Regional development has not worked in Ireland. A continuous drift of people to Dublin has both weakened the regions and congested the capital. This imbalance has triggered the preparation of The National Spatial Strategy and much effort and consultation has taken place during the past three years in search of a solution.
There are many good elements within the Strategy. However, extensive consultation and the political imperative to please geographically has fostered anodyne proposals with insufficient focus and vision.
The only regional development initiative of consequence in the history of the State emerged from a different process: Lemass, in the late 50s, with minimal consultation and much vision, provided Brendan O’Regan with funds and discretion to establish Shannon Development. The new Shannon concepts were grand enough, not only to catch the national imagination, but to attract international attention. This bold regional undertaking laid crucial foundations for our subsequent national economic success story.
Two generations later something similar is called for to stem the drift to Dublin, while addressing Ireland’s declining reputation as a good place in which to live.
A recent satellite photograph shows Ireland at night. There is no doubt where Dublin is located: a large pool of light extends far west towards the midlands. While Cork, Limerick and Galway make much less impact, the individual perimeters are surprisingly close: triggering the thought that if somehow these three cities were encouraged to merge in a creative and collaborative way the resultant conurbation, let’s call it The Atlantic Technopolis, could be a vibrant counterpole to Dublin.
Malaysia attracted much international attention with the 1998 launch of its grand vision for the Multimedia Super Corridor. It stretches 50 km south from Kuala Lumpur and provides for the most advanced knowledge infrastructure, including the development of two ‘Smart Cities’: Putrajaya and Cyberjaya. Ireland should have no reason to lack the confidence to do something at least as adventurous.
Any plan for a counterpole to Dublin must be tested by whether or not it will halt or reverse the drift to Dublin. Or put another way: can the Atlantic Technopolis offer a better life style, communications, transport and housing infrastructure than Dublin?
Knowledge workers are mobile: in the United States they are abandoning the northern cities for better living places. The drift is towards the forests of North Carolina, old mining villages in Nevada, and the life style of San Diego.
How can the Atlantic Technopolis be given the ‘honey pot’ characteristics that would move people from Dublin? Transportation and communications are crucial. A 4-lane motorway from Cork to Galway would serve as the backbone, linking the three cities and the catchments towns and villages. An accelerated broadband rollout would be essential. Upgrading the existing track from Cork to Galway for commuting and fast intercity trains would be a bonus. Motorway and rail links to a Euroferry port in Waterford/Wexford would give direct continental access, while taking pressure off Dublin.
Just as Shannon served as a pilot area for new development strategies over the past decades, so the Technopolis could be used to test new concepts in planning, education and health. Shrinking farm populations are denuding rural areas. Knowledge workers could repopulate and reinvigorate them. Revised planning regulations must respond to the different needs of those who are not farming, but who could be attracted to carefully planned towns, villages and to the countryside. If vernacular architecture were encouraged, and rural housing, hidden behind new broadleaf plantations, were given preference over ribbon development, the countryside could be visually improved while being repopulated.
The universities in Cork, Limerick and Galway have already taken a lead in coming together to form the Atlantic Alliance. This partnership with appropriate funding could serve as a key driving force for the research, educational and entrepreneurial stimulation of the Technopolis. Schools could be given priority in the provision of advanced infrastructure and would be well placed to pilot curriculum reform, especially in the sciences.
Ireland appears oblivious to the radical health-care reforms sweeping Europe. Sweden, Denmark and Spain have been remarkably successful in introducing private- sector incentives into health systems while still providing public funding.
The Stockholm region has cut 2-year waiting lists to 3 months and reduced unit costs by up to 15 percent as the Swedish government has tested its withdrawal from providing health care while still funding it. Some 150 private health provider groups have emerged. The State operates a voucher system and controls the standards. The groups compete for business: waiting lists have shrunk, and unit costs are down. One hospital group has floated its shares on the Stockholm stock exchange.
In Denmark, the Copenhagen Hospital Corporation has taken over seven public hospitals recently. Annual savings of US$60 million and staffing reductions of 1700 have been achieved. The system is now being extended throughout Denmark.
Health care in Ireland has failed because of its structures. The Atlantic Technopolis, or perhaps the greater Cork area, could pilot the radical reforms that have been so successful elsewhere.
The quality of life in Dublin has deteriorated at such a rate that a bold initiative could have political rewards, both in Dublin and the regions. The Atlantic Technopolis, with its adjacent mountains and sea, could offer a most attractive alternative to Dublin, and serve as a ‘honey-pot’ that would attract the mobile research talent and knowledge-driven enterprise so vital to Ireland’s future.
The Atlantic Technopolis should be a legal entity with statutory authority that defined relationships with existing local authorities and development agencies. The project would be one of high international standing suited to the next 5-year National Development Plan. A budget provision in the order of €1 billion would launch the project.
When considering spatial strategy for Ireland, Ezra Cornell’s dictum appears relevant:
“Undertake no small projects, they are so difficult to accomplish.”