April 2015

It is always useful to get a response to ideas and theories, and Prionnsias Breathnach’s reponse to our recent publications on rural Ireland will assist in furthering the debate on Ireland’s replacement spatial strategy.

Our fundamental point is that any Irish Planning Region without a city is going to struggle, as exemplified with the two-tier performance of the recent severe economic downturn, 2008-to-date. With the State’s fragile spatial mass and absence of significant population centres, a future strategy for balance must recognise the need for ‘lumpiness’: not to control or stultify the GDA but in having the imperative and urgent need to grow the provincial cities to a size that substantially reduces the 2011 71% deficiency in its Zipf Rank Order Gini-coefficient deficit, wherein if Dublin = 100, Cork = just 17.5, Limerick’s 8, etc. As I have shown, this aggregate city population-shortfall is over one million.

Successful implementation of EU Balanced Regional Development (BRD) is based on the underlying, necessary, assumption that there already exists a second tier of cities. Unfortunately, in Ireland’s (Republic) case and using George Zipf’s Rank Size Order Rule as the test, there is a conspicuous absence – a set of missing teeth – in not having in 2015, a range of 200,000 to 600,000 populated cities. Had Buchanan been implemented in 1969, by now both Cork and Limerick would have achieved these parameters.

Bluntly, the absence of intermediate-sized cities makes the task of implementing BRD outside of the GDA as being unattainable; at least until such time as this pre-requisite exists.

Accordingly, Lorcan Sirr and I are advocating that there is a pressing need for the replacement (new) spatial strategy to focus on developing at least one city or large urban centre in every Planning Region, which is capable of urban agglomerating. Alonso’s paper of 1970, (vide Balchin, 1995: 49) at Fig. 2.12, suggested an X-axis minimum city size of 100,000, with subsequent growth to its inflection points ‘C’, ‘D’ and with in-migration, to ‘E’. How much more so does the minimum threshold population of a modern Irish city need to be in this post-industrial ‘knowledge’ era, so as to reach a size, where it can capture the benefits of urban agglomeration growth, with its attendant clustering effects? It is encouraging to see the benefits of perhaps three specific ‘types’ of clustering in Galway City but this is altogether too few – Dublin has twenty-five or so types. Hence, Galway’s population can still be comfortably accommodated in the 82,500 capacity of Croke Park!

As a country with limited capital resources, there is little prospect of Ireland attaining such results unless our spatial and economic strategies are to be aligned and focused towards that end. In practice, this means a severe spatial planning implementation approach to:

  • controlling one-off housing,
  • reversing the proliferation trend of over 200 hundreds new villages and small towns since 1996,
  • providing affordable housing in our cities in locations close to employment,
  • reducing the traffic congestion of long-distant commuting resulting from enforced population deflection,
  • the re-use of hundreds of hectares of languishing brown-field sites and thereby utilising existing infrastructure and schools, of improved urban design with double-duplex family housing units which have ground-level and roof-level gardens, and
  • anticipating in advance the emergence and recognition of new cities…e.g. the emergence of a sixth city with the impending agglomeration of Drogheda and Laytown-Bettystown-Mornington with a current, closing, gap of just 800 metres (Colp West to Donacarney): not 59 km, the distance between Athlone and Mullingar, a la the NSS ‘linkage’.

The extended economic downturn for nearly the last decade has shown rural Ireland’s severe unemployment and enforced emigration vulnerability and the resultant two-speed economic penalty for regions without cities. Unfortunately, this is likely to be repeated during future cyclical downturns. Thus an all-island approach is needed to ‘lever’ the north-west to the City of Derry, to maximising the potential of the Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor; to focusing growth on proven centres such as Portlaoise, where the land-use/ transportation interface is evident. Its 2006-2011, its population growth was equivalent to the aggregate of the NSS Midland Gateway of Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar. Why select Monaghan, Tuam, Mallow, etc. ahead of Portlaoise?

The ‘test’ for city-size thresholds would include locations that would be deemed suitable for ‘institutional-grade’ property investment locations acceptable to financial instruments such as Pension Funds, REITS, etc. Cities are a pre-requisite to economic ‘spillovers’.

Recent Regional Studies literature has focused on the prospects for New Economic Geography and New Urban Economic research combining to provide urban modelling. Our wish is for their scientific advancement, to include evidence-based empirical modelling. With empirical tools which could incorporate demographics, thereby advancing the earlier ’industrial era’ approach to city threshold size. Such modelling would be of particular value to smaller countries including Ireland – states that exhibit strong major city ‘primacy’.

One would wish for the new spatial and economic plan which is free of the harmful political ‘paw marks’ that bedevilled the 2002-2020 NSS, having perhaps fifteen or so nominated growth centres, limited to centres of 20,000 or more, with strong Daytime Working Population counts. Attempts to ‘twin’ or ‘treble’ linkages should be limited to locations that are already demonstrating urban agglomeration.

The World Bank (2008) correctly advocated ‘lumpiness’ and centripetal agglomeration as the way forward, for developing countries, to build their cities, nurture the nature and change of ‘work’ and thereby benefit from the ‘knowledge’ economy world that now is. Spatial planning-wise, Ireland is a ‘developing, country, so get cracking!

Dr Brian Hughes, urban and regional economist

Dr Lorcan Sirr, lecturer in DIT and visiting professor or housing at the Universitat Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona, Spain


Proinnsias Breathnach, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

The term “Balanced Regional Development” has come under attack in a recent post on this forum (“Recent Demographic Growth in Ireland: Implications for future Spatial Planning and Housing Provision” by Brian Hughes, March 10) and in an opinion piece by Brian Hughes and Lorcan Sirr in The Irish Examiner (“Rural Ireland not served well by unfounded claims on ‘balanced regional development’”, March 18). While I am agreement with the general thrust of the argument advanced in these pieces, I take issue with what I believe is the erroneous interpretation of the term “balanced regional development” (BRD) presented therein.

Hughes and Sirr equate BRD with the highly-dispersed pattern of investment and job creation pursued by successive Irish governments going back to the late 1950s, when the policy of attracting inward investment was first introduced. This reached its zenith with the Regional Industrial Plans of the 1970s which sought to locate foreign branch plants in every town of any significant size in the country, mainly through a massive programme of advance factory construction throughout the country. This policy was unsustainable, and very few of the mainly low-skill assembly and packaging plants, with minimal local linkages, which it generated are still in operation today. However, the policy did meet with a high level of initial success, and the subsequent perception that the government and/or the IDA were capable of parachuting factories into selected communities almost at will was to create future hostages to fortune for subsequent governments.

The much higher quality of jobs – frequently in large projects, and increasingly in export services – which became a feature of the surge of inward investment associated with the Celtic Tiger largely ruled out smaller centres as locational options for such investment. Nevertheless, the dispersalist ambitions of politicians, with their short-term and highly-localised focus, retained their hold and were given one more flourish in the form of the absurd and opportunistic programme, launched by then Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy, for relocating 11,000 civil service jobs to 59 different locations spread over all 25 non-Dublin counties.

It is unfortunate that Hughes and Sirr have used the term “balanced regional development” to describe this policy approach, as the same term underpins the approach to spatial development currently being pursued by the European Union (EU) – an approach which differs quite profoundly from that decried (quite properly, in my view) by Hughes and Sirr. I am referring to the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP), adopted by all EU member states in 1999 as their agreed framework for approaching regional development within the Community.
The basic aim of the ESDP document (Committee on Spatial Development, 1999) is encapsulated in the document’s subtitle (“Towards balanced and sustainable development of the territory of the European Union”) and is set out as follows:

““It is therefore important gradually to aim at a spatial balance designed to provide a more even geographical distribution of growth across the territory of the EU” (p.7).

The objective of balanced regional/spatial development in the ESDP is to counter the prevailing tendency for development to become increasingly concentrated in the EU’s main metropolitan regions. It aims to do this by replacing the typically subordinate position of non-central regions vis-à-vis the dominant regions with an alternative stand-alone capacity whereby peripheral (i.e. non-metropolitan) regions are capable of competing effectively in EU and global markets on their own merits. To achieve this, these regions are to be encouraged to build their own distinctive and specialised export bases, to replace the failed policies of an earlier era focused on branch-plant industrialisation where there was intense (and ultimately wasteful) competition to attract much the same type of firms and industrial structures to the regions concerned.

The key mechanism for achieving balanced regional development proposed in the ESDP is to use the main urban centres in the target regions as the linchpins around which coherent regional export bases can be built. However, it is an important concern of the ESDP that development would not be concentrated in these regional centres; rather, they should serve as drivers of development throughout their respective regions. In particular, the ESDP envisages the development of new forms of symbiotic urban/rural interaction which would replace traditional perspectives which regard urban and rural as separate, and sometimes mutually-hostile, entities.  Under the ESDP, therefore, peripheral regions would take the form of internally-coherent city regions focused on the main regional centres which would act as “gateways” (another frequently misunderstood term) facilitating interaction (e.g. exports & imports, communication flows) between their respective regions and the outside world.

The ultimate effect of this policy, then, is to replace a monocentric national space economy, dominated by a single metropolitan region (as in Ireland, Britain, France, Denmark) with a “polycentric” (yet another widely misinterpreted term) system of substantially self-reliant city-regions:

“The concept of polycentric development has to be pursued, to ensure regionally balanced development… Pursuit of this concept will help to avoid further excessive economic and demographic concentration in the core area of the EU. The economic potential of all regions of the EU can only be utilised through the further development of a more polycentric European settlement structure” (p.20).

While the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) is a dog’s dinner of a document, poorly structured, deficient in many respects and very obviously adulterated by short-term political considerations, its essential approach to spatial development is clearly derived from the ESDP, published three years before the NSS’s own publication in 2002 (National Spatial Strategy for Ireland, 2002). This is evident from the following passages from the document:

“To achieve balanced regional development…requires the targeted assembly at strategic locations, at the required scale, of the factors critical for success” (p.19).

“Balanced regional development also…depends on building up a strong urban structure” (p.26).

“Achieving competitiveness at national, regional and local levels…is central to balanced regional development…The availability of a critical mass of labour and skills, underpinned by high quality business infrastructure is central to achieving competitiveness…attempts to create the requisite competitiveness on a widely dispersed basis would undermine Ireland’s capacity to exploit the potential of centres where critical mass exists or can be promoted. Without having this at the heart of the NSS balanced regional development will not succeed” (pp.34-5).

“…the NSS emphasises the importance of capitalising upon the strengths of and investment in Ireland’s existing major urban areas” (p.36).

“Strengthening the critical mass of the existing gateways of Cork, Limerick/Shannon, Galway and Waterford…offers the most immediate prospects of establishing more balanced patterns of development over the next few years” (p.38).

“..strategically placed, national scale urban areas, acting as gateways…will be key elements for delivering a more spatially balanced Ireland and driving development in their own region” (p.39).

“Balanced national growth and development are secured with the support of a small number of nationally significant centres, whose location and scale support the achievement of the type of critical mass necessary to sustain strong levels of job growth in the regions” (p.39).

My essential argument, therefore, is that balanced regional development does not mean the kind of scattergun approach to the dispersal of investment pursued by Irish governments in the past, but the kind of polycentric city-region development favoured by both the ESDP and, I think, Brian Hughes and Lorcan Sirr themselves. Further, the latter approach was also the basic approach proposed by the NSS, despite the overlay of politically-motived “something-for-everyone-in-the-audience” nonsense with which the final NSS document was saddled.

The problem with the NSS is not that it failed, but that it was never implemented. The government has said that it is preparing a new spatial strategy, but we are unlikely to see it before the next election. Even then, it is virtually certain that a strategy in line with the ESDP will never materialise here, given the existing degree of governance centralisation, and the short-termism, localism and lack of intellectual calibre among politicians. The functionally meaningless regional assemblies created by the 2014 Local Government Act and the complete failure of that Act to deliver any kind of functional devolution (despite what was promised by the governing parties before and after the last general election, and despite the powerful arguments for devolution presented in the discussion paper Putting People First which preceded the Act) reflect the poverty of thinking and incapacity for effective action relating to regional development which envelops Ireland’s state apparatus (bureaucracy and legislature).

Committee on Spatial Development (1999) European Spatial Development Perspective: Towards Balanced and Sustainable Development of the Territory of the European Union. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

National Spatial Strategy for Ireland 2002-2020: People, Places and Potential (2002) Dublin: The Stationery Office.


New research conducted by Dr Rory Hearne, Department of Geography, Maynooth University, has found that the recent water protests (the largest protest social movement in Ireland since Independence) was motivated by a range of factors and not just water charges.  People are protesting at the impacts of austerity (which was the most cited reason for protesting), a desire for complete abolition (and not just reduction) of water charges and against the privatisation of water. They are also motivated by the belief that the current (and previous) government have, through austerity and the bailout, put the interests of the banks, Europe, and the bondholders before the needs of the Irish people, and that the working, poor and middle income people have paid an unfair burden of austerity. Respondents identified ‘corruption’, ‘cronyism’ and a belief that the ‘establishment parties look after a golden circle of wealthy business people and corporate elite’ as reasons for public anger.

The research is contained in a report being launched today which is written and analysed by Dr Hearne.  The Report is entitled, The Irish water war, austerity and the ‘Risen people’: An analysis of participant opinions, social and political impacts and transformative potential of the Irish anti water-charges movement. The Report details the findings of a survey of 2,556 water protestors undertaken between  December 7th and 14th 2014. It was a survey of those who are opposed to, and protesting against, the water charges, and not of the general population.

This is the largest survey of a protest movement undertaken to date in Ireland. It is unique, ground breaking, and innovative research, as it used on-line and social media to engage participants from the protest movement while it was on-going. This is the largest survey of a protest movement undertaken to date in Ireland. The survey respondents were from diverse geographical and occupational backgrounds.   It is an independent research study, led by Dr Rory Hearne, with the involvement of students in the MA in Human Geography, and no funding was received to undertake the survey or the report.

Report findings:

A majority believe that the campaign will be successful and do not intend to pay the water charges

92% stated that they do not intend paying for water charges and 90% felt the tactics of the Right2Water movement have been effective. This indicates a high level of confidence among protestors that the water charges and Irish Water will be abolished. It is also very supportive of the Right2Water trade unions, political parties and grassroots ‘Says No’ groups. Survey respondents believe the protests brought the water charges to the top of the political agenda and made the government “take stock and realise that the people of Ireland have had enough” and that “they are not taking this one lying down”. Protestors intend to extend the campaign to boycotting the water charge.

New form of citizen’s action and empowerment

A majority of respondents (54.4%) stated that they had not participated  in any previous protest. Respondents felt the water protests have been successful because it “is a genuinely grassroots and local movement and has mobilised every village, town and city of this country” and “rallied Irish people from all walks of life”.  The respondents explained that, in their view, they have the power to stop the implementation of the water charges through large scale protest, non-payment and protest at water meter installations. This is different from other austerity measures such as the household charge where people did not have the same power to protest as it was enforced by revenue or cuts were made directly to wages and public services.

Media portrayal

When asked, a majority of respondents described the media portrayal of the anti-water movement as either ‘undermining the campaign’ (46%) or  ‘unfair’ (41%). 82.6% were most informed about the campaign from social media while only 6.4% of respondents relied on traditional media outlets.

Desire for new political party and dramatic political change in Ireland

Very significantly, 45% said they voted for the main large parties (FF/FG/Labour) in 2011 but indicated that they are changing their vote to the opposition Left parties and independents in the forthcoming election. 31.7% said they will vote for PBP/AAA, 27.5% said for Left Independents, 23.9% for Sinn Fein and only 5.6% for ‘Right’ Independents. 77% of respondents said that they believed the most effective way of getting change was through protesting while only 28% saw contacting a political representative as effective.

Despite the strong support for ‘Left’ parties, a large proportion (79%) want to see a new political party formed. They identified that the issues such a new party should stand on include anti-austerity; anti-corruption, anti-cronyism; radical political reform and democracy. They want it to stand for fairness, equality, social justice, and the right to housing, health, water, education and protection of the poor and vulnerable. It should also stand up to Europe (particularly on the debt), and ‘take back’ Irish natural resources (gas, fisheries etc) ‘for the people of Ireland’.

Dr Rory Hearne, explained the significance of these findings:  “The outcomes of the survey raise a number of interesting findings and reflections for understanding the Irish anti-water charges movement and its impact on the changing nature of Irish politics and democracy. It suggests that the water movement represents a new form of ‘people-empowered’ politics. Interestingly, respondents also made reference to the failure of the main political parties to live up to the ‘ideals of the Republic’. What is clear from this ground-breaking study is that the water protests have catalysed a process of empowering significant numbers of Irish people who had not been involved in protest or anti-establishment politics before which is likely to have a big impact on Irish politics in coming years.”

The report is available here


Your are invited to the eDIGIREGION regional stakeholders’ workshop organised in conjunction with the Regional Studies Association (Irish Branch). The workshop is being held in order to generate the eDIGIREGION Regional Innovation System (RIS)  Joint Action Plan (JAP). We also believe the outputs from the workshop may provide valuable inputs into the South East Region Action Plan for Jobs and the new Southern Region Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy.

Date:              16th April 2015

Venue:          QUESTUM Enterprise Centre, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary (On the Chair Roundabout of the Clonmel by-pass)

Time:             9.00am – 2.00pm (Lunch included)

Event:            Regional Stakeholders’ Workshop

Objectives:  The object of this workshop is to:

(a)    Provide you with feedback from the eDIGIREGION Regional Benchmark Audit

(b)    To discuss potential Smart Specialisations for the South East Region

(c)     To commence the process of developing the region’s Joint Action Plan (JAP) for Smart Specialisations



09.00 – 09.30      Registration (teas/coffees and croissants)

09.30 – 09.45      Introduction                      Michael Moroney, eDIGIREGION

Welcome Address          Cllr. Michael Fitzgerald, MCC, Cathaoirleach Tipperary County Council

Today’s Expectations     Prof. Bill O’Gorman, Coordinator, eDIGIREGION

09.45 – 10.15      SMART SPECIALISATION – Identifying Targets and Implications for the South East

Dr. Chris van Egeraat, Lecturer Economic Geography, Department of Geography / National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, Maynooth University

(See abstract at end)

10.15 – 10.45      Regional Benchmark Audit – What You Had To Sa

Prof. Bill O’Gorman, Coordinator, eDIGIREGION

10.45 – 11.15      Smart Specialisations for the South East

Introduction and Case Studies

11.15 – 11.30      Tea/Coffee

11.30 – 12.30      Workshop – Prioritising Smart Specialisations for the South East

The workshop will be facilitated by members of the Irish branch of the Regional Studies Association (including Dr. Chris van Egeraat, Department of Geography, Maynooth University and Justin Doran, School of Economics, UCC).

The purpose of the workshop is to discuss and prioritise, for the South East, the range of Smart Specialisations derived from the eDIGIREGION Benchmark Audit, within the context of a set of specific criteria.

12.30 – 13.00      Feedback from the Workshop and outline of next steps in developing a regional Joint Action Plan

Workshop facilitators and Prof. Bill O’Gorman

13.00 – 14.00      Networking and buffet lunch


Key note address: Smart Specialisation – Identifying Targets and Implications for the South East

This presentation introduces a new methodology for identifying targets for regional Smart Specialisation strategies. Current methodologies, generally adopt methods and indicators based on specialisation (for example: the Location Quotient; Maurel and Sedillot Index). Such indicators are problematic in that they don’t, necessarily, identify areas of regional strength. We introduce a new methodology for identifying “significant sectoral concentrations”. The indicator accounts for the number of firms and the number of employees in a concentration. In addition, the methodology employs point data, thereby overcoming the drawbacks associated with arbitrary administrative boundaries. The results will be illustrated with sectoral maps and the discussion focuses on the implications for the South-East Region.
This work draws on research in progress involving Dr. Declan Curran (DCU), Mr. Justin Gleeson (Maynooth University), Mr. Rutger Kroes (Wageningen University), Professor Edgar Morgenroth (ESRI) and Dr. Chris van Egeraat (Maynooth University). Some of the work was conducted as part of an InterTradeIreland commissioned research project into All-Island sectoral ecosystems.

William O’Gorman wogorman@tinet.ie