Ditch the shiny packaging — we just want a national wish list that is functional

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By Cormac Lucey

There is an excited ritual for any family whose children are writing to Santa Claus with their requests for Christmas presents. Imagine how much more excitement there would be if your children were sending requests to the North Pole that covered presents for the next 10 years?

It’s a similar ritual for politicians who get to prepare a 10-year national development plan. It’s as though all their Christmases have come at once. What previously seemed impossible suddenly appears not just possible but probable. With our governing politicians we don’t just get something as mundane as a letter to Santa; we get a glossy report, an appealing title — Project Ireland 2040: Building Ireland’s Future — and an accompanying 109-page national development plan.

I’ve been taking my finance students through the financial statements of the recently failed Carillion company. It’s interesting to ask whether there were any signs of impending trouble. There were a number of them. However, even before I got to them, there were more obvious aspects of the Carillion report which immediately raised my Montgomery C Burns-like hackles: lots of glossy photographs, fancy diagrams and smooth words.

Contrast the Carillion financial statements with those of Ryanair: no glib diagrams, just simple and straightforward language. The public relations gurus have been kept in their place at Ryanair. But they’re running the show in government.

Which genius came up with opening lines of the new plan’s executive summary?

Project Ireland 2040 is the government’s overarching policy initiative to make Ireland a better country for all of us, a country that reflects the best of who we are and what we aspire to be. Project Ireland 2040 is informed by the programme for a partnership government 2016, which recognises that economic and social progress go hand in hand and is made up of the national planning framework to 2040 and the national development plan 2018-2027.”

This is overarching, self-preening, bureaucratic gobbledegook.

You know the national plan is rubbish when you stumble on the very first strategic outcome, which I presume is a goal. What, pray tell, is “compact growth” in plain English? According to the plan, compact and smart urban growth will be pursued to ensure sustainable growth of more compact urban and rural settlements, supported by jobs, houses, services and amenities, rather than continued sprawl and unplanned, uneconomic growth.

It’s more marketing waffle that overrates the value of smooth talk and underrates economic substance.

The remaining nine strategic outcomes are: enhanced regional accessibility; strengthened rural economies and communities; sustainable mobility; a strong economy, supported by enterprise, innovation and skills; high-quality international connectivity; enhanced amenity and heritage; transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient society; sustainable management of water and other environmental resources; and, finally, access to quality childcare, education and health services.

It’s Santa’s wish list to the power of 10 and expressed in political terms.

This plan conflates an increase in inputs (public monies invested) with outputs (public goals achieved). As far as politicians are concerned, the more money that gets put into something, the better it will be.

However, consider the government spending policy on one of the new plan’s greatest priorities, rural development. Leo Varadkar commented recently on a 2016 review, which concluded that if the government provided no additional money for rail services, the funding gap would have to be eliminated by the closure of swathes of the existing rail network. The Taoiseach pledged that all rail routes in Ireland would remain open, dismissing reports of widespread closures as “old news”.

Yet rail travel is a hopelessly inflexible and expensive 19th-century technology. The annual rail survey by the National Transport Authority recorded 1,402 people travelling between Galway and Limerick on census day, November 17, 2016. That stretch cost €105m to build, indicating a capital spend equivalent to €75,000 per passenger being carried. How is this considered a sensible use of public monies?

While the government lavishes money on old technology, rural Ireland suffers from a lack of new technology. As far back as 2010, Eamon Ryan, while communications minister, announced the national broadband scheme, saying: “For too long, rural Ireland has been without this essential service . . . Quality of life will improve for rural residents and communities will be strengthened.”

Eight years on, rural Ireland still suffers from a large broadband deficit and the current communication minister’s scheme to put this right is wobbling.

Sisyphus was the Greek king who was punished for his self-aggrandisement by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down when near the top, repeating this action for eternity. There must be some people in the Department of Finance wondering whether they have been condemned to a similar fate.

In January 2007, the government published the national development plan for 2007-13, Transforming Ireland: A Better Quality of Life for All. Like this month’s plan, it too featured ambitious capital investment plans, including €22bn to be spent on social and affordable housing.

Sadly, that plan fell victim to Prussian general Helmuth Graf von Moltke’s dictum that no plan of campaign survives first contact with the enemy. Or, as Mike Tyson put it more prosaically, everyone’s got a plan till they get punched in the mouth.

The 2007 spending plans ended up being severely chopped back after Ireland hit recession. There is little to suggest that the same fate won’t befall the 2018 plan when the next recession hits, as it must at some point in the next few years.

Published in The Sunday Times (Ireland edition)
February 25th 2018

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