New project can assist with cross-border planning

A new project to map changes in population in the north-west is intended to lead to a more evidence-based delivery of services on both sides of the border.

A new project to map changes in population in the north-west is intended to lead to a more evidence-based delivery of services on both sides of the border.

“To ensure best access to services for the community you have to realise that the functional area of Donegal is greater than the natural boundary of the county,” said Loretta McNicholas, research and policy manager for Donegal County Council. “That functional hinterland captures the reality of how people live in Donegal.”

The SPACEial North West Project will track and analyse population changes across the North West Region Cross Border Area (NWRCBA) over 2000-2010 and the key drivers of those changes. The participating councils represent an area of 7,236 square kilometres that was home to more than 386,000 people last year. The goal is to enable key policy and decision-makers to engage in more evidence-based planning within the region.

The system being developed will have “the capacity to assist with planning of services for that entire region”, Loretta said. “It’s not just planning in terms of the council plan.”

Counters placed on the bridge between Lifford and Strabane showed a daily average of 19,130 vehicles crossing the bridge over a seven-day period. The Buncrana route showed an average of about 18,260 vehicles crossing daily. Research shows that about 3,100 people travel to work from Donegal to Northern Ireland each day.

“You can see there’s a lot of movement,” Loretta said. “In reality, people don’t see a border.”

Before the project is completed in 2013, this data will also be made available to the public through a web application, to help the region’s residents and visitors identify local services, amenities and other resources.

Donegal County Council is the lead implementing council in the project, which also includes Strabane District Council, Derry City Council, Magherafelt District Council and Limavady Borough Council. The steering committee includes representatives from the Border Regional Authority, the International Centre for Local and Regional Development; the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis; the East Border Region; the Irish Central Border Area Network (Icban); Ilex, the Derry regeneration agency; and the Centre for Cross Border Studies and Planning Services in the north.

The North-West Region Cross Border Group, the project promoter, received 518,035 euro from the Special EU Programmes Body under the Public Sector Collaboration Theme of the EU’s Interreg IVA Programme to carry out the project.

Loretta said SPACEial is also about creating a network for the different councils and partner organisations to exchange information and learn from each other. The steering committee first met in February of this year, and the group is now determining what has already been mapped and what still needs to be done.

At the launch of the project earlier this year, County Manager Seamus Neely called the gap in available data one of the greatest obstacles to all-island planning.

“This project sets out to address these deficiencies,” Mr. Neely said.

Each council will review data from 2000-2010 to see which areas are growing or declining and the factors that caused the change. Was it the result of funding or the types of services available? Was it a change in employment opportunities or a natural population movement?

“What we’re trying to do is develop a core set of indicators that can be used to assist with planning across both regions,” Loretta said. “Say a minister wanted to look at a region from a broader scale. They’d have comparable information not just from the cross-border region, but from the Icban region and eventually the eastern region.”

That means that a decision-maker would have access to service information across the sectors and counties, from the number and location of crèches for children age 4 relative to the population of those young people, to how far a person must travel to go to the cinema, to the distances people over age 65 travel to attend a community group or a doctor.

“We want information about the location of services in relation to population needs and demographics to be at every decision-makers’ fingertips,” Loretta said.

The multi-sector North West Partnership Board draws members from the Donegal County Development Board and the Derry Strategy Board to promote a coordinated approach to economic, social and cultural development on a cross-border basis. The group will facilitate a coordinated approach to the development of the Letterkenny and Derry gateway, Loretta said.

Beyond that, the information will also be made available to the public through a web application. A person using the app will be able to see the level of EU funding coming into different areas; 2011 census demographics; and economic, social, cultural, recreational and environmental infrastructure within the region.

With that, a person or a business thinking of moving to the area could see how far they would have to travel to reach schools; they could find local community groups or health facilities. Visitors could identify tourism offerings. Loretta said the project is also setting up a consumer panel from the north-west to assess how the data is presented.

It’s a big project. And “it’s a work in progress at the moment,” Loretta said.