Amid the carnage of yesterday’s budget Brian Lenihan suggested that among the key priorities for government investment in 2010 would be housing and urban regeneration.  Given Fianna Fáil’s recovery measures so far exemplified by NAMA, it is probably that the rationale for this statement is more in keeping with attempts to save the property industry than it is geared towards dealing with issues of poverty and disadvantage.

Currently the largest such project on the cards is that of Limerick Regeneration (www.limerickregeneration.com).  The flagship initiative to regenerate a number of estates in Limerick characterised by acute social problems which was launched in 2008, has (apart from some demolition work) been relatively low-profile in media and political circles for the last year.  The project, in keeping with the state’s policies for regeneration over the last decade, was to be rolled out through a public-private partnership model.  As such, it has always been dependent on the construction and sale of a significant proportion of additional private housing units to fund the replacement of social housing along with a series of environmentally and socially oriented projects. In one of the estates, Moyross, for example an even 50/50 split between 970 replacement social housing units and 970 additional private units was envisioned.  Even during the boom PPP regeneration strategies have frequently led to the sidelining of the interests of existing communities in favour of catering to the interests of private profits for developers.  John Bissett’s work on regeneration in St. Michael’s estate, for example, suggests that residents’ priorities were consistently marginalised as the PPP sought to build private apartments on the site.  With this in mind, it raises serious questions about the future of Limerick Regeneration in the context of the property crash: firstly, whether this private sector funding would be forthcoming at all, and secondly whether it would be desirably if it did, given what must now be an even more conservative property investment climate?  Are all socially oriented goals now going to be dropped in order to retain the bottom line priority of NAMA to re-inflate the property bubble?

Last Sunday Limerick TD and Minister for Defence Willie O’ Dea published a commentary piece in the Sunday Independent on the future of the project.  In a spiel typical of FF, O’ Dea made an optimistic and confident pose while offering very little in terms of actual policy commitments.  Apart from listing some of the history of the estates and reiterating the major focus of the original plans, O’ Dea spends much of the piece talking the positive impacts it has already had on in terms of community building and the external image of the areas.  He suggests:

“The regeneration project is far from over, but already one can sense the growth of community spirit and pride in Moyross. Where once my weekly clinic was filled with people seeking out of Moyross, I am now getting queries from couples and families looking to move into the area. They see that the situation in Moyross has not just stabilised, but the community spirit that usually takes decades to develop is already coming to the fore”

While these improvements to community wellbeing are obviously positive they  should be seen only as early indications of success in what must be a long-term and complex set of processes, investments and policy actions necessary to deal with existing social problems in these areas cultivated by years of neglect.  They should not be seen as an end in themselves.  Like Brian Lenihan’s glib comments yesterday that the country had “turned the corner” while no evidence suggests that it has, this rhetoric promises change without providing anything in the line of reform.

Cian O’ Callaghan

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