Comment: There's a good case Cork isn’t as strong a second city as it should be

Many of the city's issues can’t be blamed on funding - a reason often used to blame at Dublin, writes Edmund Heaphy

29th October, 2016
Cork from above

There has always been some sense in Ireland that Dublin gets all the love. Cork may be the tongue-in-cheek capital of Ireland – the rebel county and the ‘real’ capital – but there are few who really believe Cork is ever going to be able to rival Dublin in economic size and stature.

A report last year from the Nevin Economic Research Institute suggested that Ireland’s economic recovery was almost exclusively seen in Dublin and the surrounding region. While the Department of Jobs was quick to substantiate the opposite claim – that in fact the south of Ireland had a rate of job growth higher than most parts of the country, including Dublin – that type of report felt like it was representing some kind of hard reality.

Yesterday, California-based cybersecurity firm Cylance announced it was bringing 150 jobs to Cork. And at a business breakfast briefing, Cork’s county manager said the population of the metropolitan area could grow to half a million if housing and infrastructure needs are met over the next 30 years.

But, in some senses, that feels like slow enough growth. A population of 500,000 in 30 years time will mean that Cork will still only be able to barely rival Dublin.

In any case, there seems to be a good case that Cork isn’t as strong a second city as it should be. “I think that's a very fair assessment,” said Donal Cahalane, the former vice president of growth of Teamwork, the Cork-based global project management software company. He now runs BUILTINCORK, a new community for high-growth technology and digital startups in the Cork region.

But being a strong second city does not mean that Cork actually needs to rival Dublin.

“Because of the fact that we now have pretty much all the major security companies here, there's that real sense that Cork could be a great European centre for technology businesses,” Cahalane said. But it won’t manage to do that if it sees the kind of population density and congestion that Dublin sees.

"For every 100 jobs that get announced in Cork, probably 50 of them, we have the talent here for. The other 50, we're relying on the fact that Cork is traditionally a pretty easy city to convince people to come to work and live here,” Cahalane said.

“Quality of life is actually a huge differentiator for Cork,” said Barrie O’Connell, the president of Cork Chamber of Commerce.

In a typical Cork fashion, we'll kind of put stuff on the long finger

But the biggest problem with this quality of life argument is that it’s not as true as it was – and Cork needs it to be. A housing crisis, and to a lesser extent, an infrastructure issue, is at play.

"That great argument that we had that the quality of life in Cork is better, and that you could come to Cork and have a nicer house, and a nicer life for your family than you would have in Dublin – that seems to be massively eroded now,” said Cahalane.

In theory, Cork’s city council isn’t resting on its laurels, having identified an additional 5,300 housing units that can be delivered without any additional supporting infrastructure, and around 9,000 that require just some expenditure.

But Cork’s private sector has been growing largely in spite of a lack of a corresponding plan from the council, Cahalane noted.

“For all these new employees that we have in the city centre, there really hasn't been any change in terms of public transport or bus routes, or anything like that,” he said.

“We overcomplicate things because we're looking for big expensive solutions. Instead of putting in small measures now to combat the housing crisis, we'll put in a 10-year strategy to develop the docklands or something.”

Cork’s docklands are at the centre of the city’s development plan, said Pat Ledwidge, the deputy chief executive of Cork City Council. Proposals would see up to 60 per cent of the city’s south docks built out.

And the city is focusing on LIHAF (Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund) money for housing and infrastructure developments, like a series of proposed bridges across the River Lee, rather than waiting for funding from national capital investment plans.

"As a local authority, we've learned to be nimble over the years,” Ledwidge said. But should the city council of a second city have to learn to be nimble? "Every city faces that challenge, and you're getting into local government and our revenue-raising powers,” he said.

But many of Cork’s issues can’t be blamed on funding, a reason often used to point blame at Dublin for the city’s woes.

"I know that a lot of the issues are down to a lack of action on behalf of the council,” said Cahalane. The council’s executive knows what it wants to do, but “parish pump politics” often hinders it, he said.

“In Cork, more than I've ever experienced in Dublin, there seems to be a major gap in Cork between the executive and the non-executive branches.”

“There is just that sense that, in a typical Cork fashion, we'll kind of put stuff on the long finger.”

“When it comes to pulling the lever and actually making stuff happen, it always strikes me that in Cork we wait around for the perfect set of circumstances,” he said.

And with that, there’s a sense that maybe it’s up to Cork to make it happen off its own bat. There is never going to be that perfect set of circumstances, and Cork is never going to be that strong second city if it continues to wait around for them.

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