As we exit the Covid crisis, there will be a real risk that elevated levels of current spending will be difficult to roll back. The line of least resistance could be to shy away from a further step up in planned infrastructural investment. That is the opposite of what is now needed and must be explicitly confronted in the NDP Review now underway.
At the heart of the Review must be a recognition of the need for a major overhaul of our infrastructure to meet the challenges of the future. This entails infrastructural adaptation for Climate Action, for Public Services, for demographic growth and aging, and the facilities and policies to build Human Resource capacity and Enterprise competitiveness in our key sectors. The Ireland of 2040 must become a very different place.
Project 2040 was a very ambitious plan to reshape the pattern of population growth in a regionally balanced and sustainable way. However, with the new pressures of a post Covid response, a higher Climate ambition, we need to see transformative change frontloaded. This in turn requires a more ambitious NDP. To inspire the confidence of those who buy Irish Debt, there must be some very clear objectives set out of what infrastructural changes are required in these areas; how they are integral to a prosperous, sustainable, competitive, stable society; and how they can optimally be funded.
The exit from Covid is a watershed moment when the public will back ambition for a better growth model with balanced sustainable development. That is what will be necessary to be competitive in the transforming European economy. Many of the world’s most innovative companies have already recognised that.This opportunity must be seized, the key drivers must be identified and a critical path of investment and policy spelt out in the NDP review, as we are now laying down the arteries of that transformation.
The nature of the transformative changes are such that the state must play a far greater leadership role in ensuring infrastructural delivery than ever before, even if it is not directly undertaking the investment itself. Analysis clearly shows that the market cannot be relied upon to deliver integrated communities, a zero carbon society, balanced compact regional development, nor zero pollution.
There are a number of critical areas where state leadership is now essential.
- Balanced Regional Development will require that the LDA have the budget and the powers to deliver the development of the cities which are to grow at twice the rate of Dublin. Site assembly, Master Planning will require an unprecedented level of investment and guidance. In addition, a “ portfolio approach” to public and private investment will be essential to create integrated communities. This is quite different from the investment planning now in place in Health, Education, Justice, Children or Transport, where demand is allowed build up before investment plans are initiated. The NDP Review must spell out how this will be achieved.
- Within the construction sector, we are already seeing that the cost of compact development in cities is not viable in the market on current planning models. The social gains of well designed city life are not going to be delivered without public private partnership of a new sort, developing new designs for compact living. Greater mobility in property needs to be achieved to reduce the prevalent Irish pattern where over 90% of older families choose to occupy homes far beyond their needs.
- Over 80% of the country’s Housing Stock has an energy rating inconsistent with our Climate ambitions. However, again the social gains of a wave of retrofitting are not going to be delivered by the present incentive structures given the long periods over which the purely private gains are realised. The necessary investment to deliver this wave must be central to the NDP and a workablePublic Private Partnership model with whatever incentives or regulatory structures must be demonstrated in the Plan.
- Public Procurement must lead the way in ensuring that the right long term choices are made. No exceptions to green purchasing strategies should be permitted. The route for each public body to halve carbon impact in the decade on a pathway to zero carbon by 2050 must be a vector of investment embraced by the new NDP, and innovative ways of mobilising that investment addressed.
- A key opportunity for Ireland to gain a long-term competitive edge lies in the area of Renewable Power. While the competitive auction is the correct route to promote least cost renewables, the state must take a lead in identifying the areas with best opportunity and creating designations to accelerate the opportunities. This is particularly true of offshore wind, where the state should grasp the nettle by itself developing a platform to which all private generators could connect.
- A huge investment in Land Use and in Forestry to support our Climate Action Planning is necessary. The existing suite of state incentives and state direct investment will not deliver this. The NDP must demonstrate an effective route to achieve the goal.
- Zero Pollution is one of the key goals in the European Green Deal. The infrastructural framework of that goal has not been spelt out in Ireland. It is important that the NDP starts to shape that landscape. A different hierarchy of waste infrastructures will be needed for collection, segregation and reuse.
- The transformation to e-delivery will become a reality in rural Ireland as the National Broadband Plan ensures every household has access to high speed broadband. This Broadband Plan can be accelerated, but it will require coordination of public and private players. This core communication artery makes it possible to create a new vision of regional Ireland. It must be fully utilised to renew our regions and enliven Local Authority Development Plans.
- In addition, the NDP must set out the investments now needed to empower the delivery of public services in a better way which ICT Revolution makes possible in Education , in Health in Cultural revival. The NBP infrastructure will give Ireland an “ early mover” advantage which must be exploited.
- The NDP must also chart the development of regulatory infrastructures in Ireland as new public expectations are imposed on the major electronic platforms, many of which are hosted in Ireland.
While a strong role for state leadership is now necessary, it is important to also recognise that better frameworks can often be designed where private investors are required or incentivised to play a greater part. There is no one size fits all optimal approach that can be adopted to this. Responsiveness, risks and costs in each market is different, but where a share-out between public and private is intended, the Plan should outline a credible approach to leveraging the private investment needed.