National plan: litmus test of political courage

Old approach of “something for everyone in the audience” has to be jettisoned in once-in-a-generation opportunity to map out regional development

 

Ireland has a dreadful planning record. It is something elected representatives frequently complained about and then perpetuated. When it came to taking decisions in the national, rather than the local interest, they invariably failed the test. Short-term populism took precedence over long-term economic planning and opportunities were lost. A national spatial strategy that identified future development ‘hubs’, 15 years ago, was dumped in favour of a vote-getting decentralisation wheeze. Dublin continued to expand rapidly, absorbing inward investment, while the rest of the State fell behind.

The worth of this Government will hinge on the implementation of a national planning framework, with a 10-year capital investment plan. It offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for ministers to map out regional development and to revive confidence in the political process. Steadfastness will be required in addressing historic mistakes and strident voices have already been raised in objection. Those complaining appear to be intent on repeating the mistakes of the past, while expecting a different outcome. They may not see it like that, but economic studies advise that the exponential growth of Dublin – with its major housing and transport problems – can only be constrained by directing development to other centres.

If the quasi-parasitic growth of Dublin is to be slowed, economic realities have to be faced

To be effective, only a handful of competing cities can be nominated and provided with the additional investment needed for social housing, transport and infrastructure. Constituencies that lack a major growth centre should, however, receive high-speed broadband and improved roads to stabilise small-town populations and encourage rural development. If the quasi-parasitic growth of Dublin is to be slowed, economic realities have to be faced.

Politics may be breaking out of its traditional straitjacket

The old approach of “something for everyone in the audience” has to be jettisoned. Resistance to creative ideas is not confined to economics. While medical specialists agree that the consolidation of trauma and specialised hospital treatments will save lives, political pressure and vested interests prevent this from happening. The same holds true for emergency services. We must do things differently.

Politics may be breaking out of its traditional straitjacket. A confidence and supply arrangement has operated successfully between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The whip system is being challenged and free votes are allowed in limited circumstances. Independent groups have become more influential in the Dáil and there is growing awareness of the broad public interest. The population will grow by an estimated one million within 20 years, with all its associated demands, and politicians have a responsibility to invest in suitable regional cities. Unless that happens, Dublin will choke on its own success.

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