Working with Multiple Boundaries: Variable Geometries within the proposed Eastern and Midlands Region

Dr. Cormac Walsh, University of Hamburg, Institute for Geography

The reform of regional governance boundaries announced by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in October 2012 will have potentially far-reaching implications for the Dublin city-region and its wider rural hinterland. Putting People First postpones a decision on the reorganisation of local authority structures until the aftermath of the 2014 local government elections (Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, 2012, p. 12). This situation has created a high degree of uncertainty over the future of local government in the Dublin region. The creation of an Eastern and Midlands Region creates one large region encompassing the Dublin Metropolitan Area, its functional commuting belt and an extensive rural hinterland with limited direct socio-economic connections to Dublin. In particular, the geographical extent of the governance remit and constituency of a directly elected mayor remains an open question, which has received surprising little attention to date. Previous proposals indicated that a Dublin mayor would receive an electoral mandate from the population of the currently defined Dublin Region (Dublin City, Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown, Fingal and South County Dublin) but would have responsibility for regional planning for the considerably larger Greater Dublin Area (GDA- Dublin Region and the three counties of the current Mid-East Region: Kildare, Meath and Wicklow), creating an unusual and potentially problematic mismatch between electoral mandate and spatial jurisdiction (2008 Green Paper on Local Government Reform).

The current Local Government Bill 2013 envisages the holding of a plebiscite in 2014 to decide on the introduction of a directly elected mayor. Here, the spatial jurisdiction of the proposed mayoral office is determined to correspond with the area of the four Dublin local authorities, referred to in the text as the ‘Dublin Metropolitan Area’ (Government of Ireland, 2013, p. 92). This (territorial) definition of the Dublin Metropolitan Area deviates significantly from the established (functional) distinction between the Dublin Metropolitan Area and Hinterland Area, first adopted by the Strategic Planning Guidelines for the Greater Dublin Area (SPGs) in 1999 and reaffirmed in the Regional Planning Guidelines (RPGs) of 2004 and 2010. The new regional assemblies will be charged with the preparation of regional spatial strategies, which, one may assume, will replace either the existing National Spatial Strategy (NSS; Government of Ireland, 2002) or RPGs or both.  The regional spatial strategy for the Eastern and Midlands Region will need to address the existing unresolved issues regarding the relationship between the Dublin Metropolitan Area and its extended rural hinterland.

It is evident that the future governance of the Dublin city region will require a flexible approach, working with multiple boundaries, depending on the particular issue at stake.   In other contexts (e.g. at the European level and in the case of regional governance in Germany), the principle of variable geometry is firmly established. Under this principle, individual actors (whether nation-states at EU level or local authorities at regional level) decide on a flexible, voluntary basis whether or not to actively participate in a particular project or policy proposal. The principle also crucially requires an acceptance by all parties that not all localities or regions will benefit from all projects or initiatives undertaken at the regional level. In the case of the Eastern and Midlands Region, it is possible to imagine that some policy issues and governance projects would be specific to the four Dublin local authorities. Other issues may be appropriate to the scale of the current GDA whereas others may primarily concern the Mid-East or indeed the Midlands Gateway. At the scale of the Eastern and Midlands Region, individual projects may take the form of strategic, urban-rural partnerships which seek to identify and build on potential synergies between urban and rural areas. A ‘shared services’ approach is one way in which the limited resources of local authorities might be combined to deliver joint projects of common interest. Through the operation of this principle, it would be feasible to incorporate such a differentiated approach within the framework of the wider Eastern and Midlands regional governance structure. This approach could also provide the basis for an integrated governance model based on horizontal and diagonal relations with a wider range of governance actors, including for example city/county development boards, enterprise boards, chambers of commerce or LEADER groups. The active inclusion of central government departments and agencies, however, may require legislative provisions stipulating a responsibility to cooperate. Such a governance model based on a strategically selective and competitive approach to regional development may be one way to introduce new dynamic regional governance in Ireland without requiring large-scale investment from central government.

The future of regional governance for the Dublin city-region and its wider urban–rural hinterland will require a flexible approach to working with multiple spaces and boundaries, recognising the heterogeneous nature of the Eastern and Midlands Region. Such an approach can help to replace existing polarised perspectives on the relationship between Dublin and its hinterland with constructive partnerships that draw on the specific place qualities and resources of each sub-region. The form of governance adopted for the Eastern and Midlands Region, however, will depend on the specifics of the legislative framework within which the regional assemblies will operate and the future decisions regarding local government reform, including the question of a directly elected regional mayor.

*This paper is based on the following article due to be published shortly in Administration

Walsh, C. & Brendan, W. (2013) Metropolitan–hinterland relations in the Dublin city-region: Lessons from Germany, Administration, Institute of Public Administration.

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