Capital spending review: Scattergun will not hit right target

Limited resources should go to smallest possible number of development hubs to maximise impact

 

Looking for decisive leadership from this minority Government is as productive as demanding money from a pauper. Ministers know what should be done to protect the common good and prepare for an uncertain future. But they appear to lack the ambition and the capacity to deliver. For the parties and the individuals involved, survival is their primary objective, rather than unpopular but necessary action.

Economic planning is a good example. For the past 50 years, successive governments have ignored the basic thrust of the Buchanan Report: that investment should be focussed on a small number of growth centres outside of Dublin in order to provide for more balanced industrial development.

Instead, the State has been treated to a “one for everyone in the audience” approach in a succession of national development plans that culminated in a disastrous decentralisation scheme.

Spreading limited resources too thinly is a self-defeating economic exercise. But politicians are so anxious not to upset communities that might lose out in any objective allocation of funding that they shy away from tough investment decisions.

The rural development plan, announced last week, reflected this approach. It departed from an earlier, realistic assessment of the development potential of local towns. The number of qualifying towns and villages doubled, as a consequence, to 600.

It would be a disaster if a similar scattergun approach is taken under a national plan that is designed to run for at least 10 years. Already, there are signs of political wobble. What is needed is the identification of Cork, Limerick/Shannon and Galway as alternative growth centres to Dublin, with a commitment to invest heavily in services there.

What is on offer from the Government is a revision of an existing five-year capital spending programme to take account of Brexit and – following the October budget – production of a long-term national development plan stretching to 2025. This hesitant approach falls well short of what is required in terms of assertive planning.

Taking steps to minimise the effects of a “hard” Brexit on domestic trade with Europe, through urgent, short-term investments in ports, airports and motorways, is welcome. But it doesn’t go far enough. Dublin’s success as a magnet for inward investment must be restrained.

And while improved transport facilities at Cork, Limerick and Galway will help in that regard, investment by the State in a range of complementary services will also be required. Parallel demands for improved public services, arising from an anticipated surge in population and an ageing workforce, will put pressure on funding for industrial infrastructure.

That is a compelling reason for directing limited resources to the smallest possible number of development hubs. The approach is unlikely to appeal to politicians, but it is in the national interest.

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