Search Results for 'Gavin Daly'


Embodied carbon is the elephant in the room that may stymie all of our best-laid housing plans

One of the biggest myths we tell ourselves, in the context of the unfolding climate emergency, is that our normative expectations of the future can, more or less, carry on as normal. This applies equally to national political debates around how to solve the housing crisis, as to anything else. Whether on the left or the right, everybody agrees that more housing supply is the answer, although the manner in which that supply should be delivered of course differs markedly.

Yet, more often than not, the issue of expanding housing supply is discussed in near total isolation from the climate crisis and how we respond to it. The most recent figures from the Central Bank suggest that approximately 34,000 housing units will be required each year for at least the next decade – a figure which is largely accepted as gospel by all sides of the housing debate and likely to be included as the headline target in the Government’s forthcoming ‘Housing for All’ plan. Other estimates, such as those from Trinity College Dublin’s Ronan Lyons, puts the required number at closer to 47,000 per annum. Regardless, the general consensus is that an awful lot of new-build housing supply is required.

Private developers and the construction industry respond with glee to such projections, using them to put downward pressure on planning and building regulations, and to delegitimate public opposition to the ever increasing preponderance of very poor quality mass housing schemes. Activists on the left, on the other hand, argue that the government must commit to a doubling housing capital expenditure, as recommended by the ESRI, so as to achieve a build target of at least 20,000 public homes annually, insisting that anything less is just tinkering around the edges of an ever ballooning crisis.

The trouble is that building new housing is an incredibly carbon and energy intensive process, a fact which gets virtually no coverage whatsoever in the debates. While the data inevitably varies, research has shown that, on average, the carbon emissions associated with the construction of a new dwelling in Ireland, known as embodied carbon, is around 30 tonnes. This does not include the ongoing operational emissions associated with the use of the dwelling over its life-cycle or its eventual demolition, just the upfront carbon emitted during the manufacturing of the building materials, the transport of those materials to the site and the construction process itself.

Traditional cement and concrete based products, which remain highly predominant in new building in Ireland, account for roughly half of this embodied carbon. Indeed, concrete has been described as the most environmentally destructive material on earth, emitting 2.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases annually and responsible for 8% of global emissions, approximately three times that of aviation. The figures on worldwide concrete use are truly staggering. Since 2003, for example, China has poured more concrete every three years than the USA managed in the entire 20th century. If concrete was a country, it would be the third highest emitter of carbon in the world and it is the second most used substance globally, after water.

In Ireland, buildings are responsible for approximately 40% of energy related carbon emissions, with 28% coming from operational carbon and 11% coming from embodied carbon. However, while the policy and media attention has focused almost exclusively on the issue of operational carbon, such as the roll-out of energy retrofitting programmes, according to the Irish Green Building Council (IGBC), following the introduction of new building regulations in 2019, it is embodied carbon which now accounts for the major proportion (c.50%) of the total life-cycle carbon emissions of new homes.

Taking an average value of 30 tonnes of carbon per dwelling unit, building 34,000 houses would result in the production of over 1 million tonnes of emissions every year. The IGBC has estimated that, unless embodied carbon is radically reduced, constructing the 500,000 housing units envisaged as part of the National Planning Framework, and all the associated infrastructure, would result in between 38 and 50 million tonnes of carbon being emitted over the period to 2040.

The recently adopted Climate Change & Low Carbon Amendment Act 2021, however, requires that Ireland’s emissions fall by an annual average of approximately 3.5 million tonnes per year to 2030, halving our total annual emissions to just 31 million tonnes per annum by the end of the decade. It is evident that when housing supply and climate targets are set out side-by-side, the dilemma is stark. Developing that many new housing units while seeking to reduce emissions by that magnitude is problematic, to say the very least. The irony here is that if we were actually currently solving our housing crisis by providing much more supply, we would be simultaneously making our climate challenge worse, much worse.

At present, there are no firm proposals to regulate embodied carbon in Ireland. However, there are some promised changes at EU level and a number of European countries have already introduced measures which may ultimately have an influence here. However, given the immense lobbying power of the Irish Concrete Federation (ICF) and the general deference to the construction and property sectors, alongside the huge political pressure to urgently deliver new, affordable homes, it is probably unlikely to expect Ireland to be an early mover on enhanced regulation.

The difficulty of course is that concrete is both abundant and cheap, very cheap, accounting for just 3.4% of the cost of an average semi-detached house, according to the ICF. It is also a brilliantly adaptable building material, hence its ubiquity. The ICF estimate that delivering 500,000 new houses over the next 20 years will require the production of 1.5 billion tonnes of aggregates, which is also essential for concrete and cement production. The industry has therefore been busy lobbying for new fast-track planning rules to facilitate expanded quarry development, despite it’s rather dubious history of planning and regulatory compliance. To this day, there are dozens of illegal quarries operating throughout the country, causing significant environmental damage. Even during the recent high-profile mica and pyrite scandals, political criticism of the industry has been extremely muted.

The IGBC, on the other hand, whom have been a very lonely voice in trying to raise the profile of the hidden significance of embodied carbon, has been advocating for Ireland to commit to Net Zero Carbon Buildings, which would account for both the upfront and ongoing carbon emissions. At the very least, this would involve prioritising alternative and more sustainable construction materials which are low or zero carbon, such as the greater use of ‘green concrete’ and locally sourced timber products. The bad news is that many of these alternatives are in their infancy or face significant technical barriers to adoption, not least cost. Worse still, is that the main problem is really a matter of scale and the sheer demand for new buildings and urban infrastructure, which greatly outruns any carbon efficiency gains.

The IPCC Report published this week has unequivocally shown that we have entered the age of consequences and we are witnessing first-hand the devastating effects of global heating wreaking havoc around the world. Increasingly our lives will become dictated by rigorous adherence to carbon budgets, due to be published shortly, which will intersect all policy spheres, including housing, in multiple, complex ways. It is perhaps because of our inherited, implicit biases towards departmentalised, technical and supply-side solutions that we consistently fail to apprehend that climate change is a classic wicked problem. For example, we are already experiencing a chronic shortage in the supply of timber and any major expansion of the use of alternative low-carbon building technologies to address embodied carbon, especially the use of biomaterials, would have very significant knock-on implications for land use, particularly in the context of competing priorities such as biodiversity, carbon sequestration and food production. Similarly, Ireland is currently experiencing acute skilled labour shortages and lack of capacity in the construction sector, exacerbated by the pandemic, which may even see it have to choose between building new homes and retrofitting existing homes.

University College Dublin academic, Aidan Regan, has been to the fore in attempting to break down the silo mentality infecting housing policy debates, insisting instead that it must be seen as part of a broader urban crisis. To this, we urgently need to add the climate crisis – not just in respect of the relatively well understood issue of operational emissions, but also the very significant hidden challenge of embodied carbon. Moreover, achieving emissions targets directly calls into question Ireland’s preferred means of delivering new housing – the private market. Over the past decade, government has repeatedly foot-dragged on introducing higher building efficiency standards, fearful that increasing costs would be an impediment to supply and deter international capital. Given the basic profit fundament governing the property market, it is probably unreasonable to expect that it will be capable of delivering the homes needed in the context of an increased regulatory burden. This is, yet again, further justification for a much greater direct state involvement in the regulation and supply of new housing.

All of this of course will also have profound implications for how we plan and develop our cities and towns into the future. It is often said ‘the greenest building is one that is already built’ and it is estimated that Ireland has somewhere in the region of 200,000 vacant homes, enough for at least six years supply. Currently housing targets are allocated centrally and handed down from on high for local councils to prepare their zoning plans. It’s a simple numbers game. However, living within carbon budgets will mean that planning policy will have to become less about zoning, supply and densification within ‘compact growth’ principles but increasingly about how to avoid new building and infrastructure altogether through the creative reuse and repurposing of existing built stock within existing urban footprints. It will also mean that, instead of slavishly responding to market vagaries, planning will have to become more interventionist and directly involved in dictating what gets built, where, when and by whom (e.g. homes v. hotels etc).

Source: IGBC

Using a simple linear trajectory, the MarEI Institute at University College Cork has estimated that Ireland’s maximum carbon budget to 2030 is in, or around, 423 million tonnes. This budget will be subject to many competing demands (e.g. agriculture) and very complex decarbonisation challenges (e.g. transport). On our current trajectory we are estimated to emit 654 million tonnes over the same period. The challenge is without parallel. How we choose to spend our available carbon budget will be a matter of political will and choice involving very painful decisions, at least in the short-run, in staring down business-as-usual vested interests.

None of this, of course, is to argue against developing new housing. There is an absolutely necessity to provide high-quality net zero carbon homes. But as I have argued before, we may also need to downscale our taken-for-granted assumptions of very high future housing demand, which are substantially based on an extrapolation of historic trends of high economic growth and immigration into the future. In a climate changed world, past results are not a reliable guide of future performance. Lands zoned for housing may also need to be re-tasked for other uses, such as providing more natural green spaces and adaptation to ever more severe and disruptive weather events (e.g. flood attenuation, urban heat island effects etc.). It is hard to overestimate the revolutionary implications this will have for, not just planning, but also land markets, the entire functioning of the economy, fiscal policy, balanced regional development etc., and will require nothing less than a transformed planning culture.

We have not just entered the age of consequences, but the age of (very hard) choices.

Gavin Daly

*This blog post was referenced in a recent media article by Dr. Rory Hearne in the Irish Examiner. You can also listen to the article on the Reboot Republic .

Image

Back in 2009, at the height of global financial crisis, John Lovering in a hard-hitting editorial in International Planning Studies declared that, finally, it had happened.

The recession marked ‘the end of planning as we had known it’. There was no going back. The neoliberal model of urban policy-making, “it’s inequities, it’s harmful social and cultural effects, it’s disastrous impact on the environment and its economic unsustainability” was dead.

Except of course, like previous crises, it wasn’t.

Phoenixlike, the strange non-death of neoliberalism emerged unfazed. The Irish planning profession, anxious to deflect from its complicity in the Celtic Tiger and unsure of what else to do, slavishly followed along as every manner of idiotic mass tourism hotel, student housing scheme, build-to-rent apartment development, co-living unit and high-rise office block was approved, each testament to the parasitic power and private fortunes of international capital wrapped up in some Orwellian supply-side doublespeak of what is good for us.

Fast forward ten years, and there has been much talk again recently, in light of the COVID19 crisis, of the urgent need for a deep structural change in the planning and organisation of our urban environments. We have seen some promising signs in this direction as cities across Europe, including Dublin, seize the opportunity to repurpose streets from private cars to pedestrians and cyclists – initiatives long held back by reactionary interests – and a greater acknowledgement of the real value of green spaces, clean air, noiselessness, social cohesion and nature in urban liveability. These may be temporary, but demonstrate what is possible.

The pandemic has also laid bare the recrudesce of a planning system that has once more been reduced to a reactive, short-term and opportunity-driven activity which is likely to see the our cities littered with overcapacity and stranded assets.

The economic impact of COVID19 is, as yet, unknown but projections suggest it is likely to be severe and turbulent. As in 2009, the planning profession is about to be again sharply thrust up against what is probably its chief intellectual weakness – what to do when the land market is rendered largely inoperative? In such a situation the pattern of land-use will have to be determined administratively, but planning, as a body of knowledge, offers no ideas as to how this might be done. Paralysis ensues.

Like all cultural shocks, the COVID19 disruption presents liminal spaces, moments of cultural rupture, to rethink and do things differently, and to listen to alternative voices from outside the mainstream proposing hitherto unthinkable solutions – but who are almost always ignored – that radically challenge our take-for-granted worldviews in ways that is impossible through incremental change.

In order to make the best of this opportunity, planners will first have to wake up to the inexorable socio-ecological realities and discontinuities that will transform their identities in the 21st Century and recognise that, as Lovering advised, the best place for many of the policies pursued over the past decades is in the bin.

First to go should be the speculative, pseudo-planning ‘compact city’ doctrine and the much-purported groupthink amongst developers and urban growthists that urban regeneration needs to be hyper-densified in order to be sustainable, but which has thus far failed to regenerate much beyond the bottom-line of the property developers, financiers and consultants.

Alternative pathways abound, leaning on insights from the peripheries of orthodox received wisdom. The City of Amsterdam, for example, has recently adopted a new holistic strategy for transformative urban action based on the pioneering ‘Doughnut Economics’ of British economist, Kate Raworth.

The Amsterdam ‘City Donut’ presents a long-term planning policy vision which seeks to supplant the growth-orientated and competitive commodification of the city with ‘a thriving, regenerative and inclusive city for all citizens, while respecting the planetary boundaries’ to tackle climate breakdown and ecological collapse. To this end Amsterdam has joined the Thriving Cities Initiative (TCI), a collaboration between C40, Circle Economy, and Doughnut Economics Action Lab, which works with cities pursuing such a transformation.

Such dissident thinking, which has long been ‘beyond the pale’ for Irish policy elites, resonates with the open letter, signed by more than a thousand academics and experts from more than sixty countries, calling for Degrowth – a democratically planned yet adaptive, sustainable, and equitable downscaling of the economy – to be put at the centre of the COVID19 response, to build a more just and sustainable society and prevent further crises.

The Degrowth urban manifesto seeks to give the city back to its people, radically reorganise transport and mobility, (re)naturalise and decommodify the city, and, rather than densify, significantly increase space dedicated to green space, tree cover; biodiversity and urban ecosystems; and public housing, with a focus urban mobility on cycling, walking and public transport. These ideas reflect new ideas emerging from ‘post-growth’ planning thought which emphasises, solidarity, wellbeing, connectedness, empathy and a lifestyle based on principles of sufficiency.

Supporting growth and an irrational belief in ever rising asset values has, of course, always been the primary and unquestioned motivation of urban planning. It shall come as no surprise that, just as it was in the aftermath of the 2009 crisis, embracing new ethics and post-materialistic values will be stringently resisted by the old order who, as long as there are no viable alternatives, will engage in predatory delay insisting that the solution to the crisis is to work even harder at business-as-usual. Neoliberal urbanism has, after all, demonstrated extraordinary asymmetric capacity to crimp and contain disconfirming alternatives .

However, these are ideas whose time is coming. Nature is foreclosing our culture. To return to Lovering’s exhortation, planners will not be leading the action here, however “if they can shed the myopic habits of recent years and recapture the broader social and ethical inspirations with which the very concept of planning in modern times began, then planning might once again become worthy of the name”.

We cannot afford to waste the opportunity of crisis once more. Resigned realism is the best way to ensure the least transformative outcome.

Gavin Daly

@gavinjdaly @irelandplanners

*This blog has also been posted on Planners Network Ireland. If you wish to add your voice to other progressive planning voices, please sign-up!

Connolly Quarter

Densification. It’s all the rage. Everywhere, everyone agrees we must densify, “build up, not out!” the now familiar slogan goes, upzoning and compacting our urban footprints, all in the cause of increasing housing supply, boosting competitiveness and avoiding sprawl. Influential apostles of this mantra, such as David McWilliams and Ronan Lyons et al. (typically, always economists), effuse that our cities must go ever higher, easing restrictions on building height, while the populace must simply accustom itself to living in smaller housing, if it wants housing at all.

And it’s certainly working. Following Minister Eoghan Murphy’s diktat on building heights, we have seen a preponderance of new development proposals across our cities of such perpetual sameness, branded and bland homogeneity, a form of ‘Zombie Urbanism’, where the dull compulsion of economic and political space merge toward the elimination of all differences.

The new ‘Connolly Quarter’, for example (pictured above), proposed by Ballymore Group on lands owned by state body, CIE, in Dublin’s North Inner City proposes 741 build-to-rent apartments in towers of up to 23 storeys, including  228 studios, 256 one-bedroom, 251 two-bedroom and just 6 three-bedroom units all aimed at the “upper end of the private rental market”.

Here in this rationalised, functionalised and, above all, ideologically planned and designed space everything will look nice and urban, but in terms of social and community life, it’s monotonous, sterile and dead. Elite tenements where you literally live to work. I guess we are supposed to just count ourselves lucky that ten percent of these units may eventually trickle down as social housing or, that by providing high-end housing, it will free up supply for the poor. All hail the supply gods.

It was not so long ago that the North Inner City was in the news for other reasons. The Mulvey Report, commissioned by the government in response to a string of gangland violence, concluded that “there was a strong and deep local community sense of being ‘left behind’ during the Celtic Tiger period in relation to the IFSC/Docklands developments and the ‘false promises’ given and a real and genuine concern that this will be repeated” including “the possibility of further ghettoisation in the area between centres of affluence along the Quays and the ‘legacy’ areas of urban/community neglect and deprivation.” (p.13).

Mulvey recommended a carefully planned and integrated strategy to overcome the widespread and perceived sense of inequality and of a divided city epitomised by the stark contrast between the “modern architecture, world leading businesses and high worth residences within hundreds of metres of a large concentration of social housing with little or no business activity within the community” (p.13). The plan was to carefully link the ‘place’ and ‘people’ aspects of the local area to improve social cohesion and wellbeing, through the bottom-up and grassroots harnessing of community and heritage assets.

Instead, following decades of disinvestment and stigmatisation, we are now seeing the rapid resurgence of the seemingly never-ending spread of a market-driven policy of gentrification – what Neil Smith calls ‘generalised gentrification’. As rents have exploded, private capital is flowing back to where the rate of return is highest in a systematic attempt to recommodify and retake the inner city from disadvantaged communities in the form of balkanised student housing schemes, exclusive hotels, speculative high-end build-to-rent units and upmarket offices. Islands of privilege in a sea of displaced exclusion.

In seeking to close down any criticisms, visualisations depicting the everyday life of successful, creative professionals and highly-paid millennials ambling around their trendy new cosmopolitan quarter against the backdrop of hazy blue skies, and all the resplendent transformative qualities that the development will allegedly bring to the area when completed, are increasingly being mobilised as key discursive devices, such that any objection is curbed. For who could really be against it?

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Indeed, in the aftermath of the recession, the triumphant dominance of a market-driven supply-side polemic has become remarkably effective in censoring dissent alongside an alarming rise of intolerance in national discourse of differing viewpoints or opinions in the planning system, with so called ‘NIMBYs’ habitually berated for allegedly impeding supply. To criticise is to be subjected to a form of gaslighting and routinely discredited for consigning countless thousands to a life of homelessness. After all, it is the role of ideologies to depoliticise and secure the assent of the exploited and dispossessed through the colonisation of commonsense values, ideals and priorities.

Cuttings from the Ronan Real Estate Group/Colony Capital newspaper advertisement and #growupdublin social media campaign seeking building height policy changes. 

In the process, neoliberalised public policy initiatives, so favoured by the current government, such as the ‘fast-track’ Strategic Housing Development planning process, present further restrictions on opportunities for public participation and meaningful debate. The final ideological coup de grâce is the proposed new Housing & Planning Bill 2019 which seeks to dramatically rollback public access to justice in planning cases via the courts.

None of this is to say that urban consolidation is unimportant. We have seen so much sprawl, and all of problems it brings, that it is hard to see how its malign impacts can now be reversed. In fact, despite the present emphasis on urban containment, in a parallel universe offstage from the contentious and loud debates over our city skylines, business-as-usual urban dispersion continues apace, with little evidence that the new found emphasis on density will reverse it anytime soon.

However, it is also incumbent on planning professionals to look beyond the inveterate econocratic ‘growth machine’ dogmas currently shaping our cities, and to consider the real structural dynamics at play, and who benefits, which are often beyond the grasp of their inhabitants. Like the living dead, these zombie doctrines are alive in our heads and our language, but no longer visible to us in understanding our urban realities.

In truth, the densification/supply nexus is now being usefully exploited as a ploy to unwittingly conflate the needs of society with the needs of capital so as to legitimise the conditions for maximising profit and to conquer and shape urban space for the short-run priorities of finance, of capital, of economic and political elites, of those with power, a situation which is not unique to Ireland.

A more perceptive critical understanding of present-day urbanisation is particularly important at this specific historical juncture. Our built environment is long-lived and the impacts of the urban form we create today will be multidecadal, stretching into the lives of many generations and into a future of unknown resources, pollution and unstable climatic conditions, including probable major inundations of all of our coastal cities.

One of the chief justifications for the compact city ideal is the claimed environmental dividend particularly for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through, for example, increased efficiency and use of sustainable transport modes. However, this enthralled enthusiasm for so called ‘sustainable urbanism’ is contradicted by multiple empirical studies which demonstrate that there is no such correlation.

This literature instead argues that the inured idea that ‘density is destiny’ may actually run directly counter to the problems we are trying to solve, but gains no traction in planning debates or urban conversations. Indeed, higher density urban forms are, on the whole, more, not less, consumptive of resources than medium- and lower-density development, with affluent, high-density areas dominated by small and single-person households having, by far, the highest environmental impacts (See also Næss et al. 2020).

As discussed by Brendan Gleeson in his book, The Urban Condition:  “Straightforward density advocacy has the potential to mask and distort the real geography of environmental burden that derives from unequal consumption capacities and patterns” (p.115). The fetishised hyper-densified green city ideal is therefore, in reality, an ecological fallacy, an impossible utopia, and simply the latest fix to align the elite rent-seeking interests that dominate neoliberal urbanism with the resurgent environmental agenda.

What should be at the forefront in planning debates is, not densification, but what type of city we wish to create. Most of the low-density and sprawling built environment that has evolved over the last century will still be with us at the end of this century. We are not starting from a blank slate and, even if planning could implement rapid change, it is unlikely that this could reduce emissions of the scale and urgency required, as it is largely beyond its levers to control, diverting our attention from real urban challenges.

This points planning’s purpose towards the field of adaptation. That is, to propose that new development in cities, towns and suburbs must be planned, designed and, crucially, retrofitted for people as progressive, humane, accessible, liveable, equitable, green and just spaces for downscaled consumption within planetary boundaries, and not just sites for maximised urban production and profit. Density is not our destiny. Our future should be built around a renewed ‘Right to the City’.

Gavin Daly

“There is a revolution in transport coming”, An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar proudly pronounced this week as he launched the Government’s latest ‘sensible’ and ‘pragmatic’ Climate Action Plan to ‘nudge’ people to make the right decisions to reduce carbon emissions over the long-term. I guess he didn’t fully get the memo. Perhaps twenty years ago such slothlike incrementalism might have been appropriate, maybe even auspicious. However, in the midst of the seriousness, scale and absolute emergency of our present planetary arson, such a chary level of business-as-usual lethargy is an irretrievably misconceived and delusive policy goal.

In his book, After Sustainability, John Foster describes three types of denial. The first, ‘literal denial’, is the type we’re all familiar with. The second, ‘interpretative denial’, accepts the facts but rejects the meaning, interpreting them in a way that makes them more benign to our personal psychology, in what Norwegian psychologist Kari Norgard calls the social ‘construction of innocence’ (e.g. Ireland is too small to make a difference; What about China?; If we stop producing beef, it will be produced elsewhere etc.).

The third form, ‘implicative denial’, which Foster argues is the most pernicious, is where we accept the facts and the interpretation but suppress the psychological, political and moral implications that would logically follow. For Foster, implicative denial is rife in our contemporary culture and is why so many of us, politicians and campaigners included, can continue to talk about how important climate change is without ever seriously confronting its reality and actually doing something about it.

An instructive example of this is the continued exaltation of Electric Vehicles (EVs) in Irish climate policy. This fixation with technologising ourselves out of our runaway transport emissions through ‘clean and green’ private mobility has been assiduous feature of all recent government policies, with each failed strategy being accompanied by ever more dizzying targets.

The original target was 250,000 by 2020. The National Development Plan, published last year, proposed half a million EVs by 2030. The latest strategy goes all out with a plan to increase the total number (currently less than a few thousand) to somewhere north of 800,000 by 2030 i.e. in 11 years. By way of comparison, there are around five million EVs currently in existence in the entire world.

The heedless assumptions at the heart of the EV technotopia was laid bare in a recent open letter by Professor Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the UK’s Natural History Museum, which explains that, for the UK alone to meet its 2050 EV targets, it would require two times the current total annual world cobalt output, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, 75% of the world’s lithium production and at least 50% of the world’s copper production. If that analysis was extrapolated worldwide, global output in all rare earth metals and other scarce natural elements would have to grow to implausible levels.

All of the elements used in battery production are finite and in limited supply. Scarcity of cobalt is already threatening the production of EVs, with over half of the world’s supply mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo and regularly linked to reports of child labour exploitation and horrendous environmental destruction. There is also currently no environmentally safe way of recycling lithium-ion batteries. And that is before we get to the thorny issue of where all the clean renewable energy, grid infrastructure and accompanying resources required to power EVs and the complete electrification of society will come from?

Add in the fact that Project Ireland 2040 proposes an aggressive strategy to double the size of the economy in the next 20 years, increase the population by over a million people and the current predilection for promoting Ireland as a location for data centres, which are projected to account for as much as 31% of Irish electricity demand by 2027, and all of this starts to become very far-fetched very quickly.

EVs also do nothing to resolve chronic traffic congestion, road investment requirements, sedentary lifestyles and all of the other pathologies associated with excessive private car use.  A full life-cycle assessment of EVs shows that, in reality, they produce very significant amounts of greenhouse gases, particularly during production, such that it is difficult to see how replacing the Irish fleet of two million fossil-fuel powered cars with two million somewhat-less-polluting electric cars, is going to get us anywhere near where we need to be in terms of emissions reductions.

It is often said that politics is the art of the possible. It should therefore come as no surprise that; given the complete dereliction of spatial planning policy over the last three decades, the resultant sprawl and path-dependent carbon lock-in; the impulsive political instinct is to passively appeal to technological quick-fixes. Deus ex machina.

According to Foster, this is how we let ourselves off the hook, “quasi-intentionally not following up on the uncomfortable implications” of what we know and thereby suppressing any real discussion on changing the way we live, such that nothing really has to change. It is a truism, after all, that capitalism can never resolve its environmental contradictions, it can only move them around. While we can countenance different cars, one thing we cannot accept, is less cars.

In reality, only a drastic reduction in private car use through bold policies to promote public transport, walking and cycling, with the balance of travel demand accommodated through electric car sharing schemes, will give renewable energy any chance of meeting the energy requirements of the transport sector. That’s what a transport revolution looks like. Unfortunately, imagining a post-car future is paradigmatically rejected as a violent encroachment on personal freedoms, which is ultimately the ideological rock that all meaningful climate action flounders upon.

One of the most progressive policies in recent years, ‘Smarter Travel – A New Transport Policy for Ireland 2009 – 2020’ which, contrary to utopic hyperreal EV futures, actually included defined targets for reducing travel demand, travel distances and private car ownership. This strategy committed to 500,000 more people taking alternative means to commute to work to the extent that the total share of car commuting will drop from 65% to 45%; walking, cycling and public transport would rise to 55% of total commuter journeys; and eliminating long distance commutes.

Smarter Travel, which as far as I am aware, still remains official government policy, has been quietly abandoned to the peripheries such that it received just one insipid mention in the Climate Action Plan. A Department of Transport report in 2014 concluded that its targets were impossible. The fact that such policies are considered impossible while the blind optimism of the aforementioned EV targets are somehow considered plausible, says a lot about the irrational hyperstistion of our current zeitgeist. Paradoxical is too weak a term for this. Its dishonest.

Climate change demands a politics of the impossible, made possible. A politics which problematises climate change in purely technical terms is simply a project to sustain and defend socio-economic structures that are well known to be unsustainable. The reality is that the chances of now remaining below two degrees of global warming are slim to none. Life this century is therefore likely be accompanied by a significant deterioration of humanity’s physical, social, and economic environment and, for much of the planet’s population, will become increasingly precarious.

The actions we must be calling for to negotiate our climate changed future are, not reactionary techno-managerialist platitudes, but real political asks for systemic change such as an abandonment of the arbitrary fetishisation of GDP growth as the dominant benchmark of societal progress and wellbeing (as recently in New Zealand  and Wales), land reform, basic income and natural climate solutions all of which are conspicuously absent from the Irish climate change debate.

It’s not my intention to be unnecessarily churlish and despairing of the Climate Action Plan, which does repeat many long-standing and worthwhile progressive policy measures, but as Foster puts it: “willed optimism, kept afloat by denial, is not an alternative to despair but a form of it”.

Gavin Daly

PN

Invitation to planning practitioners, academics, geographers, students, environmentalists, community activists and individuals to establish a Planners Network Chapter for Ireland.

The Planners Network – the Organisation of Progressive Planning – is a community of professionals, activists, academics and students in North America involved in physical, social, economic and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, and dedicated to ideas and practices that advance radical change in our political and economic systems, through planning.

Since its inception by Chester Hartman in 1975, it has been a voice for progressive professionals and activists who believe that decisions about how land is used, who benefits and who loses, matter profoundly, and that planning should be used as a tool to eliminate the great inequalities of wealth and power in our society, rather than to maintain and justify the status quo. Working with an eclectic mix of other progressives; including those with an interest in environmental justice, community development, housing, and globalisation; it seeks to be an effective political and social force to inform public opinion and public policy, and to provide assistance to those seeking to understand, control, and change the forces which affect their everyday lives. The network hosts regular events and has amassed a wealth of publications, including the wonderfully titled ‘Student Disorientation Guide‘ which should be required reading for all planning students. Outside North America, a Planners Network has been established in the UK who have produced their own manifesto for planning and land reform. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an equivalent in Ireland.

Over the past ten years, contributors to this blog have documented the central role of planning in the pell-mell urban growth of the Celtic Tiger and the ensuing ruinous property crash, and offered a counterpoint to neoliberalism’s dominant status as political ideology in responding to the crisis. These were heady times, when the fallout from the crisis was visceral and raw and, from within the moment of economic wreckage, there was time, space and inspiration to write and debate transformative alternatives to mainstream urban planning. True to form, however, the economic recovery has been accompanied by an ideological ‘circling of the wagons’ and the swift resurgence of uncritical pro-market, pro-development discourses, inducing reassuring stimuli that the underlying structural problematic in the political-economy has been durably resolved. As blog contributor Cian O’Callaghan wrote back in 2014, for many of us it has been dispiriting to see the collective zeal of post-crisis grassroots civic action dissipate, which seems only likely to set the stage for the next inevitable crisis, with perhaps far worse impacts.

With the publication of the Project Ireland 2040 and the associated Draft Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies, the ideological continuity of neoliberalism has resurfaced more powerfully than ever. Meanwhile, the mainstream professional representative bodies, such as the Irish Planning Institute, have remained comfortably conformist despite a supply-side deregulatory onslaught and the emergence of a powerful, and largely unchallenged, YIMBY sophistry. In a sense, this is unsurprising, as it has never been the prerogative of planners to dwell on planning’s deeper ideological nature and their own political agency, preferring instead to view their role as neutral and routine that transcends politics in pursuit of the ‘common good’. As economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote: “Laissez-faire was planned, planning was not”. Meanwhile, the symptoms of neoliberalism and the irreversible damage inflicted by the politics of endless growth are increasingly writ large in spiralling homelessness; housing unaffordability; longer commuting; inadequate public services; uneven spatial development; rising inequality; growing rates of obesity; political alienation and, above all, climate change and the unfolding global ecological emergency.

If, like me, you believe that there is a renewed need for a platform for forward-thinking progressive voices, or ‘radical planners’, to work together along the lines of the principles of the Planners Network and speak out against the hidden planning rationalities that increase inequalities and injustices, and that contemporary planning practice in Ireland is in need of a thoroughgoing introspection which fundamentally questions its very purpose, get in touch. Such an endeavour may be a hopelessly naïve and quixotic call to arms, and may become more of self-help group, but optimism of the will and all of that!

If interested in collaborating contact me at: gdaly@liverpool.ac.uk and put ‘Planners Network’ in the subject line. You can also leave a comment below or contact me on Twitter.

Gavin Daly  

 

Make no little plans, once wrote American modernist architect and planner Daniel Burnham, as “they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Twas ever thus. National planning has always been the political terrain of narrating a grand hegemonic fantasy of an ideology that is never clearly expressed. With the publication of ‘Project Ireland 2040’, jointly comprising the National Planning Framework (NPF) and the National Development Plan (NDP), Ireland’s recrudescence as a neoliberal vassal state is reaching towards its apotheosis. No longer a ‘society’, we are now a ‘project’ and there is no doubt as to what the project is about – growth! In fact, a stupendous 1.1 million additional people, 660,000 new jobs and 500,000 additional homes in the next twenty-two years.

It is perhaps testament to how normalised growthism has become in colonising the national consciousness that these quixotic projections were near-universally greeted as a deterministic fait accompli. Their provenance, or desirability, has caused not even a ripple of debate or discussion amongst the national commenteriat, planners or academics. On the contrary, with remarkable consensus they have been largely hubristically hailed as a self-congratulatory and entirely logical consequence of Ireland’s post-recession economic renaissance and prospects, and even, by business lobby groups, as far too conservative.

It is true, of course, that, if the past was a reliable guide to future events, demographic change actually exceeded the growth scenario selected in the NPF’s predecessor, the National Spatial Strategy, rising by 844,662 between 2002 and 2016. This primarily occurred during the rapid pell-mell expansion of the Celtic Tiger era and driven chiefly by natural increase.  This time, according to the ESRI population and economic projections which underpin the NPF, population growth will be principally propelled by sustained in-migration as a consequence of “a relatively benign scenario which would see Irish GDP grow by 3 per cent or more each year until 2040.” (p.5). In other words, the NPF projections are fundamentally tied to the immigration patterns that would arise from this very optimistic economic trajectory, which, it is accepted, exceeds that anticipated for most international economies.

This magical growth rate of 3 per cent has become something of a fetishised article of faith amongst economists in recent years and fits with the conventional wisdom that it is the minimum acceptable level for ‘sustainable’ economic growth. In fact, the current mid-range ESRI econometric model runs only to 2030, so the last ten years in the projection horizon were simply linearly extrapolated forward to 2040. It is worth mentioning that a compound growth rate of 3 per cent per annum to 2040 would see an approximate cumulative doubling of total Irish GDP over this period.

Despite repeated caveats in the ESRI report which heavily emphasises that “the projections should not be taken as a forecast, but as a scenario that might arise given a set of assumptions and unchanged modelling parameters” and “subject to significant uncertainties” (p.15), these population ‘projections’ have now been unproblematically transcribed into ‘targets’ for an additional 1.1 million people (25% greater that the ESRI baseline) which the NPF, at a minimum, shall aim to achieve. A number of alternative sub-national ‘macro-spatial’ options were evaluated in order to allocate the regional distribution of this growth, albeit the headline national population target was considered a non-negotiable point of departure i.e. consideration of alternatives was permissible so long as they remained fully circumscribed within the clearly defined parameters of what was open for discussion. Notably, in a separate study, quoted extensively in the analysis underpinning the NPF, three hypothetical population scenarios were examined, whereby the difference between the ‘Low’ and ‘High’ scenario was over 800,000 by 2030. Regardless, and without much justification, the NPF discounted such options and selected a high growth scenario, apparently on account of [t]he lack of fully worked alternative scenarios at the national level that might encompass higher and lower growth than the baseline” (p.4).

Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 12.23.04Alternative Population Projections in Wren et al. (2017)

The inadmissibility of genuine alternatives and the pensée unique of a ‘growth first’ approach to spatial development has, of course, long been recognised as a core feature of planning. In this view, ‘Project Ireland 2040’ is simply the latest attempt of an unquenchable political desire to capture and reorientate planning, and its associated geoinstitutional architecture, to provide for a new ‘spatial fix’ of collective consumption and to re-establish the self-fulfilling conditions for sustained capital accumulation. In order to displace political tensions, the resurgence of the inveterate growth agenda has now being wrapped in the soothing banner of a renewed national imaginary of harmonious balanced growth and parity, despite the sustained evidence (even, most recently, from the World Bank) that acute socio-spatial disparities are increasing globally, and will continue to increase, despite all territorial policies to the contrary.

The inherent contradiction of this ideological commitment is laid bare in the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Statement accompanying the NPF, belatedly published over a month after its launch. Climate Change is touted as one of the central pillars of ‘Project Ireland 2040’ with an aggregate reduction in emissions of at least 80% targeted by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels) in line with binding international obligations. Due to its exalted status, agriculture has been effectively exempted, with all the burden of reduction efforts now to come from the electricity generation, built environment and transport (the so called ‘EGBET’ sectors). Greenhouse gas emissions in these sectors is currently running at 31.8 Mt CO2eq (c. 6.6 t CO2eq per capita) and, if population targets were to be achieved, by 2040 emissions would need to decrease to 11.8 Mt CO2eq i.e. a wholly implausible 2 t CO2eq per capita. By 2050, per capita emissions in the EGBET sectors would need to be further reduced to less than 1 t CO2eq per capita, assuming there is no further population growth targeted beyond 2040 (For reference, this is the approximate emissions per capita of most ‘developing’ countries e.g. Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola etc). To date only economic recession and mass emigration (c.2008 – 2013) have been proven to be effective in achieving the scale of emissions reductions required to meet our 2050 trajectory.

This abstraction from reality is further underscored by the very latest EPA projections, published last week, which show that, following a brief downward interregnum during the recession, Ireland’s emissions have rebounded lockstep with the economic growth and, at best, an abject 1% reduction of emissions will be achieved by 2020 compared to a target of 20%. As it turns out, economic growth and emissions reductions are, as long predicted, inimical goals and, despite the mantra of ecological modernisation and ‘sustainable growth’, economic growth does not result in absolute higher returns to resource efficiency (See Jackson (2009) for a useful exposition on this). The EPA also projects that emissions will continue to grow in tandem with a growing economy and, with all existing and currently planned measures, a further meagre decrease of emissions of 1% is projected by 2030 compared to a target of 30%.

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Latest EPA Projections for the EGBET Sectors (2018)

It should be noted that the current EPA projections are based on a future population in 2035 of 5.2 million, 650,000 less than the NPF 2040 targets, and do not take into account any of the policy measures included in ‘Project Ireland 2040’. However, for Ireland to achieve its 2050 emissions reduction target alongside 2040 growth targets, only the mobilisation of revolutionary policies and investment measures together with a massive technological shift on an historically unprecedented scale and scope would suffice, so as to deliver a decoupling of carbon intensity to outrun scale. Notwithstanding its superficial commitment to progressive climate measures, ‘Project Ireland 2040’ is certainly not that, and with its duplicitous promise of new business-as-usual fossil fuel dependent motorways, airport expansion, agricultural productivism and exponential economic and population growth, does not provide us, in any way, a pathway out of this dilemma.

It is often said that what is ecologically necessary is not politically feasible, which raises the spectre that our (un)sustainability conundrum is one of those problems that is simply not solvable. The subterfuge of power, politics and economism generally trump evidence-based analysis and long-term collective interest, resulting in cognitive lock-in and an aggressive shutdown of alternative perspectives. If we are to have any possibility of meeting the biophysical realities of the 21st Century planetary climate crisis, what is desperately needed is a new planning pedagogy and practice that decolonises the future, repoliticies the realm of possibilities and negates the governing fundaments of growth-orientated planning. Of-course, I realise this call to arms is haplessly naïve against the backdrop of planning profession and society that angelizes the imperative of growth as an inviolable normative goal – but from conformity to complicity is but a short step.

Gavin Daly

This Blog Post featured on the Irish Times Inside Politics Podcast. You can listen below.

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The overwhelming sense you get when you read the newly published ‘Ireland 2040: Our Plan – The Draft National Planning Framework’ (NPF) is – haven’t I read all this before somewhere? At least as far back as the 1997 Sustainable Development Strategy, Irish officialdom has thoroughly excelled at composing convincing paeans to smart, sustainable planning. The trouble is, nobody has been listening, resulting in a yawning implementation gap between rhetoric and reality.

As we prepare to go once more into the breach, the dominance of Dublin and the steadily accumulated legacy of haphazard development sprawl, does not bode well for the successful implementation of the NPF. Strategic planning never emerges onto a blank slate where new policies can be easily established. Instead, they are unfurled across inherited and deeply contested spaces which create their own path dependencies. For Ireland, it is hard to contemplate a more inauspicious starting point for a fresh attempt at national spatial planning. Sigmund Freud once apparently said that the Irish are impervious to psychoanalysis. Perhaps, as argued by Norwegian planning scholar Tore Sager, it is time to apply his concept of ‘parapraxis’ to understand the planning dysfunction and ultimate consequences which arise from continuously failed communication.

Back in 2002 when the draft NPF’s predecessor, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS), was first published, it was immediately met with a wave of derision from competing political interests. This time round, the draft strategy has studiously sought to avoid such partisan conflict and the bitter spatial politics of winners and losers. The generally muted political and underwhelmed media reaction to its publication is testament to how successful it has been in this task. This depoliticisation has largely been achieved through repeating general truisms on sustainable planning principles (high quality urban placemaking, infill/brownfield regeneration, compact urban growth, integrated communities, promoting sustainable transport modes etc.), which nobody seriously disagrees with, and delegating much of the actual decision-making to the three new regional assemblies via proposed Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies (RSESs).

Gone are the ‘Gateways’ and ‘Hubs’ of the NSS, replaced instead with a general commentary on Ireland’s five main cities and a vague objective of achieving ‘regional parity’ in population growth. Given past experience and the current make-up of the Dáil, obfuscation is perhaps an understandable tactic. Indeed, a noticeable feature of the draft strategy is the almost complete absence of maps – now substituted with the current fashion for infographics.

So after decades of failed attempts at national planning, will this time be different? One important distinction from previous attempts is that the draft NPF is proposed to be placed on a statutory footing and overseen, quasi-independently, by the new Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) – a key recommendation of the Mahon Tribunal. It is also proposed to align the NPF with a new ten-year National Investment Plan (NIP). The absence of a strong coordinated relationship to a long-term capital investment programme for physical infrastructure was one of the major criticisms of the NSS and contributed, in no small part, to its ignoring in practice.

The potential of public lands to support NPF implementation is acknowledged with consideration to be given to the merits of introducing a new ‘National Land Development Agency’ (NAMA?) with enhanced compulsory purchase powers to unlock brownfield urban regeneration sites. The previously mothballed Gateway Innovation Fund will now be replaced with a competitive bid-based ‘National Smart Growth Initiative’ to leverage public and private investment. Funding will be available for both urban and rural areas, which is in clear recognition of the theme that runs throughout the strategy of the need to strengthen rural towns and villages and to counteract the corrosive effects of population haemorrhaging through urban-generated rural housing sprawl.

Interestingly, in a subtle language departure from the 2005 Rural Housing Guidelines, and most likely an implicit recognition of recent councillor agitation over European court rulings in respect of ‘locals only’ housing policies and fears of a free-for-all, the draft NPF floats the concept ‘demonstrable economic need’ as an alternative to ‘local housing need’ as the relevant siting criteria for one-off rural housing. Although no clarity is provided as to what exactly constitutes a ‘demonstrable economic need’, this policy is to be applied, in principle, to the commuter hinterlands (or Functional Urban Areas) of all cities and towns greater than 10,000 population. Again, no maps are provided but the OECD defined Functional Urban Areas (>15% commuting) for each of the five cities is proposed which, given Ireland’s far-flung commuter catchments, could affect very wide geographical areas.

The process of identifying rural housing demand is also to be supported by an officiously titled ‘Housing Needs Demand Assessment’ (HNDA) model, the methodology for which is to be prescribed in future planning guidelines. However, in layman’s terms, it effectively means the better use of standardised data collection and evidenced-informed methods to understand and project local housing policies. This is most likely a clear acknowledgement of the current housing data debacle. In cloaking the politically toxic issue in soothing technocratic jargon, the draft NPF skilfully dodges a bullet, for now. There is no doubt that, if the wider policies espoused in the strategy are to be successful, this nettle must be grasped. The ability of the draft NPF to navigate this hornets’ nest, withstand the inevitable political onslaught, avoid a fudge and bring about radical policy change will be a major litmus test.

In keeping with the 2015 Planning Policy Statement, the draft strategy is replete with time-honoured sustainable planning principles and references to currently in vogue EU policy vernacular, such as the ‘circular bioeconomy’. One innocuous-sounding provision is that accessibility between key urban centres will be enhanced only after regional cities, such as Cork and Limerick, have reached a sufficient population mass, as: “[i]nvestment in connectivity first without urban consolidation measures will likely worsen the current trends towards sprawl.” (p.123). Given the highly ambitious population growth targets (50-60%) for each of the regional cities, which would take significant time and investment to achieve, it will be telling if this policy can outlast the clarion calls for new motorways, such as the M20 recently prioritised by the Taoiseach.

What is interesting about this provision, however, is that it is a recognition that future population growth, rather than being merely an input to planning, is also an outcome and we can choose to effect it through targeted implementation measures. Nevertheless, bending future population growth towards NPF ideals, where the four cities outside Dublin are proposed grow by more than twice as much to 2040 as they did over the past 25 years, would be a monumental feat, requiring rigorous prioritisation stretching beyond short-term political horizons and spelled out in advance through definite targets. It also requires prohibiting growth elsewhere. Such notions are almost completely alien in Irish political culture and would demand, not just radical changes in policies, but an unlikely paradigm shift in perceptions.

Of more fundamental significance are the rationalities disguising the real political aims being pursued in the draft NPF. The strategy is fully reflective of the current economic consensus forged around corporate wellbeing and capturing globally mobile FDI flows as the primary driver of national economic growth, particularly in the knowledge and digital economy, internationally traded services etc. A well-worn path in an attempt to achieve this, is through the reworking of planning and governance spaces and promoting the competitive advantage of urban regions as locational nodes for transnational capital investment in the global marketplace.

Through rescaling Ireland into three new city regions, the draft NPF, for the first time, explicitly translates national industrial policy into a parallel spatial strategy. The ESRI forecasts of future population growth of 1 million people to 2040 (+20%), including 550,000 new homes and 660,000 new jobs, are unproblematically accepted as fact, to which planning and society must accommodate, despite how uncertain and prone to error such projections are. In keeping with the overall neoliberal approach to spatial governance, the assumption is that the benefits of growth will trickle-down to underpin the achievement of broader social, spatial and environmental goals in relatively uncontroversial ways.

Consequently, the draft NPF vision is ineluctably bound up in present perceptions, perspectives and views with an overweening emphasis on growth, devoid of any critical thought about the future. In the case of climate change, for example, we know that absolute reductions in global carbon emissions of 80% is required by 2050 in order to meet the IPCC’s stabilisation target. What type of society and economy does that look like? How can this be achieved and is it compatible with growing the population by one million people? One thing is clear. It’s a completely different kind of economy and society from the one we have at the moment which drives itself forward by emitting more and more carbon.

Instead, the draft NPF seeks to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable through the identification of ‘win-win-win’ approaches which do not foresee any inherent contradictions between policies or the need for trade-offs i.e. nothing really fundamentally has to change. For example, our major airports are to be expanded, inter-urban roads are to be improved with average journey speed of 90kph (i.e. new motorways) and the sacred cow of carbon intensive and polluting agricultural productivism is to be ring-fenced such that all future emission reductions will almost exclusively fall on transport and energy – a jaw-droppingly unrealistic goal. Smarter Travel policy, which targeted aggressive reductions in car commuting, is quietly dropped in favour of the equally far-fetched electrification of ‘transport fleets’. Again, to avoid ceaseless political rancor,  future renewable energy production is to be significantly pushed offshore through the use of expensive and unproven technologies, necessitating major grid investments, while promoting Ireland as a global location for data centres, which are voracious energy consumers.

Realism, not growthism, is the principle which should guide the NPF. If the history of national planning worldwide has thought us one thing, it is that it has failed almost every time it has been tried. This should come as no surprise as, in an uncertain world, there is no such thing as total control of the object of governance. If we accept the likelihood of failure from the outset, then it is necessary to adopt a satisficing approach as an alternative to blind utopianism.  The scientific evidence that 21st Century humanity has entered the increasingly unstable Anthropocene epoch is ever more alarming.  As Brendan Gleeson writes in his recent book ‘The Urban Condition’, the coming century will be marked by a world increasingly in planetary overshoot; population and per capita consumption are increasing; global competition for Earth’s shrinking biocapacity is intensifying and sea level rise, mass migrations, resource shortages, famines, species extinction, energy insecurity and attendant geopolitical tension and economic breakdowns threaten the relationships between cities and their distant hinterlands even as cities become humanity’s major habitat. A resilient, adaptive society – capable of resisting external shocks, maintaining people’s livelihoods and living within our ecological means – is the only goal we should be aiming for.

Gavin Daly

Last month saw the publication of the latest government effort at an action plan for rural development.  Realising Our Rural Potential takes the now familiar glossy format of recent government action plans replete with 276 actions, slickly produced with accompanying promo video and, for sake of appearances, an official launch in the suitably rural location of Ballymahon’s (soon to be staffless) public library.

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The plan places a welcome, and long overdue, emphasis on rejuvenating rural towns and villages which are recognised as essential lynchpins to sustain and improve the living and working environment of rural dwellers.

It is acknowledged that, as the populations of rural settlement centres have diminished, so too has the demand for and provisioning of essential services, hindering their capacity to compete for investment and employment opportunities. A new town and village renewal scheme is therefore proposed (a rehash of a scheme launched last August), at a cost of €12 million per annum, to encourage increased residential occupancy in over 600 town and village centres (€20,000 each!).

In these so-called ‘post-factual’ times, it is without any sense of irony, however, that the plan completely glosses over the inconvenient reality that it was the assiduous political commitment over successive decades for policies favouring unfettered suburban one-off housing sprawl that has done most to undermine and depopulate rural towns and villages.

Between 2001 and 2011, 104,058 one-off dwellings were constructed in rural areas, 85% within 5km of a town or village. Since 2011, a further 18,500 have been permitted. The level of cognitive dissonance on this issue is all the more striking when you consider that the final report of the Commission for Economic Development in Rural Areas (CEDRA), upon which the action plan is largely based, also makes the same glaring omission. The reality is that, nationally, over 70% of dwellings in defined rural areas are built outside settlement centres, and higher still in some counties.

This haemorrhaging of population is not deterministic but as a direct result of a sustained and deliberate policy intervention. As one insightful letter writer to The Irish Times noted, what is killing rural towns and villages is not population decline, but their irrelevance, as rural areas become progressively (r)urbanised and assimilated into the functional reaches of larger cities. No amount of fiscal incentives will reverse this trend in the absence of corresponding firm policy measures to restrict and reverse dispersed suburban housing in the countryside.

Of course, such an idea would be an anathema in Ireland against a backdrop of political short-termism and patronage. So instead, the action plan includes a rather insipid reference to increase delivery of small housing schemes in towns and villages as an alternative to one-off housing.

Aside from the umpteenth re-launch of the national broadband strategy, one of the more eye-catching objectives of the action plan is the highly misleading target to create 135,000 new jobs and increase by 40% Foreign Direct Investment in ‘rural Ireland’ by 2020.  Ensconced behind the attention-grabbing target is the actuality that the action plan opportunistically conflates ‘rural development’ with ‘regional development’ for the sake of appearances. What is, in fact, targeted is the creation of 135,000 jobs outside Dublin i.e. primarily in cities outside Dublin.

This sleight of hand epitomises the policy churning over successive decades on rural development issues in an effort to give the impression of doing something. As I have argued before, in a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem, in order to defer and displace the political strife that accompanies an implicitly urban-led national growth strategy, we have instead sanctioned the widespread (r)urbanisation of the countryside. Vague, populist and anachronistic concepts like ‘Rural Ireland’ and ‘Action Plans for Rural Development’ simply serve as a symbolic gesture to paper over and silence a more fundamental political discussion on the nature of urbanisation in Ireland – which is off-course the great taboo in Irish political discourse.

Our lack of collective memory is all the more alarming when you consider that almost twenty years ago the White Paper on Rural Development (still available on DAFF’s website) was published which contained all of the symbolic rhetoric of the current action plan (including, as today, a commitment to create a twenty-year spatial strategy to promote balanced regional development – sound familiar?). Unfortunately, this latest action plan is simply yet another episode of opportunism over strategy where we are failing to accurately conceive the true nature of the problem. No doubt twenty years hence we will be back having the same discussion again.

Gavin Daly

 

There has been much discussion, and not a little disagreement, about the Housing Bill 2016 (Housing Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2016) currently going through the Seanad.  In essence, it is the Government’s attempt to ‘fast track’ the delivery of new housing units.  And while there has been some debate about a small number of legislative changes that will, potentially, give tenants more rights, the bill offers an example of more of the same, rather than fundamental departure, in terms of the housing policy pursued by successive governments.

In this post, I want to do two things. Firstly, I want to look briefly at some core points of the bill with a view to identifying where they depart or continue existing policy.  Secondly, I want to place the state’s approach to focusing on stimulating supply through incentivizing the development sector in a historical context.

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The Housing Bill 2016

The Housing Bill 2016 is generally a continuation of the kinds of housing policies successive governments have been pursuing for years now. Its basic premise is to remove (more) barriers to development in order to increase supply quickly. Most fundamentally, it assumes that supply is the single most important element of the housing problem and that remedying the issue of supply will have a ‘trickle down’ effect to subsequently alleviate the other crises of housing affordability, homelessness, and tenure insecurity.

As I want to argue below, this assumption is highly problematic, as borne out from historical evidence in the Irish context.  But before I get to this, I want to briefly focus on three key points from the bill that have gained media and activist attention.

Firstly, the bill includes a clause to curb wholesale evictions when a property is sold to a large investor. It builds on the so-called ‘Tyrllestown amendment’ by including a provision that landlords with 20 properties or more cannot evict tenants when selling to an investor.  This protects against a particularly high-profile form of eviction, but one which is perhaps very limited in the overall scheme of things.  Some estimates suggest that this will affect only 0.56% of landlords*.  Moreover, a new get-out clause was also included in the bill, which allows a landlord to pursue a vacant sale (i.e. evict existing tenants) if they can prove that the value of the sale is decreased by 20% as a result of occupancy.  Given the current market conditions it may not be difficult for landlords to ‘prove’ this.

Secondly, the bill makes provisions to amend Part 4 Tenancy by removing the six-month window at the beginning and end of a four-year lease agreement in which a landlord can terminate a tenancy.  This improves the rights of tenants but offers limited protections in a context where a number of other gaping loopholes exist that allow landlords to terminate tenancies. Moreover, in a context where rents have increased by 40 per cent since 2011 this will do little to combat the tsunami of economic evictions taking place.

Thirdly, the bill proposes to give increased powers to An Bord Pleanála by introducing new ‘fast-track planning permissions’ for ‘strategic housing development’.  This removes planning powers, in particular instances, from the local authorities.  The bill proposes that:

“Applications for permission for strategic housing developments shall be made direct to the Board (An Bórd Pleanála) and not to the local planning authorities.”

The rationale here is to reduce the time it takes developers to secure planning permission, and thus reduce the overall time it takes for new housing supply to come on stream.

In the Irish planning system, An Bord Pleanála operates as an adjudicator of last resort on planning decisions made by local authorities: “Anyone applying for planning permission and anyone who made written submissions or observations to the planning authority on a planning application, can appeal a subsequent planning decision to An Bord Pleanála”.

As such, the ‘fast track’ approach, while ensuring a quicker process for developers, potentially removes one more avenue for community opposition to new development. Given the less than exemplary recent history of sustainable development in Ireland, the removal of recourse to objection is potentially worrying.

It has been documented in academic work by Linda Fox-Rogers and Enda Murphy and Gavin Daly that during the boom local authority planning departments were put under pressure to deliver favourable planning outcomes.  One mechanism used was the incorporation of ‘pre-planning’ talks, whereby a developer submitting an application could avail of extensive meetings (even negotiations) with the planning authority to ensure that a planning application could fit the criteria to be granted permission.  Will An Bord Pleanála, which is an independent body, now also be expected to engage in pre-planning discussions with developers given the political pressure to quickly increase supply?  If the answer is yes, it could seriously undermine the independence of the authority.  If the answer is no, the new measures might well fail to deliver the fast-track supply of housing the bill promises.

Underpinning the bill as a whole is the assumption that the supply of housing is the biggest challenge to overcome.  This dogma, although increasingly challenged by various housing experts, is stubbornly trotted out in the media by politicians and vested interests.  This simple formula for solving periodic housing crises, namely increase supply through removing barriers to development and incentivizing the construction and investment sector, has had a long history in Ireland, with highly variable outcomes.

 

Build it and they will come

This approach has deep roots in the history of Irish Housing Policy. Indeed, the first Fine Gael government sought to deal with a crisis of tenement housing by offering grants to incentivise higher income families to take out mortgages to buy their own home, thus freeing up units in tenements for low income families.  When Fianna Fail came to power in 1932, they instead embarked on a programme of building social housing, in the process offering incentives for the construction sector during a period of relative economic stagnation.  These two moves set in place the conditions that have remained stable in Irish housing policy since – a focus on homeownership as the optimum model of housing tenure and a close relationship between the successive Governments and the construction sector.  These close relationships have provided fluctuating outcomes for Irish housing.

To take two broad, and broadly different, examples.

Firstly, attempts by the state to solve period social housing crisis have in the past focused on strategies to increase supply and/or renovate existing stock.  Moreover, this has often been achieved through incentivizing the private sector.  For example, the plans to create Ballymun emerged in the context of a crisis of tenant housing in Dublin city centre.  Built using new rapid-build materials, Ballymun was intended to as modernist utopia delivering a large supply of working class housing.  However, while the development proved a relative success in the early years, the state’s failure to deliver local jobs coupled with the withdrawal of Dublin Corporation investment and general upkeep of the flats led to spiralling social problems in the area.  The supply of housing alone was not enough to make the community sustainable.

However, when the regeneration of Ballymun was slated in the 1990s, the focus was once again overwhelmingly on the ‘bricks and mortar’ approach to supply.  Although the plans included provisions for community and economic regeneration, these promises remained largely undelivered by the state.  Moreover, the regeneration was to be financed by the construction of new private housing units on site, which was expected to also lift the economic profile of the area.   Thus, what the community got was new public and private housing units, but less in terms of long-term investment in the community or the local economy.  The regeneration during the 1990s failed to deliver on long-term community development because of a focus on a supply of housing units rather than taking a more holistic view of housing.

Despite these problems, the Ballymun model of regeneration became the template for regeneration schemes in places like Cork, Limerick, and Dublin.  Using a Public Private Partnership (PPP) approach, regeneration of social housing was expected to deliver new social housing, enhance community development, and deliver private sector housing supply.  Moreover, it was expected to do this by incentivizing the private development sector.  Many of these PPP schemes collapsed with the property crash, leaving communities high and dry.

Secondly, from the 1986 Urban Renewal Act on, the state introduced a series of tax incentive schemes to increase the supply of property development in urban and rural areas.  This was a major factor in kick-starting the Celtic Tiger property bubble, which saw an astronomical increase in the supply of housing.  Between 1991 and 2006, 762,541 housing units were built in Ireland.  However, this supply did not lead to more affordable housing. In fact, house prices increased by between 300 and 400 per cent in different parts of the country.

The tax incentive schemes were extended far beyond the point at which they were necessary.  These policies to increase supply were a key factor in the creation of the 2,846 unfinished housing estates identified in 2010, including 78,195 complete and occupied units, 19,830 under construction, 23,250 complete and vacant, and planning permission in place for a further 58,025.

Moreover, the unregulated development that resulted from reducing the barriers for developers actually undermined the creation of sustainable communities built around strong transport links and services.  One of the reasons planned developments like Adamstown and Clongriffin failed to deliver on their promises, for example, was that unregulated development in neighbouring local authorities undermined plans for the timely delivery of schools, transport links, and other amenities in tandem with the phased delivery of housing.

Following the crash, there was little legislative change introduced to the planning system. And while the development sector has been significantly affected by the financial and housing crash, this has been the impact of external factors rather than designed through government policy.

The current housing and homelessness crisis is a direct outcome of the series of systemic problems created throughout the boom and the policy responses to the crash that ignored issues like mortgage debt, the decline in social housing provision, and the changing character of the rental sector, and continued to support existing and new development interests.

 

More than supply

The Housing Bill aims to solve a series of complex problems in the housing system through a short-term intervention to increase supply.  While this might be what vested interests in the sector need to get building in the short term, it will only exacerbate conditions for most of us with regard to our access to secure and affordable housing.

It foolish to assume that focusing on the needs of the same vested interests will remedy these problems.  Firstly, because they have never solved these problems in the past and indeed created many of them. Secondly, because the housing market has changed since the crash.

For financial actors, the rental market has become more profitable in recent years as a form of investment.  For international funds, in particular consistent rising rents is essential for them to return growing profits on their investments.  As such, a greater supply of rental stock will not mean more affordability – there will still be pressure to push up rents.  In combination with the incentives for first time buyers, measures supporting developers, landlords, and investors will only serve to further inflate the housing market.

In the meantime, the clear and modest demands to increase the supply of social housing, or improve tenants’ rights are being side-lined.  For example, the Secure Rents campaign asks for three things:  to regulate increases in rent by linking rents to the Consumer Price Index; to revoke the right of landlords to evict tenants for the purpose of sale; and to move from current 4 year leases to indefinite lease terms. These provisions are not radical by any means, but rather start to address some of the imbalances between the rights of tenants and those of landlords.  Indeed, tenant rights are particularly poor in Ireland in comparison to the rest of Europe. These provisions would not unnecessarily penalise developers, landlords, or investors. But they would slow down some of the crisis conditions.

More starkly, within the context of a housing crisis of unprecedented proportions, the Irish Housing Network have made a call for a complete ban on evictions.  It is worth remembering here that the number of homeless people in Dublin has risen by 35 per cent in a year.

In sum, the Housing Bill is unlikely to change the current system to any great extent – in terms of tenants, the new amendments will not make much of a dent, while in terms of development interests, the changes are just the latest iteration in a long-standing state support for this sector.  But in the context of the current housing crisis, this response is inadequate at best and has the potential to worsen the problem.

The assumption of supply being the most significant factor is highly problematic, as we can see from historical evidence.  The evidence suggests that relying on the logic of supply (without considering issues of affordability and security of tenure) will create increasingly dysfunctional housing systems.  It is time that we finally took stock and addressed the bigger housing problems that repeat themselves.

This is an emergency. And an emergency requires new thinking.

Cian O’Callaghan

*My thanks to Lorcan Sirr for providing this figure

Rule #1 of the neoliberal playbook – when faced with a construction crisis, attack the planning system! It has been ever so since Michael Heseltine, Thatcher’s environment secretary in the 1980s, launched his broadside against the “jobs locked up in the dusty filing cabinets of planning departments”. Of course, it matters little whether there is any evidence that the planning system is indeed stifling construction – the ideology demands that planning regulation remains firmly in the crosshairs. As Michael Gunder puts it – planning is “the chief remaining scapegoat of neoliberal governance”, a convenient patsy for contemporary policy failures.

Simon Coveney’s glossy production ‘Rebuilding Ireland – An Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness’ launched last month to much fanfare promises a ‘root and branch’ review of the planning system. A headline element of the strategy is to speed-up the planning process – an ever-present feature of neoliberal planning reforms – by allowing large housing applications of a hundred units or more to be made directly to An Bord Pleanála. This is proposed as a temporary measure for four years to incentivise large-scale housing production in a manner similar to strategic infrastructure applications.

The apparent rationale for this fast-tracked planning consent system is that: “with almost all planning approvals of larger housing developments for 100 new homes or more being appealed to An Bord Pleanála, this has meant that there is in effect a two-stage planning application process which can take 18 to 24 months to secure ultimate approval to go on site and start to build.” (Pg 62)

Of course, no evidence is presented to support this assertion. Indeed, An Bord Pleanála’s own annual report, published earlier this month, states that: “The number of appeal cases for housing developments received over the past two years has remained low, 35 cases of 30+ units in 2014 versus the peak of 568 in 2007. While the number of 30+ housing appeals received has increased slightly (60 to the end of 2015), the number of such cases remains low.” (Pg 35). All of these appeals, according to An Bord Pleanála, have been disposed of within the statutory compliance time of eighteen weeks.

Furthermore, there is also no evidence whatsoever that the strategic infrastructure process actually speeds-up the planning system, with just half of such applications over the past ten years decided upon within eighteen weeks and, only then, after lengthy pre-application consultations.

The reality is that, despite the assiduous commitment by influential commentators over the past few years to successfully paint a picture of planning as the chief villain and bugbear in impeding housing supply, permission is currently in place for 27,000 shovel ready homes in Dublin alone. According to the strategy, just 4,809 or 18% of these potential units are currently under active construction i.e. 82% of potential homes with planning permission are not commenced at all. The planning system is clearly not the impediment here.

The strategy even includes a proposal that the lifetime of these extant planning permissions be extended further. This would mean that often poor quality and poorly located Celtic Tiger era housing could still be constructed as far out as 2021. Furthermore, according to the Residential Land Availability Survey, as I have written previously, nationwide, there is enough zoned land to provide for 16 years of new housing supply based on an annual projected requirement of 25,000 units.

In order to maximise the efficiency of the process under the new system, the strategy proposes that An Bord Pleanála will be required to make a decision within eighteen weeks and will only be able to seek requests for further information or to hold oral hearings in “exceptional circumstances”. For local authority own development under Part VIII (social housing, roads, community facilities etc.), the whole process is to be streamlined to a maximum of twenty weeks. Proposals for major housing developments and other infrastructure are complex undertakings which are irreversible and shape places and communities for generations.

The idea that adequate consideration could be given to such proposals, while fulfilling all requirements pursuant to EU and national law, within these compressed timeframes and without recourse to seeking further environmental or technical information or giving adequate consideration to local concerns or right of appeal, is a recipe for yet another great planning disaster. While the need to intensify use of vacant space in town centres is paramount, the proposal in the strategy to exempt from planning permission residential development over shops and commercial units also seems neither sensible nor workable.

Of course, if the history of strategies in Ireland is any yardstick, we should not get too carried away about Rebuilding Ireland actually ever being implemented and it will most likely remain just a paper strategy. All of the targets in it seem hopelessly optimistic and the funding proposals tenuous. It is interesting, however, that its publication was uncritically welcomed by pretty much everyone from the Construction Industry Federation to the Peter McVerry Trust – for in the teeth of a ‘crisis’ who could be against a housing strategy?

This is the trump card of lobby groups such as the CIF – to position their vested interests as an illusory societal interest. The Irish Planning Institute, not an organisation given to mounting robust defences against planning scapegoating, were among the few to release an insipid statement expressing “concern”.

However, there are very good reasons to be vigilant about the prevailing anti-planning rhetoric and the ‘root and branch’ review of planning proposed by Coveney. Over the past five years, the government has shown scant interest in implementing the crucial regulatory reforms recommended by the Mahon Tribunal and have consistently shown de-regulatory tendencies. Completely absent from this strategy are any measures to provide a pro-active role for planning in delivering housing and other infrastructure – like ensuring local authorities are staffed with the requisite range of planners and other expertise? The only reference to local authority resources is the introduction of new on-line planning services, again in the name of efficiency.

It is perhaps the greatest indictment of the impotence of the state that, in a Circular Letter issued by Coveney subsequent to the publication of the strategy, the so called ‘active land management’ measures involve politely asking developers to sell their lands to housing providers and, if not, local authorities should identify alternative lands elsewhere. Absent is the one measure, as recommended by pretty much everyone, that could actually release hoarded zoned and serviced land into productive use, re-invigorate under-utilised town centre properties and simultaneously contribute to the finances of broke local authorities – a site value tax.

Instead, the state has once again capitulated to the development lobby and opted to subsidise developers through a new infrastructure fund, abolition of windfall taxes on sale of zoned lands, reduced development contribution levies, much weakened Part V social housing requirements and lowered apartment standards.

Gavin Daly