Playing catch up

What's best for the west

PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE David Minton, the CEO of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly, pictured earlier this year at the launch of the NWRA’s Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy 2020-2032.

Interview

Edwin McGreal

In order for the northern and western region of Ireland to regain parity with the rest of Ireland, government and state agencies have to be given specific regional targets to meet.
That’s the view of David Minton, the CEO of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly, one of the three regional assemblies in Ireland.
Minton says the region being relegated in status by the European Union from ‘developed’ to ‘in transition’ earlier this year underlines the reality of the disparity but also affords the region and the Irish Government an opportunity to redress this.
“When you look at the legacy of underinvestment in the region, when you look at the spend for health, for rail, for road and you look at the economic infrastructure for waste and water, all of those are the legacy of underinvestment in the region,” Minton told The Mayo News.
“The European Commission categorises regions as one of three – you’re either developed, you’re in transition or you’re a lagging region. This is based on GDP.
“For the last six years all the Irish regions have been categorised the same, categorised as developed. Due to the economic performance of the northern and western region in the last ten years, the European Commission has recategorised it as back into transition so, with a lot of other regions in different parts of Europe, we’ve been reclassified. That’s unfortunate. It reflects poorly on our approach to regional development,” he said.
But Minton also feels this crossroads the region finds itself in ‘presents a significant opportunity’ because it will give the region a higher co-financing ratio for European funds.
“We have an opportunity here as eight counties in the west and northwest that, during the period of 2021 to 2027 of getting a higher co-financing ratio into the region.
“When this happens in other parts of Europe, really innovative countries and member states have asked, how do we address that regional inequality? There are a number of financial instruments that can address it – tax, grants, loans, equity investment schemes etc.
“One of them that we have been advocating for in the western and northwestern region is this concept of an ITI which is an integrated territorial investment tool.
“Basically, it’s a regional acceleration programme that channels regional development funds into a partnership to address the challenges around scale, around development, knowledge and innovation economies, access to investment and, essentially, it’s like having a Leader programme for a region for six years.
“I think in order to address the legacy of under investment, I think the west and northwestern parts of the country deserve a bit of focus for six and seven years to try and replicate what we did down in Shannon in the 1960s, and we will only have one real opportunity to do this in the next ten years and that’s now,” he said.

Weak regional autonomy
Minton readily concedes that the region has fallen victim to imbalanced regional development strategies in Ireland and says Ireland’s centralised nature of government is a big part of the reason why.
He says it is not a coincidence that political centralisation is accompanied by incredibly high levels of regional inequality and that the impact can manifest in many ways, the most apparent internationally, in recent years, being Brexit.
“One of the founding measures of the European Union, and particularly cohesion policy, was the principle of subsidiarity.
“Ireland has been criticised for its approach to that principle of subsidiarity, in the last 30 years particularly. The principle of subsidiarity is where budgets and decision making are facilitated at the lowest level possible.
“Sometimes there is a narrative played out that Ireland is a small country. It is. But when you compare it to other small countries, our level of local autonomy and regional autonomy is extremely weak and we’d be seen as an outlier when it comes to this,” Minton said.
Ireland’s centralised nature of government can and should change, he argues.
“When it comes to regional development, have we autonomy? The very simple answer is we don’t. When you look at other modern OECD economies and you look at the regional structure, regional structures have responsibility for planning, economic development, promotion of the region, skills development, and equally, they will be afforded large budgets to channel that in. Pursuing coherence amongst regional development players should be on the agenda for any Government truly committed to regional development.
“Very simply, if you take the Irish government and Project Ireland 2040, they announced the Project Ireland Fund which focuses on urban regeneration and rural regeneration and climatological change. All those funds are administered centrally.
“There’s no reason here we couldn’t be looking at the region itself with its own constituent stakeholders identifying those priorities, where those priorities go and make sure they’re consistent with regional policy and local policy. At the moment, those funds are all determined at a central level,” he said.

Think local
A big step in the right direction, he argues, is more localised targets.
“The biggest factor that we all need to be advocating for is that all of our government departments and all of our state agencies need to be challenged to develop regional metrics.
“We’ve excellent state agencies with IDA, Enterprise Ireland, and all of those types of bodies, Fáilte Ireland, all do excellent work but none of them operate of regional metrics. What’s measured gets done and if we want real regional development then we need a transparent set of metrics tailored to each specific region.
“If we were to recalibrate a lot of our regional indicators so in order to address regional inequality, so, for instance, how many more businesses do we need to start-up in the region? That’s a metric. Then we determine how much investment is required and by who?”
Minton is optimistic for the future and feels the concept of the three regional assemblies, together with the NWRA’s recently published Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy (RSES) is a step in the right direction.
But how reliant are the NWRA on the goodwill and direction a particular government decides to take? The NWRA is a public body which has a statutory role within the Irish planning system.
“Our role is to ensure consistency between local, regional and national planning. We have powers under the Planning and Development Act but our approach is much more about collaboration and partnership. However outside of our EU Programmes we are not an effectively resourced organisation. Budget and budget determination is key.
“Obviously that would be a huge tool in our armour if we were devolved that type of influence that we could make those decisions with our constituent local authorities,” he concedes.  
“Covid-19 has demonstrated for me that the region is well placed here. We jokingly say in here that we were so far behind that we could actually end up in front. We haven’t made the mistakes of the east coast, we have the opportunity to do things right.
“If we can collaborate politically and as agencies for the west and northwest, and we can use our collective desire for a better place for us, we can design something here and apply design principles here to something for the west and northwest that can really provide those kind of places.
“What we’re really looking for here is healthy places. Places where our kids can grow up, get jobs, don’t have to emigrate to work, don’t have to travel for education, don’t have to travel for health, they can access all those services locally. And if we do that by following policies around compact growth, committing to the elements of smart specialisation, committing to the innovation and knowledge economy, I think we’d be in a good position to do that.”