The recent An Taisce submission to Dublin City Council mentioned on this site in the last few days makes for very interesting viewing. It is a fascinating and detailed insight into the lack of planning enforcement in parts of Dublin city centre in recent years. While agreeing that planning enforcement and architectural conservation are both extremely pertinent issues, I feel the submission raises important questions about exactly what is, or should be, enforced in the first place. Although An Taisce  emphasise  shopfronts and signage, they also take issue with the amount of fast-food, convenience stores,  and discount shops, which are collectively referred to as ‘lower-order’ shops, within the streets that are surveyed (Westmoreland St., Dame St., Parliament St., and the South Quays between Westmoreland St. and Parliament St.).

Throughout the document, An Taisce focus on the connections between poor signage, planning enforcement, and quality of land-use. A key factor which they highlight is how many of the offending businesses are fast-food or convenience stores. They also try to push the link further. For example, in the first part of the document, they state that The lack of enforcement and active management of streets is a contributing factor in the ongoing loss of independent shops and businesses with ‘personality’ – as exampled by the recent closures of the Gruel and Mermaid Cafe restaurants on Dame Street.” Unfortunately, why this is the case is not expanded upon. Perhaps, when looked at on a broad level the so-called lower-order shops are better able to pay higher rents, thus placing pressure on the independent businesses? However, the exact nature of the connections between land-use, vacancy, and enforcement is something that I would argue needs far greater amounts of scrutiny.

Moving beyond issues related to enforcement and signage, the submission raises  some pertinent questions about what are deemed to be acceptable and unacceptable forms of land-use in Dublin city centre (here I am referring to the broad approach to planning in Dublin). Following from the work of Brian J.L Berry, the definition of lower-order and higher-order goods (and shops) used within Scheme’s of Special Planning Control by Dublin City council is as follows: “Lower order goods are those goods, which consumers need frequently and therefore are willing to travel only short distances for them. Higher order goods are needed less frequently so consumers are willing to travel further for them. These longer trips are usually undertaken for not only purchasing purposes but other activities as well.” In practice, lower-order shops have come to mean the likes of fast-food stores, convenience shops and discount stores, or anything else deemed undesirable in the city centre retail environment. The reasons for their domination in particular areas is often  linked to a combination of market forces and a lack of planning enforcement. The reasons often cited for why the concentration of such uses is deemed undesirable in the first place is that they are perceived to be connected to the economic decline of the city centre, due, in part, to their appearance (health issues, particularly in relation to  fast-food, might also be a fair argument, but do not seem to  ever have been raised as a factor. It would also prove a particularly difficult issue to address). Again the causal relationship here needs more detailed scrutiny, and surely proper enforcement of acceptable signage would serve to address questions of appearance.

Following from the above, and for the purposes of clarity, the issue might be divided into two overlapping, yet connected, sub-issues. On the one hand, there is the location of more permanent uses, such as fast-food and convenience stores. On the other hand, there are the temporary uses – often discount stores – which tend to operate within recently vacated stores (and often for prolonged periods). Focusing on the former, there seems to be a need to question the actually existing relationships between different land-uses within the city centre. To speculate on this, is there not a connection between fast-food and pubs/bars in a city which, since the early 1990s, has been re-orientated towards the night-time economy? In short, a starting point might be to address why these so-called lower-order functions seem to locate on the main thoroughfares in the city centre. It does not seem enough to conclude that their mere presence is a cause of economic decline. Leading on from this, and to comment briefly on the second sub-issue raised above, another important question might be orientated towards the dominance of temporary stores in recently vacated premises; ie, what are the predominant factors in these premises becoming vacant in the first place? This would include, but expand on, the issue of rents. Moreover, how can those proprietors responsible for the uses which are now there be enticed to take a more active interest in their shop-front and surrounding street.

I am not trying to state that certain parts of the city are inherently suited or given over to particular forms of land-use. Nor am I in favour of a laissezfaire approach. I do feel that there is a need to question with a great level of detail why certain types of retail or related functions are drawn to particular parts of the city,  why exactly their presence is perceived as negative, and what impact their removal might have on the city centre.

Philip Lawton