Re: Re: Government-by-numbers

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@Published SBP DR Edward Walsh wrote:

Vision needed now to develop West

17 April 2005 By Dr Edward Walsh
Despite the bad press Limerick has received recently, its people have come up with initiatives that have proven to be of profound national importance.

In 1959, Brendan O’Regan convinced Sean Lemass to define a special tax-free zone at Shannon where concepts to attract overseas investment could be tested. The resultant pro-enterprise policies formed the foundation upon which Ireland’s current economic success is based.

The two remarkable O’Malley ministers, Donagh and Des, were similarly driven and took unexpected initiatives that profoundly reshaped Irish education and politics.

Donagh, without doubt the most flamboyant minister who ever entered Leinster House, surprised his departmental officials in education and astonished his cabinet colleagues when he went public without their knowledge or approval and announced free secondary education, as well as the school-bus infrastructure to support it.

If that were not enough, he then went on to plan and introduce the regional technical college system.

Unlike ministers before or after him, he cut through the waffle and procrastination of the Department of Education.

Without his panache and courage, years of reviews and consultations would have rolled by and Ireland would have failed to provide the skilled workforce required to implement the emerging new industrialisation policies.

In 1968, Donagh died in his prime in the middle of an election campaign, but he had already outlined his thoughts on a new kind of university for Limerick.

The NIHE, which evolved into the University of Limerick, disrupted Ireland’s cosy university system from the outset.

When it opened in 1972 – despite derision from many in the Irish academic community – it introduced modular degrees, semesters, continuous assessment, inter-disciplinary study and work placement.

It also contributed to the academic philosophy that insisted universities could be excellent while also being relevant to the development needs of the community.

This radical initiative was the bait that attracted Ireland’s first silicon-chip manufacturer, Analog Devices, to Limerick.

Degree programmes were adjusted to meet its needs, and the first graduates formed its core staff.

Analog Devices was Ireland’s first truly high-tech venture. Its resounding success gave convincing evidence of Ireland’s capabilities and gave confidence to an increasing stream of advanced manufacturing companies and later, global leaders such as Intel, Microsoft and Dell.

The academics in Limerick built bridges to the enterprise community and believed that an important part of their mission was to stimulate Ireland’s economic and social development.

In partnership with Shannon Development and with help from Denmark and the US, Ireland’s first innovation centre and science park, now the National Technological Park, were built as an extension of the Limerick campus.

But all of this innovation is in the past and the old industrial policies that built Ireland’s current prosperity and technological know-how can not be relied upon to sustain us in the decades ahead. Things are changing as the knowledge-driven economy takes hold.

Already regional centres are alarmed at the rate at which long-established, but labour-intensive manufacturing enterprise is closing up and moving abroad, unable to cope with Ireland’s labour costs and burdensome emerging regulation.

There is also a recognition that, unlike the older-generation manufacturing plant that could locate almost anywhere in Ireland, most new knowledge-intensive enterprises seek the infrastructure of a large city.

It tends to gravitate to centres of scale that can offer sophisticated legal and financial services, a range of universities, advanced research laboratories, essential telecommunications and the essential range of air services.

Ireland’s regional cities are small when compared with Dublin and have difficulty in competing to attract the most sophisticated knowledge-driven enterprise.

Awareness is growing in the Limerick-Galway corridor that now is the time to do something about the problem.

The only realistic solution is a move towards inter-urban clustering in order to offer the scale neither city can in itself provide.

In Britain, the advantages of urban clustering has been recognised for some time.

A string of cities along the M62 in the north of England are now being brought together to form the Northern Way in order to compete with London as a major northern counterpole.

The cities stretch from coast to coast, from Liverpool to Hull, and have been interlinked with a backbone of sophisticated communications, upgraded motorways and a high-speed rail network, to coalesce into a megalopolis of 15 million people.

Quality of life is given focus.

Infrastructure, education, health and cultural amenities are being upgraded in a planned way, so that as an interlinked group they can compete with London as they have failed to do individually.

The prospect of urban clustering in Ireland and creating a counterpole to Dublin appears to be an option whose time has come.

Already the private sector has led the way and 270 high-tech enterprises along the Galway, Ennis, Shannon, Limerick corridor have come together to collaborate and establish the Atlantic technology corridor.

The Atlantic corridor concept can be built upon to provide Ireland with a vision that will be strong enough to capture the imagination and make things of great consequence happen.

It will need the kind of commitment from government provided by Lemass and his colleagues 45 years ago, when he courageously drew a line around a tract of land to form the Shannon Zone, introduced legislation and permitted those within it to blitz ahead.

It is encouraging that government is so strongly committed to correcting Ireland’s regional imbalance.

Having addressed general regional growth issues through the spatial strategy and other initiatives, it is clear that a focal-point of national significant is now required to catch the imagination, maintain momentum and make significant things happen.

Plans for the development of the Galway-Limerick corridor offer the prospect of an initiative with focus and panache that is potentially as exciting and challenging for Ireland as the multi-media super corridor is for Malaysia or the Northern Way is for Britain.

But if the project is to succeed it requires the wholehearted commitment of government in partnership with the two key cities.

It must have scale and intensity and it must be planned to the best international standards.

The goal should be the creation of a counterpole of sufficient scale and sophistication that is as attractive to knowledge-driven enterprises, as Dublin is.

Also, it can be designed to offer a superb quality of life, something that’s not always possible in Dublin.

With planning norms to international standards, existing towns and villages within the corridor should expect to grow so that vernacular architecture and their fragile nature are respected.

Many new towns and villages should emerge along the corridor with stringent design criteria to ensure harmony with the Irish countryside.

A certain amount of one-off housing should be permitted provided that this is built discretely and concealed from the roadside behind newplantations of native Irish trees.

Ireland needs a pilot zone where planning concepts can be tested with the goal of creating conditions for living and working that are far superior to those evolving at random and now oozing from the outskirts of cities, towns and villages.

At this juncture in its physical development insipid Ireland needs a new national visionary undertaking of international scale and challenge, one that catches the national imagination and provide the kind of solutions for working and living that currently escape us.

The Atlantic corridor, approached in the right way, offers this prospect.

Dr Edward M Walsh is president emeritus, University of Limerick

It is amazing what a balanced approach can come up with especially from one who managed to stay within the University community

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