Accurate figures are an essential element in effective, long-term planning but, in the past, they did not receive sufficient attention as political focus tended to be on constituency demands and re-election.
That is slowly changing and the publication of preliminary 2016 Census figures from the has provided the Government with raw statistics that should underpin development of services throughout the State.
There is good and bad news in the Census returns. On the positive side, the population continues to grow and has reached its highest point in more than 150 years. Dublin and adjoining counties of Meath, Kildare and Laois have experienced the greatest growth, along with the cities of Cork and Galway.
But the north-western counties of Donegal, Sligo and Mayo saw numbers fall, in spite of natural increases. A resumption in traditional patterns of migration, following the economic collapse, eased during the past two years. But its persistence has emphasised the urgency in providing broadband and other services to peripheral regions to encourage local business and stabilise populations.
A finding that 25 Dáil constituencies now exceed a Constitutional limit that sets the average population per TD at less than 30,000 will bring a revision of boundaries. This occurred after the 2011 Census when five constituencies were affected. It can be expected following the 2021 Census as the economy recovers and migration goes into reverse.
A cap of 30,000 people per TD may have been reasonable in the 1930s when the population was static or falling, but not now. Rather than persevere with expensive and time-consuming boundary changes that upset the local electorate and sitting politicians, a referendum to raise the population cap to 35,000 – rather than increase the number of TDs – appears sensible.
As the Government wrestles with a housing crisis, the finding that one-in-seven homes in the State are vacant will cause controversy. Reasons for the vacancies are not known and, while the number of empty dwellings has fallen since 2011, the number of unoccupied homes in Dublin remains high, at 36,000. Calls for the compulsory purchase of these dwellings have already been made but the Census confirms the basic cause of the shortage: the housing stock increased at a slower pace than household formation during the past five years. Areas of greatest congestion include Fingal and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, along with the cities of Cork and Galway, and the Government should concentrate its social housing efforts there.
Preliminary Census results provide guidance for the location of schools, community services and industrial parks, along with roads, transport and technological services. In this process, the strengths of different regions should be evaluated and efforts made to build on them.