Dublin will need a rescue plan after these new Covid-19 restrictions

Cliff Taylor: Ecosystem of life in the city centre set to take another big blow

Restrictions in Dublin, which represents not far off half the economy’s output, will have a wider economic impact.  Photograph: Getty Images

Restrictions in Dublin, which represents not far off half the economy’s output, will have a wider economic impact. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Dublin city centre is back in the economic firing line as new restrictions are brought in to try to slow the spread of Covid-19. The pandemic has been presented as a chance to reframe the city centre and the way we live. And it does indeed offer opportunities to restart in a different way. But before we reimagine the city centre we need to rescue it.

Already in deep trouble, the whole ecosystem of business and life in the city centre will now take another heavy blow. What is most worrying is not another few weeks of restrictions, but that we may be in and out of this for months to come, apparently with no more efficient way to control the virus numbers than shutting a lot of stuff down and telling people to stay at home.

Even when the phase of heavier restrictions is lifted we are miles away from a strategy which will allow the city centre to start stuttering back into economic life.

Crucially, public transport is operating at 50 per cent capacity, and at peak times is intended only for use by essential workers. On at least some occasions recently workers deemed non-essential have been removed by gardaí from buses at rush hour and left on the side of the road.

In future we may well consider a vision such as the 15-minute city as promoted recently by Dublin Chamber of Commerce. It is a laudable plan for a “livable, walkable” city where people generally find all their needs, including their work, within a short hop from home.

But right now it is a pipe dream as we look at the city centre slowly dying all around us. Nice indeed to think of the family of the future being spared long commutes through imaginative planning but that doesn’t do much to solve the problem of the person who needs to travel in from Balbriggan, Greystones or Navan for work or college.

Restrictions

The Government needs to look beyond the new restrictions to come up with a plan to start people moving back into city centres in the months ahead. The plan published this week doesn’t do this, focusing on restrictions.It is a plan for suppressing the virus, not living with it.

We have gone from the last government suddenly deciding to open everything up more quickly in its final days to this one leaning the other way – from Leo Varadkar championing the reopening as taoiseach to arguing now as Tánaiste that we are moving more quickly than other European virus hotspots to introduce new restrictions.

The conundrum, of course, is that controlling the virus is vital for the overall health of the economy, but the measures we are choosing to do so hit some sectors really hard, notably restaurants and pubs.

And as we do not know where many people actually pick up the virus – NPHET have said the data does not show this reliably – we are using a blunt instrument of closing large parts of the economy. Perhaps it is all necessary and certainly there are no easy options – but we just don’t know.

Restrictions in Dublin, representing not far off half the economy’s output,will have a wider impact. Many businesses will continue to operate – manufacturing, the big digital players and so on.

But as well as the direct impact, the fear of stepping in and stepping out of restrictions again and again – and the fact that we don’t even know if the new restrictions introduced this weekend will work – is going to have a wider impact on economic confidence.

We really need to think about how we might redevelop a vibrant city centre offering a more affordable way of life

The problem for consumers and businesses planning their future is that there is no obvious exit strategy back to any kind of economic normality beyond the holy grail of a vaccine. The longer it drags on, however, the wider the economic pain will spread – like untreated dry rot, as someone put it to me this week.

The shape of future economic activity is far from clear. There are, for example, surely opportunities to spread activity into parts of the regional economy as more people work from home. Yet there are also signs that many companies in areas such as tech are now concerned that the lack of human interaction after months of working from home is hitting innovation and team work.

And their workforces are now spread far and wide. One in four of the millennials (25- to 39-year-olds) working in Ireland have come from overseas.

Many of the skilled mobile millennials moved back home during the pandemic and have not returned. And sources now say that some don’t want to. This is a headache for their employers, but also a threat if a lot of the skilled work is done outside Ireland, threatening tax revenues and the expertise of Irish operations.

Redevelop

We already knew before the pandemic that issues such as housing and childcare and the high cost of living here were making it more difficult to get key skilled staff to move to Ireland. Now, with a new era of mobile employees hastened by the pandemic, this is another reason why we really need to think about how we might redevelop a vibrant city centre offering a more affordable way of life.

First, however, we need to start with the basics. After the latest restrictions lift we need to work out a way for city centre life to restart to some extent, for employees – including public servants – to get back to the office and for some working form of public transport.

We need the blue-sky thinking and the vision of a future when cyclists and walkers happily make their way to work in a car-free centre .Yet in the short term we face the more prosaic challenge of how someone gets in safely on public transport from Drimnagh or Donnycarney on a wet Tuesday in November.

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