June 2010


Well someone in government has finally stated what everyone else in the country has long known – the decentralisation plan that sought to move central government services, including 10,000 civil servants, to 53 locations around the country constituted crude parish pump planning.  Tom Kitt was speaking after a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Sports and Tourism:

“In truth, it was a failed initiative, and we need to deal with it.  It was unveiled by Mr McCreevy without consultation with anybody, or a proper Cabinet discussion. It was based on questionable foundations that largely ignored the National Spatial Strategy, and allowed for a move to every constituency. It was parish pump and parochial.”

In short, decentralisation had no unlying rationale other than to try and buy votes in every constituency in the country by moving services and jobs there regardless of the costs and benefits to the country as a whole.  What is remarkable given Kitt’s comments is that McCreevy’s cabinet colleagues went along with it knowing that it had involved no consultation, was based on no evidence base or informed analysis, had questionable foundations, and ignored its own spatial planning policies which it had only just adopted (and which itself had been compromised to a certain degree by the parish pump).  Like McCreevy’s rural renewal tax schemes – also an unmitigated disaster – we’re now, not unsurprisingly, living with the legacy of parish pump planning.  The sooner we have a branch and root review of the role of planning in the present crisis the better.

Rob Kitchin

The current Planning Bill which is due to be enacted before the Dail breaks for the summer next week has been described in the Irish Times as a ‘Rolls Royce’ of planning legislation. It is heralded as the centrepiece of the planning reform agenda of Minister Gormley’s term of office.

The Bill will have significant implications for planning policy in Ireland and in particular for the relationship between the plans of Local Authorities and the policy of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (DoEHLG). The Bill seeks to ensure consistency between City/County Development Plans, Regional Planning Guidelines and the National Spatial Strategy and provides a more evidence-based approach to planning. In particular the Bill makes provision for future City/County Development Plans to be supported by a statement of ‘core strategy’ which sets out a rationale for the settlement strategy pursued in the plan itself. The Bill has the potential to make it very difficult for councillors to push through zoning proposals which are in conflict with national or regional policy objectives.

The full implications of the Bill have received limited debate, however. I focus on one key aspect here: implications for the relationship between central government, regional and local authorities.

It may be argued that the Bill provides for a more hierarchical and centralised planning system, characterised by increased policy direction from central government. A core principle of the planning system currently is that of subsidiarity: that decision should be made at the lowest level possible. While there may be ample evidence supporting a curtailed role for councillors, it may be argued that it is equally important to ensure that future spatial planning and regional development policy is prepared with due regard for policies articulated by Local and Regional authorities in addition to national objectives and concerns. Regional Planning Guidelines (RPGs) provide a potential framework within which this negotiation or consultation process might take place, provided RPGs are not viewed solely as in implementation mechanism for the National Spatial Strategy (NSS).

The current NSS was prepared at a time of economic growth where it was possible to set out a vision where practically all regions and localities could benefit, based on their individual ‘potentials’. A ‘refresh’ of the NSS is due to be published shortly. This review of a key government policy document has not, however, emerged as the outcome of a transparent consultation process. It is not mentioned for example on either the website of the DoEHLG or that of the NSS itself. It is possible that given the ‘current economic climate’ the NSS refresh or any future review may favour a less ‘balanced’ approach to regional development in Ireland.

Cormac Walsh

According to the Irish Times, Minister for the Environment John Gormley is undertaking a review of how planning laws and policy have been implemented in a number of Local Authorities across the country.

The review is being undertaken using powers available under Section 255 of the Planning Act, which allows the Minister to request information relating to the performance of the functions of the planning authority. Mr Gormley said the review would focus on providing an understanding of why certain decisions were taken and hoped it would work towards developing a more rigorous and robust planning system.

Decisions taken by Dublin City Council, Carlow County Council, Galway County Council, Cork City Council, Cork County Council and Meath County Council will be reviewed by independent planning investigators on behalf of the Department of the Environment. Councils will have a four week period to provide a response.

Justin Gleeson

The Irish Times series on Commuterland is to be welcomed, principally because it forces us to re-think many of the assumptions that are often made about life in the suburbs.   Our recent sociological study of Ratoath, Leixlip, Lucan-Esker and Mullingar in the Dublin hinterland  suggests that these outposts are neither alienated deserts nor valleys of squinting windows. Rather, they are places sustained by loose but meaningful affiliations between residents, their neighbours, friends and extended families.

In the wake of the massive housing boom that took place around the turn of the twenty-first century, public concern had been expressed about the weak regulation of the peripheral urbanisation, the impact on residents’ quality of life and the robustness of community feeling in these new neighbourhoods.  As colleagues at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth we initiated a research project to investigate the impact of suburban development in Ireland in the earlier part of the decade, before the housing boom went into overdrive and began to churn out what are now known as ghost estates.

Our study re-visits the mainly negative assessment that has been made of the suburban social fabric. The title of our book, Suburban Affiliations, underlies its main conclusions. Residents in suburban estates are not disaffiliated: they are in fact connected with the place where they live and with each other, in many different ways.  Our study maps the nature, quality and focus of these affiliations.   We identify a number of social processes at work in the suburbs which are often overlooked in other analyses:  the intensification of parenting; the activation of kin networks; the presence and use of  in-between public spaces; the reliance on an “ideology of pastoralism”, variations in the formation and composition of personal communities, the emergence of new types of local activism- all these constitute ignored or neglected processes that unfold in the new suburbs.

For a suburb to satisfy the needs of its residents, we argue, it must produce “communality”, that is, minimum levels of affiliations amongst residents, affiliations that are neither entirely superficial nor deeply intimate in content.  We demonstrate the precise contours of the “affiliative” suburb, identifying those factors that act to socially embed people in their localities (creating the possibility of intensive affiliation) and those that threaten to erode or undermine connectedness and belonging (creating the conditions for dis-affiliation). By adopting a comparative approach to the study of suburbs we are able to demonstrate significant suburban variation in levels, types and intensities of affiliation.
We think it is useful to conceptualise suburbs not as communities but primarily as arenas of affiliations.  We suggest that people who live in suburbs can aspire towards a decent quality of life, so long as a sufficient level of social affiliation can be generated in their locality.  On the basis of our investigation of four suburbs which vary in terms of their history, spatial configuration, demographic and social profile we have distilled a number of factors that support and enhance suburban affiliations:

  • residents must be able to develop a rapport with the place where they live. In our study we found relatively high levels of a sense of place.  The majority of respondents reported feeling very attached or attached to the place where they lived. These levels of attachment were highest in Ratoath and Leixlip and lowest in Lucan-Esker.
  • residents must enjoy access (in the locality or nearby) to a range of amenities and services without which life becomes difficult.  Many suburban residents access their goods and services not in the urban downtown of Dublin city but in the towns and villages in the Dublin hinterland.  Distance from Dublin city then does not necessarily impact negatively on people’s lifestyle and quality of life.
  • residents are to some extent connected with other residents. There is some kind of social fabric in place in the locality.  We found that people had on average, five to six contacts upon whom they could rely for help and support.  The make up of this network- family, friends, neighbours- varied from one suburban locality to another.  For instance, people living in Ratoath were most reliant on neighbours, whilst those in Mullingar depended in the main on family support networks.
  • residents manage to address whatever problems they may collectively face. They come to form some kind of collective entity, however fragmented it may be.  The suburbanites whom we studied had relatively high levels of social participation and activism when compared to the national average although they frequently found it difficult to have their voice heard in local government.

We believe that our study – based on 800 face to face interviews, 30 focus group discussions and a range of in-depth interviews with key informants, represents an important contribution to the literature on community in Ireland and particularly on our knowledge of suburban Ireland. Our empirical investigation has revealed the texture and complexities of everyday life in suburbia. Our study makes a contribution to the sociological literature on suburban development and sprawl because it moves the analysis beyond the dated and dystopian stereotypes that frequently accompany academic and media commentary on the suburbs.

Mary P. Corcoran, Jane Gray and Michel Peillon

There have been a couple of follow-on stories in the Independent by Charlie Weston about the EBS decision to redline apartments outside of the cities (here and here).  Weston suggests that the decision to redline apartments has been taken due to a feeling that there is excessive oversupply in areas outside of the principal cities and their hinterlands and they therefore represent a particularly risky investment.  Unfortunately there is excessive supply of all kinds of housing just about everywhere, so its still not clear why apartments are singled out.  The lack of any documented evidence-base to back up the claim is, I think, troubling.

I thought I’d have a look at apartments built in the Jan 2006 to April 2010 period (the stock most likely to be available to the market).  For context, in April 2006, there were 139,872 apartments/flats in the state according to the Census (9.5% of stock). Almost 58% of these were within Dublin alone.  According to the DEHLG/ESB house completion data, from Jan 2006 to April 2010 57,032 apartments were built constituting 22.6% of stock built (there is 4 month overlap in these figures at the beginning of 2006), meaning there’s c.  185,000 apartments in the state.  Crudely portioning counties and boroughs into categories of ‘principal cities’ (Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway) and ‘rural/non-principal cities’ (see Figure), it is clear that c.80 percent of all apartments (c. 45,309 units) were built in the principal cities and their hinterlands, and c.20 percent were built elsewhere (c. 11,723 units).  More importantly, of the 120,043 units of all types built in rural/non-principal cities only 9.7% of the 06-10 stock were apartments, whereas in the principal cities, apartments represented 34.4% of overall new stock.  What this tends to suggest is that, although apartments are likely to be in oversupply everywhere, the oversupply is perhaps more pronounced in the principal cities and their hinterlands as it seems unlikely that 1 in 3 of new purchasers will want to buy a new apartment.  In other words, perhaps there is a case for the redlining to be abandoned, turned completely on its head, or at least the redlining policy to be further explained.  There certainly seems to be a case for a more geographical nuanced analysis than simply dividing the country into the four principal cities and everywhere else.

Apartments built between Jan 2006-Mar 2010 in principal cities and their hinterlands and elsewhere

Weston also reports that EBS are being encouraged to tighten their lending criteria even further for first-time buyers, a group that would have typically bought apartments, under direction from the financial regulator.  It was felt that the society was lending too much, especially to those on lower incomes.

Rob Kitchin

Two reports on the causes of the banking crisis in Ireland were published at the same time yesterday as reported by the Irish Times in particular (Irish Times, 10/06/10).  One was produced by a team led by Patrick Honohan, Governor of the Central Bank, while the other one is informed by the findings of an inquiry conducted by German economist Klaus Regling and Max Watson, formerly of the International Monetary Funds and now working for the Chatham House think-tank in the UK. In a nutshell, the two reports broadly come to a very similar overall conclusion: Ireland’s banking crisis is not simply the outcome of  a global financial and economic crisis, it was fostered at home through, among other things, an unreasonable support of the construction industry, a lack of financial regulation, and a unsustainable tax-base. So the successive Budgets during the Celtic Tiger boom period have largely contributed to make the country highly vulnerable to events such as the global financial crisis that has been unfolding since 2008 now. As Regling and Watson put it: ‘Ireland’s banking crisis bears the clear imprint of global influences, yet it was in a crucial ways “homemade”‘. In other words, Ireland’s banking crisis is a ‘glocal’ crisis, which negative impact was deepened by the fact that instead of starting to manage public finances more carefully when hints of an imminent crisis and subsequent recession emerged, the Government continued to spend money as it came without even giving some serious thoughts on how to provide Ireland with a more stable tax-base. Beside the fact that this is a major political blow for current Taoiseach Brian Cowen who was then Minister of Finance, what is interesting here is that the conclusions of the reports may help people think about the continuous importance of local and national political economies, or the political economic choices that we make (through our elected representatives) in an era of so-called globalization.

Delphine Ancien

There’s an announcement in the Irish Times today of a planned new town for Cork, 5km north of Cork city on the Mallow railway line.   The town will have a predicted 5,000 dwellings on a 1,000 acre site bordering the rail line to cater for an estimated population of 13,000 (planning will continue over the next 18 months, but development will not start until the masterplan is approved by the Cork County Coucil and the housing market starts to recover).  The site will have a Strategic Development Zone designation (as with Adamstown in South Dublin), which will allow it to bypass standard planning procedure, working to an approved masterplan instead.  Regardless of questions concerning the need for a new town in Cork in the short term given the present levels of housing vacancy and oversupply in the city and county, the positive aspect of this announcement is that the development will be ‘plan-led’ as opposed to the adhocism that has characterised much planning in Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years.  This means that infrastructure and services will be built in tandem with housing developments and be guided by principles of developing a sustainable community and underpinned by an agreed masterplan.  The new town, should it go ahead, should have a relative degree of coherence with its inhabitants served by public transport, shops and public facilities such as schools, creches and health services from the get-go, rather than them lagging far behind.  It might not be to everybody’s taste, but its good to see the SDZ approach being used, as a change in planning ethos and implementation away from cronyism, localism and adhocism is needed.

Rob Kitchin

At the end of last week EBS announced that it would no longer provide a mortgage for the purchase of an apartment outside of the four major cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway, or the large commuter towns (such as Navan and Newbridge) (see here and here for story).  It’s not fully clear whether the move also excludes large regional towns such as Waterford, Athlone and Sligo, but it appears that way from the media coverage.  In the case of the cities it will only lend 85% of the value of the property, in commuter towns 80%.  It is also changing its rules with respect to second incomes, reducing the amount it will take into account, and only allowing borrowers to lend 30% of disposable income.  This change in policy concerning the purchasing of apartments is worrying for a number of reasons as it appears to execute a form of redlining.

First, it suggests that apartments are a particularly risky part of the housing the market, especially outside of the major cities.  I can find no data to suggest this is the case and, in the absence of a detailed explanation from EBS, my guess is that they feel that there is a serious oversupply of apartments in many areas, which they anticipate will lead to large price falls from present levels.  That said, there is a demand for apartment living in any town of any reasonable size, in terms of lifestyle choice and cost, and all local markets need a diverse stock to cater for different consumer groups.  Moreover, it seems unlikely to me that someone who can afford to front up 20% of the cost of an apartment represents a serious financial risk for EBS going forward and over the long term the value of the asset will increase (and EBS are protected from a future fall of 20% if the borrowers did get into trouble).

Second, excluding buyers from buying apartments across large swathes of the country potentially creates serious problems for both existing owners and EBS itself (who presumably have lent mortgages during the boom years to the purchasers of such properties) as it will undermine the value of the assets by making them much more difficult to sell.  This will potentially lock a number of apartment owners onto the first rung of the property ladder, unable to sell and move on, and also place them in (further) negative equity.

Third, EBS is a nationalized institution, which one would have hoped means that it would serve the interests of all citizens regardless of where they want to live (assuming they meet financial as opposed to geographic criteria) and also the taxpayer (one assumes that many new apartments are heading into NAMA and if no-one can access a mortgage to be able to purchase them they effectively become worthless).

EBS, Bank of Ireland and AIB, are the only lenders in the market at the minute, and if BoI and AIB follow EBS’s lead, then a significant part of the housing market in many areas of the country will become excluded from buyers and lock-in existing apartment owners for the foreseeable future.  It’s hard to see the justification for such redlining.

Rob Kitchin

Yesterday I attended a symposium on academic blogging in Trinity College Dublin organised by the collective who produce Pue’s Occurrences.  I was there to represent Ireland After NAMA (the other blogs represented are listed below). It was a very productive meeting and it was fascinating to listen to the experiences of other academic bloggers and the kinds of issues and challenges that they face through blogging. I thought it might be useful to share those challenges, so below is a basic summary. I’m sure that many of them are issues facing all bloggers, but some relate more specifically to the collective nature of many academic blogs, the kinds of material academic bloggers post, the relationship between academic blogger and their institutional affiliation, and the expectations concerning the kinds of outputs academics should be producing.  I’d be interested to hear reflections on these issues/challenges or about others that are perhaps not on this list.

Sustainability

  • feeding the monster – need to post regularly to build and maintain a reader base
  • voluntarism – relies on voluntary labour and enthusiasm of posters
  • in collective blogs, getting people to contribute – people are busy; but also a lack of confidence in the credibility of the media

Academic credibility

  • some contributors worried about wasting work by publishing it through a media that presently lacks sufficient academic and institutional credibility and legitimacy

Building a readership/community

  • how to implement successful strategies to develop a readership base
  • building trust and relationship with readers; building a community

Relationship between individual creative/academic freedom and institutional control and oversight

  • to what extent does a blog represent institution? What level of control do they/should they have over it?
  • To what extent are blogs experimental thought spaces for ideas and analysis as opposed to formal spaces of reporting/commentary (does it have to have the same levels of rigour and validity as that written in a journal?)

Different way of working

  • a blog can drive a research agenda and not the other way
  • blogging is often a process of doing and publishing research in a just in time fashion

Different way of writing/communicating

  • shorter pieces in a much more journalistic style; lacks usual academic conventions
  • making ideas and writing open and accessible

Editorial policy

  • for collective blogs – is there a need for an editorial policy or control? Or a writer’s/reader’s charter? What happens if people post material that is inappropriate or badly written? Who takes editorial control? On what basis?

Funding

  • for design, maintenance and content, for subscriptions or servers, for events, etc

Media interest

  • what happens if a post goes viral and the media get interested? It can be a lot of pressure and can take up a lot of time

Dealing with negative feedback/abuse

  • vested interests do not necessarily like what you have to say and can react, sometimes not through public debate but by private means; how to deal with this?

Dealing with the public

  • dealing with comments in a timely and informative manner; being prepared to engage beyond the initial posting.
  • how to deal with people who ask you to do work on their pet projects
  • discussion of work on other social media such as bulletin boards – do you engage? What happens when the material gets misinterpreted?

Dealing with conflicts of interest

  • how to deal with posts on topics or expressing views that conflict with or undermine funders of the blogger’s research (or someone else’s in the collective)

Dealing with data issues

  • publishing material that is copyrighted or used under data license; intellectual property issues in general
  • maintaining links to other sites

Archiving and longevity

  • what happens to the data and material being created? Long term archiving of material? Long term maintenance of material produced?

The blogs taking part were:
Pue’s Occurrences
Ireland After NAMA
UCD Academic Blogging
Irish Left Archive
Come Here To Me!
Some Blind Alleys
History Compass
The Model Blog

Rob Kitchin

Inside Ireland reports that Retail Excellence Ireland (REI) has published a survey which reveals that 97% of the 187 companies (representing 2,200 stores) they contacted have sought a rent reduction from their landlord.  More than 30% have recieved an outright rejection to their request.  25% of retailers claimed they will be forced out of business in the next 12 months if rent is not reduced and almost 80% claim they require a rent reduction of more than 15% in order to break even.  REI argues that 35,000 jobs have so far been lost in the retail sector, and many more are under threat given the drop in both the volume and value of sales and the fact that many retailers are unable to renegotiate rental terms to a more favourable rate.  Upward only rent review clauses were banned by the Dept of Justice last December, but this did not apply retrospectively, thus doing little to relieve pressure on tenants locked into existing agreements negotiated before the recession.  REI have taken a proactive lobbying position on seeking a rent reduction, producing three short videos and bombarding local representatives with postcards asking them to pressure the Minister for Justice to enable retrospective rent review clauses.  Upward only rent reviews always seemed a dubious arrangement to me, designed to serve the interests of one group only – the landlords – regardless of market conditions.  It’ll be interesting to see what the government do here, as they are caught between two strong vested interests (retail and property/investment companies), and by enabling the reduction of rents they’ll potentially be undermining the rental income base of many properties going into NAMA (by one estimate costing the taxpayer €2.1 to €2.8bn). I suspect the pull of protecting jobs and local economies will be stronger, however, although I can envisage legal challenges to such a change – a working group is deliberating on the issue at the minute.

Rob Kitchin

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