November 2014


With NAMA recently entering into its fifth year, Maynooth Geography’s Rory Hearne considers what it has achived. Published in today’s Irish Times

The government’s new Social Housing Strategy correctly identifies the underfunding of the provision of social housing and rising rents in the private sector as the principal causes underlying the current housing crisis. Unfortunately it continues this underfunding as the 2015 social housing budget will be just half of what it was in 2008. Furthermore, the Strategy failed to radically reform NAMA, which is the largest housing agency and property developer in the state. This leaves a fundamental contradiction in housing policy.

While the government expresses a strong concern to address the 90,000 households on the waiting lists it is, at the same time, actively encouraging NAMA to sell off its residential and land assets in the form of ‘packaged portfolios of property’, at the highest possible price, to international and Irish capital investors. The Strategy did not alter NAMA’s primary objective to achieve a maximum commercial return to the state. The uncomfortable truth is that those who will benefit most from current government housing policy, and NAMA in particular, are international wealthy investors and banks, developers and landlords and not the ordinary Irish people who have paid dearly for the write downs on development loans transferred to NAMA.

The reality is that NAMA is playing a significant role in worsening the housing crisis through its sale of assets to Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). The government encouraged the setting up of Irish based REITs in 2012 through generous tax breaks. Irish REITs are being set up to take advantage of high yield returns from investment in the ‘recovering’ Irish property market. One newly formed REIT is the Irish Residential Properties which includes large property investors from Canada and finance from the UK based Barclays bank. Another REIT, Hibernia, has billionaire investor George Soros’ funds amongst their shareholders. Irish Residential Properties bought the ‘Orange’ portfolio from NAMA for €211m which included 716 residential apartments in Dublin. NAMA advertised that the portfolio would provide a residential rental income of €10.6m and ‘significant rental growth potential over the near and longer term’. Selling to such investors with this expected rate of return will clearly provide a huge upward pressure on residential rents in the coming years.

NAMA is also likely to have a major influence on the residential property market through its intention to provide over 22,000 units in Dublin (half of expected demand in Dublin) and surrounding counties by 2019 through the use of existing units and 1,500 hectares of development land. It is doing this through partnerships with developers including the provision of at least €1bn in finance. However, the objective to ensure a maximum commercial return means that NAMA will make certain these units are sold at the highest possible price thus inflating prices further.

Although we don’t hear much about it, NAMA has a mandate to ‘contribute to the social and economic development of the State’. It achieves this through its provision of social housing yet only 736 units have been delivered. The new Housing Strategy includes an expansion of NAMA’s Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) set up to sell or lease NAMA residential properties for social housing but only plans to deliver 2,250 units by 2020.

NAMA’s current trajectory is wrong if we want to develop a sustainable economy and society. Its need for rental growth is likely to be one of the reasons the government is refusing to give private tenants (who are the majority of those on social housing waiting lists) relief through the introduction of rent controls. By pushing for maximum commercial returns NAMA is working against the interests of those looking for an affordable and secure home. It is continuing the speculative asset approach to housing that fuelled the crisis. This promotes residential property as a commodity rather than a social good that is developed primarily to meet people’s housing needs.

NAMA is facilitating a massive transfer of wealth (income) created by the Irish people to foreign and domestic capitalist investors. It exemplifies all that is wrong with the current model of financial neoliberal capitalism. Rather than investing in the ‘real’ economy and social requirements it is promoting speculative finance. The result is rising inequality and a more unstable system. The legacy of socializing the costs of the banking crisis in Ireland has been widespread social devastation. NAMA is embedding this for decades to come.

But the government can still reorientate NAMA to play a key role in addressing the housing crisis. It could genuinely expand NAMA’s SPV by transferring the majority of NAMA’s residential development units and land into it. NAMA could then provide 15,000 social housing and 7000 low-cost rented units managed by housing associations by 2020. These could be excellently planned, environmentally sustainable and model community developments in areas such as the 25 acre Glass Bottle Site in Ringsend. Such a social stimulus could help repair some of the societal damage caused during the crisis. If this means NAMA doesn’t make a profit it is important to highlight that those most affected by that will be the private (mainly international) investors who own fifty one percent of NAMA’s shares. Furthermore, NAMA was also set up so that if it makes a loss a surcharge can be introduced on the profits of the financial institutions.

When our financial system was in peril there was no obstacle too large for our political establishment and the state to overcome. Now we face an equivalent crisis in terms of the fundamental housing needs and rights of hundreds of thousands of our citizens. It is legitimate to ask why the same radical approach that determinedly did ‘whatever was needed to be done’ is not applied to the housing crisis. It appears it is because the government is unwilling to stand up to the financial and property investors and transform the residential property market into a system to meet housing needs.
Rory Hearne

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New book by by Sean Phelan, Neoliberalism, Media and the Political, some of which discusses Ireland.

Neoliberalism, Media and the Political presents a novel critical analysis of the condition of media and journalism in neoliberal cultures. Emphasizing neoliberalism’s status as a political ideology that is simultaneously hostile to politics, the argument is grounded in empirical illustrations from different social contexts, including post-Rogernomics New Zealand, Celtic Tiger Ireland, the Leveson Inquiry into the UK press, and the climate-sceptic blogosphere. Phelan draws on a variety of theoretical sources, especially Laclau and Bourdieu, to affirm the importance of neoliberalism as an analytical concept. Yet, he also interrogates how critiques of neoliberalism – in media research and elsewhere – can reduce social practices to the category of neoliberal. Against the image of a monolithic free-market ideology that imposes itself on other domains, the book identifies the potential sites of a cultural politics within neoliberalized media regimes.

Table of contents
Introduction: Disfiguring Neoliberalism
1. Articulating Neoliberalism in Critical Media and Communication Studies
2. Neoliberal Discourse: Theory, History and Trajectories
3. Neoliberal Logics and Field Theory
4. Neoliberalism and Media Democracy: A Representative Anecdote from Post-Rogernomics New Zealand
5. The Journalistic Habitus and the Realist Style
6. Media Cultures, Anti-Politics and the ‘Climategate’ Affair
7. Neoliberal Imaginaries, Press Freedom and the Politics of Leveson
8. Media Rituals and the ‘Celtic Tiger’: The Neoliberal Nation and its Transnational Circulation
Conclusion: The Possibility of a Radical Media Politics

Ireland After NAMA has turned five years old. Happy birthday to us!

Any sense of celebration, however, almost immediately gives way to a reflection on the circumstances that led to the genesis of the blog and the events that have fed its life and thoughts for the past five years. So we felt a useful way to mark the event might be to reflect a bit on Ireland’s crisis five years on.

After all, Ireland After NAMA is a child of the crisis. Established by a group of academics, mostly in the discipline of Geography but also encompassing other disciplines such as Sociology and Planning, the initial impetus was two-fold: a desire to collectively understand the quickly shifting sands of Ireland’s crisis and to find ways to respond to this that were more proactive and publically oriented. Part of this rationale was a sense that public discourse was characterised by macro-economic perspectives that paid little attention to the social impacts that were going to play out through the crisis.

The title of the blog itself reflected this: the establishment of NAMA – which had been formulised into law the month before, and as such is also five years old – being a high-level policy response, implemented in a reactive fashion, which would profoundly affect Irish society. With NAMA now expected to wind up its operations sooner than expected, or at least change its mandate to one of ‘development’ rather than ‘asset management’, it is possible that the blog will be ‘after NAMA’ in a different sense.

Our modest hope at the outset was that the blog would provide a platform for Irish geographers, sociologists, and other social scientists to contribute analysis and opinion to public debates about the crisis, to highlight how this plays out in socially and spatially unevenly ways, and to act as a counterbalance to the predominance of particular strands of economics in public debate.

The experiment quickly exceeded our expectations in terms of readership, partly as a result of posts on the issue of housing vacancy and unfinished estates attaining a level of ‘viral’ popularity that catapulted particular contributors of the blog into the media spotlight. But, as conversations with various people over the years have attested to, this was also a reflection of a burgeoning public appetite for alternative sources of news and analysis. Moreover, the blog also gave the possibility to highlight some of the less discussed elements of geographical research that has emerged throughout the last number of years.

The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk makes the point that the word ‘crisis’ has its roots in a Greek term denoting a cross-roads, a decisive turning point in which things can go one way or another. Ireland After NAMA was the product of such a cross-roads. The early stages, in particular, were experienced by us as a combination of dread and excitement at the rapidly mounting debris of the economic collapse and the capacity for progressive transformations that this seemed to simultaneously engender.

The years that have followed have seen a waxing and waning, though never an erasure, of this feeling that change is possible. On the one hand, the broad government response to the crisis has been one of redoubled neoliberalism. Ireland’s crisis has tended to be explained in terms of rogue individuals and wayward policies rather than systemic problems, while the resultant set of policy responses have broadly supported market logics at the expense of social redistribution to the most vulnerable sections of society, who have also taken the brunt of austerity measures.

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Hoardings Return

For many of us it has been disheartening to see the collective energies of various sections of society, who were calling out systemic failure and calling for systemic change, being ignored in favour of the continuation of an increasingly regressive and destructive status quo. The quick and easy return of an uncritical attitude towards property development has been particularly jarring for obvious reasons. Such an approach to crisis ‘fixing’ seems likely only to sow the seeds of a further crisis further down the road, one with perhaps much worse social impacts than the current one. This is perhaps another frustration of watching the logic of property development take hold once more. That sense of inevitability that comes with a lack of tangible change in the political economic structures that led to the crisis in the first place.

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Water Protests 2014

There are many aspects of Ireland’s crisis trajectory that can be brought to mind to make us angry or despondent, to dissipate hope and institute a cynical inertia. But to judge the transformations of the last five years against the initial flurry of dread and excitement is to privilege the flare over the incremental changes that this flare has fed.

Much has changed in these five years indeed. It is easy to see this at present with the ever rising tide of water protests creating a context of revolutionary sentiment that has been impossible for the political and media establishment to ignore. Even a few months ago this seemed unlikely. The new narrative of economic recovery was quickly becoming normalised and Fine Gael were predicting comfortable re-election if they could just stay on message that their policies of economic liberalism and austerity were working. The macro-economic picture of supposed economic recovery was touted as unambiguous fact, despite not being felt by the population. Yet, we are now on the precipice of a very different moment as this confidence has crumbled amidst mounting protests.

This is testament to the momentum of the campaign and to the capacity for change that popular and organised protest can bring. But aside from the immediate issue and the mobilisation around it, it is also indicative of just how much underlying attitudes in Ireland have changed over the course of the crisis. While successive Irish governments have met a neoliberal crisis with neoliberal solutions the consensus around such measures is far from hegemonic.

This is the result of the multiple activities of multiple groups of people, both overtly political and more mundane, over the course of the five years of crisis. Included in this are campaigns around mortgage arrears, the right to housing, the destruction of the community sector, and a range of other issues. But also included are the shifting content of pub conversations, community gatherings, and a host of other everyday activities. We would hope that over the years posts on Ireland After NAMA have been helpful in expanding the contours of such debates.

However, this blog has been only one small part of an ecosystem of new social media that emerged out of a perceived need. While the mainstream media has in many ways returned to its conservative default position, there is now a much healthier ecology of alternative media outlets. A host of blogs and more formalised publications such as Rabble or The Journal.ie, for example have gone some way to filling a vacuum that presented itself in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Ireland After NAMA continues to form a part, though not a central one, in these evolving media ecosystems.

Perhaps more importantly, with five years of posts it has become a record and a repository of material on the crisis and the evolution of ways of thinking about it over time. This and other similar archives will in years to come provide a record of how issues and events evolved over the course of the crisis and how we struggled to understand them as they happened.

It is probably fair to say that we now have a more detailed understanding of events leading to Ireland’s crisis. But in many ways we are still in and not beyond this crisis. Indeed, in a recent article the geographer Brett Christophers suggests that it is problematic to speak of the ‘the crisis’ as a singular event and reminds us that a crisis for one country or one group of people is often the opposite for another; such is the nature of capitalism. As such, Ireland is still (to re-appropriate a well-known foundation myth) ‘dancing on the cross-roads’ of crisis. This certainly means that there is still a lot of pain, suffering, and hardship. But it also means that we can still choose which road to take.

As my unfortunate 2nd years are finding out just now, I like that old way of viewing globalization as ‘a web of interconnections’. Migration patterns, new trading relationships, new information flows: they add up to a web connecting us all.

Like a web, for sure, once we’re in it, we can’t escape. There’s no way out. Adjust, be activated. Enact globalized neoliberalism. Embrace it. Become its Apprentice; enter the Dragon’s Den with your latest business idea (your café, restaurant, gizmo, app, whatever).

Likewise, for the (democratic, or otherwise) state somewhere outside the rich world, there’s no development path anymore. The WTO makes sure of that. In the hope of never seeing any more NICs (South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan) trying to enter the rich-world club, it strips away the mechanisms used by those states to nurture capitalist firms such as Samsung: ‘no more tariffs, guys; quit those subsidies, all those supports you’re so fond of, y’know, the ones that protected your nascent industries, gave them that leg-up you knew you had to give them’.

In this sense, globalization goes ahead and connects societies up to a web of interconnections, but it then doesn’t let them get anywhere within it. They’re only there to be eaten. Their consumers are there to buy rich-world goods; their workers to work, in one form or another (sometimes as actual employees, perhaps much more often merely as distant sub- or pracari-contractors) for rich-world firms.

We’re doomed here. This is no place to be. We can try hard. We can try to be entrepreneurial, to be brave. But we’re not gonna make it. This is no way for us all to live. Sure, life isn’t just a grim time. There’s love, bonds to connect us, sports, education, beer. But we need to find something else, surely to God.

And so here we meet up with the earthly backdrop to Interstellar, the big hot movie at the moment. Earth is doomed. Luckily, there are some signs of hope. A clandestine group of creative experts – those working in the knowledge economy? – has been working out of sight of everyone else. They’ve noticed something hopeful. A worm hole – oi, don’t laugh – has been found lurking near Saturn. If we dedicate our energies, some of us can reach it, even go through it. Damn it, man, some already have. They’ve been entrepreneurial.

Of course, we can’t all go; no, most of us will just be left behind to rot and die, although there is a slight chance – if the worm hole does lead us to a brighter, golden future – that we might all be saved.

No prizes for guessing, but a few do go. They’re all Americans, but it’s Hollywood. And shock horror, they do make it through the worm hole. Maybe there is hope. Praise be to the entrepreneurial subject!

But then here’s the thing. There are three worlds over/up/back there and none of them offer us an alternative to planet Earth. One is incredibly stormy, with massive tsunamis. In international political-economy terms, it’s sort of the Japanese option: crisis after crisis, an uneasy existence, not worth dying for. Another is so cold and barren, sort of Soviet-gulag-Siberian, sort of contemporary North Korea in winter. That won’t do, either.

There is, however, one final planet. It might do the job. It’s going to be hard work to make it an option, but hey: we’re entrepreneurial. And Americans are used to taking a place, colonizing it, re-populating it, adjusting it to their ways of life. Bingo, then: we have a new frontier and God knows that’s just what we need, if we’re ever to escape this place.

It’s all sort of entertaining. To me, though, what’s really striking about Interstellar is that we only truly reach this final planet after some wiggly-jiggly crazy physics stuff. Basically, our hero leaps into a black hole – I said, don’t laugh – and in doing so somehow manages to learn how to operate in a fifth dimension, which then lets him shape events in his past in such a way that earth can be saved and his return secured.

I’ll be honest: I was bamboozled. It was sort of like Quantum Leap on whiskey & steroids. But there’s a lesson in what happens.

Before we ever reach this third planet – the new frontier – all of us humans have to take something on board. Without learning how to control gravity, there’s simply no escape. Sure, we can leap through a worm hole or whatever, and find distant planets and all that, but we’ll never reach the truly golden one. (In Interstellar, it’s because our heroes run out of fuel. It’s only because our man gets into the fifth dimension that we/humans/Americans eventually get to the new planet.)

Here on earth, we also can go ahead and look for an alternative: a set of more reformist, state-centred capitalist ideas, or even a set of socialist sort of ideas. We can mess about us much as we like, but Interstellar teaches us that it won’t get us anywhere. There is no alternative. It’s neoliberal globalized capitalism for us all, like it or lump it. Get on with it. Activate yourself. Be good.

There’s more. Even if one day we think we’ve learned something new and can now go ahead and put it to good use to change society – in Interstellar, the idea is that we need to learn how to control gravity, as they (us in the future?) have, and then we can go about leaving worm holes around the place – all that awaits us is the frontier, populated by a select-few entrepreneurial scientific-engineering types, led by a clandestine state working behind our backs, offering nothing but the same old problems that got us here in the first place. So maybe there is an escape from Earth, but the (final? next?) frontier won’t operate any differently from what we’re already used to. Go ahead and dream, but be realistic, folks. By all means try to control gravity; it won’t get you anywhere different. There is no other society.

This brings me back to globalization. What a fate. Wageless life. Precarity. A planet of slums. Drone strikes. Austerity. Diffuse governance. Fake democracy. Maybe some work; maybe for some.

But then again maybe – and is this all Hollywood’s logic wants us to focus on? – well, maybe some good times. There’s love, bonds to connect us, sports, education, beer. Movies. Yay. Do we really need to find anything else?

Alistair Fraser

The assessment last week by the European Environment Agency that Ireland is set to fail to achieve its binding 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction target comes as no surprise. At 20% below 2005 emission levels, the Irish target is the highest possible in the EU. This in itself is another fateful legacy of ‘Celtic Tiger’, as national targets were assigned based on relative wealth (GDP per capita). As we now know, Ireland’s wealth in the mid-2000s was largely illusory. The consequences now put the government in an unenviable bind of having to make the deepest cuts in emissions while also grappling with the aftermath of one of the deepest European recessions. The line coming from Minister Alan Kelly is that the 2020 target is simply unrealistic and unachievable”. Of course, in the continuous absence of any meaningful strategic efforts to reduce emissions, epitomised by the complete failure to enact a climate change law, it will continue to remain so. Despite the progressive rhetoric on climate change, to date there has been but paltry implementation of actual measures, with the bulk of any emission reductions largely coming as an unintended consequence of the recession.

Inaction on climate policy has been driven by the classic Irish persuasion of brushing inconvenient issues under the carpet, particularly when there are no immediate consequences for doing nothing. Unfortunately, this short-sightedness has only served to dig a deeper hole from which we must now get out of. For under EU law, further procrastination is no longer an option. From now, and each year to 2020, Ireland is under a direct and binding legal obligation to reduce its emissions in a linear fashion. This will not be achieved, and is likely to force the government to avail of flexibility mechanisms and to purchase compliance, such as buying expensive carbon credits. Furthermore, in accordance with the new EU Semester budgetary surveillance process, Ireland is required to achieve its national Europe 2020 targets, which also includes the 20% reduction in greenhouse emissions. The European Commission can issue annual Country Specific Recommendations (CSRs) and these could compel Ireland to introduce specific policy measures and, if necessary, impose financial sanctions. This may include, for example, environmental tax reforms, such as a significant increase in carbon taxes or other user charges (as was included in the 2014 CSRs for Luxembourg, for example). Similar to the current furore over water charges, such fiscal measures would obviously be extremely unpopular.

EMISSIONS

So what is the scope for reducing emissions in the Ireland? Agriculture and transport together make up approximately 70% of all emissions for the purposes of the 2020 target. As part of its economic recovery plans, the government has been categorical in its position that emissions from agriculture will rise under the massive Food Harvest 2020 expansion plans. In fact, Ireland has been very active in arguing for special greenhouse gas accounting rules for agriculture. However, such rules, if they prove their worth, could not be introduced until at least 2022. As a result, in the short-term a disproportionate burden will have to be placed on the transport sector. A further unfortunate legacy of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ is that from 1990 to 2012 transport was the fastest growing source of emissions, increasing by 113%, mostly due to a threefold increase in the use of private cars. In 2009, the ‘Smarter Travel‘ policy was introduced and proposed that by 2020 car commuting to work should drop from 65% to 45%; alternatives such as walking, cycling and public transport should rise to 55% of total commuter journeys; and that future population and employment growth would predominantly take place in sustainable compact forms, which reduce the need to travel. This policy was a key component of the measures proposed to reduce Ireland’s transport emissions for the purposes of the 2020 target.

However, in the most recent draft ‘Investing in Our Transport Future’ policy document published by the Department of Transport in August, reality has bitten and these ambitious targets have now been abandoned. The report concedes that despite successive national policies which have had the consistent stated objective of promoting modal shift away from private cars and better integrating land-use and transportation, it must now be recognised that these policies have failed. As a result, given the diverse range and dispersed pattern of journey origins and destinations, there is now extremely limited potential for reducing emissions in the transport sector and “current spatial patterns remain very unfavourable to efficient and sustainable transport provision”. According to the report, even achieving widespread modal shift in our cities would yield little emission savings due to the short nature of such trips and the sheer scale of spatial sprawl and bloated commuter belts which have embedded car dependency. The report goes on to conclude that “reducing emissions from transport would require a transformation in the sector, relying on technological innovation and security of alternative fuels supply supported by enabling policies and widespread behavioural change”. What this in effect means is the extensive roll-out of electric vehicles. The government has a target of achieving 10%, or approximately 250,000 electric vehicles by 2020. There are currently around 250 in use. Worldwide there are only around 400,000.

The stored up costs of past planning failures just keep on giving and latest draft transport policy document reads as a pretty damning indictment of the spatial chaos that was allowed to take hold during  the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and the complete failure of the national policy to curb sprawl. Aside from the climate policy implications, as a consequence of the new budgetary realities, major questions are posed in the report as to whether Ireland can now afford to respond to these spatial patterns in terms of investment requirements and service provision costs. We are already seeing the implications of this with the recent decision by the National Transport Authority to approve a further increase in public transport fares.  Options being actively considered include reducing the size and/or level of performance of the funded road and rail network to a more appropriate scale (particularly rail due to its high fixed costs vis-à-vis passenger numbers) together with demand management through fiscal measures, such as road user charging based on distance and time. Clearly, the scope for such additional charges, infrastructure downgrades or service withdrawals is limited by realpolitikthe existing burden of taxation, the hardship being experienced by many families and high levels of household expenditure on transport, where people have no or inadequate access to more sustainable transport modes.

Until now the debate on Ireland’s greenhouse gas reduction targets has largely taken place in the abstract. However, the latest IPCC report this week has further firmed up the scientific evidence and the scale of mitigation required, and this issue is not going to go away. Likewise, the EU has recently agreed a post-2020 framework to reduce emissions by 40% by 2030, with national efforts again distributed on the basis of GDP per capita. Despite the recession, Ireland still has the fifth highest GDP per capita in Europe, guaranteeing a relatively high emission reduction target. In the coming years the unreality will have to end and the choices necessary to reduce emissions will come into sharp relief. None of them will be easy, inexpensive or without controversy. According to a briefing this year by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, in the absence of national mitigation, potential costs of purchasing compliance for the Irish Exchequer for the 2020 to 2030 period could have a cumulative total in the billions and there is cause for concern. Unfortunately, the fixed spatial legacy handed down by past planning failures has locked-in high fossil fuel use and entrenched car dependency which severely limits the choices now available and significantly increases the costs of mitigation options. In climate change policy jargon the ‘least cost principle’ would dictate that spatial planning practice and transport investment should be better and more firmly aligned. However, this lesson continues not to be learned – currently almost 50% of all new houses granted permission are for dispersed car dependent ‘one-off’ dwellings. It will be these same households that will bear the brunt of future transport cost inflation, downgrading of infrastructure and service withdrawals.

Gavin Daly