BY Michelle Murphy, Research and Policy Analyst, Social Justice Ireland
Ireland has the second lowest level of government investment in the European Union, a situation that cannot be allowed to continue. We see the results of this lack of investment daily – our healthcare system is unable to provide the level of care people expect, our public transport system is not fit for purpose in the 21st century, and, despite being promised 19 years ago, rural households and businesses are still waiting for access to broadband. The focus of the Programme for Government and of the 32nd Dáil must be on investment in decent services and infrastructure.
It will be impossible, to meet the macroeconomic goals of full employment or infrastructural maintenance and expansion, or the social goals of adequate housing, healthcare and education services, without adequate levels of investment. Investment in decent infrastructure and services will create jobs, address our social and physical infrastructure deficits, improve the long run productivity of the Irish economy and ensure that Irish people have access to the quality of services that they expect. The funding requirements for our infrastructure and services should be benchmarked against the funding in those countries we aspire to emulate and compete with. If we expect European average levels of public services, then these require European average levels of investment.
A substantial investment programme over a five year period should be the first priority of Government, and of the 32nd Dáil. It should target both economic and social infrastructure, including the construction of social housing units, the rollout of rural broadband, public transport, and improvements in water infrastructure, primary care facilities and childcare facilities.
Although employment is growing nationally, these figures hide significant regional disparities. In the period Q3 2008 – Q3 2015 full-time employment in the Border, Midlands and Western Region fell by 8.7 per cent, while in the Southern and Eastern Region it fell by 6.6 per cent. These figures give cause for concern and indicate that a concerted regional social and economic development strategy is required. This trend of falling agency-assisted employment in rural areas and in particular regions is a cause of concern. It highlights the barriers that a lack of broadband, services and integrated transport presents to attempts to create full-time, high quality jobs outside of our urban centres. Any windfall gains should be invested in frontloading the roll out of rural broadband. If not the two-tier digital and employment divide will simply grow wider.
Investment in childcare, transport, progression and outreach are all required as part of a cohesive strategy to promote employment and innovation in rural areas. At present there is a mismatch between a Government policy aimed at attracting Foreign Direct Investment and rural areas which are dominated by micro-businesses and small and medium enterprises. Government should design policies that will support investment in micro enterprise and small and medium businesses. The provision of quality broadband throughout the regions and the countryside must be a priority.
OECD research shows that investing in upskilling lower skilled workers in rural regions has a greater impact on regional economic development than increasing the number of high skilled workers in the regions. Small amounts of investment in education and training for people in low skilled jobs or who are unemployed in rural areas would have a significant social and economic return.
Social Justice Ireland proposes that the following areas should form key components of an investment programme for the 32nd Dáil: the frontloading of investment in rural broadband; the construction of social housing units, developing an integrated and accessible public transport network, childcare, primary care facilities and improvements in our water infrastructure, development of finance and credit schemes for rural entrepreneurs, micro-enterprises and SMEs; investment in an integrated and accessible public transport network.
Increasing investment should be a priority for every member of the 32nd Dáil.