Thursday, September 8, 2011

Actions Not Words For Waterford

You will have heard the unprecedented coverage from Waterford since yesterday, when the horrible news about TalkTalk and the 575 jobs which are to be gone in just 30 days, broke. There have been a lot of words but I still have heard nothing concrete that, in my opinion will actually create one single job. And while there are very many aspects of this story that one might rightfully rant about (the speed of TalkTalk's exit; how the employee's found out; the lack of govt investment during the good times, etc. etc); really the only show in town in jobs. Jobs. Where will they come from; how can they be attacted to the city/region; how can they be kept here?

Lets start with a little background. Yes unemployment in Waterford is high. Higher than other parts of Ireland. Yes the uptake of third level education in the region is low. Yes the level of companies locating here is miniscule. Yes locally created jobs growth is low. So how do we change that? What specific measures are companies looking for? We score well, from my discussions last year as Mayor with businesses on a number of fronts: we have a young, available, educated work-force. We now have far superior motorway infrastructure and an airport linking to major International hubs. We have an array of fantastic companies with International reputations already located here. It is a fantastic place to live, work and play. We are on the Eastern seaboard with good portal access to the UK and Europe. There is superior IDA grant levels available to companies who locate here. But despite all this, they have not come. Why?

Well firstly let me take Barry O'Leary of the IDA to task. Barry said on Morning Ireland this morning that he didn't think that the lack of a University was a corse issue in the lack of jobs coming to the region. I disagree. But if that is his opinion, Barry did not elaborate (and was not asked) what is the core issue then? He also said that he accepted that the bulk of investment goes to Dublin, Cork and Galway. There are only three things as far as I can see that distinguish us from all of those locations. One is size, scale. They are simply bigger than us. The second is an International Airport in Cork and Dublin although less so for Galway but with Shannon within a short distance you could argue (and I'm sure they do) that they tick that box also. And thirdly, a University. And while I'm not suggesting that a University is the cure for all our ills, it is definitely, unarguably a key component. And anybody who tries to tell you otherwise is being political, underestimating your ability to figure it out for yourself and quite simply, denying the obvious. Look at Galway, which a short few decades ago had a smaller population and far less industry than Waterford. That has changed - thanks to the University. In fact you could even make a plausible case that Galway has far fewer other advantages than Waterford being located as it is on the Western seaboard, away from ports and quick access to markets (and with worse weather!). But they have passed Waterford out. If it's not a University, Barry - then please tell us Barry, what exactly is it???? Tell us. We're willing to do it.

So that's the first thing. University designation for WIT. Simple. Clean. Do-able. Promised to us by the current Government parties in the run up to the election only a short 8 months ago. And absolutely crucial for our future development - and not just future development, but also to try and mitigate against further decline - a scary thought but a real possibility.

So. Stop waffling Government and don't bother coming down to visit us ulness you're bringing something worthwhile. I am amazed at how quickly those parties are now accepting the line that there will be no more Universities in Ireland - and selling it. While I will welcome a Technological University if it delivers equality to us with the Unversities, I sadly suspect that that will not be the case - as there is currently no such thing as a Technological University in Ireland - we can but speculate. But on past performance - of this exact same governmental coalition make-up - I wouldn't hold out that much optimism. (All politics is local.)

So. What else. Well firstly scale. We are very proud of our city status - rightly so. But in International terms, Waterford City at under 50,000 population is small - and while there are some great companies here, there are not enough to represent a so-called cluster. What's a cluster? Well, you know that 'birds of a feather flock together'? Well companies like to locate in an area where there are like industries. Now where we can win on this score in my opinion is to have a more REGION based approach. You zoom out a little from Waterford City, onto the South East Region, and suddenly you have a population of 470,000 people and an even better and more impressive industrial 'cluster' to sell, incorporating a whole plethora of International companies.

But the region is not marketed and does not operate as a recognisable unit. This, I believe, has to change. It is one of the things that has shifted in my view since my trip to the States on the Trade Mission for Waterford. The South East needs to get together, sell together and attract together. And yes, Waterford is the regional capital and gateway but we cannot operate on the basis of ancient, administrative, tribal boundaries. We need to stop working and pulling against each other and start fighting alongside each other. This, to my mind is crucial - because if there is one thing that is more important in my book than anything else - it is selling. Selling the City, selling the region. The Trade Mission proved it to me but it needs to be worked, nurtured, relationships built, information passed. If we had far superior attributes (and we do have many) what does it matter if no-one knows? And whatever Barry O'Leary says about the IDA office in Waterford having 5 people in it - it has not delivered and those people from my information - are more administrative positions. There used to be an IDA representative on the City Development Board and there is not now - because there is no IDA rep in Waterford. Simple. In fact my information is that Waterford is now 'looked after' from Athlone and not Cork - but that's neither here nor there. There use to be an Enterprise Ireland representative on the Board of the City Enterprise Board and there is now not one - because they too have no EI rep in the city. So both the IDA and EI have restructured to downgrade Waterford and they want us to believe it has no effect? Bullshit.

My idea is that the South East Local Authorities should adopt our Doing It For Ourselves motto and get together to fund (along with local private sector funding) and do the job themselves. This has beome something of a clarion call for me in recent years but it is the only way at this stage. Do it ourselves. Cut out the middle man. Develop our own contacts and leads. Sell directly to the market. We did it for tourism (and the City Council continue to do fantatsic work in this area - and I apologise to no one for saying it - that is and will create real opportunites and real jobs). But how much more important is it to do in the area of job creation?

It should concentrate on three areas; attracting jobs into the region; seeking expansion and diversification opportunities for locally based companies and it should cover the Services Industry - for which no state agency exists and seek to work with and develop new markets for their services. There is also the area of grant allocation etc. but I am trying to focus on what we can achieve ourselves. Who in the Far East knows about the new billion euro motorway? Who in Silicon Valley knows about our International industries located here? The IDA are selling Ireland Inc. We need to sell the South East Inc.

Incidentally there are local projects that could be fast-tracked which would create direct employment. The Coursthouse needs serious upgrading and has been on the waiting list for years. For this to happen the new Fire Station needs to be provided - and it's been on the waiting list also. Perhaps local companies could compete for these contracts if they were brought to the top of the list. If the Government is serious about helping us - and not just filling our ears with words - there's something concrete they could deliver. Same with the multi-education campus in Gracedieu. All would create jobs. Now.

I'm sure there is more and I will come back to it again but - the baby needs changing - so that must be seen to. My sincerest sympathies to those in TalkTalk and their families. I think they have been treated abominably by TalkTalk and it should not be allowed. But there you go. That's just words and we need actions. I hope that some of what I have suggested sparks some more thoughts and ultimately, actions. Waterford IS a great place to live, work and play. We love it. We will survive but we need to move and move quickly. And we need help. Is that too much to ask for? Actions. I have started a hashtag on Twitter #actionsnotwordsforwaterford and I intend to keep 'tweeting' it until I hear something concrete. I wonder how long that will take. But for now that's my warning...listen critically....where are the deeds that will help us? Words mean nothing. Keep safe.