dispersal.

Thus, nearly every town ended up with an IDA “advance factory” while a laissez faire approach was adopted to the development of Dublin; in its gutless decision on Buchanan, made in 1972, the government allowed that the capital would continue on growing with no limits.

The taoiseach at the time was Jack Lynch, who grew up on the north side of Cork city and played hurling for the county. Other notable Cork politicians over the years include Peter Barry, one-time deputy leader of Fine Gael, and Micheál Martin, the present leader of Fianna Fáil.

What did any of them actually do to secure Cork’s future as a significant city? Not much, it would appear, given the facts on the ground.

The development of pharmaceutical plants around Cork Harbour was the only indication of preference for the “real capital”.

The current National Spatial Strategy (NSS), promulgated in 2002, didn’t do anything for Cork by designating nine growth “gateways” (including Dublin) as well as nine “hubs”. And it was largely undone by the daft “decentralisation programme” and the property crash.

The Department of the Environment is strengthening its planning division and now finalising a timetable for the development of a new national planning framework to replace the NSS, to be published “in the next few weeks”, according to a department spokesman.

On Cork, while planners agree that doubling its population would certainly increase critical mass, they also query how this might actually happen in practice when the trend in jobs and population growth has been very much Dublin/Leinster-oriented in recent years.

Indeed, there are fears that any serious effort to give Cork critical mass could damage Dublin, which is undoubtedly Ireland’s strongest player internationally; having allowed the capital to grow like Topsy, its pre-eminence must now be protected at all costs.

What Cork needs is more people, with good jobs and money to spend. Otherwise, there is little or no chance of developing the city’s redundant docklands or brownfield sites such as Horgan’s Quay, with a stone wall that runs for nearly a kilometre in the heart of the city.

Strong doubts

Planners have strong doubts about whether a doubling of Cork’s population would be feasible without a command-style economy. Also, “how would people react to being told go forth and multiply – but only if you are prepared to be a Cork hurling fan?”, as one of them said.

Putting nearly all of the eggs for growth in Cork’s basket would be a real challenge to our decrepit, dysfunctional political system as it would rub up against one of its central urges to please everybody everywhere – “something for everyone in the audience”, as it were.

Quite apart from being good for Cork, setting the goal of doubling its population in the next NSS – backed up by tax incentives and other inducements to encourage investment there – would also help to relieve the pressure on Dublin and the congestion this creates.