Regional policy has repeatedly failed us

Notes from the Western Periphery

UNFAIR ADVANTAGES By keeping power and its benefits centralised, the regions continue to lag – a situation conveniently obscured by economic success at the aggregate national level.

We in the Northern and Western Region must demand more than futile, wasted opportunities

John Bradley

Why do you think Westport was bestowed the title of Best Place to Live in Ireland in 2012? My guess is that a key factor influencing the selection was the many vibrant clubs and other organisations that encourage participation and engagement in the affairs of the town.
Since the demise of the Westport Town Council in 2014, the role played by these organisations (civil society) has become even more essential. The lack of devolved political power down to communities within the county requires enhanced vigilance by local organisations.
Westport is designated a heritage town, one of the few planned towns in Ireland. So, it is not surprising that Westport Civic Trust (WTC) is very active. The trust’s activities focus mainly on identifying, celebrating and preserving the town’s heritage. Working in collaboration with the former town council and other organisations, the fabric of the town has been preserved and enhanced.
But WTC also plays a role in encouraging debate on much wider issues of concern to society. Take, for example, the WTC lecture three weeks ago, which looked at the topic ‘Regional Planning in Ireland: A futile aspiration in a dysfunctional state’. The presenter was Dr Proinnsias Breathnach, a senior lecturer in Maynooth University.
Dr Breathnach focused on the failed efforts of various Irish governments to formulate and implement any effective, region-friendly national development strategy, starting with the Buchanan Report of 1968, continuing to the National Spatial Strategy 2002 (NSS), and ending with the current Project Ireland 2040.

Three failed strategies
All three strategies were national, top-down plans, but they set out various mechanisms for distributing economic activity over regions. In other words, national plans were a summation of regional activities and required a degree of focus and selectivity. Some regions would gain more than others (Dublin, Cork, Limerick), but regional equity was important. The challenge was to ensure compatibility between city growth and regional growth without falling back on trickle down from the cities to the regions.
As Dr Breathnach worked his way through the three strategies, his conclusions were devastating. Their implementation and outcomes were dismal, futile, and wasted opportunities.
The Buchanan proposals in 1968 to designate a hierarchy of regional growth centres were ignored by the then government, which opted for continuation of a policy of dispersal.
The NSS of 2002 had specified the establishment of eight regional development organisations, but these were given neither powers nor budgets and were never operationalised.
The implementation of Project Ireland 2040 appeared to be devolved to three Regional Assemblies, but these were just conduits through which control was retained by central government.
Dr Breathnach set out a sorry saga of failure and lack of action at the regional level. The consequences for Mayo and for the wider Northern and Western Region are well known to Mayo News readers.

National v regional
Dr Breathnach’s lecture forced us to distinguish between economic success at the aggregate national level and success at the regional level.
By any standards, the success of the Irish economy today is remarkable. The recovery from the financial crisis of 2008-10 took a while, but today the Irish growth rate is the highest in the EU on a range of measures.
This success builds on two crucial national policies: the excellence of our education system and the professionalism of the IDA in attracting foreign firms to locate production here. The recent chagrin in Britain to loss of the AstraZeneca €370 million pharmaceutical plant to Dublin is instructive.
The vigorous Q&A session after this WTC lecture provided further insights into why we have ended up with dysfunctional and inadequate regional development. Local participants in the exchanges tended to add further evidence and horror stories of government indifference and ineptitude.
However, some American participants (Westport is a cosmopolitan place!) came from a culture where power is devolved down to local levels and policymakers can be held to account directly. The cultural gulf was striking. I wish we were a society that could sort everything out through a vibrant local democracy.

Sorry saga
Reflecting on the whole sorry saga, I could not help recalling the immortal words of the great detective himself: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
I asked myself why successive governments have commissioned strategies that they fail to implement. Are they stupid? Absolutely not. Are they incompetent? I don’t think so. You have only to look at our success at national level to realise that these are impossibilities.
On the other hand, is it really possible that our governments commissioned those reports to placate the OECD, IMF and EC, but prefer power and economic success to be centralised and do not really want to implement a strategy that risks empowering the regions? Well, not impossible, though it does seem improbable. So we must accept the improbable as the truth. Central government will never devolve power to the regions.
The consequences for the regions – and specifically for the Northern and Western Region – are serious.
Without a regional strategy, the outcome for the regions is determined mainly by market forces. Market forces have been kind to Westport, but Westport is one town in a region of many small towns, and market forces alone will not save all of the rest.
There is a well-known saying attributed to Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Until the electorate of the Northern and Western Region understands what is going on and insists on policies that promote greater regional equity, the insanity will continue forever.

John Bradley is a former ESRI professor and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.