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Limerick Chamber CEO – what the Greater Limerick region needs in 2017

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For me its all about jobs and everything we do should be built around getting people into work. It’s hard to have tolerance for people who don’t want to work, and I use the word “want”, as distinct from those who genuinely can’t work. As a society we must protect our most vulnerable people.

We must look after our elderly, we must reward those who are carers for relatives, we must ensure that no child is homeless, the list of worthy causes is endless. We have one pot of cash with which to fund all of this and that fund is generally topped up by tax that we pay every day. The problem is that our pot of cash in limited and the more people that take from the pot the less of an impact it can have on individuals.

Social welfare accounts for a 34% of that fund and job seekers benefits make up about 15% of that or slightly less than €3bn per annum .

The more people we get into work, the bigger the pot due to those coming off the live register no longer needing state benefits and critically, paying income tax as well as spending money and paying indirect taxes such as VAT. And this bigger pot means we can have more impact in helping those in society, ultimately making life easier for everyone.

So many people out there want to work and every effort must be made to help them do so. We want those who had to leave in a recession to come home, we want to see opportunities for our children to stay in the Limerick region but if not, certainly within the State.

We have seen unemployment rates drop and Limerick has seen its live register reduce dramatically. We have seen job announcements left right and centre.

But if a company wanted to relocate to Limerick tomorrow and bring 1,000 jobs immediately, could it? I think it would be tough. We have so many positives in this region, the talent, the infrastructure, the airport, but there are some big negatives looking right at us.

Provision of new office accommodation must be a priority

As I see it there are two big issues, namely office space and housing (M20, too, buts that for another day). Office space is at a premium in Limerick and hence the absolute importance of the roll-out of the Limerick Twenty Thirty programme, starting with the famous Gardens International (formerly Hanging Gardens).

With Brexit looming, the great economic minds tell us that the positive side of the double edge sword could be that Ireland benefits from the financial services industry. If this is the case Limerick is in for a winner as a second site back office location. We have seen how successful Northern Trust was in this area.

But if a company were to knock on our door, would we – to paraphrase for the season that’s in it – have room at the inn? We need these type of jobs in the city centre preferably, as these people will breathe much needed life into the centre of Limerick, benefiting our city traders. But right now, we don’t have the available office space for an investment of this scale in the city. That is our first problem.

60% of Limerick city centre’s ‘above the shop’ accommodation is currently vacant

But now lets assume we have them in place in a state-of-the-art office block. Where will these people live? As I am writing this I have looked at Daft.ie and I see that in Limerick City there are 103 houses available to purchase between the price bracket of 150k-250k.

A realistic price for starter homes or good sized family homes. Our target market. But if our new arrivals want to rent there are only 72 properties of any size available across the City. So where will these people live? We just don’t have enough houses in the region. Companies simply cannot invest here if there isn’t adequate accommodation for their people to live in. End of story.

So what’s the answer to these problems? It all hinges on the developers. The word ‘developer’ rightly conjures emotional reactions in a lot of people but, like them or not, they are a key-holder to growth here in Limerick. I’m talking developers that will create both the office and residential space we need.

Limerick City and County Council has acquired the Gardens International, Opera Centre and Cleeves sites in the heart of the city. Work is expected to start on the Gardens development in January and that just has to happen.

The pent up demand for Limerick, with all it offers – from having an international airport just 20 minutes away to a supply of highly skilled graduate talent – and that ship cannot be allowed to sail away without us taking advantage. Development is Ballysimon is fantastic, it need to be replicated in the City center quickly.

We also need to make it easier in Limerick for development to happen and, in that regard, I’m encouraged to read the reports that Limerick City and County Council is going to reduce its development levies. This is critical. Currently it isn’t economically viable for developers to build, they cant make a profit. You or I wouldn’t go to work in the morning if we didn’t think we were going to earn anything, or worse, make a loss, so why should we expect a developer to do it. Time to move on from the anti-developer feeling. Hopefully we have learned our lessons and don’t make the same mistakes in letting people lose the run of themselves.

We need our developers to build offices, we need them to build houses. To hear certain councillors say that we shouldn’t be “fawning” to developers by reducing levies as we need to spend on services is just populist nonsense. To those people I simply say get off the soap box and look at the long-term strategy. You have two options.

Firstly, keep the status quo, which means we will make no advances. Or, secondly, incentivise development and lets get jobs into the Limerick region so our children have a bright future, contributing to the tax take, allowing us to spend more money protecting our most vulnerable citizens, which is what everyone should want regardless of political persuasion.

So I guess it comes down to leadership as it always does. Time to end the populist drivel and get real. Its time for our leaders to do the right thing and unreservedly put the horse before the cart. Santa is gone so we cant ask him to grant our wishes, St Valentine and St Patrick are coming soon but this isnt their field and the Easter Bunny just isnt able for this type of responsibility, so we will have to do things ourselves.

Limerick Chamber will do its part, I hope others do theirs.

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