Ireland caught off balance

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As the commuter belt tightens the regions have to get the benefit of a thriving IT sector



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26 November 2018 | 0

Billy MacInnesThe latest figures concerning job creation in Ireland are a cause for concern for everybody. The imbalance between Dublin (and the mid-east) compared to the rest of the country is there for everybody to see. According to CSO statistics, Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow have accounted for more than 60% of new jobs.

To paraphrase an old saying: “Dublin, we have a problem.”

The Dublin region and commuter belt, which includes Kildare, Meath and Wicklow, accounts for 40% of the total population in Ireland. In 2017, the greater Dublin area accounted for 42% of the total number of people employed in Ireland and Dublin contributed more than 45% of the country’s GDP. To give you a sense of perspective in terms of how imbalanced that is, it’s worth noting that London accounts for 23% of the UK’s GDP.

The latest job creation figures suggest that the situation is getting worse because the percentage rate taken up by Dublin and the commuter belt is even higher than their share of the overall population.

Commenting on the figures, Fianna Fail’s business spokesperson, Billy Kelleher argued that they provided “clear, unambiguous evidence that the two-tier recovery is still being experienced by regional and rural Ireland”.

The situation has become so marked that even the government can’t avoid confronting this issue any more, replacing its Action Plan for Jobs with a Future Jobs programme that includes a €1 billion fund to invest over the next 10 years in rural towns and villages with populations below 10,000. On the eve of the announcement, Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring admitted in the Irish Independent that “Ireland is imbalanced”.

He added that the government had decided to “redress the balance by strategically directing a greater proportion of growth and investment to our regions and our rural communities” and claimed the investment was “unprecedented and will be a game-changer for rural communities”.

Figure it out
That figure of €1 billion sounds impressive – and there’s no doubt that you can get a lot more for your money in the regions than you would in Dublin and the commuter belt – but it’s not quite as spectacular when you spread it out over 10 years. Assuming it was divided equally between all the other counties (which it obviously won’t be), it amounts to €4.5 million extra per county per year. Such a contribution would be welcome but probably more welcome in some areas than others.

Anyway, what this government intervention shows is that the market is lazy. If you leave things to the market, it will invariably take the easiest route. So foreign companies base their investments in Dublin and the greater Dublin area because that’s where a large part of the population lives and can commute to, there’s an airport, there are universities, the transport links are good, the infrastructure is more developed and everything is concentrated in a smallish area.

And then the next wave of investors does the same and so it goes. An orthodoxy takes hold where everyone does the same thing as everyone else and continues to do so unless and until it becomes ruinous to do so. Everybody is too lazy to do anything different. In the meantime, the economic devastation wreaked on the rest of the country as it is starved of investment and its population is increasingly drawn into Dublin and the greater Dublin region could become irreparable.

The technology sector likes to talk about the role it can play in helping businesses to buck this trend by making their operations more agile and enabling people to work remotely. Again, however, there is little evidence that this has accomplished much in helping to buck the trend towards Dublin and the commuter belt.

It’s true that technology can enable practices that would help redress some of the imbalance in terms of where people work in Ireland but companies have to be willing to use them for that purpose. The evidence suggests that many of them are really not that bothered.

Eventually, market forces may well drive businesses to move to the regions but it will be because the market has been left unhindered to create the conditions that make Dublin and the commuter belt unsustainable for many companies and their employees.

In the meantime, we are left reliant on initiatives like the Future Jobs scheme. Let’s hope they have an effect and help to reverse the hollowing out of the regions. Let’s hope technology is not just promoted as a means to achieve this aim to businesses but that they actively use it to help deliver that goal and give us a ‘Future Ireland’ that works for everyone.

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