March 2011


A blog post and discussion over on The Little Review is raising interesting issues in relation to the current challenges faced by Irish academia and in particular the humanities and social sciences. A key challenge identified is that of changing perceptions in relation to the hours that academics actually work (6 hours a week, 6 months of the year). A wider issue is how best to link research and teaching in a university context so that undergraduate students have a greater understanding and awareness of what universities are about. More fundamentally we can ask whether the  social sciences and humanities as a whole have taken on the task of demonstrating their value and relevance to society in a way that goes beyond the narrow rhetoric of Smart Economy? Are the challenges facing the different disciplines fundamentally different in this regard or is it possible to have a common voice?

Cormac Walsh

The HEA have put the new Employment Control Framework 2011-2014 as it relates to the third level sector up on their website.  It has some significant revisions, especially concerning the application of insitution employment ceilings to include non-exchequer funded staff and the requirement to receive approval from the HEA for all staff appointments, regardless of funding source.

now encompass all staff employed in the Higher Education sector (including contract staff and staff on secondment from other bodies) who are members of public sector pension schemes, irrespective of whether their posts are funded, in whole or in part, by the Exchequer or from non Exchequer sources.” … “while staff who are not considered to be “core staff” of the institutions (because they are engaged in discretionary activities that are funded from external sources in the short term – whether Exchequer or non-Exchequer) were excluded from the staffing ceilings under the previous ECF, these staff have entitlements to future pension benefits which represent a deferred cost or liability for the Exchequer. As such, these “non-core staff” can no longer be disregarded when it comes to applying overall Government policy on numbers control in the public sector.”

There are two issues with regards to the pension issues.  First, all non-exchequer funding should come with sufficient pension contributions built into the award, so I’m not sure what the issue is.  Second, even if there is an issue we’re talking about deferred pensions on a small number of short-term contracts.  In the case of the vast majority of contract research staff these will not be accessed for thirty plus years.  To stifle getting short term job creation now, and at the same time doing damage to one of the supposed key drivers of the smart economy – the third level sector – over supposed pension liabilities in thirty years time seems ridiculously short sighted.  It is the philosophy of the bean counter.  If we don’t get the economy moving, then we’ll have a much bigger pension issue in thirty years time.

The total number of staff employed in the sector, including all permanent staff (academic, administrative, research, technical, ancillary etc) and all contract staff (academic, administrative, research, technical, ancillary etc) who are members of public sector pension schemes, and irrespective of whether such posts are funded (in whole or in part) by Exchequer funds and/or non-Exchequer funds, will be subject to the annual employment ceilings … The HEA will allocate these employment ceilings across institutions, taking into account the student numbers, staffing levels and other relevant factors in each institution.

I do not understand the logic of including all research and other non-exchequer funded staff in overall institutional ceiling figures.  What that means is that very large research grants from the EU and other bodies could be turned down because an institution is deemed to already have reached its staff quota.  Given that the salary and pension is coming from non-exchequer funds why cap the total number of employees in an institution?

“any proposals to appoint such new contract research staff or to renew such existing contracts must be put in advance to the HEA.”

As someone who runs a research institute where 13 out of my 15 staff are on short term contracts (10 of which run out in the next 11 months; the two non-contract posts are both secondments), I am acutely atuned to anything that is going to make the already very difficult task of raising everyone’s salary every year or indeed enable new staff to start more difficult.  The institute lost 7 staff last year, we will lose more this year.  We are already contributing heavily to the loss of staff in the public sector.  It seems ludicrous to me that every time we try to extend a contract we are going to have to seek permission from the HEA to do so.  The new measure is going to create an enormous amount of unnecessary bureaucratic redtape for government departments and universities and it is going to have all kinds of knock on consequences alia the competitiveness of Irish universities trying to build collaborative arrangements with business, international partners and in recruiting worldclass staff and students.

Frankly, the HEA should not be worrying about the burden of research staff on the pension liabilities thirty years down the line.  It should be worrying about losing a massive amount of research capacity in the university sector as funding lines continue to erode.  Over the past ten years the research capacity and non-exchequer funding of Irish universities has massively improved.  All universities have moved up the world rankings and several worldclass research centres have developed, including NIRSA.  There is a very big danger of reversing all this progress out.  Far from seeking to constraint the pursuit of research funding and contract posts, it should be trying to find imaginative ways to aid attracting and creating such posts.  For a country interested in pursuing a smart economy agenda, this does not seem very smart.  Creating a large new layer of bureaucracy and stifling non-exchequer funded research work seems pretty dumb actually.

Rob Kitchin

Minister Phil Hogan has promised to review the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010 (PDAA), passed into legislation by the Greens in the last government.  The main thing he seems to want to change is the executive power of his own office.  As reported in the Irish Times, Minister Hogan said: “Giving enormous powers to the minister of the day is unhealthy and not the way to deal with planning matters. Each region has different strengths. Centralisation of powers and planning functions in the Custom House is not the way to exploit that potential.”  This seems to follow directly from the programme for government, where it is stated: “We will make the planning process more democratic by amending the 2010 Planning and Development Act to allow for detailed public submissions on zoning, and to rebalance power towards elected representatives.”  That programme of government also states that it wants to abolish the position of County Manager and replace it with that of Chief Executive, with a limited range of executive functions. The primary function of the Chief Executive will be to facilitate the implementation of democratically decided policy.

Without seeing a fuller, more detailed statement on the new government’s intentions with regards to changes to the PDAA 2010 one can only surmise what the logic is here.  At first glance, it looks progressive, placing decision making into a more democratic frame – removing powers from the Minister and County Managers and placing them into the hands of democratically elected officials.  I would be all for such a move if: (1) I felt that the officials understood their obligations and responsibilities with respect to the planning system, (2) they had a competency in basic planning principles and the legal framework guiding their decisions, (3) there was adequate oversight and regulation in the system to stop planning localism, cronyism and clientelism by elected officials, (4) that I felt I could trust councillors to act in the best interests of their counties and country and not follow a path purely designed to get them re-elected and be damned the wider consequences.

A cynic would suggest that the new Ministerial powers were unpopular at the local level because they were used to stop councillors undertaking excessive zoning and giving inappropriate permissions (the result of which led to way too much zoned land and an excess of housing, offices, hotels and retail space).  Local councillors and local TDs want such powers removed so they can get back to business as usual – planning decision making is a key part of their power.  Of course, the Minister could choose not to exercise his executive power, but to leave it on the books in case it is ever needed.  If power is placed back into the hands of councillors without adequate oversights, especially if county managers are going to be simply executive officers and the Custom’s House can’t intervene into poor planning praxis (i.e. two elements of regulation and enforcement are removed), it almost certainly will be needed. There is little to suggest that the system won’t just revert to its former state and practices if oversight is removed, unless other measures are introduced.  And let’s be realistic – it’s a relatively good system on paper, but not in it’s implementation (otherwise we wouldn’t have all the planning issues we presently have with regards to unfinished estates, floodplain development, groundwater pollution, etc).  It’ll be interesting to see if Minister Hogan also cancels the six planning reviews commission by John Gormley presently being undertaken by the Department of suspect planning decisions (as far as I’m aware they have not yet been reported) – the need for such reviews suggest that ministerial powers have value.

He has also said that he is going to introduce a Climate Change Act, which would be very different to that being proposed by the Greens, and also delay any direct elections for Dublin mayor until 2014.

Rob Kitchin

In his opinion piece in yesterday’s Irish Times (March 15 2011) Fintan O’Toole makes a contribution to the corporation tax debate. He argues that the debate with our European partners focuses on the wrong issue, and that the tax rate of individual countries, such as Ireland, is not the problem. “Ireland has to stop making a fetish of the 12.5 per cent rate … no one actually believes that a rise of a couple of percentage points in our 12.5% corporation tax would create any serious problem for transnational companies operating here”. The real problem, in his view, lies in the fact that transnational companies have other ways to lower their global tax liabilities. Therefore, “everyone [in Europe] has to pay attention to the real issue – the need for co-ordinated global action to create justice in corporate taxation”.

Fintan appears to miss the point that this is exactly what is being discussed in Europe at the moment. The debate has moved from Ireland’s 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate, to a common consolidated corporate tax base (CCCTB). Through the creation of complex corporate structures, and facilitated by national and international corporate and fiscal legislation, transnational companies are able to allocate large shares of their profits to countries with low corporation tax rates such as Ireland. Large amounts of value and profits created in European countries are being attributed to Irish holding companies. European countries such as France and Germany therefore lose revenues. The idea of the CCCTB is not to harmonise the tax rates, but to establish (new) common rules for allocating profits to the correct jurisdictions.

The Irish government is, of course, also opposing this type of move. Its opposition is not because, as has been suggested, this is “tax harmonisation by the back door”, but because a CCCTB is potentially far more damaging to the attractiveness of Ireland as an investment location than a rise in the corporate tax rate would be. The CCCTB would remove one of the main incentives for many international financial services and intellectual property management companies locating their companies in Ireland.

Opposition may be futile, though. Ireland has the right to veto the CCCTB but this may not be enough to stop the process. Some European partners are already talking about a “coalition of the willing” that may adopt a CCCTB which would apply to this group of countries alone. It is unclear to me how this would work, but I can imagine that this will end in a situation where corporations will simply be forced to pay taxes over the profits allocated according to the rules of these countries, whether they have an operation in Ireland or not.

Ireland’s opposition to a CCCTB is also difficult to defend. The CCCTB addresses a situation which tolerates corporations not paying their fair share of tax on a global basis and which is unfair to the European partners. At some point, Ireland will have to agree to a CCCTB and, as I have argued previously, adopt a higher level of corporate taxation. However, this is clearly not the moment to start disturbing the foundations of the only remaining competitive sector of the Irish economy. Furthermore, if that moment arrives, such steps need to be part of a medium-term and clear transition process. Regarding to the tax rate, Fintan talks too casually about “the rise of a couple of percentage points in our 12.5% corporation tax”. Transnational companies prefer to plan their returns on investment and they base their investment decisions on medium-term prospects. To my mind, any ad-hoc change to the tax rate would have a signalling effect, indicating that this tax rate is not untouchable anymore and would therefore create uncertainty which would be damaging to Ireland’s prospect of attracting foreign direct investment, regardless of the actual size of any tax increase.

Chris van Egeraat

The Woodland League, an organisation whose aim is “to restore the relationship between people and their woodlands”, has launched a campaign to stop movements on the sale of Coillte, which they claim is being led by a Swiss finance company that Bertie Ahern is chairman of.  The group claims that there “remains no official indication as to the status of the sale of Coillte… Almost all the components for a sale are in place”.  In a video posted by The Woodland League Bertie Ahern denies this possibility, while Eamon Gilmore expresses concern about the former Taoiseach’s role in the Swiss group.  The Woodland League sees access to woodlands as a right for current and future generations that could be lost if a sale goes ahead, expressing concern about the further privitisaiton of state resouces.  To find out more about the campaign check out their website.

Cian O’ Callaghan

Late last week the new Programme for Government was released and yesterday Willie Penrose TD was appointed as Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing and Planning, a so-called ‘super junior position’ in that it comes with a seat at the Cabinet table.

Firstly, I very much welcome that housing and planning have been recognised as being of sufficient importance that they merit a Minister of State, and have an elevated status amongst the junior ministry positions.  They are clearly two key, inter-related issues affecting society.

Housing is about shelter, home, community and neighbourhood.  There are some standout issues to deal with here – unfinished estates, the social housing waiting list, the regeneration of some social housing estates, confidence in the housing market, negative equity, mortgage payments, etc.  Planning is about ordered and organised development; it shapes what is built and should be an important part of addressing the crisis with respect to helping create the conditions for growth and recovery.  Decisions around development affect society into long term, in that what we build now the next generation will inherit, along with its associated costs in relation to servicing, maintenance, energy and fuel, productivity and competitiveness, the environment, and so on.

Below I have pulled out statements relating to housing and planning from the new Programme for Government, excluding the material around mortgages etc, and provide some brief thoughts in relation to some of them (material from the Programme for Government is in italics).  At the end of the post, I set out some of the things that I would like to see the new Minister for Housing and Planning do.

Housing

We will mandate the Minster for the Environment, in conjunction with Local Authorities, to bring forward a coherent plan to resolve the problems associated with ghost estates.  This plan will be developed in cooperation with NAMA.

This has already been done by last government through the expert group set up to examine unfinished estates.  The draft report is already in hand, and draft manual suggesting site resolution plans has been out for consultation.  There is room for improvement, but it will involve statutory changes.  I’m assuming here that the incoming government has an alternative solution that it wants to implement or wishes to refine/extend the plan that has been developed by the DEHLG.

We will introduce a staged purchase scheme to increase the stock of social housing, while achieving the best possible value for public investment. Under the terms of this scheme, leased dwellings will revert to the ownership of local authorities and housing associations at the end of the leasehold period.

As I understand this, it is a revised version of the Social Housing Leasing Initiative in that leased property will not revert to the developer after twenty years, but will become a state or housing association asset.

We will enable larger housing associations and local authorities to access private sector funding for social housing by issuing ‘social housing bonds’, secured on the value of their existing housing stock when market conditions allow.

We will amend the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act (1992) to require all local authorities and housing associations to register with the Department of the Environment if they wish to access Government subsidies or other supports for social housing provision

We are committed to urban regeneration to revitalise communities in areas such as Limerick to give families a better quality of life.

I would hope that this also means reviving PPP schemes for estates such as St Michael’s and Dolphin Barn, rather than exclusively focusing on the large projects that have attracted more media attention such as Limerick.  There is much social housing that either needs to be replaced or refitted to make more habitable.

We will improve the quality of information available on the Irish housing market by requiring that the selling price of all dwellings is recorded in a publicly available, national housing price database.

We will legislate for tougher and clearer rules relating to fire safety in apartment buildings and will introduce a new fire safety inspection and certification regime.

We will establish a tenancy deposit protection scheme to put an end to disputes regarding the return of deposits.

We are committed to ending long term homelessness and the need to sleep rough.

To address the issue of existing homelessness we will review and update the existing Homeless Strategy, including a specific focus on youth homelessness, and take into account the current demands on existing housing and health services with a view to assessing how to best provide additional services.

In line with our Comprehensive Spending Review, we will alleviate the problem of long term homelessness by introducing a ‘housing first’ approach to accommodating homeless people. In this way we will be able to offer homeless people suitable, long term housing in the first instance and radically reduce the use of hostel accommodation and the associated costs for the Exchequer.

We believe that prevention is better than cure and we will aggressively target the root causes of homelessness. By having a dedicated body to coordinate policy across Government we will target initiatives in cross cutting areas which will aim to prevent as much as possible problems like homelessness.

Planning

We will abolish the position of County Manager and replace it with that of Chief Executive, with a limited range of executive functions. The primary function of the Chief Executive will be to facilitate the implementation of democratically decided policy.

This seems to suggest that county managers will become the puppets of county councillors.  The irony of renaming a job as a Chief Executive and removing executive abilities is entirely absent.

A democratically-decided Regional or City Plan will replace the present top-down Strategic Planning Guideline model.

We will make the planning process more democratic by amending the 2010 Planning and Development Act to allow for detailed public submissions on zoning, and to rebalance power towards elected representatives.

I don’t fully follow these two points because development plans are decided by elected officials in a bottom-up process that is guided by a regional and national framework.  Councillors continue to hold the reserve function and sign off on plans.  Planners help put them together, and they do this inside an Irish and EU legislative framework.   The point seems to be that the incoming coalition view the new process, as directed by the new Planning and Development Amendment Act, as being too much shaped by the central state within a wider strategic framework.  To do away with a strategic planning framework, which this seems to be suggesting, would seem to me to be a major folly – we do need joined up planning across scales – plans need to be harmonised across local, county, regional and national scales so that they work in concert with each other and not against each other.

The POG seems to recognise this as it states: “We will seek to better coordinate national, regional and local planning laws in order to achieve better and more coordinated development that supports local communities instead of the current system that favours developer led planning.”

There is clearly a contradiction here.  Planning is accused of being both too top-down from the centre and developer-led, and yet the power to approve the plans lies in the hands of councillors (although the Minister of Environment has certain veto powers if local plans contravene good practice and legislative conditions).  In my view, planning has to be strategic because it needs to be part of the process for guiding development, growth and recovery to help get us out of the crisis we’re in.  That will involve tough decisions about where we want to concentrate development to create the critical mass – in terms of population, higher order services, infrastructure – needed for places around the country to be competitive in the global economy in terms of attracting FDI. Planning should not take place purely at the local scale, reflecting localism without adequate regard to wider regional and national aims and objectives.  Part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in is because we had planning that did not take adequate notice of principles of planning, lacked joined-up thinking spatially and sectorally, that did not fully understand its obligations with respect to EU directives and initiatives, that ignored evidence to inform decision-making, and that allowed cronyism, clientelism and localism to operate.  At the same time, planning has to be democratically mandated and people should have a say in the development process.  That said, councillors do need to have a good understanding of their roles, obligations, responsibilities with regards their planning remit and the principles of sustainable and balanced development.  We simply cannot afford to re-establish a weak, laissez faire planning system.

We will improve local transport access by making local transport plans an integral part of local Development Plans. We will force all local authorities to develop a transport plan in conjunction with their County/City Development Plans, and Local Areas Plans.

We will pass legislation to allow local authorities take housing estates ‘in charge’ after three years if there are no significant financial implications for local authorities, and substantially increase existing penalties for those who break planning laws.

We will require local authorities to carry out an ‘Educational Impact Assessment’ for all new zonings for residential development to ensure an adequate supply of school places.

Local authorities will be required to carry out a flood risk report in the preparation of their City and County Development Plans, and will also be legally required to manage flood risk through sustainable planning and development.

We will introduce a single national building inspectorate service.

We will examine what services could be converged between two or more local authorities, such as technology support, human resources and fire services.

We are committed to a fundamental reorganisation of local governance structures to allow for devolution of much greater decision-making to local people. We will give local communities more control over transport and traffic, economic development, educational infrastructure, and local responses to crime and local healthcare needs.

I have no idea what this last statement really means in practical terms, how such devolution will operate, or how communities will gain and exercise control.  It’ll be interesting to see what proposal they come up with.

What I would like to see with respect to housing and planning

That the progress made with the Planning and Development Amendment Act is continued.  That we push forward with joined up planning, with plans at different scales – local, county, regional and national – working in concert with each other, not against each other.

That we eradicate cronyism, clientelism and localism from the planning system, whilst planning remains democratically mandated.

That planning is informed by hard evidence and cost benefit and impact assessments, not anecdote and favour.

That councillors receive mandatory training on their roles, obligations and responsibilities with respect to planning, the logics, principles and practicalities of good planning, and the legislative framework in which planning takes place.

That the power of the reserve function and decision making comes with proper responsibilities and liabilities (e.g., if councillors ignore the advice of planners and others and zone land and give permissions for building on flood plains, those that voted in favour should be personally liable if those properties then flood, etc).

That we meet our obligations with respect to different EU directives relating to water, habitats, etc.

That we address pressing issues with regards to unfinished estates, making legislative changes if needed in order to make progress.

That we start to tackle the social housing waiting list – presently c.120,000 households.

That we continue through with urban regeneration schemes, including trying to get some PPPs back up and functioning, and we re-fit and upgrade sub-standard social housing.

That we make significant progress in tackling the issue of homelessness.

That we make much more progress on producing good housing data across a range of key performance indicators – including house prices – but also commercial property (for which we have no data except that generated by the property sector).

That we take advantage of the opportunities for long term land-banking given the land holdings in NAMA and the DEHLG land aggregation scheme.  We should not sell sites that know we will need in the future for schools and other public facilities back to the private sector at the bottom of the market and then have to buy them back in 8-10 years time for several times the sale price.

That we introduce mechanisms to stop the hoarding of zoned development land, so that it is used in an orderly process.

That the National Spatial Strategy continues to be a key organizing framework for a revised National Development Plan and that coordination with the Regional Development Strategy in the North continues.

A change of government is always a time of opportunity to take a fresh and revitalised approach to issues.  The appointment of a Minister of State for Housing and Planning is a welcome development.  The Minister faces many pressing challenges and hopefully he’ll start to make good in-roads into them at the same time as improving and strengthening our housing provision and planning system.

Rob Kitchin


The second symposium on academic blogging organised by the collective editors of Pue’s Occurrences took place on Friday last week in Trinity College.  I was glad to attend the event, wearing so to speak the Ireland After NAMA hat for a day brim full of stimulating and diverse debates on the nature and challenges of blogging in the academic sphere.   Following on from the event last year, the symposium sought to engage in a discussion of the opportunities and opacities, potentials and pitfalls of blogging as a research, writing, and teaching practice.  The day was split broadly into three sections.

The first session looked at blogs as a tool for documenting and disseminating research.  Conor Brady offered an insightful presentation of his blog documenting an archaeological dig in Rossnaree.  Conor stated that he was new to blogs before this project, but suggested that he had found it beneficial for a range of reasons; in terms of providing a virtual tour of the site for both local populations and external audiences, fulfilling what he saw as a duty to communicate with the public archaeological work, and for engaging in discussions with other academics interested in the work.  The blog provided a diary of the dig, which was updated daily and showed the ‘behind the scenes’ evolution of the project.  While this offered a range of rewards, Conor also stressed that it was a time-consuming process that once he started he had to continue.

The second session focussed on blogging as a teaching resource and topic.  Jonathan Wright gave an interesting presentation about a module he had been involved in running in Queens University Belfast, in which history students used blogs and digital media to critically understand and evaluate a number of contested case studies.  Utilising online discussion forums as an important element of the students grades, students were encouraged to debate and discuss amongst themselves, while also informing the class discussion through contributing short online responses to questions posed by the readings.  Similarly, Orla Murphy of University College Cork gave an insightful overview of a number of modules she teaches that utilise blogs and digital media as both course inputs and outputs.  In particular, she suggests outputs like class blogs have had positive impacts in terms of sharpening students’ writing and editing skills, cross disciplinarily capacity, and engagement with each others’ work in that they break down traditional monodirectional relationships between teacher and student.

The final session of the day took the form of a roundtable discussion on blogs chaired by Myles Dungan from RTE’s The History Show.  Panellists in the session were Juliana Alderman from Pue’s Occurrences, Ciarán Swan from The Irish Left Archive, Niamh Cullen from The Little Review, and Orla Murphy.  The panellists offered an illuminating overview of their disparate and comparable experiences of blogging.  Topics covered included issues relating to anonymity, the stylistic differences between academic writing and blogging, the continued reticence of sections of the academic community to engage with blogs, their ethereality and issues pertaining to archiving blogged material, the problems of making blog writing ‘count’ in profession terms for young academics, issues of elitism, access and engagement with publics in academic writing, mediating post comments and mitigating libel.  Jim Corr even got a mention.

While this last session provided the space for a wealth of discussion that easily overflowed into the pub afterwards, with vociferous and diverse input from the floor, this component was not limited to this timeslot.  Rather discussion was the order of the day and the organisers left plenty of time for this in the programme.  Overall, the day provided evidence of the proliferation of blogs in Ireland at the moment, the diversity of perspectives, parameters, and potentials they encompass, and the burgeoning interest in the blogosphere and new social media as emergent and exciting forms of communicating academic knowledge outside of traditional platforms.  This overview only skims the surface of a very full day – indeed, for a blow-by-blow of the day check out the stream of tweets made by Lisa-Marie of Pue’s throughout the day – and it is clear that this discussion is one that pushes headlong into the future.  If this space can provide any continuation it is most welcome.

Cian O’ Callaghan

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