Dublin must not suffer as a result of regional development
Ireland 2040’s plans for more balanced infrastructural investment could threaten growth
Workmen prepare Westmoreland Street for Luas line work. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The Government’s publication of a National Planning Framework (NPF), known as Ireland 2040, to guide planning and investment decisions over the next 25 years, is a welcome development.
Given that the national population is forecast to rise by about one million and the number of jobs to increase by 33 per cent, it is important that we co-ordinate planned investment with the location of population and economic activity.
During the consultation phase of the NPF, the primary political worries related to our oft-stated lack of regional balance and the dominance of Dublin, concern about regional disparities, and the negative social and environmental impacts of urban sprawl.
At an NPF consultation event in UCD, former minister for housing Simon Coveney spoke of the potential to double the population of our regional cities to start to address these regional concerns. While there is a strong emphasis in the plan on growing our cities, what has emerged is slightly less ambitious in terms of our regional cities’ growth potential.
Nevertheless, the motivation remains to curtail any further relative shift in population towards the eastern seaboard, and to limit further growth in Dublin’s national economic dominance. In addition, the growth envisaged for Cork would see its relative significance grow nationally and beyond.
So what is provided for in the plan?
If one assumes that regional policy seeks to alter the natural patterns of population growth and economic activity, this plan aspires to achieve this principally by focusing relatively more population growth in the four regional cities than would have naturally occurred. The aspiration is for them to develop to a scale required to function as realistic alternatives to Dublin.
The plan provides for about 25 per cent of future population growth and employment to be located in our second-tier cities of Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford.
With each of these cities’ population growing by about 50 per cent, their combined growth of 240,000 would be roughly on a par with Dublin’s planned level of growth over the same period.
Additionally, the plan talks about ensuring that every city and suburb, town, village and rural area across the State’s three administrative regions have the “opportunity to prosper”.
So while there is emphasis placed on urbanisation and promoting compact cities so as to reduce damaging sprawl and exploit the benefits generated by economies of scale, rural growth is simultaneously being promoted.
We need to avoid the emergence of a competition between Dublin and regional cities for infrastructural investment
Compared with the 22 gateway and hub-designated growth centres outside of Dublin in this plan’s predecessor, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS), the NPF would seem to have greater prospects for successful achievement of its stated objectives. However, its success will be measured in the effectiveness of its delivery rather than its aspirations.
With some growth potential envisaged everywhere across urban and rural Ireland, its implementation at a regional and county level will be where it will face opposition where expectations will be frustrated.
As is evident in the current housing crisis, it is difficult to intervene and effectively influence market forces. The NSS experience shows the scale of the challenge involving any attempt to alter existing development patterns from their prevailing growth path.
Despite mention of a more town-centred focus for municipal districts, the previous abolition of town councils (and indeed city councils in Limerick and Waterford) and associated loss of their wide-ranging functions will not be helpful in promoting urbanisation and higher-quality urban places.
The plan does provide scope for Dublin to grow. However, in expressly seeking to better align population and job growth in a more regionally balanced manner, Dublin’s growth potential is being limited, in percentage terms, to half that of the other regional cities.
Should this result in any loss of future competitiveness for Dublin, it will have national implications.
Related to this point, the most concerning issue arising from the plan is the prospect of money being diverted away from infrastructural investment in the capital. Should its key public transport investment requirements be undermined by ideas of proportionality referred to in the NPF, Dublin’s competitiveness would be damaged.
We must remember that Dublin was the only NSS location (gateway or hub) that achieved significant population growth during that plan, yet none of the “big ticket” high-capacity public transport investments (Metro North, Metro West, Dart Underground) outlined in Transport 21 – the transport investment plan announced in 2005 to align with the NSS – were delivered. As a result, Dublin has among the poorest levels of access to a high-capacity public transport system compared to its European competitor cities.
While the plan acknowledges that inhibiting Dublin’s growth too much would undermine national growth, we need to avoid the emergence of a national competition between Dublin and the regional cities for infrastructural investment. We must ensure investment is prioritised where the benefits are highest.
Dr Eoin O’Neill is a chartered planner and lecturer at UCD Earth Institute