We learn that a new, scaled-down regeneration project for Limerick is to be sent to cabinet next week. The revised plan will cost 924 million euros, approximately 57% of the cost of the original. This revision of cost is a recognition that we live in straightened times, but also that the cost of construction has gone down quite a lot. Overall I'm not too surprised or upset by this downward revision. Most of the work of the regeneration project's initial phases will be completed using these funds.
There is something to get upset about though. The revised plan will be delivered over a much longer period of time, meaning the present benefits to the residents of the regeneration areas are much less than envisaged. Given that the Fitzgerald report is explicitly designed to alleviate the conditions currently being experienced by residents today, the revised plan is not and should not be accepted as it stands.
Every student of economics knows about discounting. The present value of a cash flow is the cash flow divided by one plus the interest rate for each period of time that passes until the project is complete. That interest rate is known as the 'discount factor', which we normally assume to be the cost of capital. We can calculate on the back of an envelope what the present value to the citizens who live in regeneration areas would be.
Assume 924,000,000 is the total to be spent, and that, now, the total will be spent over 15 years, not 10 years. We have to discount future payments, because they haven't happened yet. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, after all. They've told us 60 million or so a year will be paid out, and assuming a discount rate of 5%, then the total value of the payments to the contractors working on the regeneration project, and therefore the agency itself, looks like this:
The total payment is worth only 627,000,000 to the residents of the regeneration areas today. But wait. This is economics, and things can always get worse. Assume the discount factor gets larger, from 5% a year to 15%, or in other words, the historically low cost of capital we've experienced in recent years returns to something like its long term trend. Look what happens.
Suddenly, with a different cost of capital, the benefit to the people living now in regeneration areas like Moyross from the new plan is nearly one thirds of the already-halved amount.
Now let's see the effect of a change in the length of time the project will be rolled out. Return to the original 5% discount rate for a minute. Here's the original 10 year time frame, with the new budget:
Read the Fitzgerald Report closely. Here's a snippet from page 5:
The Moyross and Southill areas of Limerick suffer from some acute problems of disadvantage. In particular they have a high unemployment rate (5 times the national average), a high proportion of one-parent families, significant educational disadvantage with educational attainments well below the national norm. In terms of socio-economic status, CSO analysis shows that these estates are among the most deprived in the country. They also have the lowest scores in terms of socio-economic status in Limerick city (see map at Appendix 2). There is a high rate of crime, particularly violent and drug-related crime, which has come to particular public attention in the past 12 months as a result of a number of high profile incidents. Criminal elements in certain parts of these estates exert a highly negative influence on young people, and cause fear and intimidation among residents. The situation with regard to drug use is also serious. The National Drugs Strategy Team has identified Limerick city as the area of most concern with regard to problematic drug use combined with indicators of social deprivation.
The regeneration project, with all its flaws, many of which I've pointed out, is the only chance of beginning to change some of the problems dealt with in the Fitzgerald report. The existence of the four regeneration areas, and others like them, around our country, after 15 years of unprecedented economic growth, is unacceptable. The fact that the two children, whose injuries precipitated the regeneration agency in the first place, will be in their late twenties or early thirties before the project is complete, is unacceptable. That's another generation of residents, left to experience some of the same conditions outlined in the Fitzgerald report. How can a supposedly civilised society, even one as fiscally challenged as ours, contemplate this as a reasonable course of action?
We could regenerate the regeneration project, based as it is on hard targets like buildings, and infrastructural construction alone. Note that the soft targets-reductions in criminality, increases in educational and labour market outcomes, community initiatives, are soft targets, only really dealt with in the now-shelved third phase of the project, where a centre for some of the areas is planned. Another approach, first dealing with the governance issues around council boundaries, then empowering residents to refurbish their own homes through training and grants, micro-finance type initiatives to spur enterprise creation, community gardening initiatives, strengthening of local ties with law enforcement, crime management, health promotion and educational initiatives, and volunteer-based building programs, could be tried.
What would you do in this situation?
You can't conjure money out of thin air--any cash spent on regeneration must be borrowed, and at some cost. Here I'm with Colm McCarthy, we shouldn't be moved to borrow money because of a need to do something. However, most of us would want to do something. We have a reserve of unemployed workers trained in construction, a vast inventory of unused construction materials, a real need for the kinds of investment the regeneration project outlines, and a reason to do something.
What might that something be?