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

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