Dr. Luke McGrath, economist with the Western Development Commission’s Policy Analysis Team has released a detailed analysis of the Preliminary Census 2022 results.
A concise Policy Briefing highlighting key regional policy issues has also been released.
- The population of the Western Region was estimated at 882,323 in 2022, up 6.5% from 2016. Two Western Region counties (Leitrim & Roscommon) recorded population growth rates above the national average.
- In 2022, the Irish state had an estimated total population 178% higher than in 1926. The 2022 Western Region population was 110% higher than in 1926. Within the region, only Galway, Clare and Donegal had higher populations in 2022 than in 1926.
- The National Planning Framework (NPF) shapes long-term economic and spatial development and associated infrastructure investment. The preliminary estimates suggest Leitrim has already hit its 2026 NPF population projection. Clare and Roscommon were above projections, Sligo on track, and Galway, Mayo, and Donegal below.
- Population growth outpacing NPF projections raises questions about the levels of infrastructure to support such growth. For counties with slower than expected growth, hitting housing and employment targets takes on even greater importance.
- At the sub-county level, the historical experience has been a consistent decline in rural populations, particularly within more remote areas. This overall trend has continued. However, some urban areas have experienced population loss and some rural areas have experienced consistent population growth. These trends suggest that not all “rural” or “urban” areas are the same. Public policy formation should be place-based at an appropriate spatial scale, particularly concerning peripheral and rural areas, which can be diverse in needs
- The NPF also targets the regional distribution of population growth. A key target up to 2040 is for population and employment growth in the Eastern & Midland region to be matched by the combined Southern and Northern & Western Regions. The preliminary evidence, albeit over the shorter-term, suggests a continued dominance of population and employment growth in the Eastern & Midland region.
- A continuation of concentrated growth in the Eastern & Midland region combined with accelerated population growth estimates should give pause to consider the implications in terms of the NPF. There is a need to ensure the adequate development and funding of regional public services and infrastructure and broader supports to reach regional employment and population targets. The WDC argues that future policy must reduce regional infrastructure deficits to enhance regional connectivity and accessibility and provide broader support for the ‘3Es’ of enterprise, employment, and education to promote regional development.
Components of Population Change
- The preliminary results show a reversal of the 2011-16 trend of negative net migration across the Western Region. Net inward migration was not only positive but outweighed the natural increase in Clare, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, and Sligo.
- Of the Western Region counties, only Galway had an annual rate of natural increase above the national average. Six of the eight lowest annual rates of natural increase in the country were recorded in Western Region counties.
- Low rates of natural increase likely reflect differences in age structures. For example, the Western Region counties generally hold higher old-age and youth dependency ratios. Higher dependency ratios constrain future growth prospects as there are fewer “economically active” persons to support the “economically inactive” population.
- High dependency ratios in the Western Region are related to historical structural issues such as the outward migration of the region’s working-age population. Graduate retention and a focus on regional employment provision and diversification are key elements to reduce dependency ratios and should form key components of regional development policies.
- The housing stock in all Western Region counties grew and combined reached 399,785 in 2022 up 4.2% from 2016-22. Population growth from 2016-22 was relatively concentrated in Leinster and these trends were largely mirrored in the growth of the housing stock. Western Region counties recorded the lowest housing stock increases in the state and all seven counties recorded growth below the national average.
- Vacancy rates across the Western Region were higher than the national average in 2022, in line with historical patterns. The region recorded the largest declines in vacancy rates from 2016-22.
- An analysis over the longer term reveals that the comparatively low increase in the Western Region’s housing stock from 2016-22 may be viewed, at least somewhat, as a correction from strong comparative regional housing stock growth. Large declines in vacancy combined with the historically strong housing stock growth suggest there may have been comparatively greater capacity in the Western Region to accommodate population growth. These factors may help to explain the comparatively low regional housing stock growth from 2016-22.
- In recent years, there has been a sharp shortage of regional housing as this comparative capacity has been absorbed, with regional housing demand rising sharply. These factors may help to explain the sharp increase in regional house prices over the pandemic period and highlight the need to increase regional housing supply into the future.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the WDC
Dr Luke McGrath
Policy Analysis Team