March 29, 2020
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Here’s one thing they must not change

Whatever other policies the next Government jettisons, it should not abandon Ireland 2040, the plan for decentralisation. Nor should new ministers tinker or toy with this so-called National Planning Framework.

If they can strengthen the proposals, fine. And if they can speed up things that would be great, for the outgoing Government has done very little to implement the plan since announcing it in 2017.

But the concept is crucial and it should not be weakened or abandoned.

Lack of decentralisation is at the root of much of the social unrest and unhappiness which drove voters in the recent general election.

Dublin has grown out of all proportion to the size of the country and has sucked in far too many of the nation’s jobs, facilities and resources. That’s why people are spending hours every day on miserable commutes or finding themselves working around the clock to pay off sky-high Dublin mortgages or even higher rents.

Ireland is one of the most centralised countries in the developed world. We can all see the problems this creates but attempts to solve them have been thwarted by parochial politicians who moan about the decline of rural Ireland while rejecting any remedies which do not directly favour their own little neck of the woods.

There isn’t a high-tech factory for every tiny village. Every small town can’t have a fully equipped and staffed hospital. There can’t be a third-level college for everyone in the audience.

But we can spread these facilities around – give more of them to our few cities and bigger towns and less to Dublin. And we can develop pleasant dormitory towns and a decent public transport system to link them to these larger centres.

Until quite recently this sort of commuter community had been developing unaided in the greater Dublin area. Places such as Balbriggan and Drogheda, Bray and Greystones, were thriving as dormitory towns where the cost of living was relatively low and connection to the city relatively easy.

The crazy growth of Dublin has spoiled that. These are now expensive places and commuters who can afford to live in them are faced with extremely unpleasant journeys on packed public transport and bumper-to-bumper roads.

For the sake of greater Dublin, as well as the regions, we must decentralise. That’s what Ireland 2040 is all about.

We tried it before and failed. In 2002 a Fianna Fáil government announced what it termed a National Spatial Stragegy based on ‘gateways’ – the regional cities – and ‘hubs’, the dormitory towns that would serve them.

The plan was destroyed by parochialism. Politicians feared that favouring Town A over Town B would be electorally fatal, so every place with a handful of votes had to get something and we ended up with gateways in every county and hubs at the end of every boreen.

We cannot let this happen again. Good planning needs to move beyond local rivalries and Ireland 2040 is designed to do just that.

But I fear for it, as Independents and backwoodsmen from the back benches start naming their price for supporting a government.

If we waste this opportunity, as we did with the spatial strategy plan, then by 2040 we will still be fretting over the problems of 2020. Nothing will have been solved, everything will be worse.

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