August 30, 2010
As a grand urban project Cork Docklands has certainly had its share of problems. Managed by City Council in lieu of devolving responsibility to a separate authority like the DDDA, the process has been one of slow evolution, as the local authority within their limited powers attempted to stimulate developer interest, steer existing landowners towards considering redevelopment, and keep the project a priority within national capital funding streams, all the while adhering to best-practice in international planning standards. Iconic tasters like the City Quarter Development on Lapps Quay and the Elysian offered appetisers for the banquet that was to come when the area twice the size of the city centre would be redeveloped.
Howard Holdings City Quarter Development on Lapps Quay
By 2008, it looked like the main course was about to be served when a number of large sites were lined up within various stages of the planning process, most notably Howard Holdings Atlantic Quarter that was set to become the lynchpin of the entire project. Gradually the major players had lined up behind the plan. But just as the steel and concrete of these sites was about to turn the ethereal work of the planning authority into something rigid and fixed, the gathering black cloud of recession cleared the playing field and scattered all betters to their proverbial hedges. The Docklands project went from being a question of ‘when’ to again being a question of ‘if’.
One of the biggest problems facing the project was Central Government’s unwillingness to unambiguously commit to funding the infrastructural provision needed for upgrading the waterfront. On the surface, Central Government have always claimed that Cork Docklands is a policy priority with their full support and backing. However, this commitment has yet to translate into budgetary provision making the capital needed available to Cork City Council. Such a scenario continues unabated. Speaking recently about the lack of provision for Cork Docklands within the Government’s infrastructural investment programme, Minister for Education Batt O’ Keeffe suggested that
“There’s no point in me making predictions but the Government is committed to the Cork Docklands. It’s an issue we will be discussing at Cabinet in early September and you can be sure that Micheál Martin and myself will be to the fore ensuring Cork gets its fair share.”
Despite the less than certain assurances of capital investment, developers such as Greg Coughlan of Howard Holdings’ were confident enough in the project to invest millions in assembling sites and enlisting architects and consultants to construct lavish plans and hyperbolic promotional videos.
Artist Impression of Howard Holdings proposed Atlantic Quarter Development
Coughlan is currently facing jail for contempt of court for failing to supply a statement of his assets to investors pursuing him for €28.1 million for loans relating to a Polish development. On the front of the Irish Examiner a few months ago, this news was presented next to that of planning permission being granted (though not funding committed) for two new bridges in the docklands, part of the irony being that Coughlan’s Atlantic Quarter development was one of those set to benefit most from these new river crossings.
Thus it seemed as if Cork Docklands had anchored in a kind of development limbo. The plan had been rolled out to such an extent that it wasn’t going to just disappear into thin air. The Dockland project exists, has been made to exist over the last decade through a few plans and strategies, hundreds of newspaper articles and speeches, countless conversations, negotiations, and schemes, and a couple of prominent developments. At the same time the financial crisis was sucking the Irish property market into a sink hole, the gaping hole in the Irish banks and the staggering levels of vacancy and oversupply putting a more or less abrupt end to new development. It seemed like something as ambitious as the scale of Cork’s Docklands project wouldn’t be enlisting any cranes for a while.
But recently Cork has again begun to rumble with the promise of new projects to replace those that have stalled. In light of the sudden absence of the events centre first intended for Mahon Point and subsequently as part of Atlantic Quarter, Owen O’ Callaghan has recently slated plans to build a 5,000 seat venue in a development on Albert Quay. In the same week as O’ Callaghan’s plans were announced, An Bord Pleanála ruled against Origin Enterprises 11-storey office-based development on Kennedy Quay (Irish Examiner).
The most extravagant of these plans is Gerry Wycherley’s €750 million planning application to redevelop the Marina Commercial Park (MCP). The proposed development features more than 800 apartments, providing homes for up to 2,230 people, a marina where they can park their boats (you’ve just got to love that feature), a range of community amenities, a visitor and science centre, the Ford Experience, which is expected to attract up to 300,000 visitors annually, and a new central plaza to provide a hub for the community, including a creche and library. The aims are ambitious. As suggested by the Cork Independent, the “planning application aims to transform the 24-acre, MCP into a vibrant, socially inclusive community within the City’s south docklands, where people will live, work and play, creating 1,200 jobs in the process”. An article in the Irish Independent rather grandly suggested that “Cork is to defy the recession by pushing ahead…” with the project.
Artist Impression of Wycherley's plans for MCP
But at the same time these rumblings on the waterfront could be as far away from becoming a reality as Brando’s mumbled dreams of being a contender. Wycherley’s proposal comes with a series of caveats. He lists three factors “outside of [the company’s] control” that need to happen before they can move on the project.
“Firstly, we don’t know how long the planning application will take to process. There is no reason why it wouldn’t get planning permission as we’re compliant with everything but we don’t know how long it will take. Secondly, there is a serious infrastructure deficit at the moment. Centre Park road will have to be raised at least three metres as well as improving transport links between the site and the city centre. Finally, even if the other two were there in the morning, we couldn’t do anything because the market isn’t there. It would be commercial suicide to move on this without the market but we need to have everything ready and in place for when the market turns.”
All in all these conditions are pretty significant ones, which at heart expose how much the property market in Ireland has changed in the last two years. Wycherley is hedging his bets on all counts. The application is essentially suggesting what could happen with the site and certainly not what will happen. It is no longer a case that Government capital expenditure can in any way be assumed to be forthcoming. The Government’s precarious backing of the Cork Docklands project is now even less assured given the chronic hole in the public finances. Just as significant is the fact that there can no longer be assumed that there is a market for commercial and especially residential property in Ireland. In essence Wycherley’s proposal is saying what could happen in an alternative reality where the Irish Government had money and the property boom was still booming. While he is certainly cognisant of these factors, there is still a hint of the blind Celtic Tiger confidence in the way the project is talked up. He suggests that “Obviously, at the moment, the residential market has bombed so we won’t start building the residential part of the project until there is a clear demand and we can move units. But I’m confident that the market will pick up. The demographics are good in that regard”. The rationale behind such good demographic projections, however, remains patently unclear. For Cork City Council the announcement of the project is clearly positive in that it keeps the Docklands within the public eye and provides them with a more tangible bargaining tool to lobby Central Government for capital funding. If the proposal is in line with the planning regulations for the site (which the developer claims it is) they will grant it planning permission. Yet there is something illusory about all of this which begs the question as to what planning permission actually means in an Ireland after NAMA. Clearly from his own admission Wycherley has no intention of starting development on the site immediately, nor in any defined time period.
Perhaps lustrous plans like these are means of looking sharp for upcoming NAMA nuptials, a pretty peacock’s plumage to appease and please the prospective mate. Because in most cases it is now NAMA that hold the power over Ireland’s urban future. For sites to go into development the final say rests not with the developer or with the local authority, but with NAMA. How exactly this new arrangement will pan out will decide a lot about the future of the country.
As for Cork Docklands, the project will undoubtedly soldier on, this latest episode one more in a its storied evolution. While proposals like this one can provide media fodder that keeps Cork’s ambitions of density and sustainability front and centre in a news nation characterised by misery and miasma, it is important not to get caught up again in the tornado of excess that characterised the Celtic Tiger. Cork’s fastidious record of strategic planning may have had the outcome of some developments receiving an unfortunately anti-climatic opening, but this culture should be retained in the face of less optimistic times. What is important now may not be the grand statement but ensuring that when development happens it is to a scale appropriate to encourage sustainable growth.
Cian O’ Callaghan
August 27, 2010
Posted by irelandafternama under Uncategorized
The Guardian is carrying a story “A disdain for urban planning is the problem, not overcrowding: Lack of planning has given us urban squalor, where, with a bit of regulation, dense populations could live in comfort“. The basic thrust is that developer-led planning and so-called ‘value engineering’ – the desire to cram in as many apartments into a space as possible, with poorly designed social infrastructure and general lack of amenities, has led to high urban densities, poor aestethics, weak senses of community and social problems. It concludes:
“Rather than being held to strict standards, developers were given carte blanche; instead of council housing easing the overcrowding of the poor, a percentage of allegedly affordable housing was sold in each block of terracotta-clad yuppiedromes. Meanness – “value engineering” as it is euphemistically known – was what made the New Labour landscape so grim, not height, planning or modernity, and certainly not overcrowding.”
Value engineering has certainly been at play in Ireland, especially given the need to cram as many units onto sites as possible to turn a sizable profit given the astromonical land costs. The question is, are the apartment complexes here going to deteriorate into grim, urban squalor as this article suggests?
August 24, 2010
Posted by irelandafternama under Uncategorized
A couple of years into the present crisis and we’re still trying to get a handle on the extent of the problem. Along with all the other failures, we clearly have a data and evidence deficit. As way of illustration, let’s take the property sector, the root cause of a lot of Ireland’s homegrown problems.
Various estimates suggest that somewhere between 228-280K housing units are vacant excluding holiday homes, and somewhere between 120-170K of these are in excess of an expected base vacancy (some property is always vacant in a normal functioning market). We don’t actually know the real number and all we can do is estimate using CSO and DEHLG data. This is why the DEHLG is in the process of undertaking a national, one-off survey of unfinished housing estates to determine the extent of new build vacancy and ghost estates – there is no other way of discovering such information as beyond connections to the electricity grid there has been little to no monitoring of new housing coming on stream, and no monitoring of existing housing except for the five-yearly census.
With respect to commercial, industrial and agricultural sectors, both buildings and land, we have even less publicly accessible data. At present, such data is periodically and partly generated by the CSO, or is generated by the private sector, such as Frank Knight (agricultural sales), Savills/HOK (office space in Dublin) and CBRE (retail space). This data is released in highly aggregate forms and is often geographically delimited (either a national picture not broken down into smaller spatial scales or restricted to Dublin). It provides a snap shot of a sector with little detail or resolution and is of little use to planners or analysts trying to work out what is happening at a local scale. What we know from such data is the following:
- In Dublin, 23% of office space (some 782,500 sqm) is vacant (see here). As far as I’m aware, we have no idea of office vacancy levels elsewhere in the country.
- By the end of 2010 there will be over 2m sqm of shopping centre space and 1.32m sqm of retail park space in the state, double that of 2005 (see here). We have no central government database of retail space and little idea as to levels of vacancy across the country.
- Agricultural land has more than halved in value nationally (see here). There is a regional breakdown in price falls, but that seems to be about it.
- We have an excess supply of hotels and hotel rooms. At the end of 2008 there were 905 hotels with 58,467 rooms, 15,000 of which are deemed excess to supply (26%) (see here). Again, as far as I can tell, we have no government data on property in this or other commercial sectors.
- Neither is there an open database on the industrial property sector (the CSO census of industrial production gives number of businesses etc, but does not directly cover property or vacancy, sales, etc.)
Recent calls in the media focus on the creation of a house price database. We need much, much more than that. We need a comprehensive system for monitoring all elements of the property sector – housing and commercial, retail, agricultural and industrial property – and various kinds of information associated with them (sale price, rents, size, vacancy, obsolescence, etc). These data need to be generated/updated annually where appropriate (such as new build and sales price), and be at spatial scales that enable local analysis (not simply national and county scales as much of it presently is). Such data generation and dissemination is routine in other European countries and we are lacking someway behind.
We’ve had a situation where we have been planning half-blind, making decisions based on a weak evidence base. We need to rectify this situation as soon as possible to enable everyone involved in trying to rebuild the economy and make long-term planning decisions to be able to undertake robust and sophisticated evidence-informed analysis that might maximise benefits and limit the kinds of mistakes that have been made over the past decade. (We also need to follow this path to comply with the EU INSPIRE directive that dictates what data the government is obliged to generate for EU reporting, at what scales and to what data standards.)
The fact that it is very difficult to determine the exact state of play in the property sector, across all forms of property, speaks volumes. We cannot let such a data and evidence deficit continue if we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past few years.
August 18, 2010
Savills published their Q2 2010, “Dublin Office Market in Minutes” report on August 3rd. According to the report there is “782,500 sqm of vacant office stock” in Dublin, Q2 2010*. Savills first quarter report details that overall vacancy rate in the city is 21%. Of this, 23% is in Dublin 2 (c.180,000 sqm), 14% is in Dublin 4 (c.109,500 sqm), 21% is in Dublin 1,3,7,8 (c.164,000 sqm), and 19% in the West Suburbs (c.149,000 sqm).
With around 110,000 sqm of new office space due to be completed in 2010, it is difficult to believe that the city will be short of office space for a while, especially given the state of the economy and the number of companies either going out of business or downsizing. It might be the case that landmark/headquarter buildings will come into short supply if they are taken up by large anchor tenants, as argued by Savills, but there is undeniably a substantial amount of available office space all round the city, including large developments, in prime locations, and much of it quality stock completed in the last few years (some that has never been occupied and some secondhand).
They conclude that “It is now clear that the office market has bottomed out and hopefully this will encourage “fence sitters” to progress their requirements before much of the better space is gone.” There is clearly a massive amount of stock available at present in all parts of the city, including brand new and recently completed stock, providing would-be tenants with negotiating room. If the market has bottomed out, it seems likely that growth will be very gradual as the economy starts to stabilize and claw its way back.
Perhaps then it is no bad thing that Savills report that “the supply of new stock to the market will cease in 2011 with no new developments due to be completed in 2011 or 2012” as it will allow for some market correction. Take-up in Q2 2010 was 23,003 sqm through 28 deals (21,000 sqm in Q1 2010), and Savills estimate take up this year will be around 100,000 sqm (based on deals lined up but not signed). (They do not estimate how much space will become vacant in the same period, but clearly some space will become empty as other space fills, especially if a company is simply relocating to take advantage of falling rents). It may take some time then, at the present rate of take-up, to drastically reduce the vacant office supply in the city.
* I’ve updated this post. I originally had an estimate of how many Liberty Halls this would translate into (I’ve now found three different total sqm estimates for the building, that differ quite substantially, so have removed until I can establish the correct size). As an alternative comparison, MacLaran and Kelly report that at the end of 1990 there was 1,055,490 sqm of office space in Dublin (MacLaran, A. and Kelly, S. 2007. Urban property development, in Bartley, B. and Kitchin, R. (eds) Understanding Contemporary Ireland. Pluto Press, London).
August 11, 2010
A Haunted Landscape, the recent report on the housing crisis in Ireland published by NIRSA, identifies a ‘catastrophic failure of the planning system’ as a major contributor to the property crash and current housing crisis. While it is evident that governance failure in the planning and property development system contributed to unsustainable development patterns in recent years it is unclear where the actual problems lie. Is it a lack of strategic policy direction, an inconsistency between local, regional and national policies, clientelist and corrupt practices at the local level or the influence of perverse financial incentives or a combination of the above?
Aaron Wildavsky - American Political Scientist (1930-1993)
It may be argued that more fundamental questions need to be asked about our expectations of the planning system and more specifically how planning failure or success is evaluated. The academic literature on evaluation in planning highlights the difficulties in assessing the success or failure of spatial plans. American political scientist Aaron Wildavsky in 1973 famously argued that ‘if planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing’. He cautioned against an instrumentalist view of planning and plan implementation where planning becomes an attempt to control the future and argued that because uncertainty makes control of the future impossible, evaluating the failure or success of planning is an impossible task. More recent studies have argued for a more nuanced view of the application of spatial plans, arguing that strategic plans in particular should be evaluated according to their capacity to inform decision-making in practice. This perspective of course acknowledges that strategic spatial plans (such as the National Spatial Strategy or Regional Planning Guidelines) may not be the only or even the most significant influence on the ‘decision environment’ of planning in practice.
The ‘public interest’ is often cited both in public and academic discourse as the principal rationale for public policy intervention in land and development markets. Planning is conducted to safeguard the interests of the public or the common good and more generally to ensure a balance between public and private interests. It may be argued that it is self-evident that much of the development that has taken place in Ireland in recent times has not been in the public interest. Six hundred ghost estates clearly do not serve the public interest. At the level of individual planning decisions, however, it is more difficult to ascertain where the ‘correct’ balance between public and private interest lies. Critical to this discussion is the question of scale. In the planning context, the concept of the public interest is highly scale-dependent. For city and county councillors the public interest may legitimately be equated with that of the ‘local community’, local electoral constituency or Local Authority area. They are democratically elected to serve and make decisions on behalf of a particular spatially-bounded constituency. For councillors in parts Dun Laoghaire Rathdown for example, the public interest may translate into opposition to further housing development, irrespective of national or regional policies promoting urban consolidation within a designated metropolitan area. Similarly concerns for ‘balanced regional development’ in county Kildare as expressed by elected public representatives within the county are about ensuring an equitable balance between development in the North and South of the county which may in effect run counter to the explicit policy objectives for balanced regional development as expressed in the National Spatial Strategy.
Prof. Louis Albrechts University of Leuven
Spatial planning is in part about a negotiation of values articulated at local, regional and national scales of governance and by a range of sectoral stakeholders and policy coalitions. It is not simply a technical exercise, conducted in accordance with pre-defined universally accepted policy objectives. The final outcomes are therefore unlikely to conform exactly to the policy objectives or aspirations as set out by central government. Professor Louis Albrechts of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium argues that ‘planning is in politics, and cannot escape politics but is not politics’. He contends that the process of spatial planning involves defining the ‘values and images a society wants to achieve’. Any evaluation of the planning system in Ireland must take full account of the scalar and territorial dimensions of decision-making on planning issues and recognise the nature of planning policy and practice as a (legitimately) politically contested activity.
A recognition of the politics of spatial planning, however, does not reduce the need for a systematic investigation of the capacity of the planning system in Ireland to firstly guide the spatial distribution of development in accordance with agreed plans and secondly to provide a basis for coordination and integration with other policy sectors and activities.
August 10, 2010
Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern today said statutory responsibility for publishing property sales prices will be given to the Property Services Regulatory Authority, which will be put on a statutory footing.
It is hoped that sale prices will be published and a database will be maintained by the DEHLG. This should lead to a much greater level of transparency in the housing market and finally provide accurate and timely details on property price trends. It has yet to be revealed as to what spatial scale and detail the data will be available at.
Mr Ahern has yet to table the required amendments to the Data Protection Acts. This will be done at the next Dail session. This leaves some time to get discussion going on what needs to be made available through the PSRA.
“The Property Services Regulatory Authority will be in a position to ensure timely publication of this data as soon as the legislation is enacted later this year.” (IT 10/08/2010)
This seems like a good step in the right direction.
August 9, 2010
A new initiative has been set up by the Department of the Environment to document the condition of all housing estates across the country. This inventory was due to include details on the overall number of housing developments, completed and occupied developments, units ready for sale, units near completion, units at specific earlier stages of construction, and units not started at all. A pilot survey has just been completed in County Laois and Minister of States for Planning Ciaran Cuff is expecting national results on a county by county basis in September.
The results from the Laois pilot survey suggested that in addition to the financial consequences of high level of excess housing vacancy there were also visual, environmental and pressing health implications (IT 09/08/10).
The Laois pilot survey found:
- Serious public health and safety issues at one-quarter of the surveyed sites such as open sewers and manholes, water contamination and unsecured building sites
- One-third of recently completed housing developments are currently vacant
- A fifth of completed units are without adequate water, sewage or road access
- Alarmingly the survey also found that an additional 40% of planning permissions granted in Laois has not even got to the construction phase as yet (Independent.ie 09/08/10)
Another worrying aspect of the planning process has also been revealed through the survey. It now seems that developer’s insurance bonds, if paid to the Local Authority at all, were in no way adequate or sufficient and in lots of cases will not meet the needs of the clean-up operation. According to a senior Government official, developer’s and speculators were able to ignore preconditions and press ahead with their plans.
“Even in some cases where there were conditions to pay bonds; a lot of them just went ahead and started developing without discharging any of the pre-commencement conditions”
There is no doubt that the findings from the complete national survey will provide some startling figures. We need this and it will hopefully provide a strong evidence based platform from where a recovery strategy can be planned.
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