February 2012

Yesterday bought the tragic news that a two year old boy had died on an unfinished estate near to Athlone.  He had followed his pet dog in through a gap in the fence and drowned in a pool of water.  His family have my deepest sympathy and condolences.

The death is likely to focus attention back onto unfinished estates and what is happening with respect to them.  Minister Hogan has already asked Westmeath County Council for a report on the estate in question.  Our working paper, which sets out the issue in detail can be found here.

Unfinished estates have been posing problems since the start of the crash and building work largely stopped on developments.  The Department of Environment survey in 2011 revealed there were 2,876 unfinished estates in the county.  2,066 have outstanding development work.  1,822 of these have no development activity occurring.

Problems facing estates include incomplete development work, security, health and safety, antisocial behaviour, lack of finance to address issues, lack of sense of place/community, planning and building reg compliance, and negative equity.

We are five years in since the start of the crash and two years on since the announcement by Minister Finneran of the setting up of the unfinished estates advisory board by the Dept of Environment.  That Board only reported in June 2011, with Minister Penrose setting out how the government would tackle what was supposedly an urgent issue.  The Manual followed a few months later.

The solution was: (a) a 5 million fund to tackle health and safety issues on the worst of the estates; (b) Site Resolution Plans (SRPs).  SRPs are stakeholder groups that plan how to tackle issues on an estate by estate basis (stakeholders would be Local Authorities, developers, banks, residents, estate management companies, etc).

The fund is not adequate to address the issues facing estates and is principally aimed at tackling significant health and safety concerns in a low cost way (filling in, fencing off, pulling down unsafe structures, etc).  Here, it must be acknowledged that many of the worst estates have been fenced off (as was the case in Athlone), though often vandalism has opened up gaps and on-going repairs are not necessarily as timely as they should be.  Nevertheless, €5m is a paltry sum and for that kind of minimal investment one would have thought that high priority health and safety issues would have been addressed already.

SRPs are non-mandatory and voluntaristic, time frames are suggestive, there are no conflict resolution mechanisms, local authorities are being given no additional resources to manage the process, and the issue of lack of finance and insolvency is ignored.  SRPs are likely to be slow and haphazard. The aim is to have 300 SRPs in place by the end of 2012, which hardly suggests a speedy response given the number of estates with outstanding development work (a handful per local authority).

Basically, there has been an inadequate response to the issue.  The fund is too small and SRPs are a limited effort, minimal cost approach to unfinished estates that tries to use existing legislation to resolve issues (but largely avoids court cases).  It gives the impression of policy-at-work, but to a large degree pushes the problem down the road to be corrected at a later date by the market.  In the meantime, estates wither on the vine and residents live with the consequences of worst features of the housing bust.

We are long past the point of needing a proper policy to deal with the issue of unfinished estates, one that is backed by finance and stronger powers to local authorities to compel developers/banks to complete works.  A one-off report concerning the estate in question might suggest that action is being taken, but it simply delays further any real change to how unfinished estates are being addressed by the state.

This is an issue that has been for too long kicked down the road; it’s time for a more proactive, muscular strategy.  €5m is 0.16% of the €3bn we’re about to pay back in Anglo promissory notes.  It’s a paltry sum in the grand scheme of things and the people living on them or near them deserve better.

Rob Kitchin

An Bord Pleanala released their decision on the proposed Children’s Hospital on the Mater site this morning.  It refused the planning permission on the grounds that development was out of scale with the site, did not comply with Dublin City Development Plan, and would be contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.  Here’s the full verdict:

The proposed Children’s Hospital of Ireland, by its nature, requires a substantial floor area, in excess of 100,000 square metres, to accommodate the operational needs of the hospital. However, the footprint afforded to the proposed development on the Mater Campus, (circa 2 hectares), has resulted in a proposal for a very significant building in terms of bulk and height, including a 164 metre long ward block, rising to 74 metres above ground. Notwithstanding the general acceptability of the proposal in terms of medical co-location on this inner city hospital site, it is considered that the proposed development, by reason of its height, scale, form and mass, located on this elevated site, would result in a dominant, visually incongruous structure and would have a profound negative impact on the appearance and visual amenity of the city skyline. The proposed development would contravene policy SC18 of the Dublin City Development Plan, 2011-2017, which seeks to protect and enhance the skyline of the inner city and to ensure that all proposals for mid-rise and taller buildings make a positive contribution to the urban character of the city.

Furthermore, the development as proposed, notwithstanding the quality of the design, would be inconsistent with, and adversely affect, the existing scale and character of the historic city and the established character of the local area and would seriously detract from the setting and character of protected structures, streetscapes and areas of conservation value and, in particular, the vistas of O’Connell Street and North Great George’s Street.

Having regard to the site masterplan for the Mater Campus submitted with this application, it is also considered that the proposed development, as configured, would constitute overdevelopment of the site.

The proposed development would, therefore, be contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.

The fair amount of the reaction to a planning decision on twitter and the news media seems to be one of bemusement, horror and disgust.  ‘Banana-Pleanala’ was one statement I’ve read so far.  I imagine there will be all kinds of outcry in the media throughout the day and massive political pressure will be bought to bare on An Bord Pleanala and the planning system for trying to enforce planning policy and law.

One of the primary reasons that the country is in the mess it is in is because the planning system was not allowed to do its job properly.  It seems to me that planners are damned if they do, and damed if they don’t.  If they enforce the regulations they are roundly criticised, and when they don’t enforce them and some disaster of a place is built they are damned for not stopping it.

Before all the critics wade in and roundly criticise the agency for doing its job, perhaps they could reflect on the fact that it is in fact doing the job it has been appointed to do by the state, and maybe the problem lies with the original decision about where to locate the hospital in the first place rather than the planning system.  Moreover, ABP has not said there shouldn’t be a children’s hospital in Dublin, but that if it should proceed on the proposed site and cannot retain its present proposed scale of development.

Ultimately, the bottom line in this decision is that 100,000 square meters of hospital development was going to be put on a two hectare site.  That’s the equivalent of 30 Liberty Halls on a the size of two football pitches.  In a dense urban area that already has traffic and parking issues.  If you think that is an acceptable scale of development, constitutes good planning, would be good for the citizens of Ireland, and want the planning decision overturned, then you’ll get the planning system and hospital service you desire.  Personally, I think we deserve better.

Rob Kitchin

Anyone interested in the effects of the crisis on households who are struggling to pay their mortgages should take a look at Michelle Norris and Simon Brooke’s lengthy report for MABS on the issue – Lifting the load: Help for people with mortgage arrears.  The report is based on desk research with respect to government and industry data and policy responses, and interviews conducted with 49 MABS clients (in 43 households, in nine MABS offices across the country).  Divided into six sections the report details the study parameters, provides a general overview of the housing bubble and bust, details pathways into and through arrears from the perspective of households, and looks at prospective pathways out of arrears.  The study gives a fascinating insight into how households became indebted (mortgages and other credit) and how they are trying to negotiate their various debts, including dealing with mortgage arrears.  The report concludes by noting that ‘the costs to the State of putting in place appropriate measures to tackle the issue of mortgage arrears will be less than the costs of not doing so’, and it makes a number of recommendations with respect to changes in policy interventions.

Rob Kitchin

It is twenty years ago this year that the much overused slogan ‘Sustainable Development’ first entered into the vocabulary of popular discourse at the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil. Since then, under the increasing weight of evidence of anthropogenic climate change, the degradation of an estimated 60% of the world’s ecosystems and ‘Peak Oil’, environmental policies have gradually moved centre stage of political, and even sometimes corporate, agendas. Later this year the United Nations ‘RIO +20’ conference will be held to mark the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit. The objective of the conference is to secure renewed international political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress to date and identify the remaining gaps in the implementation of sustainable development policies. As part of Ireland’s contribution to ‘RIO +20’ the Government has published a new draft sustainable development strategy document – ‘A Framework for Sustainable Development’.

The 1992 Earth Summit committed the signatories to the declaration to implement a comprehensive programme of actions towards achieving more sustainable patterns of development during the 21st Century and beyond. Ireland’s first attempt at articulating such a programme was published in the 1997 document – ‘Sustainable Development – A Strategy for Ireland’. Looking back at it now fifteen years after its publication this was a remarkably prescient document for its day containing simple concise language and clear objectives. Unfortunately, like so much of Ireland’s policy implementation, it was routinely ignored in the ensuing chaos of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ bubble. One simple objective of the original strategy stands out as having had the potential to significantly mitigate the resulting economic crisis and Ireland’s generally dismal environmental record – ‘No State funding will be provided for infrastructure in the event of overzoning’(pg 13). In the subsequent years Councils across the country embarked with impunity on a zoning frenzy with more than 44,000 hectares of land zoned for housing alone – at least 32,000 hectares more than was actually needed – without any sanction from Government. Regular readers of this blog will need no reminding of the current consequences of this particular period in Irish history.

In contrast to the original strategy, the Government’s new Draft ‘A Framework for Sustainable Development’ document is full of impenetrable, tedious and bureaucratic language. The strategy seeks to extend sustainable development policies in to almost every facet of public life including:

  • Sustainability of public finances and economic resilience
  • Sustainable consumption and production
  • Conservation and management of natural resources
  • Climate change and clean energy
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Sustainable transport
  • Social inclusion, sustainable communities and spatial planning
  • Public health
  • Education, communication and behaviour change
  • Innovation, research and development
  • Skills and training
  • Global poverty and sustainable development

In many ways this is symptomatic of the steady mainstreaming of the sustainability agenda over the past twenty years. If there is one way to render a strategy innocuous is to expand its meaning to include absolutely everything. From the original relatively clear notion of environmental sustainability, today we have social sustainability, political sustainability, community sustainability, cultural sustainability, economic sustainability etc. These have been supplemented by newer popular concepts such as ‘Sustainable Growth’, ‘Smart Growth’, ‘Green Growth’ and even catch-all slogans like the new EU mantra, ‘Smart, Sustainable and Inclusive Growth’. While providing the veneer of progressive environmental and social responsibility, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the true purpose is a deliberate attempt to wash-out more radical questioning of the compatibility between the current ‘business as usual’ economic model of consumer capitalism and infinite economic growth (which remains non-negotiable), and ecological sustainability.

The new Draft Strategy clearly spells out the fundamental nature of the challenges – the world is facing into an uncertain future with peak oil, high energy prices, ecosystem degradation and a changing climate. A systematic approach to managing this risk will be needed if we are to maintain our future prosperity and way of life. Despite this the Draft Strategy continues to proffer the myth that it is widely accepted that economic growth, social cohesion and environmental protection are intimately linked through win-win strategies and that the use of natural resources can be successfully decoupled from economic growth, i.e. that we can have our cake and eat it.

In the face of the urgency of the global challenges facing humanity, so long as we continue to design policies in which ecological sustainability is firmly subordinated to the imperative of economic growth (in whatever hue) and enhancing competiveness, we will be doing little more than ‘sustaining the unsustainable’.

Public submissions on the Draft ‘A Framework for Sustainable Development’ Strategy are currently being invited by the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government before Wednesday 29th of February 2012.

Details of the Draft Strategy and how to make a submission are available here.

Gavin Daly

Just published: NIRSA Working Paper 67 – Unfinished Estates in Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland by Rob Kitchin, Cian O’Callaghan and Justin Gleeson.


In the wake of the global financial crisis, and the ongoing financial and fiscal crisis in Europe, much attention has focused on Ireland and its beleaguered economy given its status as one of the PIIGS and the fact that it had to be bailed out by the troika of the IMF, EU and ECB in November 2010.  Whilst much of the gaze has been directed at Ireland’s banks and the strategy of the Irish government to manage the crisis, a substantial amount of interest, both nationally and internationally, has been focused on the property sector and in particular the phenomenon of so-called ‘ghost estates’ (or in official terms, unfinished estates).  As of October 2011 there were 2,846 such estates in Ireland and they have come to visibly symbolise the collapse of Ireland’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy.  In this paper, we examine the unfinished estates phenomenon, placing them within the context of Ireland’s property boom during the Celtic Tiger years.  We detail the characteristics and geography of such estates, the various problems afflicting the estates and their residents, and the Irish government’s response to addressing those problems. In the final section we speculate as to the fate of such estates given the approach adopted and the wider political and economic landscape.

Full paper is here.


Back in January 2011 the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) released a study entitled ‘Future Housing Supply in Ireland’.  The press release is here, though the report itself has disappeared from open access on the CIF website.  IAN posted on the report on Feb 2nd 2011.  In their report the CIF argued that “Nationally, there appears to be less than one year’s supply“.  The CIF list a number of local authorities who would run out of housing in 6 months (Limerick City was predicted to run out a little after a month) and a dozen more that would run out within the year.  Nowhere was estimated to have more than four years supply.  To quote from our piece decribing the CIF claims from last year:

In particular, Limerick City, Wicklow, Kildare, Limerick County, Cork City, Waterford City, Greater Cork, Kerry, Galway City, South Dublin all have less than 6 months supply.  Meath, Clare, North Tipp, Fingal, Cork County, Mayo, Dublin City, DLR, Galway County, Westmeath, South Tipp all have less than 12 months supply.   In other words there is an urgent need to start building houses again in a number of places around the country as there is a very real danger of running out of supply in these areas (see Figure 1).” (see below)

We were deeply sceptical about the CIF claims at the time and set out our reasons why.  We were also one of the entities dubbed ‘non-official sources’ in the press release, which basically means independent and therefore with no vested interest – it is up to you whether you view that as a good thing or a bad thing.

So where are we one year on?  Needless to say that no local authority is experiencing an acute shortage of housing units.  In fact, most still have an abundance of vacant stock (see this post and this one) and unfinished estates (see this post and this one).  There has been practically no change on the housing front over the past year, and what change there has been has been concentrated into a few select locales (see this post).  In my view, housing demand is unlikely to change very much over the next one to two years for the reasons detailed in this post.  Demand is mostly likely to come back in the cities and their suburbs first, but might take a long time in some rural areas. Everywhere demand and supply need to be tightened right back up before building starts again.  That means only building at the point where potential buyers are starting to bid against each other for property.  Anything else will keep the market falling or flat.

That’s not to say that we do not need construction, but that it should be concentrated into public infrastructure projects such as green energy, ICT networks, utilities, services such as schools and hospitals, and public transport.  Such infrastructure is a long term investment that will help to attract and support business and help grow the economy.

As I have recently argued at the Irish economics conference in Croke Park: “We need robust housing planning models using demographic and labour market data at fine spatial scales as the foundations to revised development plans before embarking on any new major house building programmes”.  The basis for this has to sound, independent analysis, not the kind of scaremongering and plain wrong analysis forwarded by vested interest groups, that helps nobody including themselves.  The full workings of the models produced and the data used also need to be made available to all citizens, so they can evaluate both the analysis and the resulting planning and development proposals.


CIF housing demand projections, Jan 2011

Rob Kitchin

Image of book cover for Youth policy, civil society and the modern Irish stateReaders of this blog might be interested in the second book published in the new ‘Irish Society’ series, Manchester University Press.

Youth Policy, Civil Society and the Modern Irish State
Fred Powell, Martin Geoghegan, Margaret Scanlon and Katharina Swirak

This book explores the development of youth policy and youth work in Ireland from the mid nineteenth century to the present day. Based on original research, funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS), it looks at the social construction of youth, the emergence of the early youth movements and the nature and scope of contemporary youth work. Key issues include: the shift from mainstream to targeted provision, the professionalisation of the sector and the increased partnership between the state and voluntary sector. A second major theme is the treatment of young people in industrial and reformatory schools, with particular reference to the findings of the Ryan Report on child abuse (2009). This is the only book which combines an exploration of the history and current scope of Irish youth work and youth policy, and which is based on comprehensive original research.



Part 1.  Youth Narratives and Youth Movements
1. The search for an Irish youth narrative: Minor citizens or urban tribe?
2. Remoralising working class youth: Women, religion and morality in 19th and early 20th century Ireland.
3. Constructing imperial man: Uniformed youth movements in Britain and Ireland.
4. Building national identity: Youth movements and nationalism in 20th century Ireland

Part 2.  Youth Policy and Practice
5. The co-production of a service: Active citizenship, youth work and the State
6. Mapping the contemporary youth work landscape: Models, objectives and key issues
7. Negotiating tensions and contradictions in youth crime prevention initiatives in Ireland

Part 3.  Disadvantaged Young People, Institutionalisation and Human Rights: The Ryan Report in Perspective
8. Outcast youth and public policy: institutionalisation, social genetics and charity
9. Child abuse, youth policy and human rights: contextualising theRyan Report.
10. In search of truth and reconciliation: The Ryan Report from the survivors’ perspective.


Fred Powell is Professor of Social Policy and Dean of Social Science at the National University of Ireland, Cork. Martin Geoghegan is a Lecturer at the School of Applied Social Studies, National University of Ireland, Cork. Margaret Scanlon and Katharina Swirak are based at the School of Applied Social Studies, National University of Ireland.

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