As the general election looms into view, the political and economic discourse is increasingly framed by a post crash narrative of economic recovery and political stability. Budget 2015 was dubbed an ‘election’ giveaway because the government engaged in a modest redistribution of some of the fruits of the emerging economic recovery. Ministers Noonan and Howlin both engaged in a fit of hubris to trumpet the recovery. They argued that the budget was beginning the process of repaying people for their sacrifices endured during six years of austere budgets. While listening to the budget speeches one was reminded of the opening soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard III:
‘Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried’ (Richard III, Act 1 Scene 1)
While the ‘winter’ may indeed be behind us, stark reminders of its dark legacy have a rather inconvenient way of making themselves visible. And so it was that amidst the debate and discussions that preceded and followed the budget, problems with fire safety in a residential building emerged. This time it was in Longboat Quay, an apartment complex in Dublin’s Docklands – once more a grim reminder of the unresolved inadequacy of the regulatory system in the construction industry during the boom.
Longboat Quay on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay Dublin
The 600 residents occupying 299 apartments located in Longboat Quay face a repair bill of €18,000 each, the overall repairs are estimated at €4.75 million. This development was built in 2006 by Bernard McNamara, who like so many of his developer colleagues massively over extended their portfolios. When the crash inevitably arrived he sought refuge in the UKs bankruptcy process. Consequently when it comes to fronting up for the repair work in Longboat Quay, McNamara will not be put upon, despite the fact that the apartment complex was built to a shoddy standard. A number of critical features were lacking: walls were not built with proper fire stops, important smoke vents were not installed resulting in a highly dangerous disregard for fire safety. These regulatory failures could have resulted in a tragedy of multiple fatalities given the numbers of people residing there.
Priory Hall undergoing refurbishment
The issues in Longboat Quay have emerged just as another icon of regulatory failure, Priory Hall, is nearing the completion of the first phase of its refurbishment and is apparently being readied for market (although from a recent visit to the site it would seem that the development is far from finished). Priory Hall in North East Dublin is in many ways a monument to the years of property driven excess in Ireland. Built in 2007 by developer Tim Mc Feeley, it contains 189 apartment units and was home to 249 residents. However, on November 17 2011, the residents were evacuated when concerns emerged about fire safety of the building.
This evacuation sparked a controversial saga that spanned the next two years, a period that saw the re-housing of the residents, the developer going bust, and the tragedy of one resident committing suicide due to the pressures of the situation. McFeeley, like McNamara, fled to the UK to declare bankruptcy. He was initially successful but it was later rescinded as court proceedings were taken against him in Ireland. He was subsequently declared bankrupt by the High Court in Ireland. Finally due to the sustained and determined campaign by the residents of Priory Hall for justice a deal was reached whereby the owner occupiers had their mortgages written off and owners of buy-to-let properties were given a moratorium on their mortgage payments. The overall cost of refurbishment is estimated at €27 million, borne by Dublin City Council – although the owner occupier apartments will be sold to recoup some of the cost to the council. This is a tale symptomatic of the crash, whereby the state is required to step in for the failures of the private market.
The hopes and aspirations of most of the former Priory Hall residents now lie elsewhere. The Priory Hall development is slowly being re-launched. Interestingly the name ‘Priory Hall’ is notably absent from advertising hoarding surrounding the redevelopment works and now the name, and its sordid story, seems consigned to history.
Priory Hall residents protest outside Dáil Éireann
Longboat Quay, Priory Hall and other developments such as Riverwalk in Ratoath, County Meath that have come to light thus far, pose the question: are these simply isolated or coincidental examples? The geographic spread and the different developers involved would suggest that coincidence is an unlikely explanation. The other common factor they share is that they were all built in 2006-2007, the final furlongs of what had been a marathon of building frenzy in Irish property development.
The reality is that these developments illustrate a more generalised problem with the certification of building regulations that was particularly exposed in the building frenzy of the Celtic Tiger. It also reveals both the failure of the state’s enforcement powers but particularly the unwillingness of the state to monitor and control private development in any meaningful way.
The foundations of these regulatory failures were laid in 1990 when the building control regulations were relaxed by the then Fianna Fail Minister for the Environment, Padraig Flynn. This represented an attempt to remove obstacles that would be seen as a disincentive to the construction industry. It also reflected broader changes aimed at enticing and encouraging private finance into urban development, such as the introduction of the Urban Renewal Act in 1986 and the Finance Act in 1987, which used tax incentives and financial inducements to encourage the private sector. In a further illustration of this new founded entrepreneurial ethos by policy makers this period also heralded the establishment of the IFSC and its new low corporate tax structure.
The easing of building regulations represented a system of light-touch regulation aimed at speeding up and facilitating construction projects. However, it was a move that has proven to be a disaster for many people in the ensuing property frenzy. Annual housing construction output increased rapidly in the boom, reaching a phenomenal 93,419 housing units in 2006. Local authorities are responsible for the monitoring and enforcement of the building regulations. They simply did not have the staff to effectively monitor this scale of construction nor were they provided with the financial resources to recruit more personnel. Hence there was little independent oversight of building standards, meaning in effect a system of self certification existed whereby an employee of the developer could sign the certificate of compliance. The consequences of this model is plain to see in Priory Hall and Longboat Quay.
There has been no national audit of the quality of the residential construction undertaken during the Celtic Tiger, so given the short cuts and shoddy practices that have emerged thus far, it is not unreasonable to suggest that many more properties could be at risk. In 2014 the regulatory situation was tightened under the Code of Practice for Inspecting and Certifying Buildings and Works. The technical documentation that accompanies developments on commencement and completion must now identify a person in the design team as an ‘assigned certifier’. This individual must be an architect, an engineer or a surveyor who is named and can be held responsible if issues arise at some future point. Clearly this is welcome but it is not without its problems. Firstly, there is no obligation for the assigned certifier to be independent of the developer or the project and secondly, concerns have been raised that the indemnity falls on the shoulders of the ‘assigned certifier’ who in reality is signing off on a project on behalf of the builder – meaning that they can be the ‘fall guy’ between the builder and the consumer.
These changes don’t mean that a new Priory Hall couldn’t re-occur. In many respects they are attempts to deal with a situation if and when a problem arises. There needs to be more emphasis on prevention under the guidance of some form of Building Control Agency which would maintain independent oversight. Responsibility is critical but someone being held responsible after a person or people have died is, while worthy, scant consolation to people potentially left behind, as is all too graphically illustrated in the recent tragedy in Carrickmines.
Michael Murphy is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at Maynooth University.
The Final Act of the Irish Electoral Cycle
We have entered the Final Act of the drama that is the Irish electoral cycle. The plot so far has involved harsh austerity, deepening neoliberalism, and widespread protest. But in the Final Act – at least in the play as scripted by the coalition government – these plot lines are expected to fade away as a new story arc emerges. Most immediately this will involve a raft of budgetary measures designed to return relatively insignificant amounts of cash to the wallets of various parts of the electorate. But, as the Capital Plan announced last week attests, it will also involve the promise of large-scale and geographically dispersed infrastructural investment.
While in one sense the Capital Plan is a mechanism in support of clientalism – allowing TDs the opportunity to bring the proverbial (and at this stage prodigal) bacon back home to their constituencies – it also serves to usher in the re-emergence of another central myth of Irish political and economic life: the myth of counterbalance.
The myth of counterbalance has been around ever since the Irish State decided to dismantle the walls of protectionism and open the country to the global economy. For various reasons Dublin has long dominated the country economically and demographically. The myth of counterbalance proposes to address this dominance by targeted policies designed to grow the economies of the other major cities.
I call this a myth not because such a feat is unattainable, but rather because, in Ireland, it has consistently proven itself to be. The myth of counterbalance emerges intermittently, the well-worn narrative dusted off to address the same intractable problem for a whole new generation.
Myth and reality
The idea of counterbalancing the growth of Dublin harks back to the Buchannan report on economic regions published in 1969. Buchannan proposed the creation of ‘poles of growth’, which would serve to counteract the unsustainable growth of Dublin. Throughout the 1970s Cork and Limerick were identified by central government as sites for targeted investment. However, while the official policy ostensibly favoured the creation of a counterbalance, in reality the recommendations of the Buchannan report were largely ignored, and later abandoned during the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In the Fanning report of 1984 on the impact of the recession on Cork, the notion of creating a counterbalance was resurrected. Fanning highlighted the need for targeted investment in infrastructure in the cities outside of Dublin, along with investment in indigenous small enterprises, in order to avoid the fallout from another round of global restructuring. In the report, Fanning advised against focussing only on short-termist policies and forgetting the goals of long-term sustainability. But then the Celtic Tiger came along and counterbalance was abandoned in favour of reducing corporation tax to a minimum and putting in place a series of incentives to attract a new round of foreign investment.
In 2002, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) once again broached the subject of counterbalance. Although politically weakened by clientalism, the NSS nevertheless put in place a framework to develop a number of ‘Gateways and Hubs’ that would act as regional centres of growth. There was a four-year gap, however, been the NSS and the publication of National Development Plan, which would link public spending to the infrastructural investment proposed in the spatial strategy.
In the interim, cities like Cork and Limerick launched ambitious development strategies that aimed to capitalise on the NSS. Cork Docklands Development Strategy, for example, inaugurated an entrepreneurial approach to development that transformed the city’s governance structures by inviting a host of private sector actors to shape urban policy. While the 2000s saw a new wave of development activity, the wider redevelopment of the docklands still depended on substantial state investment that, although promised, was not forthcoming. When the 2008 crash happened, one of the first programmes to be cut was the Gateway Development Fund for infrastructural investment.
Thus, the Celtic Tiger period of growth again failed to deliver on the promise of counterbalance.
The return of counterbalance
In the recently announced Capital Plan Cork is expected to get investment in key road infrastructure, an upgrade of Ringaskiddy Harbour and other projects including investment in a convention centre at the former Beamish and Crawford factory. The phantasmagoria of these plans was reinforced by a set of lavish visualisations shared by Simon Coveney on his facebook page. The Capital Plan is indicative of the re-emergence of counterbalance and, in the context of the eternal returns of Ireland’s boom and bust trajectories, the suggestion that we have exited the crisis and entered a new period of growth.
Establishing shot from Season Two of True Detective… Sorry, visualisation of the upgrading of the Dunkettle Interchange in Cork.
But like previous iterations of the myth of counterbalance, we can see the contradictions emerge when we look a little closer at its practicalities.
Over the last year, it had been recognised by Central and Local Government that the boundaries of Cork city did not encompass the functional urban area and that something would need to be done about it. A Local Government Review was set up to explore options. The logical solution would be for the boundaries of the City to be extended to more accurately reflect its functional area. This being Ireland, however, the simplest option practically was not necessarily seen as the simplest option politically, and – as was the case with Limerick previously – the solution proposed was not to extend the City boundary but to merge Cork City and County Councils.
Irish Examiner’s coverage of the proposed merger of Cork City and County Councils.
As reported in the Irish Examiner, Consultant Alf Smiddy and Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly argued that the merger would create “what would be by far the largest unit of government within the State”, which they contended would offer Cork the clout to successfully lobby for devolution of powers. The report stressed that the merger would allow Cork “to act as an effective counter-weight at the national level to the current economic predominance of Dublin and the eastern part of the country”. Alan Kelly argued that it would “put Cork in a position that it can compete on a regional basis with the conurbation that is around Dublin”.
Not everyone agreed. Two members of the Local Government Review, Prof Dermot Keogh and Dr Theresa Reidy (both academics at UCC), broke with the consensus and produced a minority report that stated their disagreement “with substantial parts of the draft report, the main finding, and most of the conclusions”. In a piece written for the Irish Examiner, Keogh and Reidy argued that after decades of delayed decisions on a boundary extension, the “amalgamation has been chosen as an easy political option” and that it wouldn’t solve the problems posed by Dublin’s dominance. Cork City Manager Ann Doherty later called the merger review “fundamentally flawed” and City Councillors sought to challenge the legality of Alan Kelly’s plans to proceed with it.
Cork’s boundary issues highlight the problems underpinning of the myth of counterbalance in Ireland. While ostensibly it has long been a central component of Ireland’s policy landscape, in reality it has never been pursued in any serious sense. The Irish state has been adept at spinning webs of visions, stories of ‘what will be’ woven with colourful images, maps and descriptions. But when it comes to frontloading investment into the necessary infrastructure, successive governments have balked.
Indeed, it would appear that Ireland’s period of neoliberalisation and entrepreneurialism has exacerbated the prospect of counterbalance. The suggestion that a merger of the local authorities would, by a sleight of hand, suddenly make Cork more attractive to international investment is indicative of a jaundiced approach that seeks to leverage an illusion of transformation to entice external forces to solve Ireland’s problems of uneven development.
What then is the purpose of the myth of counterbalance? It is an ideal that, while not in any realistic sense committed to, is perhaps periodically aspired to by successive governments. But more often, and particularly in the Last Act of the election cycle, it is a vehicle to carry the illusion of vision and the prospect of hope. The myth of counterbalance presents the notion that there is a ‘plan’. It tantalisingly dangles in front of the voting public the prospect that, within the crisis-ridden theatre of Irish politics, a socially and spatially equitable Ireland can be achieved. It is just beyond our reach, it seems to say, just beyond our grasp. Without fundamental change, it forever will be.