A growing population means the impending need for improved and more efficient infrastructure. Economist John Simpson takes a look at ‘Infrastructure for an island population of 8 million’, a report backed by InterTradeIreland, which looks at how our infrastructure will need to develop over the next 20 years.
The Irish Academy of Engineering and Engineers Ireland have published a well informed professional assessment of the civil engineering needs of the island of Ireland in the next 20 years. This perspective is both useful and challenging. From this foundation, the next steps should fall to both Governments.
Today’s social and economic planners need to be reminded of the nearly inevitable consequences of an increasing population, the demands which come with higher living standards and the particular implications of all-island personal and commercial mobility and, in addition, the changing implications of climate change.
There is no surprise when engineers conclude that engineers should be asked to do bigger and better feats of engineering. That type of statement is a natural consequence of the ambitions of a group of modern highly-skilled professionals.
A review of the ambitions of the Irish Academy does suggest, as a caveat, that the ambition to have the best engineering solutions must be qualified with a distinction that optimal solutions are not always the most advanced or the most expensive. The engineers acknowledge the need for an ability to engage in economic appraisal as part of their training, alongside the requirements of environmental impact assessments.
The report makes two critical and fairly non-controversial demographic assumptions. First the population on this island will reach eight million in about 20 year’s time. Second, the patterns of living and working will mean that about 90% of the population will live within the commuting catchment of eight city regions based on Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Sligo, Galway, Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Dublin.
The influence of the increased urbanisation of the population also translates into an even stronger role for the Belfast-Dublin corridor which, by 2030, will have a population of four million people and create its own infrastructure investment needs, including specific plans for subsidiary centres along this corridor.
The engineers explore the infrastructure needs of the island with particular emphasis on transport, energy and the environment. With about half the population of the island all in the eastern corridor, it is hardly surprising that the particular demands for roads, railways, water distribution and airport development loom large.
The report accepts the merits of economic assessments of proposals but does not offer any macro-economic judgements on how governments and public authorities should prioritise the investment programmes. From a Northern Ireland perspective, the Editorial Taskforce included senior staff from the Strategic Investment Board but no other officials currently in office.
High in the conclusions reached on different topics, the Taskforce recommended:
• Major upgrading of the Belfast-Dublin high speed rail link.
• Further investment, including four lane capacity, for the Belfast-Dublin motorway.
• An extensive water mains network linking the Shannon and Lough Neagh to Dublin and Belfast.
• High speed large capacity information highway linking all eight city regions, including fibre connections to homes.
One of the logical conclusions from the analysis is that demand for an adequate range of international airline services will develop at only one large airport and that will be expected to put pressure on Dublin airport. However, the engineers do add that the international airline hub at Dublin could be complemented by expansion at Belfast International Airport.
Reflecting the longer-term implications of climate change and the risks of adverse weather and changing sea levels, the Engineers have studied in detail the needs for major flood defence investment, particularly around the estuaries for the main ports. This shows that large areas in Belfast, Cork and Dublin must prepare defences against storm surges. For Dublin this includes a possible tidal barrier across Dublin bay.
Green policy issues prompt the engineers to offer ideas on extending the number of wind farms and associated investment in a more accessible grid. The suggestion that there should be a storage plan for 20% of the annual use of natural gas is consistent with the recent proposal by Islandmagee Storage for capacity on this scale near to Ballylumford.
In a further push to make the energy sector ‘greener’, the report commends the building of appropriately sized waste-to-energy plants strategically located in each of the city regions. The Belfast proposal, in 2009, was not accepted by the city council. This question is not so easily forgotten.
The engineers do not develop funding solutions to the capital required for the infrastructure programmes. They believe that innovative financing will be needed to top up the conventional financing in Government budgets.
One suggestion is that both governments might co-operate in setting up an infrastructure bank to provide long-term funding for infrastructure projects. This bank might draw funds from pension funds and the European Investment Bank.
The concept of an infrastructure bank is superficially attractive but would be difficult to implement, particularly with cross-border jurisdiction and dealing with two Governments and two currency regimes. Nevertheless, the aspiration that infrastructure plans might draw on a wider range of sources is both useful and necessary. A major effort to divorce capital projects that can generate their own revenue streams from conventional public sector funds will be needed.
Much of the investment in water and energy services can be sourced from the private sector, if governments restructure these utilities. Similarly, railway investment and motorway developments can be linked to revenue earning baselines. Some projects might lend themselves to public, private partnership, or PPP, funding arrangements.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that, even with the use of innovative and alternative sources of funding, financing infrastructure programmes will be a critical constraint. The engineers argue, logically, that if this island is to be a competitive location for international business then the infrastructure programme is not an optional extra: it is a necessary condition.
Making an international comparison, the engineers conclude: “There is clear evidence that there is at present an infrastructural deficit on the island.”
Are the government ministers persuaded?
The Engineers have brought together impressive evidence of key infrastructure needs. Without taking away from the value of this exercise, it should be pointed out that this expensive catalogue is before any additions are made to allow for construction needed for housing, education and health.
The next stage for Northern Ireland should be a reformulated strategic investment programme developed in an improved operational format to help the Northern Ireland Executive prepare a more coherent 5-10 year perspective.