It has been termed the most fundamental overhaul of local government in the last 100 years, but will the proposed regional restructuring as laid out by Minister Phil Hogan bring about a change in the entrenched thinking of Irish planning, regardless of scalar scope? Will the devolution of power to a sub national level bring about a fundamental change in how we view economic development in this country? Are the managers of the newly formed regional authorities going to be any different in viewing indigenous entrepreneurship with mistrust and will they continue to entrust the future of the Irish economy on an exogenous-led development model?
We will all be aware of the debate regarding the Irish corporate tax regime and we will also be aware of the significant contribution of foreign direct investment into this small economy. While much of the debate questions the legal status of this regime in a common market or the willingness of non-Irish companies to exit when times get tough, the real questions that need to be asked concern the broader plans for the economic and social development of the country. I have spent a great deal of time examining the comings and goings of foreign investors into and out the Irish economy. When they come, Ministers line up to cut red tapes and speak of the ‘competitive positioning of Ireland as an international location to do business’ when they go, Ministers tell us that ‘we are open to the vagaries of the global marketplace’. The reality is more nuanced, Ireland has been a world leader in marketing itself, and the last 60 years of exogenous-led development has lead to many notable coups as well as embedding Irish operation’s of some of the world’s biggest companies firmly within their respective networks of global production.
So, not to be a foreign investor naysayer, but to ask if a focusing on the local / regional scale in Ireland could help us identify where our competitive and comparative advantage lies. The focus on endogenous development models casts Ireland as the child that refuses to fly the nest. Regional policy heretofore has been a case of trying to convince these investors to locate outside of the M50 (something the IDA has been relatively unsuccessful at of late). What a serious restructuring could involve is a complete revaluing of what it is that our regions have to offer. So when it comes to the drawing up of new baseline economic studies, each region needs to consider what it has that is unique, what it can offer, not merely showcasing itself as location for foreign investors with a roll call of the usual metrics such as cost per square unit of office space, distance from Dublin etc, but a real evaluation of what it can offer in terms of supporting all types of industry. More reference needs to be paid to the social and cultural infrastructures that are present in our regions and questioning what it is that they have to offer to the development of their places. More weight needs to be lent to softer factors such as quality of life, and environmental endowments, key factors that the Irish regions can compete with on the global stage.
Ireland is not a set of uninspiring industrial estates full of large corrugated buildings (but we do have our fair share), but a country steeped in a symbolic texts and cultural narratives. Those alongside a critically engaged, well-educated and diverse workforce are the building blocks that have been ignored up until now. Recognising that these traits are more valuable to the promotion of indigenous entrepreneurship than they are as entries in the high gloss publications on the benefits of locating you business in Ireland is the first step in putting the right people first.
Putting people first offers an opportunity to approach Ireland’s development in a truly new way. But along with this opportunity there is also a challenge. There is no one size fits all model. Prescriptive policy development must be cast out. The policy process takes centre stage, with formulating policy that meets the needs of people and places at the core of regional development. This does not mean working with a blank slate, but national, regional and local policy is interconnected. Regions and localities should have a real opportunity to steer the direction of policy, but in line with national objectives. Policy formulated as a result would be integrated, a joined up policy across the scales of governance.
So, central in putting people first is the ‘how’ of this reform, and not just the ‘where’, i.e. the level of governance. Regional governance should involve a policy formulation process where key actors at regional levels are involved in the process of identifying the challenges policy must address and the formulation of policy needs. Policy should be informed by those on the ground, with efforts made to reach out beyond the usual suspects, and also to involve a range of views, such as educators, academics, business people and the community. Key actors should be kept involved beyond the policy formulation process to oversee how measures are implemented.
Culture led regional development offers great opportunity for Ireland to take a different route than previously taken, both in terms of a different structure of governance and a regional development agenda with a renewed outlook. Assets each region harness are culture and creativity. Regional development and development focused on culture and creativity go hand in hand.