The Final Act of the Irish Electoral Cycle
We have entered the Final Act of the drama that is the Irish electoral cycle. The plot so far has involved harsh austerity, deepening neoliberalism, and widespread protest. But in the Final Act – at least in the play as scripted by the coalition government – these plot lines are expected to fade away as a new story arc emerges. Most immediately this will involve a raft of budgetary measures designed to return relatively insignificant amounts of cash to the wallets of various parts of the electorate. But, as the Capital Plan announced last week attests, it will also involve the promise of large-scale and geographically dispersed infrastructural investment.

While in one sense the Capital Plan is a mechanism in support of clientalism – allowing TDs the opportunity to bring the proverbial (and at this stage prodigal) bacon back home to their constituencies – it also serves to usher in the re-emergence of another central myth of Irish political and economic life: the myth of counterbalance.

The myth of counterbalance has been around ever since the Irish State decided to dismantle the walls of protectionism and open the country to the global economy. For various reasons Dublin has long dominated the country economically and demographically. The myth of counterbalance proposes to address this dominance by targeted policies designed to grow the economies of the other major cities.

I call this a myth not because such a feat is unattainable, but rather because, in Ireland, it has consistently proven itself to be. The myth of counterbalance emerges intermittently, the well-worn narrative dusted off to address the same intractable problem for a whole new generation.

Myth and reality
The idea of counterbalancing the growth of Dublin harks back to the Buchannan report on economic regions published in 1969. Buchannan proposed the creation of ‘poles of growth’, which would serve to counteract the unsustainable growth of Dublin. Throughout the 1970s Cork and Limerick were identified by central government as sites for targeted investment. However, while the official policy ostensibly favoured the creation of a counterbalance, in reality the recommendations of the Buchannan report were largely ignored, and later abandoned during the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In the Fanning report of 1984 on the impact of the recession on Cork, the notion of creating a counterbalance was resurrected. Fanning highlighted the need for targeted investment in infrastructure in the cities outside of Dublin, along with investment in indigenous small enterprises, in order to avoid the fallout from another round of global restructuring. In the report, Fanning advised against focussing only on short-termist policies and forgetting the goals of long-term sustainability. But then the Celtic Tiger came along and counterbalance was abandoned in favour of reducing corporation tax to a minimum and putting in place a series of incentives to attract a new round of foreign investment.

In 2002, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) once again broached the subject of counterbalance. Although politically weakened by clientalism, the NSS nevertheless put in place a framework to develop a number of ‘Gateways and Hubs’ that would act as regional centres of growth. There was a four-year gap, however, been the NSS and the publication of National Development Plan, which would link public spending to the infrastructural investment proposed in the spatial strategy.

In the interim, cities like Cork and Limerick launched ambitious development strategies that aimed to capitalise on the NSS. Cork Docklands Development Strategy, for example, inaugurated an entrepreneurial approach to development that transformed the city’s governance structures by inviting a host of private sector actors to shape urban policy. While the 2000s saw a new wave of development activity, the wider redevelopment of the docklands still depended on substantial state investment that, although promised, was not forthcoming. When the 2008 crash happened, one of the first programmes to be cut was the Gateway Development Fund for infrastructural investment.

Thus, the Celtic Tiger period of growth again failed to deliver on the promise of counterbalance.

The return of counterbalance
In the recently announced Capital Plan Cork is expected to get investment in key road infrastructure, an upgrade of Ringaskiddy Harbour and other projects including investment in a convention centre at the former Beamish and Crawford factory. The phantasmagoria of these plans was reinforced by a set of lavish visualisations shared by Simon Coveney on his facebook page. The Capital Plan is indicative of the re-emergence of counterbalance and, in the context of the eternal returns of Ireland’s boom and bust trajectories, the suggestion that we have exited the crisis and entered a new period of growth.

Dunkettle Roundabout Plans

Establishing shot from Season Two of True Detective… Sorry, visualisation of the upgrading of the Dunkettle Interchange in Cork.

But like previous iterations of the myth of counterbalance, we can see the contradictions emerge when we look a little closer at its practicalities.

Boundary issues
Over the last year, it had been recognised by Central and Local Government that the boundaries of Cork city did not encompass the functional urban area and that something would need to be done about it. A Local Government Review was set up to explore options. The logical solution would be for the boundaries of the City to be extended to more accurately reflect its functional area. This being Ireland, however, the simplest option practically was not necessarily seen as the simplest option politically, and – as was the case with Limerick previously – the solution proposed was not to extend the City boundary but to merge Cork City and County Councils.

Irish Examiner Cork MErger

Irish Examiner’s coverage of the proposed merger of Cork City and County Councils.

As reported in the Irish Examiner, Consultant Alf Smiddy and Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly argued that the merger would create “what would be by far the largest unit of government within the State”, which they contended would offer Cork the clout to successfully lobby for devolution of powers. The report stressed that the merger would allow Cork “to act as an effective counter-weight at the national level to the current economic predominance of Dublin and the eastern part of the country”. Alan Kelly argued that it would “put Cork in a position that it can compete on a regional basis with the conurbation that is around Dublin”.

Not everyone agreed. Two members of the Local Government Review, Prof Dermot Keogh and Dr Theresa Reidy (both academics at UCC), broke with the consensus and produced a minority report that stated their disagreement “with substantial parts of the draft report, the main finding, and most of the conclusions”. In a piece written for the Irish Examiner, Keogh and Reidy argued that after decades of delayed decisions on a boundary extension, the “amalgamation has been chosen as an easy political option” and that it wouldn’t solve the problems posed by Dublin’s dominance. Cork City Manager Ann Doherty later called the merger review “fundamentally flawed” and City Councillors sought to challenge the legality of Alan Kelly’s plans to proceed with it.

Myth interrupted
Cork’s boundary issues highlight the problems underpinning of the myth of counterbalance in Ireland. While ostensibly it has long been a central component of Ireland’s policy landscape, in reality it has never been pursued in any serious sense. The Irish state has been adept at spinning webs of visions, stories of ‘what will be’ woven with colourful images, maps and descriptions. But when it comes to frontloading investment into the necessary infrastructure, successive governments have balked.

Indeed, it would appear that Ireland’s period of neoliberalisation and entrepreneurialism has exacerbated the prospect of counterbalance. The suggestion that a merger of the local authorities would, by a sleight of hand, suddenly make Cork more attractive to international investment is indicative of a jaundiced approach that seeks to leverage an illusion of transformation to entice external forces to solve Ireland’s problems of uneven development.

What then is the purpose of the myth of counterbalance? It is an ideal that, while not in any realistic sense committed to, is perhaps periodically aspired to by successive governments. But more often, and particularly in the Last Act of the election cycle, it is a vehicle to carry the illusion of vision and the prospect of hope. The myth of counterbalance presents the notion that there is a ‘plan’. It tantalisingly dangles in front of the voting public the prospect that, within the crisis-ridden theatre of Irish politics, a socially and spatially equitable Ireland can be achieved. It is just beyond our reach, it seems to say, just beyond our grasp. Without fundamental change, it forever will be.

Cian O’Callaghan

Housing conference Housing conference 2

Dublin is so caught up in a maelstrom of ‘hyper-competitiveness’ that it barely has time to even think about what it is or what it means. At the centre of this is the tech industry, which influences everything from livable city agendas to housing discussions. It is a form of competitiveness that is presented in manner that makes it seem almost matter of fact or inevitable. When faced with this, the responses to recent announcement that the up-coming Web Summit will leave Dublin come as no surprise. The common mantra from various media sources (here and here) is one of ‘loss’, ’embarrassment’, and a sign that we must improve our infrastructure to cater for and attract events such as this. In a manner that would seem almost absurd to many, The Irish Times even went so far as to publish an opinion poll asking ‘Is the loss of the Web Summit a blow to Ireland’s reputation abroad’. In as much as such approaches are so dominant, it becomes completely accepted that the response must be for Dublin to reaffirm itself and ‘stay in the game’ or lose out. There is little reflection on what the level of mobility and ‘choice’ afforded to contemporary companies or organizations means for the city and for thinking about long-term sustainable approaches to economic development.

There are a number of factors worth remembering here. For one, the Web Summit is part of a culture of expectation, where every want and need is answered. If not, there is every chance that the relevant companies will move on. This reality is made explicit in this case, with the Web Summit blog stating: “We know now what it takes to put on a global technology gathering and we know that if Web Summit is to grow further, we need to find it a new home. Our attendees expect the best.” Thus, with one foul swoop, the birth-place of the Summit is rejected, with pastures new willing to cater to the wants and needs of the tech world. This is a world that is held aloft as proclaiming the arrival of a new world order of progress and betterment. Although most of us never experience it, it offers a luring image of inventiveness, youth, and progress all framed in a chic background of converted shipping containers and bright colours. Yet, in as much as this industry needs constantly innovate to remain competitive, it makes for a highly unpredictable outcome for host cities.

The Web Summit also forms part and parcel of a form of competitiveness that perceives and believes that any small dent in the shiny and glossy image of the city will end in a catastrophic result. It is yet another element in the firm belief of a ‘trickle down’ approach to economic betterment, even if we don’t know where it’s trickling. It is so normalized that it now presents itself as common sense – ‘we’ must fight for this agenda at all costs because these the outcome is ‘good’. As is nearly always the case, there is little to no questioning of why pursue this approach in the first place and of possible demerits.

If Dublin is playing a competitive game, it must be prepared for the possibility of losing out from time to time. It might be said that this is a small blip that we can recover from through the means outlined above. Yet, in so doing it must be remembered that in an industry that craves newness and innovation at every corner, a new venue every few years might be an inevitability, no matter how much is spent on infrastructure. In pushing the argument a bit further, we might also ask what might happen if this is just a pre-warning of an over-reliance upon the tech sector for the future economic viability of the city. We are playing an extremely fickle economic game and we need to brace ourselves for the possibility of failure based on overnight decisions for companies to move their location. Ireland is all too used to rapid economic busts, yet in entered into a game that is perhaps more unstable than the last, we remain blinded by the lights.

It is time to stop pandering to the mantra of ‘what they want, they get’ – who ever the ‘they’ actually are. It is time to turn around and actually really debate what it is we want as a city and ask how, in this example, the tech industry going to contribute to this – in the long-term. If nothing else, it is time to realize that in reality the hyper-competitive city is a fleeting and unstable entity with unpredictable outcomes.

Philip Lawton

We have heard a lot about the crisis in Dublin’s rental sector in recent months. On the surface, a lack of properties for sale or to let on the market has contributed to rising rents and the crisis of homelessness. But underneath this, a less visible, though no less worrying, change has been taking place – the rise of the transnational landlord.

Traditionally Irish landlords have been small-time amateurs. 65% of landlords have only one property with most others having just two or three. Many landlords work full time in addition to renting properties and up to one third are described as ‘accidental landlords’ – such as people renting out their own principal residence due to mortgage arrears. But recently a new breed of landlord has entered the scene, referred to as ‘professional’ or ‘institutional’ landlords. The most prominent is Ireland’s largest landlord, I.RES, a Real Estate Investment Trust focusing on long term investment in the rental sector. Other examples include global real estate companies such as Hines, Kennedy Wilson and Oxley Holdings, all of which are pursuing ‘build to rent’ strategies across Dublin.

Like much of what’s going on in the Irish property market, this development is driven by three interacting sets of dynamics.

Firstly, Irish property is being sold en masse at bargain basement prices . The sellers are financial institutions seeking to deleverage rapidly. These include foreign lenders such as Lloyds who sold their mortgage book to private equity firm Lone Star Capital. But the main players have been the Irish bad banks – Anglo and especially NAMA. Indeed 800 of the 1,200 apartments owned by I.RES were bought in one go from NAMA under Project Orange. The largest asset class held by NAMA is development land, and much of this has been sold to global property companies seeking to become long term investors in rental accommodation. For example, NAMA was one of the main owners of 400 acres of suburban land in Cherrywood sold to Texas based Hines. Hines plans to develop up to 3,600 apartments on the site.

20121220120052_Dublin Docklands SDZ Boundary

Map of the boundary of the Dublin Docklands SDZ

Secondly, there has been plenty of money washing around the global financial system and seeking to find its way into Irish property. As a PWC report earlier this year put it, European debt markets are ‘awash with capital’. The global financial environment continues to be characterized by some of the core dynamics that drove the financial boom of the 2000s: very low interest rates and low yields in traditional asset classes such as government and corporate bonds. Add to this significant quantitative easing in the US, UK and now the EU. There is a lot of money out there looking for somewhere to go, and heavily discounted real estate looks like a good bet. Hence, much of the money buying up Irish real estate is flowing in from the global financial system. Hines, itself a Texas based company, is backed financially by New York private equity firm King Street Capital. I.RES has funded its property shopping spree through its Canadian backer, the Canadian Apartment Properties Real Estate Investment Trust.

Thirdly, and finally, the transformation of the Irish housing system has turned the rental sector into a viable investment for international players. The sector continues to expand rapidly, increasing by over 100% in the Dublin region since 2002, as do rents. Most importantly, however, the collapse of the mortgage market means yesterday’s ‘first time buyers’ are today’s ‘top end renters’. The new class of landlord is chasing the high rents paid by a new class of renter, e.g. two income professional couples who are renting long term.

The business strategies of all the new institutional landlords thus work around these three axes: using global sources of capital to buy discounted Irish assets and rent them to relatively well-off renters. Let’s look in a little more detail at just what they’re up to.

I.RES (Irish Residential Real Estate Investment Trust) has spent around €400 million in the last year or two acquiring 1,200 apartments in Dublin. They hope to expand their portfolio to around 3,000 apartments. The company claims it “is focused on consolidating the fragmented Irish rental market by targeting high quality property assets … To deliver superior customer service, enhance tenant retention, and deliver quality homes.” They have been widely reported to be seeking rent increases of up to 20% across their portfolio this year. They are also considering expanding into affordable housing, social housing and student residence, all of which are potential new asset classes for global property investment in Ireland. You can read more about their plans in their investment brochure.

Oxley Holdings are also pursuing high end renters, but are even more focused on the top of the market. The Singapore based developer describes itself as “a lifestyle property developer that caters to the upwardly mobile homebuyer and entrepreneur” and is building 200 apartments at 72 – 80 North Wall Quay in Dublin’s Docklands, bought from NAMA last year.

Hines, which opened its Irish office last year, articulated its motivation for entering the Irish property market as follows:

“The firm made the decision to set up in Dublin to acquire single assets, portfolios, or debt; to enter into joint venture arrangements where appropriate; and to look at opportunities emerging from the de-leveraging in Ireland.”

In two years they have acquired over €1 billion in commercial, retail and residential property. As mentioned they look set to become a huge landlord under the Cherrywood development and are also building apartments in the Docklands, where they are completing the Spencer Dock development in conjunction once again with King Street Capital. Hines also sees themselves as a targeting the high end of the market and providing the high quality rental property. Their developments will also include special facilities and property management.

Finally, LA based Kennedy Wilson has aggressively entered Ireland chasing distressed assets but also developing major projects. While they have only a small residential portfolio (mainly investing in offices) they have snapped up around five apartment blocks in Dublin and are building the Clancy Quay complex near Island Bridge. KW have also entered a joint venture with NAMA to develop the Capital Docks project on Sir John Roggerson’s Quay in the Docklands. They submitted planning application in April 2014 for a major development on the 5 acre site. One of the buildings will be a nineteen story tower while overall the development will provide 300,000 sq. ft. of office space and 204 apartments (check out the commercial brochure for more details ). Interestingly, Deutchse Bank issued the first Commercial Mortgage Backed Security backed by Irish rental properties in 2015. The MBS was backed by loans linked to KW’s apartment investments.

capital dock

Plans for Capital Dock

But what does this all mean for tenants and for housing more generally? While it’s too early to say, international research certainly gives cause for concern. The pioneering work of Desiree Fields has documented the impact of private equity firms on residential rental properties in New York and elsewhere. Issues include high rents, high rates of tenant turnover and other aggressive business strategies which hit tenants hard. In the Irish case, given that institutional landlords are focused on relatively well-off tenants, we might be tempted to think that their impact will be negligible. Given the chronic lack of affordable rental accommodation, however, we should certainly be concerned about the opportunity cost associated with this new form of investment. Every apartment block or development site snapped up by global companies with significant financial fire power is a lost opportunity for affordable housing. From the point of view of the city as a whole, it would have been better to see heavily discounted apartment blocks and cheap development land being bought by local authorities and housing associations. Instead, affordable housing is being crowded out by a few large players whose only interest is in ‘top end’ tenants. Thus, while the possibility of professionalization raised by institutional investors has been welcomed in some quarters, the early indications are that they will do little for the majority of tenants.

Mick Byrne

Mick Byrne is an IRC postdoctoral researcher in NIRSA NUI Maynooth. He is also an activist involved in various housing issues, including the Dublin Tenants Association.

Regional Studies Association Irish Branch Annual Conference –

New Directions for Regional Development Policy in Ireland 

University College Cork – Friday 4 September

See link for updated Program

Back at the end of May, Minister Alan Kelly was out flying a kite. His objective was to cautiously test public reaction to proposed new wind energy guidelines which would also see a new 700m mandatory minimum setback distance introduced between new wind turbines and private dwellings. The current guidelines, which include an advisory 500m setback, have been the subject to sustained and vociferous criticism by a plethora of wind ‘information’ and ‘awareness’ groups across the country. A public consultation on the revised guidelines launched in early 2014 attracted an unprecedented 7,500 submissions. Despite repeated pledges that the new rules would be published imminently, they have yet to emerge, it is suspected due to an internal row between Minister Kelly and Minister Alex White’s Department of Energy, Communications and Natural Resources; who are trenchantly opposed to mandatory setbacks. In the run up to next year’s general election, the battle lines have been firmly drawn with local protests becoming ever more heated. Not for the first time, Minister Kelly appears to have found himself at the epicentre of a political debacle and raised public expectations for a policy which he cannot deliver.

Mirror Picture 22.07.15

The reason of-course is spatial. Ireland has a fast-approaching legal obligation to achieve 16% share of energy consumption (electricity, heat and transport) from renewable sources by 2020.  It is estimated that any shortfall could cost the state up to €600 million. On heat and transport, progress has been abysmal. In customary fashion, government focus has therefore remained squarely on stimulating supply-side solutions in electricity generation. In reality, onshore wind energy is currently the only realistic available technology capable of attracting sufficient private capital investment within the rapidly shortening time frame (a trend not unique to Ireland). However, by 2020, Ireland would need to achieve annual wind power growth significantly higher than anything historically achieved to date i.e. an absolute doubling of installed capacity. A very tall order, given current planning and grid connection delays. It is therefore little wonder that DECNR have firmly set their face against further setback restrictions. Such is the geographical distribution of ‘one-off’ houses in Ireland that a mandatory 700m setback would result in less than 15% of the entire landmass of the state being available for development. However, as illustrated in Map 1 below, the vast majority of this available land is located in European designated Natura 2000 sites i.e. increasingly ‘no-go’ locations for wind farms due to strict new legal requirements and risk of planning failure . In contrast, as illustrated in Map 2, the current 500m guideline setback allows for a much wider range of locations as potentially available for development.


Map 1 & 2: 700m and 500m setback distances (Source: AIRO – Click on map for larger image)

When all is said and done, and after all the rancor, delays, expense and wasted political capital, even if we were to achieve targets, a paltry 16% of our total energy demand will be met from renewable sources. Beyond 2020, Ireland will be required to achieve ambitious new targets on a rapid trajectory towards a complete decarbonisation of our energy systems by 2050 i.e. tomorrow in energy planning terms. We will need all of the renewable technologies available to us (and more) to achieve this, including of-course an important role for wind energy. However, what these maps clearly bring into sharp relief is that Ireland is a contested and congested space and the conflicting land-use implications of renewable energy networks must be included as centrally germane to considerations on national energy policies and technology choices, including in the forthcoming White Paper on Energy to be published next month (see Andrews et al. 2011 for an interesting analysis of geographical footprint of alternative energy sources). The key flaw in the current National Renewable Energy Plan (NREAP) is that it is dominated by technological and resource considerations. It is therefore ‘spatially blind’ and does not factor in the socio-cultural and environmental contextual conditions into which these technologies will be inserted. Instead these considerations are very much relegated to secondary, exogenous and downstream issues with the planning system simply tasked with swiftly removing barriers to deployment.

Moreover, it is inescapable that if we are ever hope to deal in any fundamental way with the required renewable energy transition, the debate must be urgently repoliticised away from an exclusive focus on supply-side fixes towards analogous solutions on the social side. For example, transport (overwhelmingly by private car) accounts for one-third of Ireland’s energy demand, and growing rapidly, yet barely ever registers in the energy debate (See Figure 1). In fact, instead of transport demand growth being seen as an area of concern, government actually encourages it and then trumpets it as evidence of a recovering economy!

WW Graph

Figure 1: Total Energy Flow in Ireland, 2013 (Source: SEAI)

There is no scenario for an equitable shift away from fossil fuels which does not represent a radical departure at every level from the reigning business-as-usual neoliberal orthodoxy i.e. a strategic state and an active role for government in long-term national planning. That means intensive demand-side efforts supported by resource taxes and public investment; cheap public transport accessible to all; affordable, energy-efficient housing along transport lines; cities, towns and villages planned for higher-density living; land management that discourages sprawl; urban design that clusters essential services like schools and healthcare along transport corridors etc. It also implies a much stronger role for public sector utilities in developing renewable energy and to give communities the power to develop local distributed energy solutions. In short, as persuasively argued by Naomi Klein, it means changing absolutely everything about how we think about the economy. However, as I have previously blogged, even at this late stage we are failing to recognise this self-evident reality. We will therefore continue to pay a massive procrastination penalty for our legacy of decades of poor spatial and building control policies which have locked-in high fossil fuel energy demand and which will now be extremely difficult and costly to unwind.

Gavin Daly

See also the AIRO Wind Energy Strategies Webtool 


A short animated film about rural Irish towns, directed and produced by Orla Murphy and Orla Mc Hardy in 2012

An excellent short animated film about the planning of rural Irish towns, directed and produced by Orla Murphy and Orla McHardy (2012), and presented at the recent MacGill Summer School session on ‘The Future of Rural Ireland – What Needs to be Done?’

Gavin Daly


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