October 2014

Published in the Irish Examiner, Tue Oct 28th, 2014.

The residential vacancy rates from the 2011 census highlight the necessity of a radical change in housing and regional economic development policy in Ireland. Most significantly they make it very clear that our housing system is fundamentally dysfunctional. We now have the scandalous and untenable situation whereby there are 90,000 households defined as ‘in housing need’ and up to 5,000 homeless, and yet over twice that amount (230,056) of housing and apartments lie vacant. This is because far too much of the housing built over the last two decades has been done as a speculative investment rather than being provided as an affordable home giving shelter and long term security.

Vacancy rates also vary considerably across the country. This shows how the housing system in Ireland requires a spatial analysis to understand its regional differences and develop appropriate solutions. Vacancy rates are understandably lower in the cities, particularly Dublin at 8.2%, South Dublin 5.4%, Cork City 11.1%, and Galway 11.2%. The counties with some of the highest vacancy rates include Longford (21.6%), Leitrim (30.5%) and Cavan (21.6%) which result from oversupply due to residential tax reliefs provided as part of the Rural Renewal Scheme for the Upper Shannon Region. In terms of the actual numbers of units, the largest numbers are in Leinster which has almost half of the total vacant units in the country (106,658) and Dublin has one fifth of all vacant properties (43,707) including 16,321 apartments.

The reason for the extremely large number of vacant units is the oversupply produced during the Celtic Tiger housing boom. A private investor and developer-led property development frenzy was encouraged through government policy (tax reliefs, lack of planning and regulation, promotion of owner occupation), domestic and international speculative finance lending (Irish and European banks), and the Irish property industry (developers, newspapers’ property supplements, mortgage brokers, legal firms, estate agents etc.). For example, in 2007 the Bank of Ireland Group was lending as much money to speculative investors (as ‘buy-to-let’ and second properties) as it was to first-time buyers. Banks also lent recklessly to families who were desperate to get a home as they were told that property prices were only ever going to rise.

All this led to a massive housing bubble resulting in the oversupply and huge vacancy rates we have today. The regional variation in vacancy rates was also influenced by the failure to implement proper regional policies. National employment policy has focused on the construction industry and foreign multinationals that tend to locate in and around Dublin. The economic recession has shown up the spatial inequality of this policy as unemployment rates in areas like the South East and West remain significantly higher than the East.

The vacancy rates mean that, according to the ESRI, even though there will be an increase in household demand of 180,000 housing units by 2021, because of the oversupply in many parts of the country only 90,000 new units will need to be built. And most significantly 86% of all new build is needed in the Greater Dublin region. Many counties such as Donegal, Kerry, Mayo, Tipperary, and all the Upper Shannon counties of Leitrim, Sligo, Cavan, Roscommon and Longford are projected to still have an oversupply in 2021. (more…)


If completed as planned, what will Poolbeg mean for waste management in Ireland?

As the plans currently stand, the plant is to have a 600,000 tonne capacity.

And, according Dublin City Council, ten years from now, 708,000 tonnes of waste will still “be available” to Poolbeg. But critically, Dublin City Council has side-stepped the implications of rising recycling rates.

At the start of July this year the EU Commission adopted a new waste target which will “boost reuse and recycling of municipal waste to a minimum of 70% by 2030”. Already, Ireland is recycling more than 40% of its waste and is well on track to reach 50% over the next five years. It is a good news story. The Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly, addressing the Environment Ireland conference in mid September, endorsed the drive for ‘zero waste’, which, as the term implies, involves reaching 70% recycling and then going well beyond it.

For many years now, work in Ireland and Europe has been aiming to ensure that material which can be re-used or recycled is not wasted or burned. The 70% recycling target is contained in a comprehensive document titled “Towards a circular economy: A zero waste programme for Europe”, published this July. Another key policy, “Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe”, came out in September 2011. This policy asks member states to keep all material capable of being recycled out of incinerators. Even if an incinerator yields some energy – i.e. a waste-to-energy plant, and this is planned at Poolbeg, although many of the energy-related details are hazy – the 2011 policy document says that feedstock for such incinerators should be “limited to non-recyclable materials”.

Where does reaching the 70% recycling target leave Poolbeg? The 70% figure relates to 2030, and so we’re left to fill in the gaps: 50% by 2020 and 60% by 2025. These are reasonable targets, and achievable based on our current trajectory. If 60% of material is recycled in 2025, there will be 262,000 fewer tonnes of waste available to Poolbeg in 2025 compared to the figures presented by Dublin City Council to councillors.


Dublin City Council data misleads in two other respects. After being treated, certain non-hazardous waste can be used as a fuel in cement kilns, where it is typically used to displace coal. Solid Recovery Fuel, or SRF, is the name given to this material, post treatment. In its reports to councillors, Dublin City Council put SRF at 121,000 tonnes for 2012 – and went on to give the same figure for 2025. While accurate for 2012, SRF has already grown to account for 160,000 tonnes in 2014. With more cement plants currently being modified, SRF will account for at least 260,000 tonnes by 2025. (The figure will likely be higher but a conservative approach is adopted.)

Second, Dublin City Council essentially ignored the process known as mechanical and biological treatment, or MBT. The waste hierarchy sets out the best practice sequence in which waste should be treated. Because MBT involves sorting and recovering materials, it is positioned higher up in the hierarchy than incineration. Bord na Mona, which controls the waste company AES, is set to build an MBT plant in north Kildare. Allowing for a very gradual ramp-up, MBT will account for 100,000 tonnes by 2025.

After a more faithful review of the waste sector, what does the picture look like for Poolbeg? Factoring out the shortcomings in the information released by Dublin City Council, as recycling rises there are 262,000 fewer tonnes available for incineration, 140,000 fewer tonnes with increased SRF, and 100,000 fewer tonnes due to MBT. And so, with these reductions, the volume of waste available to Poolbeg in ten years time is not 708,000 tonnes but 186,000 tonnes. This is low, and possibly too low for Poolbeg to survive. However, once the further projected rise in recycling from 60% to 70%, expected between 2025 and 2030, is factored in, the case to continue operating Poolbeg is gone.

But perhaps the volume of waste might grow? In fairness to Dublin City Council, it doesn’t put much faith in this. And for good reason. From July 2015, pay-by-weight will be universal across Ireland. Home composting will further expand. Less packaging will be accepted from shops and the same goes for unsolicited mail. As this feeds back to suppliers, the future involves lighter packaging and less of it. Important work has been done in this area by the UK equivalent of the Department of the Environment. In a report published last October, it saw the level of waste declining gradually year by year.

What is the bottom line on Poolbeg? Poolbeg will only survive if those behind the project succeed in undermining waste treatment methods that are superior to incineration, particularly recycling and composting. If this happens, the future of Irish waste management sees national policy wagged by a tail of unelected officials at Dublin City Council, with public policy-making reaching a very sorry pass.

In such a sorry pass there may remain some questions regarding “who pays?” The details may be complex. But the broad answer will run along similar lines to the pattern that has emerged over the last five years or so: all of us will pay.

James Nix – Director of Policy & Operations at An Taisce, The National Trust for Ireland. 

In the midst of a mounting frenzy over the Central Bank’s plans to introduce new rules relating to mortgage lending, Rory Hearne offers a detailed and sobering analysis of the bigger picture housing crisis. Published in today’s Irish Examiner.

Providing solutions to the housing crisis have to be central to the forthcoming Budget. But the government needs to be willing to radically transform how the housing market operates in Ireland and reorientate housing policy to meet the needs of the majority of the population rather than the interests of the property development industry. It is surprising how much rising house prices are being celebrated as a new property boom in the media including interviews with buyers (often engaged in cash purchases) about how they are being ‘outbid’ for properties in wealthy Dublin suburbs.

Meanwhile the real housing crisis is affecting hundreds of thousands of households (who are mainly lower income). Fr Peter McVerry has described the growing ‘tsunami’ of homelessness on the streets of our cities and towns. Between January and July of this year 267 families became homeless in Dublin, including 549 children and some of those have been housed in hotels.

But the crisis is much, much, larger than these figures suggest. Almost 90,000 households are defined in housing ‘need’. The majority of these are living in private rented accommodation. Rapid rent increases in recent years (most significantly in Dublin) and the introduction of rent ‘caps’ by the Department of Social Welfare, has meant that more than half of those receiving rent supplement (40,000) have to top up their rent in order to get access to housing.

Then we must include the 132,000 households in mortgage arrears on their principal residence. The government appears to be just hoping they will sort themselves out somehow. But a staggering 70% of these households are over 720 days in arrears and the banks are silently, but steathly, increasing repossessions and evictions. In the first four months of this year the banks have issued legal proceedings in 3,093 of these arrears cases and 281 properties were repossessed further adding to housing pressure.

Overall then, approximately 262,000 (16%) of the total 1.6 million households in the state are in serious housing need. This doesn’t include those who are forgoing basic necessities to cover their mortgage or rent nor does it include those affected by substandard conditions in social housing estates throughout the country. This is not a crisis. It is an emergency.


What will be said of the Irish crisis when finally it can be spoken of with hindsight? On that happy day, we may be speaking of the deregulation of the financial sector that allowed the riskiest of debts to be bundled together as if there were safety in the herd. Perhaps people will note the dramatic redistribution of income towards the richest 1%, which now has over 10% of Irish wealth. No doubt folk will be full amazed that even when bad bets were made, the financial whizz-kids kept their bonuses and passed their losses to the state.

It will perhaps be a matter of remark that the state decided that those best able to bear these costs should be cosseted from tax demands, so that the painful adjustment was instead demanded from those most deserving of state assistance. The Central Statistical Office estimates that in 2012 some 12.9% of households have had to without necessary heating of their home at some time in the year, up from 6.3% in 2008, and that 23.3% of households reported not being able to afford a morning, afternoon, or evening out in the previous fortnight, up from 11.1% in 2008.

It may be noted that all this contradicts the clear instruction of the 1937 Constitution, which directs that ‘in what pertains to the to the control of credit the constant and predominant aim shall be the welfare of the people as a whole,’ and which imposes upon the state a duty ‘to safeguard with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community.’

Unemployment map

From David Meredith and Jon Paul Faulkner, ‘The nature of uneven development in Ireland, 1991-2011,’ in Kearns, Meredith, Morrissey eds. Spatial justice and the Irish crisis (RIA, 2014) 107-127. Used with kind permission.

Now, all of this injustice takes place somewhere and when we speak of the Irish crisis we should remember its landscapes of despair. Future archaeologists may one day walk through the rubble of our crisis and bemoan the planning deficit that allowed houses without services, and new shopping centres to compete with half-empty ones. The people who camp inside houses marooned within landscapes pockmarked by the shells of abandoned constructions, the people whose local A & E services have been closed and who find that under-provision in the Ambulance Service mean that should they need timely care there is an odds-on chance they won’t get it, and the folk decanted from their community while their houses were to be repaired and who now find those repairs repeatedly deferred, all know that national averages hide the multiplying and accumulating deprivation inflicted upon themselves and their neighbours. We know that even the children of these sinks of poverty register the appalling reputation of their home area and feel less trusting of other children on their streets. We also know that stress and lack of opportunity translate into sickness, drug dependency, crime and violence.

A new geography of exclusion has been produced by the crisis. It works at multiple scales and it targets particular housing estates, particular small towns, particular parts of cities, and everywhere it corrals the poor and the disadvantaged to protect the property values and refined sensibilities of the rich. When asylum seekers are warehoused in remote places and when they self-harm or go on hunger strike to protest years spent in isolation and limbo, we get glimpses of a new geography of marginality, but we also know that the vicious asylum system is a consequence of under-funding and of a wish that Ireland not be, as so many foreign places once were for the Irish, a haven for the dispossessed and needy. Instead Ireland is once again open for investment and the property porn begins again in the weekend supplements. The government has shown foreign investors that they can bet on foolish speculation and still recover not only their bet, but also the promised winnings.

Will things be any different this time around? Well, the state sector will be carrying cuts already inflicted, and yet more already placed into the pipeline. Instead of addressing financial regulation and implementing directive planning, the predominant ideology of successive governments has been that it was the Irish state sector that over-spent the country into recession. So, we must expect further rounds of spatial injustice, further concentrations of poverty, and further marginalization of those who deserve assistance. Perhaps water charges will fund metering so that the privatization of water can be made attractive to investors. Perhaps the property tax will continue as a most regressive taxation. Perhaps the 1% will continue to milk the state for the subsidies that coax the speculation on which they thrive. Or, we just might hazard a wealth tax. We might build social housing. We might even direct government to ‘safeguard with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community.’


Gerry Kearns is Professor of Human Geography at Maynooth University and with David Meredith and John Morrissey has edited Spatial Justice and the Irish Crisis, published by the Royal Irish Academy, ISBN 978-1-908996-36-7, €20.00.

Over the last couple of weeks the Irish media has been chock-a-block with stories about the McNulty affair. There’s really no need for a recap here. But suffice to say that Fine Gael found itself mired in controversy when the story broke (and broke and broke…) that John McNulty, “a Donegal grocer and petrol retailer”, had been put on the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in what has been called an incidence of ‘stroke politics’, so as to boost his credentials to fill a vacancy on the Seanad’s cultural and education panel.

The affair was flogged by media and opposition parties as indicative of the type of cronyism and ‘jobs for the boys’ that Enda Kenny so virulently condemned during the last general election. Along with the Taoiseach, Heather Humphreys, was singled out in particular for the very public backlash – so public indeed that Fine Gael TDs John Deasy and Séan Conlan got in on the act. McNulty, for his part, kept pretty quiet – his ghostly presence mostly circulating in the form of a single photograph and soundbites from various individuals testifying to his credentials – before withdrawing his candidacy on yesterday.

While the purported abuse of the boards of semi-state bodies for purposes of political patronage is not unproblematic, the whole episode speaks to a far more troubling aspect of Irish political discourse: namely the way that issues of cronyism and ‘political reform’ are placed centre stage in political debate, while decisions about the economy, including the perpetuation of austerity, which have far wider reaching impacts on the lives of citizens, are being made politically invisible.

In a feature piece on the topic in last weekend’s Sunday Times, Fine Gael’s John Deasy, expressing his criticisms of Kenny’s handling of the affair, is quoted as saying:

“People are getting sick of the way this is being conducted and it doesn’t really strike people as being what we, as a party, phrased as new politics… The parliamentary party is very happy with the way Michael Noonan is running the economy, but I think people are becoming disgusted with the way Fine Gael is being run [by Enda Kenny]”.

For me, the crucial aspect in Deasy’s statement is the way it constructs a separation between economic policy (Noonan’s ‘management’ of the economy) and the ‘politics’ of state appointments (Kenny’s party leadership). The most significant political decisions the current Government has made have been those relating to the economy. Sweeping spending cuts in social welfare, healthcare, and education, an intensified programme to sell national assets, far-reaching reforms of working conditions and a redirection of state supports to cash-rich investors have all been features of a suite of economic policies that successive governments have implemented post-crisis. The sustained programme of austerity has woven itself deep into the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Decisions about the direction of economic policy, then, are intrinsically political.

However, these decisions are frequently viewed as issues of technocratic management, a matter of accountancy and number crunching, which precludes any real political discussion about them. Decisions about the economy are constructed responding to the objective state of ‘the markets’, and as such are outside the messy realm of politics.

This has been compounded by a recent shift in the discourse. Ireland, the Government tell us, is now in recovery, the recession is over and the austerity policies implemented over the last half a decade have proven a ‘success’. Despite ample evidence of continuing hardship (for example, a MABS study showing their clients have an average disposable income of just €8.75 a week), Fine Gael, in particular, have been keen to mobilise this story to bolster their chances of re-election.

And the media seem happy to accept the story of recovery at face value.

During the recent Prime Time debate between the candidates running in the Roscommon South-Leitrim by-election, for example, Miriam O’Callaghan put it to one of the candidates that his previous calls to “burn the bondholders” had been proven erroneous by current economic recovery. In another exchange, Independent candidate Gerry O’Boyle spoke out angrily about the considerable time given over in the debate to questioning Fine Gael’s Maura Hopkins about the McNulty affair. To O’Callaghan’s suggestion that “this was a huge national issue” he retorted: “I’m here to deal with the issue of family homes… Family homes — you don’t even think about it!”

Vincent Brown made the point on TV3 on Monday that the corporatist neoliberal economic model that has been practiced by the current Government is indicative of a much more trenchant form of cronyism (the proposed tax probe on Apple a case in point) than the McNulty affair. As indicative of a warped political system as it is, the McNulty affair pales in comparison to the destruction that the programme of austerity has brought.

In the aftermath of McNulty’s withdrawal, Fine Gael have tried to weave a careful PR narrative through the facts of the case. In the run up to the next General Election, if the John Deasy’s sentiments are shared widely within the party, one might speculate that Kenny could potentially be jettisoned as Taoiseach in an attempt to distance Fine Gael from the stigma of cronyism.

Instead the party will seek to be judged on their economic track record. And they should be – but not in the way they have in mind. Rather the political debate should be squarely focussed on the politics of economic policy – who the winners and losers have been in Ireland’s supposed recovery.

The swell of media coverage and discussion on the McNulty affair has pushed cronyism to the top of the list of burning political issues in the country. Meanwhile the politics of economic policy are pushed to the background. But as long as questions concerning the economy are depoliticised, the game stays the same – it just gets more fierce.

Cian O’Callaghan

Just in case you may have overlooked it, today marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the planning system in Ireland! On the 1st of October 1964 the first planning act came into being. Since that time planning has soldiered valiantly, and despite the general apathy of the public and no little hostility from the political class, somehow remains standing, even if battered and bruised.

If truth be told it is only in the past ten years that planning has actually existed in any meaningful form. Prior to that we had mostly men with t-squares largely concerned with pipe diameters, soak pits and sight-lines. Today’s planners toil through an unnerving jumble of complexity and tortuous process spoken in a strange-tongued language of technical jargon that nobody really understands. They have become handy targets, mudguards, used and abused and persistently caught in the crossfire of short-term expediency, long-term strategising and the conflicting expectations of the public, politicians and business. I doubt I am alone in hoping the question of ‘what do you do for a living?’ doesn’t come up in the pub!

As Irish planning muddles through middle age maybe it’s time to ask some uncomfortable mid-life crisis questions – the elephants in the room – what are we doing, where are we going, whose needs do we serve and does what we do actually work? If we take the simple measure of being able to control the future by current acts, which is what planning essentially is, then it must be concluded from the evidence that it doesn’t work at all, or at least not very well.

I mean, while the counterfactual can never be fully known, would Ireland look any different today if we hadn’t mobilised great effort to produce spatial strategies and visions? Maybe at the margins, but not much, I suspect. While we wax lyrical about communities and sustainability, who has benefited most from planning – landowners? developers? banks?

The influx of more ‘evidence’ into the process does not seem to be producing better results, although it is probably too early to tell. What we are very good at are attempts to plan, we produce nice glossy plans like the National Spatial Strategy. But just as a desire to be wise is not wisdom, planning can only be evaluated on whether or not the desired goals have been achieved.

As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. On pretty much every measure, it must be conceded that we haven’t achieved much. Even our glittering flagship planning visions, such as the Dublin Docklands or Adamstown, remain undelivered and hardly do much to justify our existence.

To be fair, planning is a messy business beholden to private capital and it has failed pretty much everywhere it has been tried. Achieving a desired end state is also not necessarily a good yardstick to measure success as the world is always in flux. Things change. But as I have argued before neither should the profession lapse into banal process and incrementalism, as it is as present.

We planners always tend to think of ourselves as victims, put-upon and marginalised by an unholy alliance of developers, politicians and county managers. If people had only listened to our recommendations and followed the plan, things would have been so different. I don’t buy this. Things wouldn’t have been much different. This is because our plans persistently seek legitimisation by appealing to consensus, superficially offering something to everyone and no one.

The net result is that the short-term competitiveness and growth agenda wins out. As a profession, these are now our de facto values. I think most planner’s would think the ‘Common Good’ should mean more than that.

A recent paper on this subject revealed that most planners have no idea what the ‘Common Good’ actually is (Murphy & Fox-Rogers 2014) . Planning education has a lot to answer for here. The intellectual horizons of the profession has shrunk so much that we are incapable offering any alternatives or critical perspectives to puncture the status quo.

We must drop the instinctive notion that we are pursuing a progressive agenda. The opposite is often the reality. There was a call a few years ago by the then Irish Planning Institute president for a ‘Planner’s Charter’ setting out the broad values of the profession. That idea never saw the light of day. I suspect because of lack of consensus. But on the occasion of our 50th birthday, this should be the time for at least a debate.

Gavin Daly