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.