May 2011


Following from the recent post on this site about Dublin’s urban heritage, a number of recent news stories may be of interest to some readers. The first of these is the announcement, as reported by the Irish Times, that the government may seek to repossess the Bank of Ireland building on College Green. From a broader perspective, the reclamation of the bank building would be  a hugely significant and symbolic statement by the current government about its new-found role in the banking sector. More particularly, it would present the opportunity to create a new public use for a historically and architecturally significant building.

The proposed repossession of the bank would provide the potential to create a public building facing onto what has been seen by many, going back at least to the Metropolitan Streets Commission in the late 1980s,  as a central public space for Dublin (something which perhaps has increased currency with the recent visit of the U.S. President, Barack Obama). While the full pedestrianisation of College Green may prove somewhat difficult to implement, new uses for the former parliament building would certainly help to promote its position as a central public space within the city. As mooted within the Temple Bar Framework Plan of 2004 (available here), it also presents the opportunity to promote pedestrian connections between Temple Bar and the Trinity/Grafton Street area. The question remains, however, as to what use the building should be put to?

Proposed links through Bank of Ireland, College Green. Source: Temple Bar Framework Plan, 2004 (Howley Harrington Architects)

Following from Eamon Ryan’s call for the bank to be transformed to an elibrary a number of years ago, Labour TD for Dublin North  Central, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, has recently opened an online survey seeking public views on its transformation into the Dublin City Library. Meanwhile, in its own poll, the Archiseek website is broadening the question somewhat, with  the library option included with a number of others, such as a Dublin City Museum, or the location of the Irish Senate. If the repossession goes ahead, such discussions could perhaps be broadened to provide the opportunity for the public to present their ideas on what its use might be through an ideas competition or similar.

I would argue, as I have before with regards to Smithfield, that if College Green is to become a central public space, which is at least given pedestrian priority, then the location of a public building with full public accessibility is of significant importance. I would also argue that while the transformation of the bank may certainly boost Dublin’s tourist industry,  we should not solely seek what is primarily a tourist function as its use. Thus, in as much as it fits within Dublin’s designation as a UNESCO city of literature, the movement of Dublin City Library to this location might tick a number of boxes, so to speak. Particularly given that the proposed move to the Ambassador cinema seems to have fallen through (as mentioned on the poll being run by Aodhán Ó Ríordáin).

Meanwhile, and in a similar vein, as also highlighted by the Irish Times in recent days, the announcement by Dublin City Council that it is to carry out the rejuvenation  of numbers 15 and 16 Henrietta Street may come as good news for those interested in the preservation of Dublin’s Georgian heritage. Pointedly, the redevelopment of the site, which is the outcome of a design competition from 2008, will include the development of a theatre and, according to the original design proposals, a craft training centre focused on stone and brick masonry trades. That this project is currently going ahead highlights the potential for the future use of interventions, such as the Derelict Sites Act, or, indeed ownership of land within NAMA, for the delivery of positive publicly orientated outcomes.

When taken together, both interventions indicate the potential that the public ownership of land, when orientated for the public good, presents in terms of the protection and use-value of the heritage of our towns and cities.

Philip Lawton

Hibernia Nirvana

A lone sheep on a mountain track beneath a dilapidated Las Vegas style sign advertising Hibernia; a mother and daughter face a city in flames, as the giant figure of Justice looms out of the darkness; a group of conspirators dance beneath a giant flag by a quayside, as the lights from office windows of banks twinkle ominously late into the night.  These are images from Brian McCarthy’s compelling collection ‘Boomtown’, which should appeal to the readers of Ireland After NAMA, for their observations on issues of economy, society and nationhood, in this unprecedented period of crisis and turbulence.

Boomtown

As the behemoth NAMA lurches on, cloaked in secrecy, McCarthy’s vision captures the mood of a society stretched between rage and bewilderment, whose memories of betrayal burn and who in spite of the mantra of corporate Ireland, cannot and will not ‘move on’.

In his signature image ‘Boomtown’, McCarthy presents a crowded landscape of slum-like dwellings, cramped together on the hillsides, overlooked by an unfinished Tower of Babel. The allusion is towards the Favelas of Latin America, but this landscape seems also to be a striking observation on the ruinous capacity of over-development. This dense landscape seems moored in despair. The Tricolor hangs from the balconies of houses. The flag is a constant motif running though his collection – you see it on emigrant’s boats, or rising up from the street in preparation for revolution.

In ‘Delirium’ another telling image – a prosaic Dublin shop-front is transformed into a Head Shop. Remember them? This shop sells Celtic Tiger Craic Pills.  As a comment on the character of the Irish Banking Sector and the practice of excess, it sums things up more clearly than the Nyberg Report on Banking Sector.  He pictures money blowing up the street – like the credit that littered the Irish landscape with empty and unbuilt houses.

Delirium

McCarthy’s use of magical realism constructs a counterfactual landscape that is deliberately antagonistic to the spectacle and narratives of the boom-time.  The technique provides a sophisticated mode of social inquiry, observation and analysis. This kind of art sets out to disrupt what Guy Debord once called ‘…the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue.’   Those carefully crafted images of Ireland –monetized by Culture Ireland, Bord Failte and the IDA  – are dealt a sharp blow by his critique.

In this way, these images act like a codicil to the drama of space that has characterized the rise of and fall of the Irish economy. Paradoxically, whilst occasionally framing Ireland as South America or Asia, he provides the location of the ‘where’ in that deadening phrase of We Are Where We Are: a  county called WAWWA.  If you are still looking for it, here is…

Denis Linehan

Visit the artist’s website.

Willie Penrose TD, Minister for Housing and Planning, was in action in the Dail last week fielding questions – see Dail Debates (17th May) and Dail Eireann Written Answers (18th May) (pages 101-121).  He answered questions on a range of issues, but one area that caught my attention was in relation to social housing vacancy, turnaround time until reoccupied and re-fitting costs because the answers came with some data I’ve not seen before.

With respect to data on turnaround times the Minister drew attention toThe sixth annual report of the Local Government Management Services Board [LGMSG], published in February 2011, which details service indicators in local authorities in 2009, shows the average time taken, from the date of vacating of a unit to the date when all necessary repairs are carried out, to re-let a unit in each authority. The figures show that some 4,286 dwellings were vacant, accounting for 3.4% of the total national social housing stock of around 126,000 units.  The length of time taken to re-let units varies considerably between authorities and ranges from as little as one week in Limerick City Council to as high as 45 weeks in South Tipperary County Council.”

He supplied the following table taken from the report of the LGMSB.

Average time taken (in weeks) from the date of vacation
of dwelling to the date whenall necessary repairs are carried out and which are deemed necessary to re-let the dwelling
Carlow County Council 17.7
Cavan County Council 13.0
Clare County Council 18.2
Cork City Council 17.9
Cork County Council 11.1
Donegal County Council 24
Dublin City Council 19.5
Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council 15.9
Fingal! County Council 18
Galway City Council 7
Galway County Council 30.1
Kerry County Council 24.1
Kildare County Council 6.9
Kilkenny County Council 19.7
Laois County Council 18
Leitrim County Council 15.1
Limerick City Council 1
Limerick County Council 40.2
Longford County Council 7
Louth County Council 8
Mayo County Council 18.5
Meath County Council 11
Monaghan County Council 14.8
North Tipperary County Council 12.5
Offaly County Council 8.8
Roscommon County Council 21.3
Sligo County Council 18.6
South Dublin County Council 18.7
South Tipperary County Council 45.8
Waterford City Council 9
Waterford County Council 19.5
Westmeath County Council 5.2
Wexford County Council 9.2
Wicklow County Council 25.6

Given the numbers of people on the social housing waiting list and the pressure to obtain social housing it would be very interesting to find out why there is such a wide variation in the length of time it takes local authorities to repair and refit housing and get new tenants into their new homes.  These figures are an average, so one presumes in some cases houses are unoccupied for more than a year.  The figure of a one week average for Limerick City seems barely credible, especially given the length of the other counties, but maybe they have a special refit and relocate team?

The DECLG programme to aid financially local authorities in refitting and refurbing local authority housing is the Social Housing Investment Programme.  Here’s what he had to say about it in the written answer:  “Under my Department’s Social Housing Investment Programme, local authorities are allocated capital funding each year in respect of a range of measures to improve the standard and overall quality of their social housing stock. The programme includes a retrofitting measure aimed at improving the energy efficiency of older apartments and houses.

My Department requested local authorities specifically to target vacant dwellings in 2011 with the objective of returning the maximum number of vacant units to productive use at reasonable cost. However, necessary improvement works to occupied houses will continue to be eligible for funding from within the allocations notified to individual authorities.

Some €31million is being provided to local authorities in 2011 in respect of their social housing improvement works programmes.”

And in the Dail Debate: “This [€31m] does not include funding for large-scale regeneration projects and estate-wide remedial works projects which also include retrofitting and refurbishment works on vacant dwellings, for which a further provision of €172 million is being made this year. My Department’s improvement works programme is specifically targeting vacant dwellings in 2011 with the objective of returning the maximum number of vacant units to productive use at reasonable cost. In the case of casual or short-term vacancies, a grant of up to €18,000 or 90% of cost, whichever is the lesser, is recouped to the local authority in respect of works to improve the standard and the energy efficiency of a dwelling.

In the case of properties which have remained vacant for a protracted period or properties which have fallen into a state of serious disrepair, a special measure is being introduced this year which will allow local authorities to claim up to €35,000 for each unit returned to productive use. Authorities are required to prepare an Improvement plan for vacant properties for 2011, outlining the number of vacant properties on hands and setting out the proposed measures to improve these properties.

My Department’s records show that over the period 2004 to 2010 some €52 million was recouped to local authorities in respect of improvements works on vacant properties. I will also circulate with the Official Report a tabular statement setting out details in this regard.”

Here is that improvement works data.

RECOUPMENT IN RESPECT OF IMPROVEMENT WORKS TO VOID PROPERTIES 2004 – 2010
Cavan County Council 451,395.00
Clare County Council 793,307.00
Cork City Council 2,853,410.00
Cork County Council 2,108,482.00
Donegal County Council 377,536.00
Dublin City Council 31,021,448.63
Fingal County Council 430,965.00
Galway City Council 209,752.00
Galway County Council 356,277.00
Kerry County Council 2,645,289.00
Kildare County Council 134,194.00
Leitrim County Council 223,454.00
Limerick City Council 1,181,503.00
Limerick County Council 547,564.00
Longford County Council 762,839.00
Louth County Council 702,664.00
Mayo County Council 1,371,463.00
Meath County Council 1,514,163.00
Monaghan County Council 211,002.00
Offaly County Council 272,705.00
Roscommon County Council 379,677.00
Sligo Borough Council 357,555.00
Sligo County Council 165,181.00
North Tipperary County Council 664,857.00
South Tipperary County Council 27,611.00
Waterford City Council 1,588,878.00
Wexford County Council 712,730.00
Wicklow County Council 821,583.00
Total 52,887,484.63

€203m then is being made available in 2011 to help repair and refit local authority housing this year, including large scale regeneration projects such as Ballymun and Limerick.  If this is the full allocation, then the €172m directed at large scale regeneration projects is almost certainly a fairly large rollback on what was originally allocated and required, albeit it’ll go some way towards addressing some pressing issues.  It’ll be interesting to see how much of the funding available is drawn down and its effects on void social housing turnaround times.

Minister Penrose also acknowledged that the Advisory Group on Unfinished Housing Developments had submitted its final report to him on May 6th.  He presently “considering its findings and recommendations and will bring proposed actions and recommendations to Government for approval shortly, with a view to publishing the Report thereafter“.

Rob Kitchin

At a time when the financial crisis in the Eurozone is seen to cast doubts on the extent to which European institutions act in the collective interests of Europe, it is perhaps instructive to consider the question of the territorial agenda of the European Union. To what extent does the EU have a coherent spatial policy or agenda or do individual sectoral policies have uncoordinated and even contradictory effects?

This is a question which European spatial policy initiatives have sought to address, particularly since the publication of the European Spatial Development Perspective in 1999.

Yesterday (19th May) at a meeting of the Ministers of EU member states responsible for spatial planning and territorial development in the town of Gödöllő, Hungary a new Territorial Agenda for the European Union was agreed upon. With the title ‘Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020: Towards an Inclusive, Smart and Sustainable Europe of Diverse Regions’ the document follows on from a previous Territorial Agenda published in 2007. In light of the lead role of the Hungarian Presidency, the new Territorial Agenda has been expected to place a renewed emphasis on reducing disparities between Western and Eastern Europe and the particular development challenges faced by Eastern member states. The document supports the principle of ‘territorial cohesion’ which may be interpreted as balanced regional development at the European level:

We believe that territorial cohesion is a set of principles for harmonious, balanced, efficient, sustainable territorial development. It enables equal opportunities for citizens and enterprises, wherever they are located, to make the most of their territorial potentials. Territorial cohesion reinforces the principle of solidarity to promote convergence between the economies of better-off territories and those whose development is lagging behind.

It is further stated that ‘development opportunities are best tailored to the specificities of an area’ indicating that territory matters and regional development policies need to take account of the specific characteristics and diversity of individual regions. This echoes recent arguments for a ‘place-based’ approach to regional development policy rather than a reliance on ‘spatially-blind’ sectoral approaches (such as the Common Agricultural Policy). Suggesting continued support for an interventionist approach it is noted that ‘Regions might need external support to find their own paths to sustainable development, with particular attention to those lagging behind’.

Drawing on an evidenced-based ‘Territorial State and Perspectives’ background document (as yet not in the public domain) the Territorial Agenda identifies 6 main territorial challenges facing the European Union:

  1.   Increased exposure to globalisation: structural changes after the global economic crisis;
  2.  Challenges of EU integration and the growing interdependences of regions;
  3. Territorially diverse demographic and social challenges, segregation of vulnerable groups;
  4. Climate change and environmental risks: geographically diverse impacts;
  5. Energy challenges come to the fore and threaten regional competitiveness;
  6.  Loss of biodiversity, vulnerable natural, landscape and cultural heritage

 

Informal meeting of Ministers responsible for territorial development and spatial planning, Gödöllő, 19th May

The challenges outlined serve to highlight that regions in Europe face distinct sets of challenges but that there also significant commonalities. In particular the impacts of demographic and climate change are recognised to vary significantly across the European territory. It may be noted that development disparities between East and West (or urban and rural regions) are not specifically mentioned.

The document subsequently identifies six ‘Territorial Priorities’ for the EU, for the purpose of responding the challenges outlined above:

1. Promote polycentric and balanced territorial development

2. Encouraging integrated development in cities, rural and specific regions

3. Territorial integration in cross-border and transnational functional regions

4. Ensuring global competitiveness of the regions based on strong local economies

5. Improving territorial connectivity for individuals, communities and enterprises

6. Managing and connecting ecological, landscape and cultural values of regions

The concepts of polycentric development and integrated development of urban and rural regions are themes which have featured centrally in European spatial policy since the 1990s; although it may be argued that they still require clarification in terms of their intended operationalisation. The identification of territorial integration in cross-border and transnational functional regions reflects a particular commitment in EU regional development policy to reduce border effects and improve cooperation, particularly through the INTERREG programme from which Ireland has benefited significantly. In total, approximately 40% of the territory of the EU is located within border regions.

Implementation of the Territorial Agenda of the European Union is dependent on EU institutions such as the European Commission taking its messages on board as well as actions by member states, regional and local authorities. The ESPON Programme (see also ESPON Ireland website) receives specific mention in relation to its central role in providing the evidence base for European territorial development and cohesion policy. The new Territorial Agenda places particular emphasis, however, on actions by member states. In Ireland, the National Spatial Strategy and National Development are the principal policy mechanisms in this regard. As the EU does not have any competence in spatial planning, the Territorial Agenda therefore does not represent a binding spatial plan for the EU in any sense. It does however provide a strategic policy framework and represents a high level European commitment to the balanced regional development and place-based approaches to policy. Based on the experience of previous European spatial policy documents such as the European Spatial Development perspective, the impact of the Territorial Agenda may be significant albeit not always directly visible!

Cormac Walsh

On Thursday 28th April 2011, the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis (NIRSA) in NUI Maynooth – together with the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) and the Border Regional Authority (BRA) – hosted the second of three practical roundtable discussions. The focus of this event was Land Banking and Housing Development: The (New) Role of the Planning System.

This 1-day roundtable discussion considered the state of housing development and the potential of land banking across the island of Ireland with respect to housing need, unfinished estates, the property market, the planning system and both the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency (HSCA) and the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA). It examined international experiences of asset disposal and public land development, and explored possibilities and opportunities in the island of Ireland context. It debated the role of local authorities, HSCA, NAMA, housing associations, private developers and other actors in addressing present issues and creating a more sustainable system of development that serves public and private interests. Attended by over 30 people, this event created a space in which key stakeholder agencies were provided with the opportunity to share and learn from each other.

Presenters on the day were as follows:

Prof. Brendan Gleeson, Deputy Director, NIRSA, NUI Maynooth & Formerly, Director – Urban Research Program, Griffith University, Brisbane

Kevin Maguire, Social Housing Developer & Associate, Institute for International Urban Development, Cambridge, Mass.

John O’Connor, Chief Executive, Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency

Alice Charles, Associate Director, Colin Buchanan

Ms. Kathleen McKillion, Head of Development & Mr. Gene Clayton, President, Irish Council for Social Housing

You can download the presentations in .pdf format from the All-Island Research Observatory (AIRO) website, click here for access

While running for the train this morning I grabbed a copy of Metro Herald from the vendor outside the station.  Unsurprisingly, a picture of Queen Elizabeth adorned the front page, smiling benignly and holding flowers as she met with Trinity students yesterday.  The accompanying article described the visit as an “extraordinary occasion”, while also giving more marginal coverage to a range of protests that marked the day.  Inside, another article titled “Forget history, we’re here for the fashion” suggested that for many people the dresses worn by Mary McAlese and the Queen would form greater interest than any political or historical concerns.  On the letters page, the subject of the Queen’s visit was again raised by a disgruntled reader proclaiming their “boredom” with the “negative comments” surrounding the visit.  He suggested that “Now is the time to show that we’ve moved on and don’t hold petty grudges”.

While personally I do not find the protests by Sinn Féin and other republican groups especially constructive, and I certainly do not sympathise with the calls for violence espoused by some dissident groups, taking issue with the long history and the sustained impacts of British rule in Ireland hardly amounts to a “petty grudge”.  I bring up this letter not because it is particularly insightful, but rather because it offers an example of what appears to be a relatively commonplace response to the British monarch’s visit; that is, the perspective that Ireland’s colonial past no longer matters, that we have overcome this heritage and that, in the context of contemporary globalisation and cosmopolitanism, suggesting otherwise amounts to an exercise in a futile and dangerous anachronism.  This attitude is arguably an outcome of the transformations experienced during the Celtic Tiger period.  The rapid changes to Ireland from the early 1990s seem to have brought with them a cultural amnesia, wherein Irish people forgot the nation’s troubled history and position within the political geography of Europe, in favour of an assumed identity as cosmopolitan citizens of a post-political age.

However, the inescapable fact remains that Ireland is a postcolonial nation.  And as the post-colonial studies literature shows us, the affects of colonial rule do not suddenly cease upon the moment of emancipation.

Because of its geographical position, on the periphery of Europe but nevertheless within the area political designated as European, Ireland has occupied a particular (in many ways privileged) postcolonial position.  Its geographical proximity to Europe and its cultural proximity to the US, its racial composition, and especially its access to the EU, have afforded Ireland opportunities for economic and structural advancement not offered to other former colonies.  In many ways, it could be argued that Ireland’s position as a postcolonial nation within Europe mitigated some of the more trenchant outcomes of imperialism.  It has not been the target of economically and politically neo-colonialist interventions (at least up until the recent IMF bailout).  Postcolonial nations have frequently struggled to build any sort of functional state apparatus or economy.  In regard to nations in Africa, for example, Simone (2004, p. 158) suggests that “Even though urban wages increased substantially in the postwar period – at an average of 116 percent increase between 1949 and 1955 – top wage levels for Africans in 1962 fell well below the bottom wage for Europeans.  There was just not enough money to support a massive project of resocialization”.  Only a small proportion of the populations in modern African nations are employed in the formal economy, while the informal sector has become increasingly important to the survival of many inhabitants.  Similarly, the public sector has never recovered from the decimation left in the wake of the colonial powers leaving.  While Ireland certainly experienced poverty in the postwar period, it didn’t experience economic and social problems anywhere near the scale of those experienced in Africa or Latin America.  Moreover, the Celtic Tiger ‘economic miracle’ saw dramatic increases in GDP, wage levels, and standards of living.  This was seen as evidence of Ireland’s escape from its postcolonial status, to be replaced by an identity as a global economic leader.  Furthermore, the case of Ireland was used as a vehicle to hide the unequal nature of economic development, by suggesting that the Celtic Tiger offered an example of the benefits of a country opening itself up to the global market, and thus perpetuating a view that these markets offered an equal playing field.

One of the outcomes of the prevalence of free-market ideology over the last number of decades has been a disavowal of the role that history and geography play in contemporary economic, social and political contexts.  Some of the popular reactions to the Queen’s visit to Ireland exemplify this perspective.  While to an extent the deep ambivalence that the visit represents is being acknowledged and it is being seen as of ‘historic importance’, there is a latent underlying narrative constructing this as a straightforward diplomatic mission.  This is achieved in large part by consigning British imperialism in Ireland to the category of ‘history’, something to be read about and studied but which bears little relation to realities as they currently stand.  Part of her itinerary thus involves a series of ceremonial functions that symbolically gesture towards a reappraisal of British involvement in Ireland, but do so only opaquely and without formal apology for political violence and injustice that were the outcome of this involvement.  Therefore, this history is both remembered and forgotten, remembered only briefly to be forgotten, forgotten for us to remember that as a nation we are now somewhere else, somewhere where this uncomfortable history can be comfortably remembered and forgotten.

But this imagination of the nation elides not only a whole section of Ireland’s past, but crucial ways of understanding its present.  As protests organised yesterday by the Socialist Party pointed out, British imperialism did not end at the close of the colonialism era, but is ongoing in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq in the form of direct involvement in conflict, and in complex neo-colonial relationships with their former colonies.  As Edward Said (1994, p.8) suggests, “…direct colonialism has largely ended; imperialism… lingers where it has always been, in a kind of general cultural sphere as well as in specific political, ideological, economic, and social practices”.  The project of colonialism and the residual effects of imperialism have formed a colossal global project that continues to shape the world we live in.  Ireland is no exception in this regard.  Apart from the very obvious problems stemming from the political situation in the north, the Republic of Ireland on account of its colonial status started its independent march towards modernity with an economic and administrational deficit.  The apparatus of governance and public administration that had been built up in other European nations were largely missing from the Free State inherited by the Irish people, and the nation has had to contend with a series of rapid transformations from this stunted base.  This has had, and continues to have, significant implications for the Irish state’s ability to function.  Mac Laughlin (1997, p. 3) argues that the country’s social problems stem from “…the fact that Ireland has become a postmodern society before becoming a modern nation”.

Far from effacing and erasing these challenges, the Celtic Tiger period exemplified their continued applicability.  Faced with its postcolonial deficit – the weakness of its political system, the paucity of state-owned and indigenous industry, the high levels of out-migration – the state turned to the unsustainable policy of trying to attract foreign direct investment as a way of growing the economy.  While, owing to a range of factors, this strategy was successful for a time, it still bespoke the limited mechanisms of the postcolonial state.  These limited mechanisms were also mirrored in the levels of political cronyism and corruption that mired the property boom that was to follow.  Of course, Ireland’s current economic crisis cannot be blamed entirely on its status as postcolonial.  Much of the current problems faced by the country are very clearly the outcome of incompetence, greed, and under-regulation by Irish banks, politicians, and developers.  However, rather than being tangential to these processes, the legacy of colonialism plays a key role in Celtic Tiger Ireland and its catastrophic aftermath.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the IMF/ECB bailout.  Here Ireland draws closer to its spiritual neighbours on the postcolony than perhaps ever before.   If Morgan Kelly’s apocalyptic warnings are anything to go by, Ireland could already be locked into a system of perpetual debt.  In this regard, its status as a postcolonial nation may have increasing significance.  So as the Queen visits these shores, rather than drawing divisions between those who have ‘moved on’ and those ‘living in the past’, perhaps we should be asking what this past really means for our present.

Cian O’ Callaghan

In its research on inter-jurisdictional and cross-border planning, the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) has shown how one of the first entry points to developing cooperation is providing information and shared evidence on common issues such as housing, trade, environment, transport and services. The process of collection, joint analysis, reports and forums can help to build an agenda for action around common interests and challenges. Today, one of the major challenges within the Irish economy and society (North and South) relates to issues within the housing market. ICLRD and the All-Island Research Observatory (AIRO), see here for previous post on AIRO, have developed an interactive mapping and querying tool for housing market indicators combining data from both Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland. By facilitating access to comparable statistics, the Island of Ireland Housing Monitoring Tool can be a key step towards addressing common difficulties in the housing sector. This on-line housing atlas is one of three spatial data indicators projects undertaken by AIRO under ICLRD’s Cross-border Spatial Planning and Training Network (CroSPlaN).

Background

During the Celtic Tiger ‘boom’ the Republic of Ireland experienced a phenomenal growth in property construction and house prices. The subsequent ‘bust’ has lead to a radical transformation within the housing market with tumbling house prices, widespread negative equity, almost a total collapse of the construction industry, a legacy of excessive residential zoning and the introduction of the new phenomenon of ‘ghost estates’ to every county in the Republic (“A Haunted Landscape: Housing and Ghost Estates in Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.” Kitchin et al., 2010).

In Northern Ireland a parallel picture has emerged. Economic buoyancy gave rise to a more dynamic housing market than in previous decades, but without the same dramatic increases in prices as experienced in the Republic of Ireland. The combination of a less dynamic employment base than in the Republic of Ireland, higher rates of long-term unemployment and lower average wages results in a different but equally complex housing market, and has knock-on effects for the planning authorities involved in the provision of housing, in particular the Planning Service and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE). Although house prices never rose to the same extent as those in the Republic of Ireland, the economic downturn continues to have a negative impact on affordability and first-time buyer access (NIHE, 2009).

The impact of these new housing market challenges on cross-border planning was explored in detail during the second session of the ICLRD Sixth Annual Conference in January 2011. Speaker presentations and audio files are available for download here.

Island of Ireland Indicators

As Governments and Planning Departments continue to develop strategies for the recovery and future development of Ireland, there is an urgent requirement to establish a baseline of accurate indicators for key sectors such as economy, environment, transport, the social sector and housing amongst others. A variety of datasets and indicators are currently readily available and partially serve the needs of both jurisdictions on an individual basis. However, there is still a pressing need to establish a series of ‘all-island’ indicators to inform and steer the growth of the ‘all-island’ economy.

In an attempt to address this challenge, ICLRD is developing a series of such indicators and currently focussing on the development of the first ‘all-island’ housing indicators set to feed into what will become known as the ‘All-Island Housing Monitoring Tool’. The key focus of these indicators, which it is hoped will also become part of an annual housing report, will be aimed at providing an accurate and comparable evidence base that will be used for collaborative planning for homes and people and for addressing new challenges and agendas within the housing sector.

The current ‘all-island’ indicator set contains data on a variety of themes that describe the characteristics of the housing sector on the island. Indicators are available at the Local Authority ‘District’ level (26) in Northern Ireland and at the Local Authority ‘County/City’ level (34) in the Republic of Ireland. Data for the indicators have been sourced from a number of different organisations in both jurisdictions. The primary source of housing information in Northern Ireland is the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE). Much of this data is available in annual reports and briefing papers and also available through the Northern Ireland Neighbourhood Information Service (NINIS) website. In the Republic of Ireland, housing data are generally available through two inter-linked organisations: the Housing Department within the Department for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (DEHLG) and the Central Statistics Office (CSO). To date, the housing indicators project has developed the following comparable ‘all-island’ themes:

Housing Stock 1991 to 2009

  • Total Housing Stock (1991, 1996, 2002, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009)
  • % Housing Stock Change (1991 to 2009)
  • Total Stock per 1000 population (2002, 2006)

Housing Completions

  • Total Housing Completions (post 2004)
  • % Change in Total Completions (post 2004)
  • Total Completions per 1000 population (post 2004)

Housing Vacancy

  • Vacant Dwellings 1991 to 2006 (Ex. Holiday Homes)
  • Vacancy Rate 1991 to 2006 (Ex. Holiday Homes)
  • Vacancy Rate per 1000 population

Housing Tenure

  • Total Owner Occupied
  • % Owner Occupied
  • Total Social Housing
  • Total Rented Privately
  • % Rented Privately

Housing Type

  • Total Conventional Housing
  • % Conventional Housing
  • Total Flats and Apartments
  • % Flats and Apartments

Online Mapping Tool

In order to make the housing indicators as interactive and accessible as possible the AIRO project team developed an on-line mapping tool to display the results. Users of this tool can now view the housing themes, explore patterns, monitor key indicators, present trends and importantly support decision making. Users can also query data and create user defined mapped outputs.

The ‘All-Island Housing Monitoring Tool’ is currently available (beta version) for use on the All-Island Research Observatory (AIRO) website. Users of the site must initially register to gain access to the mapping tools. The site is intended to inform planning, policy and research and therefore registration is open only to members of public bodies.

This housing atlas is one of three spatial data indicators projects undertaken by AIRO under ICLRD’s Cross-border Spatial Planning and Training Network (CroSPlaN). The two other projects, both on-going, include: the establishment of an all-island index of deprivation and an index of Accessibility. It is funded under INTERREG IVA, administered by the Special EU Programmes Body, and is part of a larger initiative managed by the Centre for Cross Border Studies–the Ireland Northern Ireland Cross-Border Cooperation Observatory (‘INICCO’). This three-year programme promotes the development of a cross-border planning network by enhancing and promoting the opportunities that exist for collaboration and addressing identified areas of need.

See www.airo.ie MappingModules/Housing/All Island Housing Monitoring Tool

Justin Gleeson & ICLRD

Last Friday, John O’Connor, the Chairperson of An Bord Pleanala,  gave the closing address at the Irish Planning Institute’s conference in Galway.  The speech received some coverage in the Irish media over the weekend (see Irish Times, RTE), although it was trumped by Morgan Kelly’s latest proclamation setting out why Ireland is heading for further woes.

The full speech is available on the An Bord Pleanala’s website, along with the powerpoint slides.  As noted in the media reports, the speech was a frank assessment of the work of An Bord Pleanala and the planning system during his tenure.  Here are some highlights.

Laissez-faire approach to planning

There is a theory that there is an element of chaos in the Irish character that makes us sceptical of regulation or planning.  “Rules are there to be broken if you can get away with it”.  This may account for some of our very serious failings over the past decade.  It may also explain why the Irish body politic has been reluctant to embrace fully real spatial or land-use planning.  This would mean drawing up and agreeing visions for physical development at the national, regional and local levels, involving difficult choices based on objective criteria for the public good and then insisting on adherence to these plans.  Unlike other countries, even when statutory planning documents are adopted a laisser-faire approach often prevails and many vested interests – landowners and developers – see plans as something that can be got round or changed.

On local authority decision making

For the future, it would greatly increase the public credibility of the planning system if local authorities were seen to vindicate their own development plans in their decisions on planning applications.  Far too often, the Board find itself refusing permission for developments permitted locally on grounds of contravention of the development plan.  In some cases, one can see the pressure being brought on local decision makers to grant permission even if it conflicts with the development plan.  But these decisions breed scepticism and frustration on the part of the general public.  After all, the courts have pronounced the development plan to be a contract with the community and the local authority itself – not An Bord Pleanála – should be seen as its strongest defender.

On one-off housing

“Over the years, the issue of rural housing has always figured prominently in my discourses with successive Oireachtas Committees on the Environment.  While only a small proportion of one-off housing applications come before the Board on appeal, it became clear to me, early on, that there was a need for national planning guidance because of the widely varying and often internally inconsistent, not to say lax, approaches being taken by county councils around the country.  I publicly called for National Guidelines and these were introduced in draft form in 2004.  While the Guidelines have brought more consistency and objectivity to the issue, the proportion of local authority decisions reversed by the Board on rural house appeals is higher than the general run of appeals.  It is evident from the Board’s perspective that councils are taking widely different approaches in interpreting and applying the Guidelines.  One can observe cases of undue pressure being brought on planners to recommend permissions.  There is often a lack of transparency in decision making that can lead to huge frustration on the part of third parties and other applicants who are refused permission.”

Land zoning

The greatest failures in Irish planning and the issue that has brought the system most into disrepute revolve around the zoning of land.  The zoning of land for appropriate and sustainable uses is at the heart of planning and if this departs from proper principles the whole system is in difficulty and this extends to the property and land market and the construction industry.  At the publication of the Board’s 2008 Annual Report, I said that the excessive and unsustainable zoning of land had been a contributor to the property bubble and its aftermath and that if we were to return to realistic development planning some of this zoning would have to be reversed.  For this reason I welcomed the provisions set out in the 2010 Act which introduce the idea of a core strategy for the development of each development plan area that respects the national and regional contexts.  A more sustainable, coherent, evidence-based and objective approach to zoning will avoid a repeat of the disorderly sprawl of inefficient and wasteful development and restore credibility to the planning system as a whole.  It will also lead to less lobbying by vested interests, better planning decisions and probably less need for appeals to the Board.  We also need to avoid a repeat of the situation where perfectly good established business and community uses were displaced by more “profitable” new development.

Developers and Banks

I find it extraordinary that huge decisions about land purchase were made by developers without any apparent input from planners and, even worse, vast sums of money were lent by banks to facilitate development projects without any apparent planning advice.

Landscape

Landscape is a case in point and I do not believe that the planning system has done enough to protect the unique Irish landscape, which is a cultural, environmental and economic asset of inestimable value: once destroyed, it cannot be restored.  Can we continue to build one-off houses all over the landscape in the quantity and of the type we’ve seen over recent years?  In our drive for renewable energy are we striking the right balance between wind farms and the landscape?  We have noted how the scatter of houses throughout the countryside has forced essential infrastructure, such as power-lines, into more sensitive landscapes.

Regrets

While we did refuse permission for many developments we regarded as unacceptable, my greatest regret is that the Board did not take a stronger stand against residential developments that were based on bad zoning, remotely located and of poor design quality.  I did realise at the time that some of the developments coming before the Board, particularly residential schemes, were questionable and indeed at publication of various annual reports I referred to concerns about the poor standard of some of the developments in tax incentive areas, the appropriateness of the suburban type schemes being attached to towns and villages around the country and to the sustainability of the zoning policies of many local authorities.  However, the Board often found itself in a difficult position because in our planning system if the land is properly zoned in the development plan and serviced there is a presumption in principle that development will be permitted and to refuse could mean local authorities being faced with claims for compensation by landowners.  While it is a fact that the Board did refuse many schemes that fell short of adequate planning or design standards, often in the teeth of local and media criticism, it did permit some which with hindsight it might have refused.  Here I’m referring to schemes that although fully zoned and serviced were too large for the town or too remote from services and to poorly located and designed apartment developments.  Perhaps a few shopping developments that were too large or too remote from town/city centres got through.  In the early days of wind farm developments in bogs I think the Board may have underestimated the risks of peat-slides but in latter times assessment of these risks has become much more rigorous.

Economic recovery

Economic recovery will require us all to become more efficient in the use of resources in order to increase competitiveness and get a greater return from the severely diminished level of resources we have.  Planning has a vital part to play in ensuring the most efficient use of existing infrastructure and that new infrastructure is provided in the most effective and efficient manner possible.  This will require that development be directed to places where infrastructure already exists or can be efficiently expanded.  This principle should apply whether the infrastructure is provided by public bodies or private companies.  The future operational costs of infrastructure e.g. the long term costs of pumping water services should also be factored in.  The need to maximise the return from public investment in infrastructure must be factored into the current debate in relation to densities and in particular residential densities.  Current difficulties should not dictate a return to an unsustainable spread of low density development.

Property tax

I would also like to think that, in the future, planning would be better integrated with other policy areas.  Taxation and fiscal policies should support the kind of good planning I’ve been talking about.  This is why I’ve been advocating a land value tax for some time.  The Celtic Tiger era clearly indicated that the demand for property and in particular residential property was determined more by financial considerations than by population projections or demographics.  The land use planning system cannot determine or control that demand in a free market economy.  It is essential if we are to avoid a recurrence of the boom/bust cycle that demand is not artificially inflated by financial incentives and considerations.

Housing policy

Commonsense alone would dictate that local authority Housing Strategies should be fairly radically revised to take account of the utterly changed housing market and socio-economic conditions.

Reform of Planning Authorities

In An Bord Pleanála we have a good overview of the operation of the planning system across all of the 88 local planning authorities.  In the context of public sector reform, it has become clear to me that, while acknowledging the need to retain their local democratic character, many of these authorities have administrative areas that are much too small and fractured to constitute meaningful planning units in terms, for example, of efficient infrastructure provision, the strategic location of future development or the management of water catchments.  Equally, they cannot be expected to have at their ready disposal the full range of skills and experience demanded by a modern planning service which must operate under an increasingly complex body of planning and environmental legislation.  For these reasons I welcomed the recent report of the Local Government Efficiency Review Group in relation to the structures and management of local planning administration in Ireland.  They provide the opportunity for a more rationally structured and better skilled and managed planning service which would be able to offer the best planning advice and provide the analysis and assessments of projects that are required of a modern planning service governed by increasingly complex and extensive legislation.

On planners

While the planning system in this country has had its problems, I think that, overall, the planning profession has served the country well.  Many of the development plans and local area plans are written to a very high standard and good work by planners has resulted in excellent outcomes in terms of urban renewal, urban design, streetscape improvements, high quality industrial parks and the more integrated approach to development of new areas as typified by the SDZs.  However, I still think the influence of the planning profession within local authorities has been less than it should have been.  For example, why did so few planners secure the key Director of Services positions in the Better Local Government reforms?  On the face of it, planners should be well grounded by their training to aspire to policy development and management positions (e.g. to take the wider longer term view, to synthesise different elements, to focus on outcomes, etc.).  I think that the IPI should give some thought to this issue because it is by entering some of the more senior positions that planners will achieve the level of influence that they should have in local government as a whole and consequently on the quality of development.  Generally speaking, although there have been some notable exceptions, the planning profession has been less assertive in responding to situations where the principles of sustainable development need to be defended or promoted, than other professions have been when their core values are under threat.

The choice of location for major projects – whether public or private sector – should have a much stronger planning input.  Planners should be part of the site selection process – and not seen as people to be brought in to make the planning application afterwards.

There is plenty there for the IPI, planners, and local and national government to reflect on and respond to.

Rob Kitchin

At the first day of the Irish Planning Institute’s annual conference, Minister of State for Housing and Planning Willie Penrose has given some indication of what is coming down the tracks in terms of planning and housing policy and a bit more information concerning unfinished estates and land dezoning.  I’m not attending the conference, so this post is based on the reports in the Irish Times and Independent.

The Minister revealed that NAMA only has the loan book of about 10 per cent of about 150 of the worst unfinished estates that pose health and safety risks.  I’m not sure quite what has happened in the last couple of months, but it was previously reported by the Advisory Group on Unfinished Housing Developments that there were 348 estates where vacancy is over 50% that pose significant health and safety risks.  Somehow 200 estates seem to have been taken off the health and safety risk list, although it is highly unlikely there is any significant change on the ground.  Regardless, the point is that NAMA actually has influence with respect to a relatively small number of estates.  Rather, the vast majority of unfinished estates requiring substantial work were financed by foreign-owned banks operating in Ireland.  If the developer has gone bust and defaulted, then these estates are owned by those banks and the liabilities with respect to health and safety rests with them.  It’ll be interesting to see how they respond to these liabilities and the obligations they impose and complete works or make sites safe.

The Minister revealed about 28 per cent of the loans at Nama relate to land and development, about 16 per cent are in the Dublin area.  I’m not quite sure what this really means.  Dublin area is quite vague – is this the four counties, the metropolitan region or the commuting footprint or some other area? Is the Dublin portion 16 percent of NAMA loans or 16 percent of all land (ie 4.5% of all loans)?  Is the 16 percent land value or land size?  Certainly the vast majority of zoned land in the country is outside of Dublin.  Presumably much of this land has also been financed by foreign-owned banks operating in Ireland.  Either way, land values have dropped substantially in value – 75-95%, especially if it was bought at zoned prices and it has been dezoned.  If NAMA has overpaid for land, then this will be one part of their loan book that will underperform.  Saying that, the NAMA land, along with the DEHLG land aggregation scheme, represent a real opportunity for Ireland to take a long term strategic approach to spatial planning underpinned by a landbank controlled by the state.  Over the long term, if this approach is taken, the state will massively benefit in both planning and financial terms.

In terms of dezoning, 12 of the State’s 34 local authorities have so far made changes to their development plans which has led to thousands of sites being reclassified as either surplus to present planning need or unsuitable for development.  The remaining local authorities will have dezoned land by October.

There will be a national co-ordination group established to oversee action by local authorities in dealing with the most problematic unfinished housing developments.  The report of the Advisory Group on Unfinished Housing Developments will be published in the next week or so.

He stated that the planning system should be “focusing demand in a way that will rekindle market interest in stalled developments”.  I’d be very interested to see the detail as to how it is envisaged this should happen.

He reaffirmed the commitment to the core strategy approach and evidence-based requirements to planning as set out in the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010.

He also stated: “We are refocusing on revitalising our city and town centres, moving against the tendency of the Celtic Tiger era to envisage extensive, even sprawling extensions of our cities and towns, drawing the lifeblood out of older, established central urban areas.”  Again it will be very interesting to see the detail in terms of such revitalisation.  The rhetoric might be good, but it is the substance that matters.

Rob Kitchin

Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly at the launch of her annual report yesterday argued that:

“Members of the public, who ultimately shoulder the burden of this country’s debt . . . have a right to have all information at their disposal to analyse in an informed manner, the decisions which had, and will continue to have, such a profound effect on their lives.”

She notes a growing trend for public bodies to be removed from the FOI process and demanded it be extended to every public body.

Given that it is taxpayers money that is being used to fund public bodies and generate the data and decisions in the first place, it seems to me that an extremely compelling reason is needed to keep data and information from the public domain.  Often the reasons given are spurious and a smokescreen, such as that of commercial sensitivity used by NAMA.  Whilst there may well be some limited data that would affect the ability of NAMA to operate effectively, to shroud the whole organisation behind such excuses is lamentable.  The same for the Central Bank, NTMA, the Financial Services Authority, and other bodies.

Our AIRO project has been working to persuade state agencies to make their data sets available and to allow us to put their data in the public domain in map and statistical form.   Presently we have around 150 interactive mapping modules online for different geographies (regions, counties, constituencies, local partnerships) including modules concerning housing, unfinished estates, commuting, social deprivation, the live register, crime, all the census data, etc.  The restriction is that the data cannot be used for commercial gain due to data license issues (which is why it requires a login username and password).

There is a massive amount of very useful data locked inside of public bodies that is either not analyzed at all, including by the agency that holds it, or is severly under-analyzed.  We need to gain access to this data both to be able to hold public bodies to account, but just as importantly to undertake evidence-informed analysis and decision making.  My hope is that the government listens and responds constructively to Emily O’Reilly’s plea, and doesn’t try to come up with all kinds of spurious and bogus reasons to dismiss or ignore her argument.

Rob Kitchin

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