Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Much as NAMA merits ridicule and revulsion, it would be a mistake to focus our discussions and analysis on NAMA itself.  Ultimately, NAMA exists because of key dysfunctionalities both in global capitalism and its petty Irish variant, and we should focus on these dysfunctionalities rather than NAMA itself.

This is not to say that we should ignore NAMA in our analyses.  There are two key and interconnected aspects of  NAMA upon which we should focus as geographers.  Firstly there is the very strong geography associated with the building bubble which triggered off the crisis and NAMA i.e. the concentration of bubble investments in the Dublin region and especially the crazy prices being paid for property in the Dublin 4 area, as well illustrated by Sinéad on Monday.  Secondly, there is the geography of sell-off of toxic assets which is what NAMA will essentially be trying to do over the next several years.  A key feature of the whole NAMA debate/discourse has been the absence of any broader vision apart from the singular focus on maximising the return to the state of the sale of NAMA assets.  There has been no mention of the broader economic and social dimensions of the pursuit of high property prices which this focus necessarily entails e.g. keeping house prices above affordable levels, deterring inward investment or skilled in-migration.  There has been no mention of the idea of diverting empty or uncompleted houses to the homeless or those who cannot afford proper accommodation.  And what are the chances that NAMA will utilise its huge property portfolio as a vehicle for creative and imaginative urban planning?

Nevertheless, in my view our prime focus as geographers should be on the processes which brought NAMA into being in the first place, and the negative outcomes of these processes such as the exclusion of large swathes of the population from access to decent housing, the condemnation of further swathes to lengthy commutes with all their environmental and social downsides, the destruction of urban and rural landscapes by ghastly housing developments with no social facilities attached, the plastering of flood plains with concrete with no accountability on the part of those responsible and, following the crash, the creation of ghost estates and the sacrificing of public services for the needy in order to bail out the very people who got us into this mess in the first place.  We also need to look at how communites have been coping, or can cope, with the impending nightmares of NAMA-land and how resistance can be mobilised against the “There is no alternative” brigade.  Above all, we need to identify a different vision for Irish society in which bubble behavious has no part.

In terms of specific pieces of research, the following ideas were aired at last Monday’s sessions:

Local inventories of empty and unfinished housing, shopping and commercial developments, and of land bought for development purposes but now lying idle.  Can we organise geography students to carry out the required research on the ground?  This would be a wonderful form of education and consciousness for the students concerned as well as generating the data required for a detailed deconstruction of the NAMA-scape.

The local geographies of commuter towns created by the bubble, and the ghost estates created by its bursting.

How are people trapped in negative equity and in unfinished housing developments coping and organising?

New forms of land management and planning which give priority to social need over private profit.

New forms of regional planning which will spatially disperse development pressures and cool down property markets.

How have cities and communities in other countries been impacted by the downturn and how are they coping?

What will be the spatial impacts of the measures to be introduced in the forthcoming budget?

The distinctive geographies of the new unemployed.

The geography of loan defaults and foreclosures.

Emerging geographies of post-crash social pathologies (drugs, illness, suicide, crime, violence).

Identify and monitor a set of indicators of distress arising from the crash.

A geography of An Bord Pleanála decision-making and how this might have fed the crisis.

Create a central repository for titbits of information relating to the crisis which may be of use for research purposes.

Proinnsias Breathnach

One of the major ‘known unknowns’ about Ireland after Nama is whether there will be any economic growth in the country during Nama’s lifespan. And such growth is needed if property prices are to rise 10% in ten years. There are many reasons for pessimism here. The U.S. capitalist economy isn’t exactly surging back to life. And even if it does, the U.S. is so riddled with debt that any recovery won’t necessarily mean demand for services or good produced in Ireland. China, to which many commentators look for signs of a global recovery, is too export-dependent and too dominated by its coastal elites to lay the conditions for a much-needed boost in demand from its rural sector – a source of demand that was critical to the success of other Asian NICs (that is, ‘success’ as measured by surging economic growth rates, if not in equality).

So, if not from resurgent growth in the U.S. or China, just how will the anticipated recovery occur? Or, is there some other reason to be cheerful? Might it be that Ireland’s European partners offer succour here? Are we on the verge of a new period in Ireland’s economic relationship with Europe? Or, as lots of people in the country expect, is Ireland just on the verge of a sustained downturn / fully-fledged long term crisis? If the latter, how can Nama expect to return a profit to Irish taxpayers? And if it will make a loss, just how much of a loss, year-on-year, are we looking at? And precisely which sectors of Irish society are going to have to pay for those losses?

Alistair Fraser

Here’s something to ponder – how many of the 21,500 pieces of land and property to be acquired by NAMA is presently under water given the widespread floods across the south and west of Ireland? Given the propensity

Apartments next to river

in recent years for developers to build on floodplains, and the complicity of local authorities in letting them, one has to wonder whether it would make sense to allow such sites to be developed in the future?

Cork flooding

Of course, if such sites are left as agricultural land (or in some cases as marshland) then their market value becomes significantly lower than the prices paid for them by both the developer and in turn the government (probably around only 15% of the zoned development value). In such a situation the government will only be able to realise an asset’s potential worth by pushing ahead with irresponsible development – either way it would constitute a potential poor investment of tax payers’ money.

Rob Kitchin