How we can learn from others

What's best for the west

TIME FOR CHANGE Then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking in Westport Town Hall in 2018 at a forum entitled Creating Stronger Rural Economies and Communities as part of the Government’s promotion of Prokect Ireland 2040. Dr John Bradley argues the What’s Best for the West series has underlined the ‘very limited institutional continuum linking national, super-regional, county and community levels’, arguing we need to completely rethink our regional development strategy in this country.

Dr John Bradley

Big EU states have either federal structures (Germany) or extensive regional devolution of powers (Spain, France, Poland). Their regions, many with populations greater than the whole of Ireland, play a co-operative role with national government in the design and implementation of development policies. Winner takes all regional outcomes are not politically tolerated. Spatial equity is guided by law.
Ireland, we are led to believe, is so small that regional and sub-regional governance structures would merely get in the way of efficient centralised direction. But this view is completely at variance with what one finds in other small EU states, ranging from Finland, Denmark and the three Baltic States in the north, to Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia in the south. All of these states have extensive regional governance structures that put our emasculated local government arrangements and dysfunctional regional institutions to shame.  Even in Scotland, a devolved administration within the UK, the attention paid to its peripheral sub-regions such as the Highlands and Islands, makes one weep with envy.
A second feature of small state regional planning in the EU is that a very clear distinction is always made between ‘spatial’ planning (ie urban/town renewal) and economic/enterprise planning (ie deep infrastructure and other supports to promote growth and innovation of the enterprise sector). Business is considered part of the wider community. If it declines, the community declines.
In Ireland, these two elements of regional strategy are conflated in an unsatisfactory way.  The primary Irish focus is on ‘spatial’ planning. Economic/enterprise strategy is left to national agencies who have no transparent regional mandates. Due to lack of effort to collect appropriate regional data, researching enterprise activity in a county like Mayo is like navigating in thick fog.
Finally, in other small EU states, access to Structural Funds is used both to promote ‘national’ convergence to a higher average standard of living as well as to promote regional equity across the national territory. Overseen by their national governments in co-operation with regional administrations, the division between ‘national’ development goals (such as education) and essentially regional goals (infrastructure) are debated openly. Efforts are made to avoid the uncontrolled emergence of massive urban agglomerations (such as greater Dublin in Ireland), both on equity grounds as well as on efficiency grounds.
Conventional economic wisdom asserts that peripheral regions have very limited potential; that innovation and jobs will cluster in big cities; and that the rest are doomed to stasis or slow  decline.  But this outdated view is rapidly changing due to stresses in the global economy and extraordinary advances in communication technology and production structures.  
In Europe, the most active regional governments are to be found in the most economically successful regions, characterised by distinctive forms of local regulation and governance. These embrace enabling and facilitating institutions within the region as well as bridging the boundaries between them and adjoining regions and states. This, essentially, is the challenge that faces attempts to renew Irish regional development strategy. We need to completely rethink our approach now, or we will be forced to do so after 2040 when current plans fail yet again to deliver.