It’s good to get things put in proportion on occasion. Two weeks ago in the Indian city of Jaipur, a taxi driver asked me how many people lived in Ireland. He and 800 million other Indians had watched the Irish cricket team run India close in the Cricket World Cup. In that one 2015 performance, the Irish cricket team was watched by more people than will watch the national football and rugby team, plus every golfer, all our GAA teams and every Conor McGregor fight put together in 2017. That’s how big India and Indian sport is.
So when I replied that there was about six-and-a-half million of us on the whole island, he laughed and said, “You live in paradise”. He went on to point out that we live in a peaceful part of the world, surrounded by fish, not antagonistic neighbours, with lots of water and fresh air, lots of arable land and only a handful (by Indian standards) of fabulously wealthy people. We chatted about cricket (my spoofery to his encyclopedic knowledge) and went on to politics. The first generation of post-colonial Indian leaders, particularly Nehru, was very taken with Ireland. The driver concluded that “with a good plan, you in Ireland can do anything”.
Flicking through the Government’s “Ireland 2040” plan, I couldn’t help returning to the taxi driver’s parting words: with a good plan, we can do anything. And he is right. Relative to the rest of the world, we can look to the future optimistically, if only we can get a few things right. The government’s 2040 plan is a good start.
Twelve years ago, when writing the ‘Pope’s Children’, I went out to the booming counties around Dublin, a place called the Baby Belt, of which Naas was the buckle of the baby belt. This was where the population was exploding. This is precisely where the dynamism and excitement of young families and new estates could be felt. For me suburbia was not the dystopian landscape of editorial writers, but rather it was — and still is — a New Ireland, blossoming under strained circumstances and shouldering bad planning but as is so often the case, sustained by human endeavour and the innate familial optimism that drives all of us forward.
Obviously, the massive overcrowding in this baby belt was undermining the quality of lives for those on the East Coast, in particular, commuters. And with over 50pc of the entire economic activity of the country, this swollen part of the country was draining potential commercial opportunities from the rest of the country. Ironically, the better road system that was supposed to channel economic and commercial activity to the regions had the opposite effect. It facilitated commutes form further and further away. As a result, the new motorways only exacerbated the urge to build one-off housing further out into the Baby Belt. This has created a giant arc of development and commuters stretching from beyond Drogheda, sweeping westwards through Navan, Mullingar, south to Tullamore, towards Portlaoise, east to Carlow and out the Irish Sea again at Gorey. This is the New Ireland, the new overpopulated Pale, multi-cultural, multi-coloured and soon to be extremely overcrowded.
If we do nothing and allow the market to determine the next 25 years, this part of Ireland will become unpleasant, angry and unstable.
In contrast, what was termed “Rural Ireland” will become “Empty Ireland”, pretty but desolate, a theme park for tourists trying to find the “Real Ireland”. It will be a bit like a giant famine village — an abandoned place, which used to be thriving but is now silent.
It’s not just rural Ireland that is suffering because population trends in traditional Ireland are being replicated deep in our inner cities. The most extraordinary fact of the past 20 years is that the living population of our cities has collapsed.
This is particularly marked outside Dublin, but even in the capital we have seen population declines in many wards inside the M50, which is extraordinary. So places like Dún Laoghaire on the Southside and Howth on the Northside have experienced falls in their population. This isn’t limited to the traditionally more well-to-do areas. The same is true for Cabra, Artane, Finglas and Coolock. It is also the case in Dundrum, Stillorgan, Terenure and Templeogue.
Behind this change is the shifting population dynamic as the kids from the suburban 1960s, 1970s and 1980s estates have fled the nest and moved out beyond the M50 because they can’t afford to live in the areas they were brought up in.
In Limerick, Cork and Waterford the denuding of the city centre has been extreme. There are only 1000 people living in Georgian Limerick. Given that Georgian Limerick is an architectural gem, such a collapse in population is a travesty for those who could have lived there but instead commute in and out.
Now this is real dystopia.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Granted, if left to its own devises, activity will centre on great urban areas because this is where the choice is, the people are, the demand is, the footfall is and big cities are the cradle of creativity and dynamism that attract yet more people, ideas and money.
But this is only possible if people can live in the city. Otherwise the city becomes a destination not a home.
Proper planning can do two things that could redefine Ireland in the next 20 years. Planning can rejuvenate city centres by building up, not out, and rebuilding communities thereby making much better use of urban land. This is a win/win for everyone, more density, less commuting, less pollution and a more vibrant urban and cultural life.
The second thing good planning can do is stop sprawl. A proper national plan can identify areas that will be encouraged and identify places or counties that must be limited.
Here is the rub. In a democracy, planning is tricky because it demands centralised choices made by planners. In China, this is easy because the Party simply chooses places and that’s that. So if you live beside the new dam, tough luck. Ireland doesn’t work like that. We have politicians who see every win for a neighbouring county or city as a loss for them. Therefore, we rarely have such a lofty notion as the national interest, but a series of micro-battles, which are used as evidence every four years at election time. It is a depressing form of dependency, but it dominates what goes for politics here.
Therefore, encouraging and all as the Government’s new plan is, it’s first hurdle — and remember this is a minority government — will be with the Irish political system. If it can get past this impediment, maybe the Indian taxi driver is right, we can do anything here!