Escape to the country?

Notes from the Western Periphery

The case for a rethink of Project Ireland 2040

John Bradley

Was the former Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, fretting aloud about the risk of our big cities ‘hollowing out’ due to the coronavirus pandemic? My first reaction was incredulity. Irritation quickly followed. Had Mr Varadkar not paid attention during history lessons at school? Did he not understand that the term ‘hollowing out’ was strictly reserved for the plight of rural Ireland, particularly the northern and western regions, in the century-and-a-half that followed the Great Famine of 1845?
Assuming that these remarks gave voice to a genuine fear and were not just off the top of his head, what was going on here? Some political and historical background might be useful.
The spatial strategy drawn up in 2018 by the government of which Mr Varadkar was leader – Project Ireland 2040 – was mainly based on population concentration and growth in the ‘five cities’ – Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford, in descending order of importance.
The rest of the country was assigned a lightly pencilled-in, shadowy role, involving rural ‘revival’ and getting along as best it could with limited and unfocused resources. The Northern and Western Regional Assembly did its best to salvage something from the national plan, but it was an uphill struggle.
Is this an unfair and inaccurate representation of Project Ireland 2040? It is perhaps exaggerated for the sake of emphasis, but beneath the soothing PR rhetoric, close enough to the truth. What is worse is that spatial planners in Dublin continue to push a strategy that is antiquated and inappropriate for the modern era. They are as catastrophically wrong as the generals in WWI who thought they were still fighting Napoleon.
The ‘hollowing out’ of rural regions was a consequence of an industrial revolution that started in the mid 18th century. Big factories powered by steam required huge urban-based labour forces. They produced tools that mechanised farming, so the demand for farm labourers collapsed and massive migration to the cities occurred. Weavers and spinners who had previously worked in small home-based units were now gathered into massive dark Satanic mills to maximise the benefits of the new mass production technology.
In Britain, that process had run its course by the start of the 20th century. Ireland, relatively untouched by the industrial revolution, took longer. In the 1950s, farm-based employment was still about 50 percent of total employment. Today it is 4.5 percent.
The ‘five cities’ model harks back to that earlier era of urban agglomeration, based on the assumption that only big cities can exploit the productivity-enhancing benefits of modern manufacturing technology.
However, the world has changed in ways ignored by Ireland’s spatial planners. Today, more than 75 percent of the workforce is in the service sector, embracing many activities that do not require city-based dark Satanic mills or their bright modern equivalents. In Mayo, one can point to small, innovative manufacturing enterprises such as Westire Technology Ltd in Belmullet (a world-class innovator in public-lighting technology) and PEL in Balla (an innovator in solar-powered compacting devices). One can point to clusters of modern service activities in places like the Cairn International Trade Centre in Kiltimagh and the Leeson Centre in Westport.
Mr Varadkar’s worries that Dublin risks being ‘hollowed out’ suggest that he has not been paying attention to processes that were playing out in the economy, and which have been accelerated by the need to cope with lockdown and working from home.
People have woken up to the realisation that while life in big cities has many advantages, it also comes with an increasing number of serious disadvantages.
As Dublin grew explosively, house prices rocketed and families were forced to spread out to adjoining counties and create dormitory towns. The underdeveloped rapid transit system struggled to cope, commuting times for private cars grew, pollution worsened, inner city crime rates spiralled. Then came lockdown.Nobody claims that Zoom is an adequate substitute for ‘real’ personal contact. However, it does provide the means for a more dispersed, largely service-sector-based workforce to function productively away from big urban agglomerations. With few exceptions, the bulk of business enterprises today are what are called SMEs – Small and Medium-sized Enterprises – employing between 50 and 100 people.
A strategic planning rethink is urgently needed for Project Ireland 2040. Scarce public expenditure on infrastructure is likely to yield a high rate of return if targeted not on keeping our obese capital city functioning, but toward the towns and villages where the future of our economy lies.
Such a decision would be a positive sum game. It would benefit the ‘five cities’, but Dublin specifically by stabilising its runaway growth and improving urban living conditions. It would permit the small, isolated towns of the rest of the country to prosper, grow above a critical size, interact with their urban hinterlands and contribute more to national progress.
The old-fashioned economic thinking that blindly assumes that there are ever-increasing returns to scale to be had in ever-expanding cities has a lot to answer for. If Mr Varadkar does not wake up to the real challenge of spreading development more equitably over the land, then his nightmare of a ‘hollowed out’ Dublin may come to pass.  

Dr John Bradley was a Research Professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling. He has acted as a consultant to the European Commission, the European Parliament, the OECD, the World Bank and many EU member state governments, and has carried out research and training projects in the EU, Western Balkans and Africa.