Amongst everything else that went array during the boom years in Ireland was the lack of any significant critical media analysis of the property sector and related fields. As has been documented by Julien Mercille, the majority of commentary during this time gave further fuel to the unsustainable model then being pursued. This was supplemented by newspaper property sections festooned with glossy adverts for the latest in lifestyle possibilities. It should therefore be seen as a positive step that one of the key differences between now and then is that the level of discussion and debate has moved on somewhat. For example, with particular reference to Dublin, we have had a significant amount of discussion within various media outlets as to whether or not we are witnessing another bubble. Such discussion is something that should be welcomed.
However, for all the positives within this discourse, the debate continues to be dominated by discussion that is fundamentally oriented towards market forces above all else. While there is a certain level of discussion about the need for social housing, the rhetoric of ‘supply and demand’ represents the dominant discourse around housing. This, on one level, is hardly surprising given Ireland’s recent trajectory. Yet it is deeply problematic in terms of thinking through the wider dynamics of the built environment. We are seeing the continued dominance of something that is fundamental to our everyday human needs by a set of economic assumptions that often run against those very same fundamental needs. This is a set of assumptions which perceives the very tools which we should be promoting and fostering as being the key problem and blockage. For example, in a recent piece, Ronan Lyons commented: “What the decade to 2007 tells us is that planners should be very wary of directing where buildings and people should go“. In laying the blame at one particular cohort, this is an approach which deems planning as something which is simply about regulation and stands outside wider societal norms, politics or economic forces. To place blame on planning or planners without taking into a account weaknesses in governance and wider structural forces misses a significant amount about how intertwined the economic boom was with Ireland’s built environment. Following from this, in recent days, Karl Deeter, writing in the Irish Times, in an otherwise critical piece, put forward the following: “The solution is to swamp the market with supply. To do this we need to make the right to build on land you own implicit.” Again, we see a worrying desire to revert to a Laissez-faire approach to housing development and planning more generally. This is justified through a selective reading of German and Swiss land-use policies. While for the most part Deeter is opposed to going back to a boom-time scenario, he seems to miss the possibility that the deregulation of planning may actually lead us back to such a scenario again.
If anything, now is a time where we need a greater focus on the potential for regional and urban planning, not a cry for less regulation. For this to even become a possibility, there is a need to shift the discourse around the built environment to one that puts the use-value of housing first and foremost. In so doing, it becomes important to recognize that housing is also just one element amongst many within the built environment. It is a central building block of our communities, towns, cities and, thus our entire society. There is a need to actively promote the discussion of housing in a much broader sense and recognize that for a functioning, balanced and more equitable society we need approaches which are about the tenets of society first and fore-most, not the abstract modes by which these are delivered. As a starting point, such a discussion would entail looking more holistically at different sectors, and bring together discussion about housing (including social housing) and societal development.