The case for balanced regional development

What's best for the west

MOVING WEST Originally from France, Nathelie Mayono moved to Foxford in March this year and works remotely as a translator. She features in the Western Development Commission’s More to Life campaign which encourages people to explore lifestyle and career options in the west of Ireland, especially through remote working possibilities.

Interview

Edwin McGreal

Nearly two years into the role of CEO of the Western Development Commission, Tomás Ó Síocháin speaks about the future he sees for the west. The WDC is a statutory body that was established in 1997 with the stated aims of promoting social and economic development in the counties of Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon, Galway and Clare.

EMG: You’ve launched a new campaign to attract people to live in this region and consider remote working. Have you noticed a big uptake in people looking to do so this year because of Covid 19?
TÓS: We have. And there have been two drivers from our point of view, this year in particular. One, because of the fact people were working from home, there were a number of people who contacted us, who moved back from other parts of Ireland and abroad and were working here for the last two to three months. They were saying to us ‘I am going to have to go back to work. Is there any easy way to allow us to stay working from home’?
The second driver was the whole area of staycations. It’s nearly as if people in Ireland realised what’s on their doorsteps. There are two key drivers. Along with that, I’m sure, there, there is anecdotal evidence from auctioneers that there is a big increase in interest from outside the county in rural and other areas buying up property.
All of those are drivers and that’s why we are looking at this campaign and it really is an umbrella over a number of different projects. We’ve revamped our website to aim it at people who are looking for information about this and honing on how in terms of housing and childcare and commuting time, it offers a better quality of life to live in the west.
The second aspect of this and this will be coming online in the next month or two and that’s our Talent Tool.
What’s different about it is the likes of the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, when they are trying to bring companies in, they are often asked the question, if we develop in Castlebar or Sligo or Galway or Letterkenny will we get the people to come? So this is an opportunity for people to say ‘my background is in IT’, ‘my background is in finance’, ‘my background is in HR and if the right job comes up, I’m interested in moving’. So we can use that to attract companies and say you have 100 people who have HR background data are willing to work in county Mayo.

EMG: In terms of the key enablers and one of the issues that has come up regularly in the series is broadband. How important do you feel broadband is and what are the other key enablers to help extend the reach of such a strategy?
TÓS: Broadband is a key issue and I’ve described broadband before as like a utility, it’s like water, it’s like electricity. It’s a basic need to allow people to work effectively in this day and age. The National Broadband Plan is unusual in there is politically consensus around it. Everyone agrees there is a need to provide broadband to all areas. Despite the political consensus the reality is it is a huge infrastructural project that is going to take time. From our point of view in the Western Development Commission and working with the Department of Rural and Community Development, the immediate opportunity we saw was to give these enterprise hubs, a network of enterprise hubs, as a stepping stone. We have over 100 hubs all the way from Donegal to Kerry that have fibre broadband and are open for business, or are opening for business.
There’s also the broadband connection points and these will be in areas like GAA clubs or public areas or car parks which will allow people have access to broadband. This isn’t the ideal situation. What it is is a practical response and solution to the issue of broadband.
When we did a national remote working survey with NUIG in March and broadband didn’t feature in the top three issues or challenges that people identified, 19 percent, one in five people said broadband was an issue.
The top three challenges were, as follows: 1, not being able to switch off from work; 2, collaboration and communication with work colleagues is harder and, 3, poor physical workspace.
The top three advantages were: 1, no traffic and no commute; 2, reduced costs of going to work and commuting; 3, greater flexibility as to how to manage the working day.
So broadband is an issue but we’re confident that because of the enterprise hubs, broadband is an issue we can overcome in the short and medium term. And it will be addressed by the plan to provide that infrastructure in the medium to long term.
An associated issue that is really important is because sometimes when broadband is available the key follow on is to show people what it can do.
And in many rural areas you might not get the same uptake for broadband because people wouldn’t have the exposure tools, or the opportunity to use it.
With the influx of people working remotely, or those that have moved back, and may have to move again away again, I think they’ve been a huge resource for the uptake of technology, and even the older generation … we all know people that have picked up FaceTime or Zoom who would never have used it before. It’s time to take what we can from this crisis and the positives and that made a huge awareness of the potential technology offers if we can use it.

EMG: How transformative do you feel remote working can be for the west?
TÓS: I think there’s huge potential in it. We would estimate that if you even take on average if you have 100 of these hubs, up to 5,000 places between those hubs, you will get a sense of what type of occupancy. There were two different levels of occupancy we saw, like in the urban areas like Galway and Sligo and Castlebar and Letterkenny, you tend to have quite a high throughput of people at high occupancy rates on an ongoing basis. And so, places in around Galway were chockablock. And then as you moved out into the rural areas you had less occupancy.
But we did workshops with both the hub owner and those that were using the hubs. And we went through all these questions with them to see what the issues are and one of the biggest things that was coming back was an awareness of what the hubs are and what remote work is. So the biggest single change is that everyone understands what remote working is and one of the traditional barriers to remote working was employers would say, I don’t think that will work for us. They had no choice.
And now virtually everyone knows what will work and what won’t work in terms of remote working. So there’s been a sea change in terms of the mindset and approach to it. I think that’s very significant.
One of the drivers for us doing the campaign at the moment is there was very significant discussion about people moving back and saying ‘I never thought I’d do it’. The anecdotal evidence is there and we’re looking to add higher data to that and be able to say these are the hard numbers around hubs and the numbers involved.

EMG: Moving onto general issues, what do you see the role of the WDC being in terms of the development of the West?
TÓS: I see the role of the WDC in terms of our statutory level is to foster and promote economic and social development of the western region. In practical terms, what does that mean? First of all, it means acting very much as the glue that is bringing the other agencies together. We’re not in competition with Enterprise Ireland or the IDA or the local authorities. But what we are doing is we’re trying to bring them together, and look at the big picture. What we’re seeing is and this is some of the work we’ve done over the last two years since I’ve come in, is to ask the question, where is there a project in one county that we can bring another similar county project to another country and bring off to a regional level. And that is how we came to look at the hubs. We discovered these hubs were mushrooming in different countries and there was an organic growth around them, and with nobody pulling them all together.
We worked with Údarás on this. We’re very involved with the local authorities, we’re very involved with Enterprise Ireland. And they’ve all bought into the system that we’re putting in place.
So it’s joining off the dots and that’s a really good example of the work that the WDC can do.
The second aspect of that the WDC has a primary role is in terms of research and policy analysis, like the work that we launched last week, in terms of the low carbon economy. So a lot of different arms of the economy of the government are saying we’re having to transition to a low carbon economy. And who’s asking the question what would that mean, what will this mean on the ground in the west of Ireland? And that is where I see a role for the WDC.
Eighty percent of people in our regions that live in towns of less than 10,000 people. You’ve a handful of big towns. Everyone else lives in a dispersed manner, smaller towns and villages, and they’re the core people, we’re trying to work with.
We see that very often, their voice gets lost in all of this and to be an advocate and representative of those people in terms of how public policy affects them …
Then the key issue we discussed in terms of Covid is that the mindset is beginning to change. So you’re going away from the situation in many workplaces where you have to be seen there at nine o’clock every morning. Those kind of shifts led us to think, what is the big picture here. And that’s when we did a survey with NUI Galway. We’re also involved with what we call a task force on remote working with NUI Galway, we are similarly involved with Grow Remote.
In practical terms, that’s where we see our focus … looking at what’s happening on the ground and trying to roll that up to above a county level and bring in a regional picture together, a role and promotion is key. And that’s what we set off to do in the short term to raise the profile.
The second thing is to build the competency in the region to build these hubs and allow people to work remotely. And in the longer term, where I think the WDC has a key role to play in terms of its investment fund. So we have an investment fund that from 2000 on the government gave us €32 million and this was driven by a call to serve the need for the West, and invest and reflect the fact that no one was investing capital interest. And that money has been managed, and now has been grown to a portfolio of €72 million, and we have a value of money that is available to invest and lend to businesses in the community. So what we’re doing is looking at the bigger picture in terms of trying to lead out the projects that will lead us into the future.
When you start talking about long term. The system doesn’t often deal with long term very well because everyone is driven by the needs over the coming year for a budget, or whatever government is in place for the coming five years. We’re talking beyond that.
As an example of the importance of that. We were one of the agencies involved in the development of the Future Mobility Campus, Ireland. It’s based in Shannon.
It runs up and down the motorway as far as Tuam where you have companies who are involved in the automotive industry … So if we develop in around the airport and industrial zone how can we use that data that’s collected and built first in the long term. How can we reproduce what’s happening with med tech in Galway, that’s been very successful and given the western environment a huge opportunity, and get that money back and reinvest it, and to look forward.
And to say how do we build resilience for the next 20 years.
The biggest issue that has come forward now is if you look at the employment trends across the western region, there are very high levels of employment in tourism and hospitality and in the retail sector. And both of those have been really hammered at the moment. So in the short term, what we are looking at with Grow Remote is trying to make people aware of the challenges, make people aware of the opportunities to work remotely, so they can work with companies that are not necessarily based in any one area. So, to make people aware of those opportunities, so they can be based where they want to, rather than travel to Galway and Dublin and so on. And then to take the longer term view and look at ten years down the road and if we connect it to something like that project to Shannon at the moment.
And then over the next 10 years that we will build the next medtech sector, and that it will be in the area of, let’s say, sensors and mobility and how can we develop something in the region that will last the test of time.
Whatever pandemic comes down the line, whether it’s global warming or climate change, we will have that knowledge in that in the region and help the economy develop and push forward.

EMG: There would be a lot of concerns that Ireland, from a government point of view, very much applies a top-down model rather than bottom up. From your experience with the Western Development Commission, do you feel it is an agency to act on behalf of the State or do you feel you have the power to advocate and push back up on behalf of the area you are in?
TÓS: From my point of view it’s a very clear role in terms of advocacy.
It can raise the profile of the region and the challenges and needs and the success stories. It’s very important that there is seen to be a positive outlook. And I’m very much focused on being glass half full on the potential for the region, and that doesn’t ignore the challenges. You’ve challenges everywhere in Dublin, as well as the west.
What we can do is produce evidence based information that can be used to inform government policies but equally can be used by those that advocate for change. So if you take the report that was launched last week by Minister Heather Humphries, in terms of the impact on rural dwellers of the low carbon economy. We were delighted that she was happy to launch that report because that report really highlights the challenges for people living in rural areas that don’t have access to public transport. And that really urging them to use public transport is of limited benefit. That’s very clearly a situation where there’s a need to improve transport to rural areas, you can use that argument.
Some of the stuff that we found in the report and we will be very keen that the government will take on board is the likes electric vehicle charging. There’s a large lot of electric vehicle charging on the motorway network but we’re seeing that in rural areas that needs to be more. That’s eminently doable and to roll it over to the hubs network we have people coming to work, and they can charge their vehicle while they’re working remotely at the hub.
Secondly, the use of greenways, where you have greenways, and perhaps Mayo has certainly the original if not the best example in the country of how to build an economy around greenways. The Greenway is almost exclusively focused on tourism. A Greenway should also be something that’s available to people that live in the area to cycle from A to B and to cycle to work. The Greenway, as well as being a tourist attraction, is also a mode of transport. That’s an example of the role the WDC can play. We can do evidence based work on the best of what’s happening elsewhere. To look at what’s happening in other countries, and how things might be done here.
That information can equally inform government policy. And it’s also available to to those who wish to raise their hands. It’s important that this is considered. So I see us very much as an impartial observer, which puts evidence based information out there to allow people to inform themselves.

EMG: It can inform government policy but is it your experience in the WDC that the opinions or the work of the WDC and groups like yourselves are proactively sought?
TÓS: I think the work is proactively sought. Certainly my view of the Western Development Commission is not that we take the place of Enterprise Ireland or the IDA. It is that we work with them.
I think the best example of that is the work we’ve done in relation to the hubs and remote working. So, if you look at something that’s happening organically in the region and the beginning of these enterprise hubs.
We were able to fill that gap, work with all the other stakeholders and begin to say, these need to be treated as a group rather than lots of different hubs in lots of different places and we get to learn from each other. From that, you begin to see that the human network across the region. And we’re beginning to target those that will work remotely both in the region and those who can come from outside and we can build on the back of that.
An example of how that has impacted on public policy is that it certainly informed the Department of Business, Enterprise and Trade publication and was acknowledged in the report in terms of government’s work on remote working and it led to a survey in NUI Galway this year and led to over 8,000 respondents and has been widely quoted in the media, and drawn a huge number of follow on articles in terms of can it work, can it happen and can people work remotely? We’ve also set up a task force on the back of that with a number of experts in the field to look at these issues and ask what should the next steps be in terms of government policy, and we will be bringing that back to the department.
And as you can see that is reflected in the programme for government that remote working is one of the standout issues that’s been raised in terms of the programme for government in terms of what it offers for rural development.
The new minister that has come in, Heather Humphries, is very positively disposed towards the concept of remote work, and how it can help in terms of regional development, and a significant step forward that we are working directly with the senior minister in the role and we’re very happy to do that so I think that’s a clear example of how over time it has an impact and reflected the reality of what’s happening on the ground, but it’s not a case of us doing the work of other agencies, it’s about working with other agencies and trying to get results. And that’s the key issue I think.

EMG: A former Chairperson of the WDC, Paddy McGuinness, stated in 2017 in his presentation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee that ‘the problems of rural Ireland and balanced regional development, do not rate highly at all, at any level’. That was his perception of things. In your time in the role what’s your perception of things in terms of the understanding and the significance of the need for balanced regional development, particularly in the western area?
TÓS: I think one of the most concrete things done, certainly in my period of time, is the creation of the Department of Rural and Community Development, that’s hugely significant. And it’s even more significant that that department has remained in place.

EMG: But without its own minister?
TÓS: You have a full department, you have Rural and Community Development, and you have a full Department of Social Protection and similar to the situation that you had with Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, there is one Minister for two departments, but the fact remains that the Secretary General is in place, all the officials are still in place. I think that’s a very very positive step forward. And I think like everyone else, it may be a question of timing … I take a very very positive view that it’s important when opportunities present themselves that you’re in a position to capitalise on them. And certainly, nobody would have wished for this pandemic but I think it has highlighted the role regional areas can play and that the solution ... What we’re seeing as issues in Dublin, in terms of congestion and house prices and everything, that a huge part of the solution is in balanced regional development and balanced regional development is not an issue for rural areas alone, it is an issue for everyone because it addresses many of the congestion issues that exist in urban areas, and the lack of congestion issues that you see in rural and regional areas.
I think balanced regional development is more on the agenda than I can remember, at any time, in my career. And that may well be down to the work of many, many people who went before me in the WDC and the boards that were there in previous years in terms of highlighting this issue. And I think that is certainly borne fruit in terms of the establishment of the department (of Rural and Community Development).

EMG: What is the view of the WDC on how infrastructure can develop this region and what is the role of the WDC in driving this?
TÓS: Well, I think the role in terms of infrastructure is the same as in other areas. But in terms of the research that was recently published by the NWRA (Northern and Western Regional Assembly), we would have fed into that all the way along. We don’t have any role in the planning process. So we’re not like the NWRA who have a key role, and is the de facto authority, working with local authorities and the department in terms of publishing that plan and structure.
We were very, very heartened by the vision set out in Ireland 2040 and we believe that vision, in terms of coordinating the Western Development Commission, coordinating the Atlantic Economic Corridor, makes perfect sense. People might have said what is the Atlantic Economic Corridor years ago, it is gaining more currency, you know.
Being from like from Clare myself, if you look at that stretch between Galway and Limerick, where you have two urban centers, and an international airport in the middle. That gives you the critical mass in terms of infrastructure and that should be a model for the region, both south as we move to Cork and I know the motorway has been spoken about there, and north as you move to Letterkenny and Derry. It’s very very important that when we talk about Letterkenny and Sligo that I think Derry is included. Derry is the fourth largest urban centre in Ireland. The influence of Derry in the context of Letterkenny and onto Sligo is absolutely vital.
It’s about bringing areas of critical mass together and I think a motorway, or railway or any transport route that links the Northwest with the rest of the country is absolutely vital but it needs to be done on the basis of the big picture, and that big picture is around bringing together Sligo, Letterkenny and Derry as a counterweight to Galway, Limerick, and Shannon.
The idea that is set out in the City Regions Ireland by the chambers of Galway Limerick, Waterford, Cork and Dublin, is a very good idea in principle. I think you can extend that to include Derry, Letterkenny and Sligo, then I think you really have the basis on which to build balanced regional development.
From my point of view what was very significant in the context of the Atlantic Economic Corridor and in the context of the current RSES (Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy) was the agreement with Mayo and Sligo that Sligo would be the focus for the urban development, and Mayo would be the hinterland and Knock airport would be a strategic area designated.
And I think that’s vitally important that we begin to look at the big picture and see what those nodes are and develop links between those that from my point of view, again goes back to the role of the WDC. We fed into that process all the way along. We don’t have a statutory role in the planning process, but we are more than happy to provide unbiased, factual information that can inform the decision making around that and you see recently in the context of low carbon and the needs around transport, I think there are huge changes coming down the track in terms of autonomous vehicles and that’s a project we’re involved with in Shannon. And one of the most exciting aspects of that is how they will work in a rural setting, which I think is very important. That’s how I see our role as an honest broker, that doesn’t have a statutory role in the planning process, but someone that is very very committed to making sure that whatever infrastructure needs are there for the west and northwest are put in place, and any way that we can facilitate that we’re happy to do so.

EMG: So in terms of particular infrastructures in Mayo such as Knock airport, the Western Rail Corridor to Claremorris and beyond and a motorway or dual carriageway stretching north of Tuam, you’re saying these projects need to be part of a bigger picture?
TÓS: They can’t be looked at in isolation. The value of an airport, and then go back to the example of Shannon, Limerick and Galway, the value of an airport is an airport that’s easily accessible. The value in a motorway, is that it brings you to somewhere, the value in a railway is that it brings you to somewhere. So, connectivity is the key aspect of it. And I know all of these are the subject of various different reports, and I know the government have commissioned a further report at West On Track, and I think things will be clearer when that comes through. What I think more broadly, those kind of key infrastructure projects have to be looked at as more than the sum of their parts.
The strongest aspect of Ireland, 2040 is it took that long term view. Another example of that,  and this is something we committed to look at next year, is the electricity grid and the electricity infrastructure for industry, you need to have power supply. That came up in the work that we did recently in low carbon is the western region produces 120 percent renewable energy than what we use. So there’s a clear opportunity there for the western region to be seen as a region that’s ahead of the curve.

EMG: You mentioned the NWRA. Is there a danger of crossovers between the two bodies?
TÓS: The key aspect is the good relationship. The NWRA’s function and role is very clearly set out in statute. They have a vital role, and a hugely important role in terms of policy at the moment. Moving from the national planning framework to the regional level and onto the local authority county plans now. They have a very, very clear role in the planning process. We don’t have a role in the planning process.  Our role, broadly, is in terms of raising the profile of the region. The second aspect is around policy analysis and informing that decision making and taking ideas and bringing them to fruition at a regional level, and thirdly taking the long term view so it’s our investment work and how we can invest and lend in communities and businesses to make sure they grow in the long term.
I’m very happy that we have two distinct roles. Both at a personal level with David Minton (NWRA Director) and with the NWRA, we have a very good working relationship.
And more often than not we collaborate. And we have very open lines of communication, there’s certainly no lack of clarity at our end and I think we worked very well together.

EMG: You mentioned the Atlantic Economic Corridor. What potential do you see for it and what are the WDC’s plans for it?
TÓS:I think the potential for the Atlantic Economic Corridor is very much contained in the question you were asking earlier on about who’s in charge. Fundamentally, the government is in charge. I think that’s set out in the constitution and that’s not going to change but one of the key aspects of the Atlantic Economic Corridor is, and it is reflected in Ireland 2040, is an agreed approach along effectively the length of the west coast of the need for balanced regional development.
And that’s what I see the Atlantic Economic Corridor being. If you look the Wild Atlantic Way, it is an umbrella term that encapsulates everything that’s best about tourism along the west. And from my point of view, the Atlantic Economic Corridor is the same, it should encapsulate the best that the west has to offer all along the Atlantic coast from Donegal down to Kerry, because there’s a common understanding of similar challenges, and similar opportunities, all the way all the way along the west coast and where those ten counties speak with one voice they can be a very, very powerful advocate and lobby group in Dublin. And I think that’s very important that they speak with one voice and advocate together.

EMG: In terms of speaking with one voice, some members of the original AEC group left a government working group because they felt it was not being given enough commitment. Could you speak to that? Is that a concern?
TÓS: I think first of all, every single organisation that’s out there will look for more resources to do the job that it needs to do and the Atlantic Economic Corridor I think, given that effectively it’s not an organisation, it’s not an institution, for want of a better term, it’s a movement. It’s an agreed approach to balanced regional development, there isn’t an entity that you can give resources to but that the Western Development Commission has been very fortunate over the past two years that we’ve seen an increase in the resources that we’ve been given. We’ve seen an increase in the funding that we’ve been given to lead out to the project work whether it’s in the project in the context of hubs or the project in Shannon, in terms of the future of mobility.
We’re very happy that we’re being given the resources that we need to do the work that allows us to do what the AEC set out to do. I think ultimately when you look at the fact there’s AEC officers in each of the 10 county councils, up and down the West coast, so there is the opportunity to share ideas and agree positions on all the big issues and we’re very hopeful of what it will offer in the coming years at European level to deliver for the region in terms of taking ideas used elsewhere and take ideas coming to the fore in the region, and making an impact at  both the national and international level.
I think in terms of a network of communications and network of ideas and a network of collaboration and cooperation, it is very, very important resources are there for the ideas that come to the fore. And I think an opportunity to mould those ideas and bring those ideas, it’s very, very helpful.

EMG: In these pages last week, Seán Canney was of the view that in order for it to thrive properly it needed cabinet representation either via a Minister for Rural and Community Development or specific responsibilities in a minister for state for the Atlantic Economic Corridor. Do you feel that it has enough support at central government level or could there be a little bit more?
TÓS: I think, first of all, the government have committed to a review of Ireland 2040. This is one of the key pillars of Ireland 2040 in terms of balanced regional development and certainly since  the new government have come in, there is nothing to lead me to believe there’s any change in direction on Ireland 2040 or the Atlantic Economic Corridor.
I think in the midst of a pandemic it is difficult to get the focus on the longer term development of the region. That is ultimately something that we have to do because everybody realises that it is very, very important. As I said we had a fantastic relationship with Seán Canney and he was an excellent minister and really led both the AEC and the WDC and we were making huge progress in our dealings with him. We’re now dealing directly with the senior minister, Heather Humphries. Within the first two or three weeks that she was appointed she visited Ballaghaderreen and launched our report on the low carbon economy and we’re very confident that the good working relationship will continue.

EMG: Would you be concerned at the lack of mentions for the Atlantic Economic Corridor in the Programme for Government?
TÓS: The approach I have always taken from the start and this goes back to the fact the AEC isn’t an entity but is a network of communications … Mentions of the AEC won’t get any of the work done and there’s a clear commitment to balanced regional development and a review of Ireland 2040 and from my point of view, the most efficient way of managing a shift to a greater balance of regional development is the move to remote working and development of hubs and that is all happening under the umbrella of the Atlantic Economic Corridor and there is a huge commitment to that across the board in terms of rural and regional development in the Programme for Government so from my point of view the Programme for Government is very much focused on the outcomes and I have no issue with that.
To make the Atlantic Economic Corridor a reality we have to bite off one chunk at a time and take each step along the way so from my point of view I have no issue with that once we are focused with the outcomes and delivering things that work for people and make people’s lives better so I’ve no fear for the Atlantic Economic Corridor and balanced regional development so there’s no fear for the concept of the Atlantic Economic Corridor and balanced regional development.