January 2013


The latest tranche of Census 2011 results for Northern Ireland were released yesterday. They provide information of demography, identity, health, housing, education, labour markets, and travel and migration at a variety of geographic scales: 18 Assembly Areas, 26 Local Government Areas, 582 electoral wards, 890 Super Output Areas, and 4,537 Small Areas. Data is available for download here and accompanying mapping boundaries here (Great work by NISRA and a good example of open data)

The rich diversity of data released, and its detailed geographic resolution, enables the general public, policy makers, government and business to better understand the people and places of Northern Ireland in 2011, and the trajectories of change over time, and provides a fresh evidence base for formulating new policy and business plans. Indeed, fresh evidence was needed as Census 2001 has been used as a core base for policy formulation right up to this new release, despite it being over a decade old. What the data makes clear is that whilst there is some continuity, there has also been much change with respect to Northern Irish society and economy over the past decade. By mapping the data and undertaking time-series analysis it will be possible to understand the processes shaping different facets of everyday life and to model future scenarios for planning purposes.

To get started on all of this we have developed an interactive mapping tool for the Northern Ireland Output Areas (OA) and selected some interesting variables for Day 1: Population, National Identity, Religion, Qualifications and Unemployment. Have a look at the new mapping tool here

NIMapper

Over the coming weeks we’ll add to this tool and will also start on our new INTERREG funded project (with colleagues at ICLRD) that will allow us to develop a very comprehensive All-Island Census Mapping Atlas that will look at change on the island from 2001 to 2011.

Justin Gleeson

Yesterday, Minister Jan O’Sullivan appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht to outline her Department’s proposals to legislate for the introduction of a Planning Regulator in 2013. The introduction of an Independent Planning Regulator was a key recommendation of the Mahon Tribunal Report published last year. The Tribunal recommended that the Minister for the Environment’s planning policy enforcement powers be transferred to an Independent Planning Regulator who should also be charged with carrying out investigations into systemic problems in the planning system as well as educational and research functions.

The introduction of an independent Planning Regulator, which the Minister has publicly committed to, does not entail a simple ‘bolt-on’ addition to the planning system. It will profoundly alter and transform the entire way in which planning policy has to-date been implemented in Ireland. It is clear from the text of the Minister’s speech that in framing their policy proposals for the forthcoming legislation, the Department is grappling with the many complexities and difficulties at the heart of the problem – that is, that planning is fundamentally a political activity which does not lend itself neatly to simple bureaucratic regulation. In guiding the discussion at the JOC, the Minister posed a series of questions as follows:

  • Should the Minister’s powers be fully transferred to an independent regulator or should the final forward planning decisions remain political in nature (i.e. to be taken by the Minister / Government / Oireachtas) with a regulator providing an independent advisory / supervisory role?
  • If power is to be fully transferred, how can we ensure accountability by an independent regulator?
  • What would be the limits of the regulator’s powers vis-à-vis the planning process and elected members? Is the regulator’s decision final?
  • Should the role of a regulator be confined only to situations where a dispute arises over a plan?
  • What is the most suitable institutional arrangement for delivery on the recommendation (e.g. new authority or some type of recast of existing framework)?
  • If a new authority is to be established how would it interface with the existing institutional framework (planning authorities, regional authorities, An Bord Pleanála)?
  • If existing structures are to be used, what entity could take on the function and how can the new function be taken on without eroding capacity to discharge existing roles or without being detrimental or damaging to well established and publicly accepted independent role’? For example, if the plan-making regulatory function is to reside in an existing body such as An Bord Pleanála, might that affect the other functions of the board creating an inherent tension between making the Board making decisions on forward planning, development plans and local area plans as well as individual planning cases?
  • Is there not a case for the Regulator to be the person who conducts the fundamental assessment of the performance of the planning system, including an assessment of the effectiveness of the Minister, local authorities and so on rather than becoming a super-non accountable national planning body?

Firstly, it is worth commenting on what the Minister did not say in her speech to the JOC, but which is absolutely critical in framing this debate. It is essential that, as also recommended in the Mahon Tribunal Report, both the National Spatial Strategy and National Development Plan be placed on an explicit statutory footing (as is the case in Scotland, for example). The forthcoming legislation should specify that both the NSS and NDP be reviewed in parallel and be subject to Oireachtas approval. The legislation should place a mandatory obligation on government to jointly review both the NSS and NDP at a minimum each and every eight years; outline precisely what is required to be included in both plans (including delivery and implementation); the procedure by which they are to jointly be reviewed; and provide for transparent public involvement in the process i.e. a staged process similar to that required of local authorities in adopting development plans. The placing of the NSS/NDP on a statutory footing will require both plans to be subject to Strategic Environmental Assessment and Habitats Directive Assessment, – including an analysis of alternative future scenarios – and allow for a public and political debate which is desperately needed.

The placing of the NSS/NDP on a statutory footing will ensure that that national planning policy remains a political activity. However, the regulation and oversight of the system should be independent. There has been considerable reform and improvement of the planning system in recent years with the introduction of multi-level and multi-agency oversight. As a result, the scope for local authorities and/or regional planning authorities to deviate from national policy has been considerably reduced. However, the current system whereby the Department reviews, comments and potentially ‘calls – in’ local authority development plans through Section 31 of the Act needs to be replaced with a system of independent oversight. Planning in Ireland is mired in a public perception of corruption, cronyism and political interference and only an independent regulatory authority will suffice in undoing this perception. In doing this, the Department can get on with the important business of plan-making.

Accountability can be ensured by designing the system so as to be fully transparent through, for example, the full application of the Access to Information on the Environment Directive, requirement for the Planning Regulator to attend at Joint Oireachtas Committees as necessary, an open and transparent appointment process for a fixed term, full publication of all reports within mandatory time limits, and strong legal deterrents against lobbying, etc. The decision of the Planning Regulator should be final. This does not imply that the role of the Planning Regulator is designed so as to be inflexible. As is currently the case between, for example, the Department, the National Transport Authority, the Regional Planning Authorities and local authorities, the regulatory system can be designed so as to allow formal interaction with the Planning Regulator to reach consensual solutions where possible. It is accepted that there could be rare occasions whereby the Planning Regulator fails to act or acts inappropriately and a fail-safe mechanism is required. In such situations the Minister must remain ultimately accountable and the power should rest with the Minister to override the decision of the Regulator. Again, the legislation could be crafted such that, in such rare circumstances, a draft order be required to be laid out before each house of the Oireachtas and could only be proceeded with following a resolution approving of the draft has been passed by each house.

It is not appropriate that the proposed Planning Regulator be merged with An Bord Pleanála. In the same way as the Minister is precluded from commenting on any specific planning application and An Bord Pleanála has no role in the forward planning system, there should be a strict separation of powers. The role of the Planning Regulator should be confined to ensuring that national planning policy is correctly implemented and overseeing complaints against planning authorities. This should include complaints on allegations of corruption, improper procedures or systemic problems and undertaking periodic audits of the planning functions of local authorities – but not extending to a role in reviewing a decision on any specific planning application. For example, the Local Government Ombudsman currently has the powers to examine complaints about how local authority staff carry out their everyday executive and administrative activities in relation to the planning system. These include complaints about delays or failing to take action in relation to, for example, planning enforcement matters. These oversight powers should be transferred to the Planning Regulator.

The introduction of the Planning Regulator does not necessitate the creation of another expensive QUANGO. Throughout the ‘Celtic tiger’ period local authorities employed significant numbers of planners and other professionals to deal with the huge volume of planning applications. With the dramatic fall-off in new development proposals and the proposed reforms of local and regional governance structures, there is considerable scope for suitable professional staff to be seconded from elsewhere in the public service. There is also a plethora of agencies with some responsibilities in oversight, such as the Regional Planning Authorities, the National Transport Authority, the Local Government Ombudsman and the Office of Environmental Enforcement. An innovative and rationalised approach to oversight could yield significant savings and the establishment of a more coherent system. For example, the Planning Regulator could be housed as a sub-unit of the Local Government Ombudsman to ensure administrative synergies are maximised.

Finally, a further important recommendation of the Mahon Tribunal Report, also not referred to in the Minister’s speech, was that the Planning Regulator should be mandated to undertake educational and research functions. There is no doubt that heretofore planning education and public/political awareness of the important role of land-use planning in society has been abjectly lacking in Ireland. The abolition of An Foras Forbartha (similar to the Design Council in the UK) in 1988, the abolition of local rates and political cronyism and ineptitude all contributed to this end. The evidence-base for planning has improved dramatically with the development of tools such as MyPlan and AIRO. However, I am not convinced that a regulatory authority is best positioned to undertake planning education and research. It should be the role of the Department, unburdened by oversight responsibilities and with a new and focused national planning mandate, to lead in this important task drawing on the existing capacities within universities and other private and public bodies. For example, could the Housing Agency be reformulated as the ‘Housing & Planning Agency’ to provide a 21st Century An Foras Forbartha?

2013 has the potential to be a landmark year. In the aftermath of the economic collapse, exactly fifty years after the introduction of the first planning acts in 1963, twenty-five years after the short-sighted abolition of An Foras Forbarhta and ten-years after the publication of the NSS, we have a once in a generation opportunity to reform the planning system, rethink the role of national planning for our long-term prosperity and to foster a new consensus in the public and political consciousness as to the value of planning in building a nation for the common good. We shouldn’t waste it.

Gavin Daly

This afternoon sees the start of the “Rankings and the Visibility of Quality Outcomes in the European Higher Education Area” conference in Dublin Castle, part of the events associated with Ireland’s Presidency of the EU.  A good chunk of today’s proceedings focuses on the adoption and roll-out of the EU’s new university ranking exercise, called U-Multirank, which aims to be live by 2014.

Since the initial global university ranking in 2003, there have been a plethora of ranking systems developed, with the big three being the ARWU (Shanghai) ranking, QS ranking, and the Time Higher Ed ranking.  These rankings have become key benchmarks for comparing universities within regions and across the globe, seized upon by some universities for marketing, and the media and government to either promote or denigrate institutions.  They are undoubtedly being used to shape education policy and the allocation of resources and yet they are routinely criticised for being highly flawed in their methodology.

Somewhat ironically, a sector devoted to measurement and science has been evaluated to date by weak science. There are several noted problems with existing rankings.

The rankings use surrogate, proxy measures to assess the things they purport to be measuring, and involve no site visits and peer assessment of outputs (but rather judgements of reputation, alongside indicators such as citation rates).  An example of such proxies include using the number of staff with PhDs as a measure of teaching quality; or the citation rate to judge quality of scholarship.  The relationship in both cases is tangential not synonymous.

The rankings are highly volatile, especially outside the top 20, with universities sliding up and down the rankings by dozens of places on an annual basis.  If the measures were valid and reliable we would expect them to have some stability – after all universities are generally stable entities, and performance and quality of programmes and research do not dramatically alter on a yearly basis.  And on close examination some of the results are just plain nonsense – for example, several of the universities listed in the top 20 institutions for geography programmes in the QS rankings in 2011 do not have a geography department/programme (e.g. Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Chicago, Yale, Princeton, Columbia; note the link automatically redirects to 2012 results for some reason) and other rankings barely correspond to much more thorough assessments such as the UK departments vis-a-vis the UK research assessment exercise (very few geographers would rank Oxford University as being the best department in the UK, let alone the world).  Such nonsense casts doubts on all the results.

The measures do not simply measure performance but also reputation judged by academics. The latter is highly subjective based on opinion (often little informed by experience or on-the-ground knowledge of the relative performance of universities in other country systems) and is skewed by a range of factors such as the size of alumni, resources and heritage (their past reputation as opposed to present; or simply name recognition), and is inflected by wider country reputation.  The sample of academics who return scores is also skewed to certain countries.

Because the measures add weight to data such as citation and research income they favour universities who are technical and scientific in focus, and work against those with large social science or humanities faculties (whose outputs such as books are not captured by citation and require less research funding to do high quality research).  They also favour universities with large endowments and are well resourced.  The citation scores highly skew towards English-Language institutions.

The rankings take no account of the varying national roles or systems of universities, but looks at more global measures.  Universities in these systems are working towards different ends and are in no way failing by not having the same kind of profile as a large, research-orientated university.

None of the ranking standardise by resourcing, so there is no attempt to see who is performing the best with respect to inputs; they simply look at the scale and reputation of outputs and equate these to quality and performance.  This conflation raises some serious questions concerning the ecological fallacy of the studies.

These failings favour certain kinds of institutions in certain places, with the top 100 universities in the three main rankings all dominated by US/UK institutions, particularly those which are science and technology orientated.  There is clearly an Anglo-Saxon, English language bias at work, hence the new EU ranking.  Very few people who work in academia believe that the UK has many more better universities than those in Germany, or France, or the Netherlands, or Sweden, or Japan, or Australia, etc.  Yet only a handful of universities in these countries appear in the 100, and hardly any at all in the top 50.

Whether the U-Multirank system will provide a more valid and robust ranking of universities, time will tell.  The full final report on its feasibility suggests a wider vision and methodology and some concerted attempts to address some of the issues associated with the other rankings.  One thing is certain, rankings will not disappear, as flawed as each of them are, because they serve a useful media and political function.  However, they should be viewed with very healthy scepticism, mindful of the criticisms noted above.

Rob Kitchin

For an interesting set of blog posts and links to media stories re. university rankings see these collections at Global Higher Ed and Ninth Level Ireland.

Yesterday the Irish Times published a short piece of commentary written by me to accompany a map of housing vacancy and unfinished estates, as part of the AIRO Pictures of Ireland series.  I’d originally submitted a slightly longer piece, which got cut by fifty percent due to space considerations.  Here is the full text to accompany the map.

As early as 2006, David McWilliams had coined the term ‘ghost estates’ for the dozens of unfinished developments visible on any trip across Ireland.  As the crisis deepened, unfinished estates became a symbolic and tangible marker of the excesses and follies of the property bubble.  In every village and town in the country were half-built houses and apartments, where the developer had ceased work or where units were unoccupied.

In short, too many housing units had been built for demand, the problem compounded by development finance evaporating.

The families who had bought and moved into what became unfinished estates were left trapped on them, facing a number of related problems.  These included living on or next to building sites and their associated health and safety issues, a lack of services and infrastructure, negative equity, anti-social behaviour, and a diminished sense of place and community.

Move forward to 2013 and very little has changed.  Unfinished estates still litter the Irish landscape, the people living on them face many of the same problems they did in 2006, and there is still a large oversupply of residential property in many areas of the country.

To date, the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (DECLG) has undertaken three National Housing Surveys to monitor unfinished developments.  In the first survey, conducted in 2010, the number of unfinished estates were reported as 2,846, rising to 2,876 in 2011.  They were present in large numbers in every county in the country, but were particularly prevalent in the Upper Shannon area of Cavan, Longford, Leitrim, Roscommon and Sligo, the result of the tax-incentivised development.

In 2012, the DECLG reported that the number of unfinished estates had fallen to 1,770.  Unfortunately, the fall in numbers is principally because the definition of what constitutes an unfinished estate was changed.  The definition used in 2010 and 2011 refers to estates that have issues of vacancy and oversupply as well as outstanding development work.  In 2012 the definition refers only to the latter.

The map shows the distribution of the 1,770 estates with outstanding development work (black dots; see below).  The shading is the level of residential vacancy as reported in the 2011 Census, where dark red is over 25 percent vacancy.

In total, the Census revealed that there were 289,451 vacant properties (14.5% of total stock) in April 2011.  Of these 59,395 were classed as holiday homes.  In any ordinary housing market, approximately six percent of properties would be expected to be vacant (120,000 in the Irish case), meaning that oversupply is about 110,000.  There are also 17,032 units still under-construction according to the DECLG 2012 survey, excluding one-off sites.

To try and tackle the issues facing unfinished estates, the government set up two schemes.  The first, the social housing leasing initiative has sought to make some properties available for social housing.  The second, site resolution plans, are designed to tackle health and safety issues arising from incomplete or poor construction, with a fund of €5m administered by DECLG.  The former has had little take up and the latter has had little effect beyond fencing off dangerous areas and filling in potholes.

Most worryingly, the DECLG acknowledges that 1,100 of the estates are in a ‘seriously problematic condition’, yet only 250 estates (8.5% of 1,770) are active; that is, the developer is on site and undertaking construction.  That means that 1,520 of the estates that require development work have been abandoned to their fate.

Given that their developers have gone bust they are not likely to move towards completion in the short to mid-term.  In other words, several years after the crisis started, families are still living on developments that are substandard, with huge negative equity that locks them in.

In November, the Housing and Planning Minister, Jan O’Sullivan, announced that decisions would be taken in early 2013 to establish which estates are commercially unviable and need to have parts of them demolished.  Regardless of whether this happens or not, the unfinished estates issue does not seem set to be resolved for a number of years to come.

Unfinished estates and residential vacancy in Ireland

Unfinished estates and residential vacancy in Ireland

Rob Kitchin

The visualisation below represents a summary of unemployment rates across the EU27 by month since January 2007 until November 2012. Each country within the EU27 may be selected, compared and contrasted to assess how the economic crisis impacted each state in terms of unemployment. The rate presented here is the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate which represents the percentage of the labour force classified as unemployed. The report, raw data along with metadata is available from Eurostat.

By visualising this data across a time line we can identify the numerous unemployment spikes that occurred due to the various economic events across the EU27. Stand out trends for example are the rise in Irish unemployment between 2007 (4%) to 2010 (14.8%) and its subsequent plateau or the dramatic rise in unemployment in Greece (26.6%) and Spain (26.8%) laterally.

In terms of raw numbers Eurostat reports that the November 2012 unemployment rate of 10.9% equates to 26.06 million people unemployed across the EU27.

By using the select filter located on the left side of the visualisation, countries may be selected for comparison and then for a more detailed analysis at the base of the viz a single country may be selected. In each case by hovering over any part of the viz a detailed value will be shown in a pop up window.   The data and images of this visualisation may be extracted using the tools located at the bottom of the page.

See the Viz on the AIRO site here: http://www.airo.ie/news/eu27-unemployment-rates-jan-2007-nov-2012

Eoghan McCarthy

Dashboard_1

Part of my radio interview on Morning Ireland earlier today about being awarded an ERC Advanced Investigator award (research grants of up to €2.5m in value) focused on the perceived under-performance of Irish academics and higher education institutions in receiving such awards.  It came up again when I was filmed for a slot on 6.01 news.  So, is it the case that Irish universities are under-performing when it comes to EU research funding?

It is certainly true that compared to other countries Ireland does not do well in securing ERC funding.  The ERC have been funding projects since 2007 and to date Irish academics have received 22 Starting awards and 8 Advanced awards (of which there have been 2 to UCD, 1 to NUIM, 5 to TCD [1 of which was poached to the UK]; our population is 4.6m). I’m going to concentrate on the Advanced awards data here.  By far the largest number of awards have gone to the UK (334), followed by Germany (201) and France (178).  In fourth place is Switzerland with 126 awards, a country with a population of 7.9m people.  Other countries that do relatively well based on their population size are Israel (pop of 7.8m, 66 awards), Sweden (pop of 9.4m, 56 awards) and Norwary (pop of 5m, 21 awards).  Countries that don’t do so well in relative terms include Spain (pop of 47m, 69 awards ) and Poland (pop 0f 38m, 3 awards).

So why doesn’t Ireland achieve its fair share of these awards?  I think it’s a result of perception and structural issues.

In terms of perception, these awards are seen as involving a massive amount of effort, being very difficult to obtain, with assessment criteria set at a very high level. It is the case that completing the application is highly time intensive – the word count of the documents I submitted comes to c.18,000 words (about a quarter of a book).  The scientific argument developed within the application has to be of a standard that will get accepted for publication in the highest ranked academic journals, and it is reviewed by 8-10 international peers.  To put together a compelling application takes 3-6 months of concentrated effort.  It is also the case that they are difficult to obtain.   With respect to the social sciences and humanities there are only six panels to apply to for academics in 30+ disciplines.  In my panel – SH3 Environment and Population – there were 6 awards from applicants across the 39 eligible countries in this funding round (in previous years it was either 3 or 4 awards) and whilst the success rate as whole across all panels is 13%, it is 13% of those that thought they stood a chance and applied.  It is also the case that the bar is very high.  The application seeks evidence of esteem indicators such as honorary doctorates, major awards/prizes, keynote talks at international conferences, the number of books translated, and high citation rate.  The process seems to declare, ‘if you’re not in the top 5% in your discipline, don’t bother.’  And with such a low success rate, it seems difficult to justify the time and resources that are needed to apply, especially when trying to fit putting the application together around existing duties in a system under resource pressure due to austerity measures.

Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly the case that Irish universities are home to a large number of talented scholars who do fit the eligibility criteria and have the potential to secure these awards. Indeed, despite rhetoric in the media about the weaknesses of Irish universities internationally, we actually do have seven very good institutions that have high levels of talent.  Sometimes, I think we look down the wrong end of the telescope with respect to HE in Ireland.  Yes, we do not have any universities ranked in the top 100 in the world.  However, there are over 9000 higher education institutions globally and all 7 Irish universities are in the top 450, meaning that all of them are in the top 5%.  If we were to standardize by resourcing and staff-student ratios, etc, we’d be even higher.

Beyond perception, what is holding some of our most talented academics back from applying for ERC and other awards are structural issues – finding the time and space to put together applications.  Irish academics, by and large, have high teaching loads and staff-student ratios by international standards.  Also academic departments tend to be small, meaning that senior, more experienced staff have significant administrative responsibilities.  Moreover, it is only over the past 15 years, since the PRLTI programme and SFI funding, that research institutes have developed and capacity is still being built at a time when domestic resouces are being cut.  In this context, finding 3-6 clear months to put together an application is incredibly difficult.

It seems to me that if we want to increase our success rate we need to do four things.

1) find out what other countries are doing and learn from them.

2) proactively go through a process of identifying which academics have the profile and track record required to obtain the awards

3) encourage and facilitate those identified academics to apply by creating the time and space needed to put together compelling applications.  My initial thought is a sabbatical scheme that buys a candidate out of certain duties on the condition that an application is submitted.  A six month buyout would cost about 20-25K, yet if the candidate is successful in securing €2.5m this is leveraged back a hundred-fold.  This seems like a decent investment to me, even on a success rate of 13% (and it would be higher than that because of the targetting of suitable candidates and strong, polished applications).

4) the Irish state has to invest in basic research across the sciences, social sciences and humanities and not just applied research (which is where nearly all funding is now targetted).  A crucial element for applications is a strong track record in basic research.  If we do not enable individuals to build such a track record across their career then we are ensuring that there will not be any eligible candidates in the future.

Ireland does have the talent to secure these awards, and we have strong institutions in which they can be hosted.  However, we do need to change the perceptions of some potential candidates, and we need to remove the structural barriers to application.  If we do not do this then we will continue to under-perform in securing our relative share of awards.

Rob Kitchin

The Irish Branch of the Regional Studies Association, the School of Economics UCC and the South West Regional Authority invite speakers for the following one day conference:

REGIONAL ECONOMIC RESILIENCE

MILLENNIUM HALL, CORK CITY

Friday 22 February 2013

 

Introduction: The economic crisis that has swept across the global economy since 2008 has had significant implications for regional economies. It is clear that the global economic crisis has had an uneven impact across regions. This raises questions as to the resilience of different regions to economic crises, and the place of policy makers in strengthening regional economic resilience. The RSA, the School of Economics UCC and the SWRA wish to invite you to a one-day conference on the theme of Regional Economic Resilience.

KEYNOTE SPEAKERS

PROFESSOR RON MARTIN, Professor of Economic Geography, Fellow Cambridge-MIT Institute Research

DR ADRIAN HEALY, Cardiff School of Planning and Geography. Dr. Healy currently co-ordinates an ESPON-funded leading study into economic resilience of regions in the face of economic crisis. Apart from EU-wide insights his presentation will focus on the findings of his case study of the  South West Region.

For conference flier with full program and conference updates, see: http://www.regionalstudies.org/events/event/regional-economic-resilience

chris.vanegeraat@nuim.ie.

Next Page »