The focus for regional recovery needs to be mostly on dealing with the underlying weaknesses that the Covid-19 economic crisis has exposed, according to Dee Ryan, chief executive of the Limerick Chamber of Commerce.
As chief executive of the largest business representative body in the Midwest, she finds that the hot topics on her desk today are the very ones that Limerick Chamber had been pounding the table on before the virus landed.
Recovery and growth will require specific regional supports, according to Ryan. “Moreover, if we prioritise and even fast-track some of these, the region and, indeed, the country, will be in a stronger position than it was ever before the pandemic hit,” she said.
Investment in Limerick city centre; infrastructure and the M20 motorway to Cork; the introduction of policy to support Shannon and other regional airports and harnessing what she said is the unprecedented opportunity from floating offshore wind, are all top of the agenda.
“If we are courageous enough in recovery and go after those five issues, everything else will fall into place,” Ryan said.
“What we cannot do is repeat what happened in the last recovery when big investments landed into the capital first before rippling out. The regions cannot afford a time lag in our recovery; ring fenced regional specific supports and incentives must be put in place.”
“Conversely also, Dublin cannot take much more pressure. Prioritising measures to support growth in the regions to attract more people to live and work here, will enable city regions like Limerick to act as a safety valve and relieve pressure from the Dublin market.”
Covid had been devastating for many consumer-facing businesses, and had taken a heavy toll on our healthcare sector, Ryan said.
“However, it has also offered us an opportunity to reset. Quality of life and affordability have become bigger priorities than ever. With our regional assets and the second highest disposable income rate per capita in the country, Limerick is in a strong position to compete,” she said.
“Limerick Chamber is uniquely focused on shouting, loud, hard and often about what changes and supports we see are necessary to enable the region to thrive.”
Recommendations for future development
Earlier this month, against the backdrop of the Covid crisis, Limerick Chamber published a new report. ‘The Future Development of Limerick City’ was commissioned from Indecon economic consultants.
The report benchmarks the performance of Limerick city versus other Irish cities and looking at international best practice, makes a suite of recommendations to support the sustainable future of the city.
“When the pandemic hit and the lockdowns resulted in workers and shoppers leaving the city centre, we saw how vulnerable the city was and the chamber board felt a responsibility to take urgent action to try and understand what could and should be done to revitalise the city centre,” Ryan said.
“The report came up with 67 recommendations and it was important for us that these recommendations would be actionable.
“We did a policy review and anything that the consultants recommended went into our existing policy framework. We are taking a really practical approach, giving a roadmap for how success can be achieved,” Ryan said.
“The strongest finding was the need to repopulate the city centre. In line with that, there are a lot of recommendations around liveability and making the city centre more attractive,” she said.
While the city benefits from enviable medieval buildings and a riverside setting, the city core has traditionally been used for commercial and retail activity, Ryan said.
“There are a lot of upper floor vacancies and there has been a lot of focus on parking and less on liveability. Consultations and engagements on the draft Limerick city and county development plan are expected to take place over the coming months.
“We have already begun talking to our local elected representatives about the findings and recommendations within the report and will seek the support of Oireachtas members and other stakeholders to work with us to deliver on these recommendations over the coming period,” Ryan said.
“It is urgent that we accelerate the potential changes needed to make the recommendations happen. Given the fact that we are in a housing crisis, it is fitting that we address the liveability measures.”
Off-shore energy opportunities
Offshore renewable energy is a huge area of potential not just for the region, but for Ireland generally, and a growing focus for the Chamber because of it, Ryan said.
“The opportunity is so great that it is almost hard for people to believe. In short, because of the unparalleled offshore winds on our Atlantic west coast, the technology that has been developed to harness it and the unrivalled natural deep-waters of the Shannon Estuary for supply chain, the Midwest region has an opportunity to transform into a global renewable energy hub,” Ryan said.
“I have called on the government to fast-track the establishment of its planned Shannon estuary task force to realise the unrivalled dual opportunity for impacting both climate change and job creation through floating offshore wind on the west coast.”
“If supported from the highest levels of government and fast-tracked, we have an opportunity for Ireland to become net energy exporters. To seize this huge chance, there must be a singular focus on making it happen. We cannot be distracted as the opportunity is so great.
“If anyone doubted it, those doubts should have been dismissed by the announcement of a joint venture by ESB and Equinor for a planned floating offshore wind farm and hydrogen production facility at Moneypoint. That is just the start of things to come.
“The planned investment by ESB further supports the view from within the Midwest of the opportunity to transform the Shannon estuary and the wider west of Ireland into a green energy hub,” Ryan said.
Air connectivity crucial for Midwest
A major priority for Limerick Chamber currently is ensuring that the impact of the pandemic on Shannon Airport does not have long-term consequences for air connectivity in the Midwest.
Dee Ryan, the chamber’s chief executive, warned that, if the market is left to determine reconnection, there was a risk of 96 per cent of the growth in passenger numbers returning to Dublin airport.
That would be ruinous, not just for Shannon but all other airports and their regions, Ryan warned.
Limerick Chamber has been a leading advocate for regional air connectivity. In 2019, the chamber commissioned a report by Copenhagen Economics, to highlight how direct business connectivity into Shannon Airport could benefit the regional economy and support the growth of existing clusters of industry.
“There is a direct correlation between airport routes and economic growth. Since Shannon was separated in 2013, it and Cork airport, before Covid hit our shores, grew by 550,00 passengers, with Shannon growing marginally more,” Ryan said.
“In the same period, Dublin airport grew by 13.8million, dominating in an unusual way compared to other EU states and constraining the capacity of regional airports to compete.”
“Imagine now if only a portion of that 13.8 million growth had been directed or incentivised to go to our regional airports of Cork, Shannon, Kerry and Ireland West?
“Even if just 20 per cent had been shared to the regions, that would have been a significant increase of 2.7 million passengers going to the regions and Dublin would still have grown by 11 million passengers. What is wrong with that?” she said.
In lobbying for change in this area, Limerick Chamber’s focus has been on aligning national aviation policy, which is due to be reviewed, with the goals of Project Ireland 2040 — and trying to rebalance air access into the country to support economic growth outside of the capital city area.
Connectivity improvements are not just needed by air but also by road, according to Ryan.
“Over the last five years, Limerick Chamber has had a major focus on improving connectivity with Cork and undertook a joint lobbying campaign with Cork Chamber, aimed at securing go-ahead for the M20, with the strategic objective of the motorway being formally included in the government’s capital programme,” Ryan said.
“Our members are clear that infrastructural projects included in the programme for government are needed for their businesses to develop, and that commitments to important projects such as the M20 and the Limerick northern distributor road scheme should proceed.”