Regional Towns: Growth or decline?  Can we tell?

Population change is an important issue and one of the key reasons that we conduct a census in Ireland.  However, as well as being one of the most important indicators of change, it is also an emotive issue.  Population growth in most cases is considered a good thing, an indicator of a vibrant economy and society, while population decline is taken to indicate stagnation and under development.  This is particularly the case in relation to well known, well defined areas such as counties or, in the case of this post, of towns.

Important strategic policies such as the National Planning Framework (NPF)  and the (RSES)  are currently being prepared, and these (along with policies such as Realising our Rural Potential- An Action Plan for Rural Development   have long time horizons and rely on population data as an important benchmark of development.  Therefore robust intercensal comparisons are critical.

Population data from Census 2016 for towns was made available with the publication of Profile 2- Population Distribution and Movements on 11 May.  In its initial release on StatBank[1], tables of town populations for 2011 and 2016 were provided.  In the background notes (Appendix 2) to Profile 2 the CSO noted that there had been boundary changes to 80 towns for which populations were given.  However, the towns were not named, listed or highlighted in the original data available on StatBank and data on town population was provided for all towns for 2011 and 2016.

It has now become apparent that the 2011 data that was originally provided related to the old boundaries and so the 2011 population was not directly comparable to that in 2016. This was amended (Tables E2014 and E2016 amended on 9.06.17) and different tables are now provided in StatBank.  The 2011 data is no longer provided for the towns which have had boundary changes.  This will prevent inaccurate comparisons and also means that they can now be identified by users.

The change means that people downloading the data now will not make a direct comparison with 2011 for those towns, but for many of us who looked at the data just after its release the comparisons had already been made, commented on or published.

The number of boundary changes was very significant. In the table of 200 towns with population of more than 1,500, 71 had boundary changes.  Of the 41 towns in the Western Region with population of more than 1,500, 15 towns had had boundary changes making comparison with 2011 population data invalid.  The most notable of these is Ballina for which original published data showed a decline of 915 people (-8.25%).  This led to discussion and investigation by regional newspapers[2].

All of the five towns[3] in the Western Region with a population of more than 10,000 have been affected by boundary changes (each of these showed falls in population ranging from  -8.25% to -0.33%).  The extent to which the boundary change is responsible for the population change is unclear.  The CSO does note that in many cases the physical area of the town was reduced:

Census towns which previously combined legal towns and their environs have been newly defined using the standard census town criteria (with the 100 metres proximity rule). For some towns the impact of this has been to lose area and population, compared with previous computations.[4]

Among the seven towns[5] in the Western Region with population between 5,000 and 10,000 six had had boundary changes (the exception being Roscommon).  The population change in these towns, compared to the 2011 figure based on the old boundaries, varied from -0.79% (Buncrana) to +9.76% (Loughrea).  It is hard to assess the extent to which the population change between 2016 and 2011 is reflective of boundary changes or other factors.

So we are now in the situation where we know which towns have had boundaries changes (unlike the situation when Profile 2 was initially released), but we don’t know the extent of the boundary changes and how much they influenced the towns’ Census populations.

It would be very useful if the CSO could provide revised 2011 figures for those towns with boundary changes.  This would allow for direct comparison with 2011 and show clearly whether a town’s population grew or declined.  It would also provide clarity about the effect of the boundary change on the town population.

When the Small Area Statistics (SAPS) are published (20 July 2017) there will be greater detail on local population changes and it may be possible to be clear about where towns have grown and declined and the magnitude of the actual population changes (as compared to those population changes resulting from boundary changes).


It is important that where there are significant alterations to boundaries used or where methods change between Censuses they are very clearly highlighted in any tables published, especially when they relate to headline figures such as population change or population density.  This would mean that a user would not be led to assume that, because the data has been published alongside older data by the Central Statistics Office, it is comparable.

This might seem to be an issue only of concern to those who enjoy analysing data.  It is not.  Changes to town populations can have very significant implications for resource allocations both at a Local Authority level, regionally and nationally.

Would the NPF be more likely to focus on the development of a town that appears to be thriving and showing population growth or one which seems to have stagnated or declined?

Similarly those looking to invest in services and infrastructure, either public (e.g. broadband, education or healthcare) or private (e.g. cinemas, leisure), may think twice if a town seems to be in decline.

Indicators other than population change are used in decision making, but population is still one of the most important.  It is therefore essential that we have good reliable data, for which any changes in methods or boundaries have been very clearly highlighted[6]….

Helen McHenry

[1] StatBank is one of the CSO’s databases and its main data dissemination service.

[2] See Mayo News,  16 May 2017, and also Western People, 29 May 2016, ‘Misleading Census data’

[3] Ennis, Letterkenny, Sligo, Castlebar and Ballina.

[4] In addition 26 new census towns were created for the 2016 Census.

[5] Shannon, Tuam, Buncrana, Ballinasloe, Westport, Roscommon and Loughrea.

[6] …and not just in the small print or footnote which may fall off the bottom of a page…..

Posted in Population, Regional Statistics, Settlements | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Census 2016: Principal Economic Status in the Western Region

The CSO has just issued the second set of summary results from Census 2016.  ‘Census 2016 Summary Results – Part 2’ gives initial results of some of the socio-economic indicators from Census 2016. More detailed results for each theme will be released in ‘Profiles’ between now and December.

The summary results include data on:

  • Principal Economic Status
  • Employment by sector, occupation and nationality
  • Socio-economic groups and social class
  • Education
  • Travel patterns
  • Health, disability and caring

Census 2016 Summary Results – Part 2. Infographic

This initial blog post will examine the Principal Economic Status results and other themes will be analysed in future posts.

What is Principal Economic Status?

Principal Economic Status (PES) measures the economic status e.g. at work, retired, student etc. of the entire population aged 15 years and over.  It is a self-assigned measure in that the person selects the category they believe applies to them. It differs from the ILO definition that is used in the Quarterly National Household Survey (QNHS) and the official employment figures. This difference mainly impacts on the numbers counted as in employment – for the ILO definition, if a person has worked for payment or profit for 1 hour or more in the previous fortnight they are counted as employed. This will result in a higher number being counted as employed than when people are asked to give their own status as in the PES question in the Census.  Therefore the PES data from the Census will not match the official employment statistics for that period. For more see the Appendices to the report.

PES in the Western Region 2016

In the Western Region in 2016 there 653,749 persons aged over 15 years.  Fig. 1 shows their economic status.

Fig. 1: Principal Economic Status of all persons aged 15 years and over in the Western Region, 2016. Source: CSO, 2017, Census 2016 Summary Results – Part 2, Table EZ002

Change in economic status in the Western Region 2011-2016

Just over half (51.1%) the region’s adult population stated that they were ‘at work’ (employed or self-employed) (Fig. 2). This was an increase from 2011 when 48.2% of the region’s adult population was working. Since 2011 there has been a notable decline in the share of the population unemployed (having lost or given up a job) from 11.2% down to 7.4%.

The other category showing considerable change is the number who are retired, rising from 14% up to 16.6%. This is in line with a national trend of an increasing number of retired people, partly driven by rising life expectancy, recent early retirement schemes in the public sector and also the fact that the historical trend of rising female labour force participation is now leading to increasing numbers of women in retirement. Women who are engaged in home duties tend to continue to report themselves as such, even into their older years, whereas women who have participated in the labour force would report themselves as retired when they retire from paid employment. The downward trend in the number of people engaged in home duties continued in this Census, declining from 9.4% to 8% in the region.

There was a slight decline in the share of the population unable to work due to illness or disability (4.6% to 4.4%), while the share of the population (15+ yrs) who are students was exactly the same in 2016 as in 2011, though of course the actual number of students would have changed (it increased by 1.5%).

Fig. 2: Percentage of all persons aged 15 years and over by Principal Economic Status in the Western Region, 2011 and 2016. Source: CSO, 2017, Census 2016 Summary Results – Part 2, Table EZ002

Economic Status in the Western Region by gender

The PES composition of the adult male and female population in the Western Region is shown in Fig. 3.  One of the most notable gender differences is in the share of males and females who are ‘at work’, 55.3% compared with 47%. The trend in the share of women at work has been increasing over time due to rising female labour force participation, however there continues to be a lower share of adult women at work.  Between 2011 and 2016 the number of males at work in the Western Region increased by 8.4% while the number of females only rose by 6.5%. Though it must be taken into account that the decline in the number of males at work during the previous intercensal period was far higher. There is a lower share of women who are unemployed, both having lost a job (5.9% v 9%) and first time jobseekers (0.7% v 0.9%).

As noted above, the ongoing increase in female labour force participation has led to a rising share of women who are retired. The share of all women who are retired (16.1%) is now closer to men (17.1%). Since 2011 there has been a 16.9% increase in the number of retired men in the Western Region but a 23.3% increase in the number of retired women, both increases are quite close to what happened nationally over that period.

Fig. 3: Percentage of males and females aged 15 years and over by Principal Economic Status in the Western Region, 2016. Source: CSO, 2017, Census 2016 Summary Results – Part 2, Table EZ002

The biggest gender difference continues to be in the category ‘Looking after home/family’ with 14.3% of women compared with 1.4% of men with this status.  The ongoing decline in the share of women engaged in home duties continued in this period with a 15.1% decline in the Western Region since 2011, higher than the 11.5% decline that occurred nationally.  There was some growth in the share of men who are on home duties, up 3.3% in the region, though this is considerably less than the 15% growth experienced nationally.  Even though the region had lower growth, the share of men engaged on home duties in the region (1.4%) is greater than in the State (1.0%)

Economic status in the Western Region compared with State

Comparing the PES of the adult population of the Western Region with the State average (Fig. 4), the main difference is in the share ‘at work’. At 53.4%, the State is higher than the Western Region (51.1%).  The other category where there is a notable difference is retired. In the region, 16.6% of adults are retired, compared with 14.5% in the State. This would be linked to the region’s older age profile. The region also has a slightly higher share of its population unemployed having lost/given up a job and those unable to work due to illness/disability.

Fig. 4: Percentage of all persons aged 15 years and over by Principal Economic Status in the Western Region and State, 2016. Source: CSO, 2017, Census 2016 Summary Results – Part 2, Table EZ002

Economic status in different area types

Details on the economic status of the population by town size is also available. The detailed information for individual towns will be released in future Profiles, but the Summary Results provide details for the five cities (with their suburbs), and then various town size categories and rural areas.

From Table 1 it can be seen that Dublin city and suburbs has the highest share of its population at work (56.1%) while Limerick city has the lowest (47.2%).  Among the five cities, Galway has the second highest share (53.5%).

There is a general pattern that the share of the population at work declines from the larger towns of 10,000+ (53.1%) down to the smaller towns, and then villages (49.4%). It must of course be remembered that these size categories would include towns within the hinterlands of the cities which function as commuter towns. The open countryside (beyond areas of 50 inhabited houses) has a high share of its population at work. This is likely linked to both farming and commuters living in rural houses.

Table 1: Percentage of all persons aged 15 years and over by Principal Economic Status by town size, 2016. Source: CSO, 2017, Census 2016 Summary Results – Part 2, Table EZ014

In terms of unemployment, Cork, Dublin and Galway have the smallest shares of their population unemployed (having lost/left a job), at under 7%, compared with 10% in Waterford. Among towns, the share who are unemployed generally increases as town size declines, though villages and open countryside have lower shares unemployed. This is partly explained by the higher share of retired people. Towns of 1,000-1,499, followed by villages and open countryside, have the highest shares of their population retired at over 16%.

Galway on the other hand has the lowest share of retired among its population (12.2%).  This is mirrored by Galway also having the highest share of students (17.1%), which strongly shows the influence of both NUIG and GMIT on the city. Limerick and Cork have the next highest shares of students again highlighting the importance of their higher education institutions.  The category of towns of 10,000+ would include those which have an Institute of Technology e.g. Sligo, Dundalk, so it does show a higher share than smaller towns but still considerably less than in the cities. When the details for individual towns are released it will be easier to see the impact of individual IoTs.

The share of the population looking after home/family has a quite strong pattern, increasing steadily as town size declines from 10,000+ (8.3%) to open countryside (9.3%).  The share in all cities is below 7.5% and in Galway, again reflecting its young age profile, the share is only 5.5%.  A quite similar pattern can be seen for those unable to work due to illness or disability, which generally increases as town size declines though falls again for villages and open countryside, where it is particularly low. This may be linked to accessibility issues as those with a disability and their families may choose to live in a town or city for easier access to services. The highest rate in the country is in Limerick city, with Galway having the lowest.


This initial look at the PES data from Census 2016 confirms the general trend of improving labour market conditions, with an increase in the share of the adult population who are working and a fall in unemployment.  Increasing life expectancy and the consequence of increasing female labour force participation has also led to a strong growth in the retired population, a trend with clear policy implications.  While there continue to be significant gender differences in terms of economic status, the difference is reducing, though a substantially higher share of women than men are still engaged in home duties.

Compared with the national picture, the region has a lower share at work and higher share who are retired, partly linked to the region’s age profile and weaker labour market.  Future blog posts will examine in detail the Census data on the region’s labour market (labour force participation, employment, industries, occupations and unemployment), to examine what has occurred within the ‘at work’ and ‘unemployed’ groups.

Pauline White

Posted in Regional Statistics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

RSA European Conference: Session on ‘Ensuring Rigorous and Effective Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies’

Last week the Annual European Conference of the Regional Studies Association took place in Dublin.  Hosted jointly by TCD and UCD, the theme was ‘The Great Regional Awakening: New Directions’ or GRAND if you prefer!  From Sunday evening until Wednesday lunchtime, there were a huge number of plenary, parallel, and discuss and debate sessions exploring all aspects of regional studies research – economic, demographic, geographical, sociological, financial – from across Europe and further afield.  The conference was a great opportunity to catch up with current research on regional development. There’ll be a quite a few more blog posts from it all!

‘Ensuring Rigorous and Effective Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies’

This post will focus on one of the ‘Discuss and Debate Sessions’ held on Tuesday 6 June.  Organised by the Eastern & Midland Regional Assembly (EMRA) together with the Northern & Western Regional Assembly (NWRA) and the Southern Regional Assembly (SRA) the session topic was ‘Ensuring Rigorous and Effective Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies’.

The three Regional Assemblies in Ireland have the responsibility to develop new Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies (RSESs) to replace the current Regional Planning Guidelines. The RSESs are intended to translate the National Planning Framework (NPF) to a regional level and provide a ‘… long-term strategic planning and economic framework for the development of the region …’. While background and research work is underway by the three RAs, the delays in the development of the new NPF have held up the process of developing the RSESs.

Following the public consultation on the NPF, a draft NPF document is expected to be issued for public consultation before the Oireachtas summer recess.  A conference taking place today (14 June) titled ‘National Planning Framework, The Future of Urban Planning, Activating Spaces & Developing places’ may provide some additional insight on NPF timelines. Policy Analyst with the WDC, Deirdre Frost will be speaking later today on ‘The National Planning Framework and Regional Inequalities – Can these be addressed?’

As the WDC pointed out in our submission to the NPF consultation, the NPF Issues & Choices consultation paper did not set out very clearly the relationship and respective areas of responsibility of the NPF and RSESs. So this session during the RSA conference was a timely opportunity to discuss the issues.

Presentation from EMRA

The session began with a presentation by Clare Bannon, Senior Executive Planner with the EMRA. In it, she outlined a background paper prepared by them. Some of the key points were:

  • A lot can be learned from the experience of the NSS/RPGs (lack of legislative basis, lack of ‘rural’ element, no mechanism to amend as circumstances changed, economics missing)
  • Land use planning has increasingly evolved into ‘spatial planning’ as it is not seen as sufficient to consider land use alone.
  • Implementation will be the key challenge for RSESs. Capital Plan needs to be aligned with the RSESs.
  • An evidence base is critical. Data gathering is underway, need more analysis (qualitative, environmental), consultation will be part of gathering data. Under NPF process Demographic and Econometric Modelling is underway for the three regions.
  • Economic dimension is a new departure from RPGs. RSESs expected to encourage regional progress, not just in GDP/GVA but also across range of quality of life indicators.
  • The efficiency / equity debate will come into play in term of the location of public resources.
  • Other policy areas (e.g. transport, health) can have a far greater impact on regional performance than planning.

Every two years each Local Authority will be required to submit a report to their Reginal Assembly on progress made in implementing the RSES. Can the RSES be an operational strategy for delivery of regional progress? Do the RSESs need to include an ‘Action Statement’?


Following the presentation, a panel gave their initial views: David Meredith, Senior Research Officer, Teagasc; Brendan Williams, Assistant Professor in Planning and Environmental Policy, UCD; Alma Walsh, Planning Advisor, DoHPCLG and Caroline Creamer, Acting Director, International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD), and then the discussion was opened to the floor.

There was a lot of debate on the issues and challenges surrounding the development of both the RSESs and the NPF, with contributions from a number of people with huge experience of the previous NSS and RPGs process.  The key themes which emerged from the discussions were:

Different places have very differing needs

  • Concept of scale is very important at regional level. There are three very different regions. A town of 10,000 population in the NWRA region means something very different to its hinterland than a town of 10,000 located in the Greater Dublin Area. A town of 10,000 in a rural county can play a similar employment and service provision role for its hinterland, as a city in another area.
  • The three RA areas are very large with many internal differences e.g. the EMRA includes Dublin city centre and Co Longford. RSESs should be developed at sub-region level, as there are very different priorities and issues within each of the three regions.
  • Place-making and place-shaping are critical to achieving regional growth. Identifying the assets of a specific place and developing those.
  • Quality of life is a key factor for the RSESs, including in how they envision the potential of rural areas to contribute to regional growth.
  • Some concern if the role of rural in the RSESs is seen as a ‘solution’ to an urban problem. Rural areas as a housing location for commuting to cities. Rural should not be seen as a ‘spillover’ from the urban, with quality of life the only factor considered for rural areas, rather than seen as sites of employment and production.
  • A town or area does not need to be listed in a Plan in order to grow, a lot of other public, private and community factors come into play.

Regional v Local

  • Policy is deeply rooted in local issues, but planning has now moved to a regional level. Balancing the conflict between local and regional will be a major challenge for RSESs.
  • It is important, especially for NWRA, to take an island of Ireland approach. With Brexit, a lot of spatial issues will have a more complicated cross-border context in future.
  • Needs to be a clear separation of ‘regional issues’ and ‘local issues’. Have to identify from the start what are the regional issues that are best dealt with at a regional level through RSESs.
  • Level of time and resources put into planning at different levels – as much time could be spent on a local area plan as the NPF – what is expected of planning at different levels?

Spatial and Economic

  • Linking economic and spatial is a significant change in the RSESs compared with RPGs.
  • There is a danger of setting up a false dichotomy between ‘spatial’ and ‘economic’. All spatial planning is economic as it is concerned with the location of activity.
  • While it is important to understand the economics of production (where products and services are produced), NPF/RSESs also need to consider the economics of provision (where products and services are provided). The spatial pattern of service provision (and associated employment) is far broader and more spatially spread, than production.


  • GDP/GVA is a problematic indicator especially at regional level. Disposable income is a better indicator and there is a narrower regional gap.  Measuring income rather than GDP/GVA shifts the debate to regional potential.
  • How do you measure regional progress? What does society consider to be ‘progress’?  What you measure is what you will get. GDP is not a perfect measure, but needs to be included as it is what the EU uses for regional funds.  But to measure success of RSESs we need to use a set of indicators including quality of life indicators.  RAs intend to use adjusted national income plus a broad set of indicators. Selecting what indicators to use to measure regional progress is the technical side of the equity/efficiency debate.
  • Demographic and Econometric Modelling work being undertaken for NPF will be at national, regional and county level. Will be fundamental to drafting NPF and RSESs.
  • How well is the current evidence base collection resourced? A lot of issues/background papers prepared for NSS.


  • Often argued that plans are left on a shelf but need to ask the question, why would anyone (a policymaker) take a plan off the shelf? 1) if they are legally required to; 2) if it is useful to them.  Effectiveness of any spatial plan is down to decisions taken by other policymakers.  This will only happen if the plan is useful to them.  RSESs should provide a strategy to make the case for investment to policymakers.
  • What type of strategic plan do we want? In some countries there is very active/proactive management of the implementation of the plan. Or do we want one that is more aspirational and guidance for policymakers?  NPF/RSESs may need to include a ‘carrot’ to encourage public agencies to take the lead in implementing them.  What should role of Regional Assemblies be in the RSESs implementation?
  • Effective governance is critical to place-based development. What capacity is there at regional level? What is the relationship between local and regional? There is not much appetite to change power structures in Ireland, but the capacity of the structures at regional and local level can be strengthened.
  • The relationships across a lot of policies/plans is not clear, there are a lot of plans at present e.g. Regional Action Plan for Jobs, Action Plan for Rural Development etc, and it needs to be clearer how they relate to each other and to the RSESs.
  • Need to challenge the political acceptance of what is development and how to measure it. In some places e.g. Melbourne, it became the ‘most liveable city’ with no change to its institutions.

Public and community involvement

  • It is important for NPF and RSESs to be clearly understood by public. A lot of communities feel disconnected from planning but face the consequences (negative and positive) of planning decisions every day of their lives. It impacts on quality of life, health and wellbeing, employment, delivery of services etc.
  • More likely to gain public support for NPF/RSESs if they are less ambitious but more achievable. Public will not have buy-in for a plan that is unrealistic and unachievable.  Choosing fewer actions, but ones that can be achieved, will help create public support.
  • What is the capacity in local communities to engage with the NPF and RSESs? The changes in local development structures in Ireland over the past few years, with an increasing role and funding to Local Authorities for rural development, has weakened some traditional local development structures. It cannot be expected that these structures and individuals will have the capacity, or willingness, to now take a lead role in framing or delivering the RSESs. Community organisations may already be struggling to engage with Local Authorities, let alone with regional level also.


  • NSS had the benefit of being set in the framework of the National Development Plan (NDP), now there are a lot of documents for different sectors but no comprehensive economic plan. Where will the NPF sit?
  • There needs to be alignment between policy (NPF/RSESs) and investment. Where public investment takes place should be aligned with RSESs.
  • Needs to be a focus on what can realistically be delivered by public investment over the period of the RSESs. Public investments tends to be very cyclical, there needs to be long-term assurance that investments will be made to deliver on the NPF/RSESs.  If RSESs too broad and ambitious they will not be able to prioritise and will be less achievable.  RSESs need to include prioritisation.
  • Debate in UK at present on having a much wider qualitative and quantitative Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) methodology for investments.
  • There is a wide mix of funding models for investments. Good to have a mix of funding sources for any project, not just public sources.  Cannot have good infrastructure policy in absence of other good policies.

Clearly this ‘Debate and Discuss Session’ could have gone on all day given the scope and importance of developing new strategies for the spatial and economic development of Ireland’s regions out to 2040.  There will be a lot more discussion, debate and consultation on the development of the three RSESs during the rest of 2017, and well into 2018.

Pauline White

Posted in Regional Development | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Census 2016: Profiling Age and Dependency

The most recent release from Census 2016 Profile 2 – Population Distribution and Movements contains data on the age categories of the population by county.  Different age groups have different needs and opportunities so this information is important for planning services for the future and understanding social and economic development issues for our region.

Population in key age categories

The key age categories for analysis are shown in Figure 1 for the Western Region, the Rest of State[1] and for the EU28 (in 2015) along with the projected age structure for the EU 28 in 2080.

The Western Region has 21.1% of its population in the 0-14 age group (the same as the Rest of State), while 15.6% of the EU28 population is in that age category.  The county with highest share of young people in its total population in 2016 was Donegal (22.0%) while the lowest were Mayo and Sligo (20.3%).


Figure 1: Population Structure by Age Group

Source:  CSO, 2017, Profile 2 – Population Distribution and Movements  E2022  and Eurostat (demo_pjangroup) and (proj_13npms)


The category ‘15-64 years’ covers most of the economically active population.  In the Western Region the Galway has the largest proportion in this category (65.6%) but this is still lower than the average for the Rest of State (65.9%).  Leitrim has the lowest proportion in this age category (61.5%).

There is significant variation among counties in the proportion of the population over 65 years, but all counties have more people in this category (between 13.6% in Galway and 17.5% in Mayo) than the Rest of State (13.0%).  Counties, including those such as Mayo, Roscommon and Leitrim which we consider to have high concentrations of older people, have fewer in the older age categories than the EU 28 (18.9%) which is turn is much less than that projected for the EU 28 (28.7%) by 2080.

Population Pyramids

The population pyramid below (Figure 2) shows the age distribution for the Western Region and the Rest of State in more detail.  A peak of births in 1980 shows up in the 35-39 age category, and another peak in the number of births occurred in 2009[2] and shows up in the 5-9 age category.  The smaller numbers in both the 20-24 age category relates to a falling birth rate in that period while the lower number in the 25-29 age categories, and to some extent in the 30-34 are the result of high outward migration.  The difference in proportions in these age categories for the Western Region and Rest of State indicate greater out migration from the Western Region.


Figure 2: Population Pyramind for Western Region and Rest of State, 2016

Source:  CSO, 2017, Profile 2 – Population Distribution and Movements  E2022


The Western Region has a higher proportion of it population than the Rest of State in each of the age categories from 45 years and upwards for females and 40 years and upwards for males.  This is also the case for the 10-14 and 15-19 years categories but the more recent higher birth rate in other more rapidly growing counties (especially those surrounding Dublin) means there is a higher proportion of young children in the population in the Rest of State than the Western Region, but these differences are relatively small at the moment.

Dependency ratios

The Dependency ratio (Figure 3) shows the number of older and younger people compared to the working age population (which for this statistic is considered to be 15-64) as these are potentially the most economically active.  In reality many in the 15-19 and 20-24 categories will be in education but it is a useful statistic for comparison purposes.

It is also important to be aware of the differences in population structure among regions and counties when examining economic statistics such as those for income and output.  Counties a lower percentage in the economically active age groups have proportionally more dependents.  They will tend to have lower per capita income and output levels even where there is no difference in productivity.

Mayo has the highest old age dependency ratio (28.3%) in the country,  followed by Leitrim (27.4%) and Roscommon (26.8%) while the lowest nationally is in Kildare (15%).  Galway (20.6%) and Clare (23.4%) have the lowest age dependency ratios in the Region but all Western Region counties have a higher age dependency than that for the Rest of State (19.7%).


Figure 3: Old Age, Youth and combined Dependency Ratios, 2016

Source:  CSO, 2017, Profile 2 – Population Distribution and Movements  E2022, own calculations


The highest youth dependency ratio in the Region is in Donegal (35.3%) and Leitrim (35.1%) but other counties with particularly high birth rates have much higher youth dependency ratios (in Meath it is 39%, Laois 38.3% and Longford 37.2%).  In the Western Region the lowest is in Galway (31.8%) and Sligo (32.0%).  The Western Region as a whole has a youth dependency ratio of 33.2% compared to 32.1% in the Rest of State.

Combining the youth and old age figures gives an overall dependency figure which gives the proportion of both older and younger people compared to the working age population.  In the Western Region this was 57.4% while in the Rest of the State it was 51.8%.  This compared to a figure of 52.6% in the EU 28 in 2015.

The Oldest People

Some of the most significant change is population structure is occurring among the ‘older old’, those in the 80+ years category, with increased longevity and ageing of the older population.  In Roscommon 4.4% of the population is already in this older age category, while Leitrim (4.27%) and Mayo (4.24%) are the next highest in the state. In contrast, in Kildare only 1.91% are in this category while in Meath it is 2.21%.  Some 3.7% of the WR population is over 80 (3.0% in the Rest of State).  It is expected that by 2080 in the EU28 12.3% of the population will be over 80, which compares to 5.3% in the EU28 in 2015.

The percentage in the 80+ years category is rising in all counties and, while increased longevity is a significant human achievement, it can have important implications.  Those in this age group can experience more poverty and social isolation and poorer health that the ‘younger old’[3].  There is also a significant gender dimension with women having higher survivorship and a lower propensity to re-marry which means they are more likely to live alone.  It is important to respond to, and plan for, the needs of this age category and to endeavour to ensure that as many years as possible are lived with as good health and quality of life as possible.


A higher proportion of the Western Region population is in the older and younger age categories than in the Rest of State, in part reflecting the outward migration of those of working age.  It highlights the importance of a focus on regional employment provision as a key element of regional development policies.  Improving employment prospects would benefit those currently in the youth dependent category, as well as those who are already economically active.

The higher proportion of older people in many Western Region counties means that services for older people are crucial.  As much of the Region is very rural we should continue to learn from best practice elsewhere, particularly in Europe, where the ageing of the population is taking place earlier, on how to provide supports and services to an older population in rural areas.

While much of the thinking about ageing populations is on services and supports it should also be remembered that many people in this age category are likely to continue in employment and so this group would also benefit from improved employment opportunities.  Currently, 4.5% of the Western Region labour force is over 65[4], while 13% of those in the 65+ category are in the labour force.  This compares to 2.8% of the rest of State labour force over 65 and a 10% participation rate for that age category.

Understanding trends in population and examining the detail for the seven Western Region counties helps us better understand the economy and society of the Region.  We will continue to provide analysis of the issues as more results are released from the 2016 Census of Population.



Helen McHenry

[1] Rest of State refers to the 19 counties which are not in the Western Region and is used for comparison rather than using a State figures which also include the Western Region.


[3] Ingham, B., Chirijevskis, A. & Carmichael, F. Pensions Int J (2009) 14: 221.’ Implications of an increasing old-age dependency ratio: The UK and Latvian experiences compared’ doi:10.1057/pm.2009.16

[4] CSO, Quarterly National Household Survey Quarter 1 2016- Special run for the Western Region.  See here for more detail

Posted in Economy, Population, Regional Development, Regional Statistics, Rural Development, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Census 2016: Looking Back 175 Years- Changes in the Western Region Population

The release of information from the Census of Population 2016 provides an interesting opportunity to look back 175 years to the Census of 1841 to see how population in the Western Region has changed.

The 1841 census is considered to be the first modern census in the Great Britain and Ireland (the UK as it was then).  Each householder was required to complete a census schedule which contained the household address and the names, ages, sexes, occupations and places of birth of each individual living at the address.  The process is described here.  That Census, occurring before the devastation of the famine, provides information about a different Western Region.

Of course we know that in 1841 pre famine Ireland was a very different place, yet sometimes it is hard to believe how altered things are.  Leitrim then had a population of 155,297 (it is now 32,044).  Roscommon had more than a quarter of a million people, it now has 64,544 residents.  For those of us who know these counties, it is strange to think about how much more densely they were populated and how little obvious evidence of that population remains.

Population density has of course reduced significantly throughout the Western Region (Table 1).  It had been particularly high in Roscommon (99.52 persons per square kilometre), Sligo (98.44) and Leitrim (97.74) where some of the largest population losses occurred over the next decade.

Table 1: Population Density in the Western Region in 1841 and 2016

1841 persons per sq km 2016  persons per sq km
Clare 83.20 34.52
Galway 71.57 41.96
Leitrim 97.74 20.17
Mayo 69.59 23.35
Roscommon 99.52 25.33
Sligo 98.44 35.67
Donegal 61.00 32.76
Western Region 76.94 31.85
Source: CSO, 2017, Census 2016 Profile 2 -E2001: Population at Each Census 1841 to 2016 by County, Sex and Census Year and own calculations


As is evident from the changes in population density, all of the counties in the Western Region have suffered severe population decline since 1841 as is shown dramatically in the chart below.

Figure 1: Population of the Western Region counties 1841-2016

Source: CSO, 2017, Census 2016 Profile 2 -E2001: Population at Each Census 1841 to 2016 by County, Sex and Census Year

Of course the most rapid decline in population coincided with the famine (shown by the change between the 1841 and 1851 census), with Western Region counties losing between 32% (Roscommon) and 14% (Donegal) of their population in that decade[1].  Bald population data can only indicate the horror of that time.

After 1851, as we know, the population continued to decline, for the most part at a gradually decreasing rate, until the 1971 Census when the population of Clare and Galway both showed increases. Other Western Region counties followed over the next decades (with some fluctuations) and Leitrim experienced its first population increase since 1841 in 2006, 165 years later.

None of the Western Region counties have yet returned to their 1841 population levels (Table 2) through there is significant variation in the percentage of the 1841 population resident in each county today.


Table 2: Population of Western Region counties and State, 1841 and 2016

1841 2016 2016 as % of 1841 population
Clare 286,394 118,817 41%
Galway 440,198 258,058 59%
Leitrim 155,297 32,044 21%
Mayo 388,887 130,507 34%
Roscommon 253,591 64,544 25%
Sligo 180,886 65,535 36%
Donegal 296,448 159,192 54%
Western Region 2,001,701 828,697 41%
State 6,528,799 4,761,865 73%
Source: CSO, 2017, Census 2016 Profile 2 -E2001: Population at Each Census 1841 to 2016 by County, Sex and Census Year, and own calculations


The State, which had a population of more than 6.5m in 1841, now has 73% of its 1841 population.  There are predictions of more rapid population growth see here and here and here , bringing the population back to pre-famine levels before the bicentennial of the 1841 census.  This is largely due to more significant population recovery in other parts of Ireland, in particular on the east coast around the capital.

Despite declines in the nineteenth century (except in Dublin), five counties (Table 3) in the State now have higher populations than they did in 1841.

Table 3: Population of the five counties with larger population in 2016 than 1841

1841 2016 2016 as % 1841 population
Louth 128,240 128,884 101%
Meath 183,828 195,044 106%
Wicklow 126,143 142,425 113%
Kildare 114,488 222,504 194%
Dublin 372,773 1,347,359 361%
Source: CSO, 2017, Census 2016 Profile 2 -E2001: Population at Each Census 1841 to 2016 by County, Sex and Census Year, and own calculations


The population has moved eastward (and out of the State), but if rising population is a good indicator of a successful economy and society, it is to be hoped that the Western Region can also recover much of its pre-famine population by 2041.  Perhaps the forthcoming National Planning Framework  will be instrumental in achieving this.  However, given shifting population patterns (see here) it is likely that the 2041 population will be living in very different parts of the Region than in 1841.



Helen McHenry

[1] The population of Dublin County grew by 9% in that decade, the only county in the State which showed growth.

Posted in Uncategorized, Regional Development, Rural Development, Regional Statistics, Population | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Census 2016: Rurality, Population Density and the Urban Population of the Western Region

Detailed population figures from the Census of Population were published last week in Profile 2 – Population Distribution and Movements  which looked at population density, rural and urban populations and the population in towns.

Rural and Urban Population

In Ireland as a whole just over a third (37%) of the population live in rural areas (that is outside towns of 1,500).  In contrast, in the Western Region shows the opposite pattern and 65% live in rural areas (Figure 1).  This is a marginal decline on 2011 (when it was 66%).

The rural population of the seven counties varies from almost 90% in Leitrim (where there is only one ‘urban centre- over 1,500) to 54% in Galway which of course includes the largest settlement.  After Leitrim, Roscommon, Donegal and Mayo are the most rural of the Western Region counties.  Sligo and Clare, along with Galway are slightly less rural.  It should be noted that Galway county (i.e. excluding the city) is one of the most rural with almost 78% of the population living in rural areas.

Figure 1: Percentage of Population living in rural areas in the Western Region and State.

Source: CSO Census 2016 Profile 2 E2008: Population Percentage in the Aggregate Town Areas and Aggregate Rural Areas


Each county, and the Western Region itself (64.7%), has a significantly higher proportion of people living in rural areas than for the State as a whole (37%).


Population Density

Density is another key indicator of rurality and it certainly is important in considering the provision of services.  In Ireland as a whole the population density is 70 people per square kilometre and in the more rural Western Region it is almost 32 people per km2 .  Again there is considerable variation by county and as can be seen in Figure 2 below, this largely mirrors the rurality of each of the seven counties.

Figure 2: Population Density in the Western Region and State (persons per sq km)

Source: CSO Census 2016 Profile 2 E2013: Population Density and Area Size 2011 to 2016


Galway has the highest population density (42 people per square km) and Leitrim has the lowest with just over 20 people per square kilometre.

Population in Towns

The population of towns across is also included in this Profile and looking at towns across the region the weak urban structure of the region is evident.

Galway is the significant city, with a population of 79,934 in 2016.  Only five towns have a population of more than 10,000 people (Table 1), and all of these had population declines between 2011 and 2016 though, with the exception of Ballina these were small.  Ennis, the largest settlement after Galway is less than a third of its size (25,276 people), and it had a slight population decline (-0.3%) while Letterkenny (19,274) and Sligo (19,199) also had population decreases (1.6% and 1.3%).  The population of Castlebar (12,068) fell by 2% but that in Ballina (10,171) fell by a more significant 8.3%.

Table 1: Population of Towns larger than 10,000 in the Western Region

2011 – Population (Number) 2016 – Population (Number) Actual change since previous census (Number) Percentage change since previous census (%)
Galway City and Suburbs, Galway 76,778 79,934 3,156 4.1
Ennis*, Clare 25,360 25,276 84 -0.3
Letterkenny*, Donegal 19,588 19,274 314 -1.6
Sligo*, Sligo 19,452 19,199 253 -1.3
Castlebar*, Mayo 12,318 12,068 250 -2
Ballina*, Mayo 11,086 10,171 915 -8.3
*Boundaries used for these Census towns have been changed since 2011 so the populations between 2011 and 2016 are not directly comparable.  See this post for more discussion.
Source: CSO Census 2016 Profile 2 E2016: Population and Actual and Percentage Change 2011 to 2016 by Alphabetical List of Towns


There are a further seven towns with a population of more than 5,000 (Table 2) giving a total of 13 towns including Galway in that size category (5,000-9,999) in the Western Region.  All of the towns in this category grew with the exception of Buncrana (-0.8%) and Ballinasloe which had no change.  The largest growth was in Loughrea (9.8%) which, along with Tuam, serves as a residential location for people working in Galway.

Table 2: Population of Towns 5,000-9,999 in the Western Region

2011 – Population (Number) 2016 – Population (Number) Actual change since previous census (Number) Percentage change since previous census (%)
Shannon*, Clare             9,673            9,729 56 0.6
Tuam*, Galway             8,242            8,767 525 6.4
Buncrana*, Donegal             6,839            6,785 – 54 -0.8
Ballinasloe*, Galway             6,659           6,662     3 0
Westport*, Mayo             6,063            6,198   135 2.2
Roscommon, Roscommon             5,693            5,876  183 3.2
Loughrea*, Galway             5,062            5,556 494 9.8
*Boundaries used for these Census towns have been changed since 2011 so the populations between 2011 and 2016 are not directly comparable. See this post for more discussion.
Source: CSO Census 2016 Profile 2 E2016: Population and Actual and Percentage Change 2011 to 2016 by Alphabetical List of Towns


There are a further 27 towns in the Western Region with a population of more than 1,500 and which are therefore categorised as urban.  Athenry (12.5%), Gort (13.2%), Tubbercurry (13.7%) and Collooney (17.6%) showed the strongest growth, while Clifden showed a very significant population decline (-22.3%) partially associated with the closure of a Direct Provision Accommodation Centre in 2012.

Table 3 below shows the urban structure of the region.  165,922 people (58% of the region’s urban population of 283,873) live in towns of more than 10,000, and a further 49,573 people (17%) in towns of more than 5,000.  A significant population lives in the smallest towns 68,378 (24%)

Table 3: Urban Structure of the Western Region

2011 2016 Actual change (2011-2016) Percentage change (2011-2016)
Population of towns greater than 10,000 164,582 165,922 1,340 0.8%
Population of towns 5,000- 9,999 48,231 49,573 1,342 2.8%
Population of towns 1,500-4,999 66,647 68,378 1,731 2.6%
Total Population of towns greater than 1,500 279,460 283,873 4,413 1.6%
Source: CSO Census 2016 Profile 2 E2016: Population and Actual and Percentage Change 2011 to 2016 by Alphabetical List of Towns


While these urban populations are significant in the context of the region, it should be remembered that more than half a million people (535,953) are living in rural areas (in small settlements and open countryside) in the Region.  The CSO has provides population details of a further 201 settlements in the Region, the smallest of these is Malin (population 92) and 103,936 people live in these.  A total of 440,888 (53%) therefore live in more open countryside (and in even smaller settlements).


It is important to remember that the Western Region is a very rural region, and while higher level services (for example in health and education) should be provided in the larger urban settlements, the needs of those living in more rural, dispersed populations and the best means of providing services and access to services and employment in these areas must be considered.

For some more detail on town populations in each Western Region county see the WDC County Profiles.


Helen McHenry


Posted in Population, Regional Development, Regional Statistics, Rural Development | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What are the Capital Infrastructure Priorities for the Western Region?

Last week the WDC made a Submission to the Public Consultation on the Mid-term Review of the Capital Plan 2016-2021.

The consultation sought views as to what should be included in the current Plan (€42 billion), over and above what is already included – arising from additional resources (€5 billion) being made available.

In addition, an interesting and welcome aspect was that the Consultation also sought views on the criteria which should inform consideration of the capital investment choices to be made. This was in the context of the remainder of the current plan, but also and arguably of more importance in the context of a longer term 10 year Capital Plan.

This idea of a longer term 10 year Capital Plan acknowledges another important Public Consultation underway – the National Planning Framework (NPF) and the need to consider investment priorities which would align and support the final NPF. A draft NPF is due for consideration over this Summer.

In discussing the Considerations for the Mid-Term Review of the Capital Plan (Section 2), the WDC highlighted the importance of infrastructure for regional development where all regions need quality infrastructure to compete effectively. The WDC submission also noted;

  • The importance of long-term planning, as decisions made on infrastructure now have very long term impacts.
  • The need to invest to join existing networks together and complete ‘unfinished sections’. For example once the Gort-Tuam motorway is complete, the priority should then be to improve the outstanding sections between Tuam and Sligo to ensure a high quality road network.
  • Identify and utilise existing available capacity before considering new investments at congested sites. For example there is international air access capacity available at Shannon and Ireland West Airport Knock. Another example is to develop more attractive services on the rail network, which is a valuable transport asset with capacity to ease congestion on the road network and help us meet Ireland’s climate change obligations.
  • Develop inter-regional linkages. While connectivity to Dublin from most regions has improved considerably in the last decade, inter-regional connectivity is relatively poor. By improving inter-regional connectivity, such as improving the road network between the urban centres in the Mid-West, West and North West then the investment potential of the key urban centres there can be enhanced.

The WDC submission also notes the importance of appropriate appraisal and evaluation methods when considering alternative investment projects. The capital appraisal and evaluation methods determining the costs and benefits of different investment projects need to be re-examined. The traditional cost benefit approach will naturally favour the larger and often largest population centres as the impacts are likely to be felt by a greater number, wherever the project is being delivered. To realise better spatial balance, there will need to be a change to the conventional appraisal and evaluation methodologies which are typically used to determine what projects proceed. The impact on the wider spatial balance of the country should be factored in.

In the section examining the prioritisation of Capital Expenditure and Selection of Projects/Programmes in current Capital Plan (Section 3), the WDC focused on the infrastructure areas it considers critical for Western development.

Key priority infrastructural investments include:

  • Funding to deliver and complete the National Broadband Plan as soon as possible to ensure high speed broadband for all.
  • National primary road improvements including N4, N5, N6, M17, M18, incorporating the Atlantic Road corridor.
  • National secondary roads see WDC Submission for specific priorities.
  • There is a need to increase regional and local roads funding to allow road maintenance programme to be enhanced.
  • The importance of Bus services and the Rural transport programme to citizens in the Western Region is highlighted.
  • Continue investment is needed to support increased rail frequencies and service levels on routes serving the Western Region.
  • Ongoing support for improvements and access to Ireland West Airport Knock and Shannon.
  • Investment in the electricity network and natural gas infrastructure is made through the commercial state sector, but it should be co-ordinated and monitored through the Capital Investment Plan.
  • Apart from completing all energy commitments in the Capital Plan there should be investment to connect to the natural gas grid at Athenry, Ballyhaunis and Knock, all three of which qualified for connection in 2006.

In Section 4, Long-term Capital Investment Framework (10 years), the WDC Submission examines the longer-term considerations needed for effective capital investment. The WDC believes that capital investment which is by its nature long-term investment should be undertaken within the context of a longer term planning framework as is proposed in the National Planning Framework 2040. The WDC has made a detailed submission to the NPF (4.5 MB) consultation conducted by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.

Other considerations include:

Capital spending on new infrastructure should focus on supporting better spatial balance as well as supporting those citizens and that part of the country which is relatively poorly served. Quality infrastructure is one of the necessary conditions for regional development.

Investment in road infrastructure to join existing networks together and complete ‘unfinished sections’. For example in the West/North West. These are often infrastructure requirements needed to satisfy current as well as future demand.

As outlined previously, the state should capitalise on the capacity already available and ‘sweat’ the state investment already made, such as in transport, for example the rail network and the international airports with spare capacity such as Shannon and Ireland West Airport Knock. Other examples include educational infrastructure (Institutes of Technology), Health facilities and Housing.

Policy will also influence the infrastructure investments needed. The need to lower carbon emissions will help influence infrastructural investments (for example supporting cleaner transport modes).

Another consideration is to enable greater policy integration and joined up investment decisions across all sectors, for example planning, employment and transport policy sectors, which are proven to help to make sustainable and active travel more attractive alternatives to the private car.

A good example is the benefits which could be realised through increased e-Working, see WDC Policy Briefing No.7 (748 KB) which can reduce transport demand, traffic congestion and emissions. It has been estimated that if just 10% of the working population of 2.1 million were to work from home for 1 day a week, there would be a reduction of around 10 million car journeys to work per annum[1]. Benefits arising from higher broadband speeds and greater levels of e-Working include time savings, enhanced communications, increased sales and productivity gains[2]. To promote greater take-up, e-Work needs to be prioritised as a policy objective and a cross departmental approach is required. Lead departments would include the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Communications, Climate Change and Environment.

The WDC Submission is available for download here (4 MB).

Deirdre Frost

[1]Department for Transport, Smarter Travel: A Sustainable Transport Future, A New Transport Policy for Ireland 2009-2020 p.35

[2] Indecon International Economic Consultants, July 2012. Economic / Socio-Economic Analysis of Options for

Rollout of Next Generation Broadband. Analysis undertaken on behalf of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (DCENR) as part of the Government’s National Broadband Plan, 2012.

Posted in Broadband, Economic Sectors, Economy, Infrastructure, Regional Development, Roads, Rural Development, Transport | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment