21 June, 2008

More than beer and biscuits

Good to see reports in today's Irish Times that the Taoiseach has appointed Prof. Peter Clinch as a special advisor. He has a BA and MA degrees in economics and a PhD in environmental economics as well as a Diploma in environmental impact assessment.

What better man for the job at this point in time than someone who holds the
Jean Monnet Professor of European Environmental Policy! Jean Monnet was the architect of European unity, but I'd imagine that Peter will be dealing with issues closer to home than picking up the pieces from the Referendum.

Peter is 'an outspoken critic of decentralisation' according to the Irish Times, and if that is true, I'd tend to be of a like mind.
Two years ago I stated that decentralisation threatened the National Spatial Strategy, and I also suspected that pork was being doled out from the barrel. Devolving power to a proper system of regional governance would be great, but shifting jobs around can be counter-productive, particularly when the need for senior officials to meet face to face may result in mileage claims hitting stratospheric levels.

What annoys me most about the decentralisation programme isn't the 110% parking requirements for new government offices, or the so-called sustainable offices at Ireland West Airport Knock, or the way McCreevy slipped it into a budget speech, but the lack of any enthusiasm for cities having a place in Ireland's future. In my mind cities are the powerhouse for Ireland in the twenty-first century.

Back when I was at school, our geography book -'The World' by Sir Dudley Stamp highlighted Dublin for its production of beer and biscuits. Even then that sounded dated. Since then Dublin has played a crucial role in the development of Ireland's economy. It would be foolish not to ensure that cities like Dublin, Cork and Galway benefit strongly from government planning policies, and not just the Gateway Cities initiative. Since decentralisation was announced, I've been to packed-out meetings of angry Bord Iascaigh Maire staff who don't want leave Dún Laoghaire for Clonakilty, and architectural staff from the OPW who aren't impressed with plans to move them to Cork, Meath and Mayo. As the Trim Co. Meath information from the OPW puts it -
"There is no active rail link between Dublin and Trim at this time." For BIM, the quote in the info pack about Clonakilty must have rubbed salt in their wounds: -"A place of choice for the many and home to the lucky few". I can understand why DIG the Decentralisation Implementation Group (awful acronym) stated last year that "some elements are continuing to prove challenging, especially those relating to the State Agency sector."

Minister Éamon Ó Cuív appears to be no great fan of urban life, and in his
speech two days ago to the Rural Development Forum in Charleville in Cork, he quoted Professor Seamus Caulfield, "…'Perhaps the most unsustainable thing about rural housing is the case that is made against it.' " He also states that "rural residents expend less energy and produce fewer carbon dioxide emissions than their urban counterparts." Harry Magee cites Clinch as stating that greenhouse gas emissions reductions are one of the government's biggest challenges, and that Mr Cowen is very committed to making decisions based on sound evidence and research. Somehow I don't think that if we all head off to the dispersed village or baile fearann it will reduce emissions, unless we're all growing our own, and not driving anywhere, an unlikely prospect for the foreseeable future.

Some number-crunching is clearly required to produce clear figures for urban and rural commuting times and CO2 emissions, and maybe that'll come under Prof. Clinch's job spec. Government clearly has a role to play in ensuring that
citizens are encouraged to make the choices that are best for the environment.

There can be a thriving future for rural Ireland, but in my mind employment growth lies in areas such as agricultural diversification, forestry, properly resourced and marketed farm tourism, and vibrant towns and villages creating jobs and providing services. It's a bleak future were it to rely unduly on the back of jobs reliant on long distance car commuting to distant towns, agricultural subsidies, or the construction of one-off housing. There is a touch of irony to Ó Cuív's contention that
pressure is "forcing rural people to move to towns and cities" when the reality of decentralisation for urban dwellers is the exact opposite. In my mind it shouldn't have to be an 'us versus them' debate, and with the right policies in place both urban and rural areas can thrive.

Clinch is also the co-author of 'After the Celtic Tiger',published back in 2002, and well worth a read, '
as the building boom is coming to a shuddering end'. It wasn't the Greens what talked down the economy, it was the Fianna Fáil Minister for Finance! in fairness, I'm taking Brian Lenihan's quote out of context, and he did correct his quote to suggest that only the housing sector was suffering.

I wouldn't be downbeat, and from our perspective, I'd be talking up the new green economy. There's going to be more sunrise than sunset industries over the next few years, and a lot of green collar jobs will come our way if we play our cards right. To do that though we need to rethink decentralisation, and put cities, and improving the quality of urban life at the heart of Ireland's future.

1 comment:

Uncle Junior said...

A good post, Ciarán, and nice to see you posting more regularly.

On the decentralisation issue (a misnomer, as what's involved is moving public servants to different physical locations, not a real re-distribution of currently centralised powers) do you get any sense that there's political appetite for re-assessing the programme, or are all political parties nervous of losing local votes by suggesting that the programme as currently devised may not make good governance, economic or environmental sense?

Given that the political system is not moving from Dublin, there will be a regular procession of civil servants driving, using public transport or flying to the big smoke. The environmental, financial and time-loss costs of this have not been calculated, I think, but there will certainly be political points to be scored in a couple of years.

For what it's worth, I believe that if the State genuinely believed that the growth of Dublin and the corresponding under-development of other urban areas needed to be tackled, then the Oireachtas should be re-located to, say, Athlone and all government departments should be moved to towns with easy rail access to Athlone and no more than 30 miles distant from the new political centre. Real political leadership of that sort could change how we think about the balance between Dublin and the rest of the country.