Map from Atlas of the Island of Ireland

Balanced regional development – What does it mean?

It is clear that some regions in Ireland are growing much more than others (see Regions and Recovery post), with some even showing ‘growth strains’ (Dublin Economic Monitor, Issue 1, Spring 2015, p.4 ). It is also evident that while national economic growth is the main policy objective, policy on where this growth should occur is less clear. This lack of direction is compounded by the hiatus waiting for the development of a successor to the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) (2002), which is not likely to emerge until late 2016 at the earliest.

In the meantime, work to promote ‘balanced regional development’ continues with policy initiatives and actions being developed to spread growth and development more widely across the country, including the recently announced IDA Strategy 2015-2019  to boost regional FDI employment, along with the formulation of Regional

Action Plans for Jobs, and the implementation of recommendations from the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas (CEDRA).  These initiatives seem to have largely emerged because of growing unease at the uneven spatial pattern of economic recovery.

However the term ‘balanced regional development’ is open to many interpretations and recent commentary provides evidence of that. Though the term is widely used, confusion or obfuscation over what is actually intended has not helped the debate on policy implications and direction, let alone any efforts at implementation. Indeed some might argue that the term is used because it is so vague.

In developing a successor to the NSS, it is important to learn from the experience since 2002 and while poor implementation is often cited as the main reason for the NSS’s limited success, lack of clarity on what ‘balanced regional development’ really meant was also a contributing factor.

A range of meanings

Balanced regional development was expressed as a key Government policy objective in the NSS 2002- 2020 published in 2002 and was a key objective of the National Development Plan 2007-2013 (2006). Though balanced regional development became an important government policy, it was not clearly or consistently defined and a range of interpretations and meanings were evident.

In 2002 the NSS stated that

‘In order to achieve more balanced regional development, a greater share of economic activity must take place outside the GDA’ (p. 3). This suggests increasing the rate of growth and the share of growth in regions other than the GDA and/or curtailing the rate of growth in the GDA, reducing its share of national economic activity.

Elsewhere the NSS argued that all areas should experience growth… by increasing economic activity in all areas’ (p. 4).

The other concept which is very prevalent throughout the NSS is that of realising potential and many would argue that this, rather than reducing disparities, became the main definition. ‘In essence, balanced regional development means [d]eveloping the full potential of each area to contribute to the optimal performance of the State as a whole – economically, socially and environmentally’. (p.11)

The development of the urban structure and a more balanced distribution of population were also considered important. ‘Balanced regional development also depends on building up a strong urban structure to give areas the economic strength to support a more balanced distribution of population growth across the country’. (p.26)

In Chapter two, the lack of clarity on what is meant by balanced regional development was evident in the following

‘The question that arises, however, is whether the objective of balanced regional development would be better served if more growth in population could be encouraged in other regions, while still nurturing and sustaining the successful dynamic achieved in Dublin’. (p.29)

It is evident that within the NSS there was a range of meanings implied in the concept of balanced regional development, which result in different policy objectives for example:

  • Growing regions outside the GDA (p.3) suggested reducing the imbalance between regions, implying slower growth rates in stronger regions and faster growth in weaker regions leading to more regional convergence.
  • Increasing economic activity in all areas (p. 4), could mean equivalent growth rates across all regions or could mean very different growth rates resulting in either convergence or divergence.
  • While the concept of regional potential is used, what exactly was intended and how it could be measured was even less clear.

Balanced regional development, and how it has been expressed and defined, reflects a spectrum of meanings and objectives in government policy.

The Current Context

Population changes (migration in particular), reflect, among other things, economic development, growth rates and potential in terms of economic opportunities. The current pattern of population growth is not dissimilar to that which occurred at the start of the 2000s when the NSS was being formulated. The share of national population in the GDA rose from 37.7% in 1971 to 39.2% in 2002. (p.29)

This continues, with population increasingly concentrated in the GDA and forecast to continue in this way. WDC analysis of the latest CSO Regional Population Projections 2016-2031 shows that the GDA is projected to increase its share of national population to 42.3% in 2031 while all other regions are projected to have a reduced share (though still experiencing population growth).

The population of working age will become more concentrated, with the West and Border being the only regions with a projected decline in their working age population and consequent increases in older and younger age dependency ratios (see previous post).

Growing concentration can also be seen in economic activity. In 2002 the GDA accounted for 46.2% of the State’s total Gross Value Added (GVA), in 2012 its share was 49.6% (CSO, County Incomes and Regional GDP 2012).

Lessons to be learned

In considering the formulation of a new spatial plan or National Planning Framework to frame economic development throughout Ireland, it will be important to draw on valuable lessons learned from the NSS 2002.

Poor implementation is often cited as the main reason for the limited success of the NSS. While this is no doubt a factor, a key aspect of policy formulation must also be clearly defined policy objectives.

How we define balanced regional development (or any similar concept) is important.  Clear definition of regional balance, the need for regional equity or the development of regional potential will ultimately influence the policies used to achieve them.  Though such definitions are politically and practically difficult, failure to make clear what is meant by regional balance, with clear goals and targets will, as we have seen with the NSS, lead to policy failure and to further regional imbalance.

When considering a new national planning framework which aims to deliver balanced regional development, deciding and agreeing what we actually mean by balanced regional development and how we measure it would be a useful starting point which might ultimately ensure a greater chance of success.

Deirdre Frost