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Three Midland towns need to co-operate for regional growth

26th June 2017

Niall Mulligan,

Tullamore and District Chamber of Commerce

I READ with interest Fergal MacCabe’s article in last week’s Tribune, which questioned what our aspirations should be for Tullamore, in the context of the forthcoming National Planning Framework.

I welcome Mr. MacCabe’s informed contribution to the debate and am delighted to have the opportunity to clarify how Tullamore & District Chamber of Commerce is approaching the matter.

The NPF will be the foundation stone of Government planning policy for Ireland, running from 2020 when it supersedes the National Spatial Strategy (NSS), to 2040.

Set against a backdrop of an expected population increase of one million, the effect of disruptive technologies, and the reality of an ageing population, the NPF seeks to answer fundamental and far reaching questions about where and how we will live, how we will access services, where and how we will work, and so on.

The outcomes of this plan will impact where investment will be directed for twenty years.

Coming to the end of the life cycle of the National Spatial Strategy, we can evaluate its impact on the country, on the Midland Region and on Tullamore and judge it to have been a success or failure. Or can we?

As Mr. MacCabe rightly pointed out, the National Spatial Strategy was largely ignored by Government Departments that were responsible for implementing it. Charlie McCreevy introduced his Decentralisation initiative, which had the potential to provide direct impetus to the NSS, but actually undermined it.

Greed and some complicit local planning offices allowed growth to happen for growth’s sake in several locations ill-equipped to handle it. Left behind are disconnected communities located too far away from employment and too sparsely populated to justify the provision of services such as public transport.

The NSS has been derided as “one for everyone in audience” planning policy, driven by Government TDs who were more motivated to secure a win for their Constituency than by the imperative to do the best thing for Ireland. This notion is misinformed.

The National Spatial Strategy was grounded in aspects of international best practice, and gave high regard to quality of life and environmental sustainability. The polycentric Midland Gateway sought to develop Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar sustainably as polycentric drivers of regional growth. The concept has been demonstrated to work in locations with similar population densities and settlement patterns to our own, particularly in Denmark and Sweden.

are a mere 15 years into this experiment whereas the Danes and Swedes have been honing the concept for well over 50. The collapse of the funding model for implementing the NSS means it really is too early to judge the success or failure of the Gateway model.

Speaking about the new National Planning Framework, Minister Simon Coveney pointed to Waterford City and said that it needed have a population of 100,000 in order to be considered self-sustaining in terms of providing sustainable employment opportunities and critical services to its inhabitants and Region.

Nobody will convince me that any Midland town has the underlying potential to grow to that size by 2040.

However, one of the successes of the NSS is how it has primed Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar with the infrastructure and zoning to allow each town to support compact urban populations of 30-40,000 each (100,000 in total). By further developing cohesion and cooperation between the three Gateway towns, we have the potential to reach critical mass and a sustainable level of Regional development and self-reliance. The pursuit of unnatural levels of growth in one any of the three Midland Gateway towns would have a negative impact on the quality of life in that town, and the entire Region. Simply put, it won’t happen, so we must stick together and make the case for Regional development in the Midlands, or risk becoming irrelevant.

To this end Tullamore Chamber, through its membership of the Midland Gateway Chamber, commissioned a professional submission by senior planning policy consultant Hendrik van der Kamp. This consultancy document is forming the basis of workshops with our local TDs, where we seek to inform our public representatives of our vision for the Region and the prerequisites of success: First comes connectivity. We need investment in broadband, north-south road linkages and Intercity rail service upgrades. This would serve to expand the regional jobs and labour markets.

Second is the need to develop a regional identity, promote local differentiators and cultivate core competencies on which the Region can hang its hat. This requires a high level of cooperation between local Government and interest groups.

Thirdly, we need to develop accessibility to employment, training, health and leisure facilities. The Midlands offers an exceptionally high quality lifestyle alternative to city living, but we are falling behind other regions in terms of providing viable skills training and employment.

We are seeking to develop investment models combining tax incentives, public private partnership and the European Investment Bank, specifically to secure advance factories for Tullamore. While securing designation for Tullamore as a centre for growth under the NPF is critical, public policy and State investment in infrastructure alone will not create the jobs that will stimulate inward migration of skilled workers. We must always seek ways to be proactive in growing our own businesses and to support our indigenous SMEs which account for over 70 per cent of employment in this country.

Niall Mulligan is an Executive Member of Tullamore and District Chamber of Commerce and the outgoing President.

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