Commentaries


Extended precis (PDF of full paper)

The publication of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government’s ‘non-statutory’ Planning Policy Statement (PPS) in January 2015, heralds the prospect of the replacement of the National Spatial Strategy (2002-2020) with a National Planning Framework (NPF). The PPS emphasises that future Planning Strategy should be both evidence-based and plan-led.

As a contribution to these developments, this paper presents a demographic approach applied to the spatial planning context for current housing needs and points to compelling reasons for developing Ireland’s cities whilst curtailing the ongoing proliferation of villages, small towns and one-off housing, and for services provision, infrastructural priorities and related policy issues.

The paper’s first consideration is that of Ireland’s imperative for its emerging housing strategy: to improve its economic competitiveness which is compromised by its small-scale urban content. The State’s modest-sized settlements, with their inevitable diseconomies of scale, present economic handicaps to the provision of both public and private sector services. Unsurprisingly, they are the subject of current services-rationalisation, often of a controversial nature.

The outgoing spatial NSS planning policy is based on the definition of Balanced Regional Development (BRD) which is self-contradictory. In a modern economy, the optimal performance of the State is critically dependent on that of its primary contributors and of their large settlements’ ability to generate urban agglomerative spill-over: not on the BRD definitional illusion of achieving the full potential of each area. BRD is the opposite to achieving settlements of ‘Concentrated Lumpiness’, which would be characterised as centripetal agglomeration: of dense, efficient centres of population and their associated clusters of employment.

The outcome from the 2002-2020 National Spatial Strategy is that its BRD policy has encouraged excessive village and small-town proliferation. Over a fifteen year period to the last census, there has been a 30.6% growth in the proliferation of settlements of less than 5,000 since 1996, but especially so in for smaller town and village categories. Thus future spatial planning should place emphasis on the selective locations for new housing so as to complement and promote urban agglomeration. New house types are likely to introduce double-duplex and other innovative features of urban design, reducing the need for car ownership whilst encouraging more sustainable forms of transportation, suitable for short commutes.

The paper also differentiates between the requirements of the two principal areas of State: the Greater Dublin Area (GDA) and the Rest of State (RoS) areas. It finds that in 2011 there are many striking contrasts between the two areas. Dublin has nearly eleven times the average population size of the four RoS cities. The overall average settlement size for each of the seven categories of towns and villages is also greater in the GDA.

GDA house vacancy rates in 2011 were between just one-third and one half of those of the RoS areas, a contrast that has increased since then. This places an increasing need for focused housing supply-demand research. The wastefulness and inefficiencies of higher levels of current housing vacancy, directly corresponds to the remoteness of a county from its nearest city and particularly so in its further distance from Dublin.

Given the fragile sizes of Irish urban settlements, the emerging spatial planning and development imperative should especially facilitate the growth of larger, selected, populated towns and some cities, so as to counteract the extent of small-settlement proliferation in the RoS villages and Non-Nucleated populations. The housing crisis and affordability issue is also linked to the unsustainability of long and medium-distance commuting, given the census evidence and the geography of daytime working population and to Ireland’s economic competitiveness.

The research notes that from the most recent indications of prospective developments in Ireland’s spatial planning strategy, there is still little evidence that the authorities recognise or appreciate the need for an urban agglomeration ‘top-down’ approach, where the alternative focus continues to be dominated by rural generated ‘bottom-up’ strategies, making the task of achieving urban agglomeration difficult. Thus there have been few opportunities in the RoS area to exploit and take advantage of urban agglomeration forces.

Unfortunately, Ireland has always had a spatial record of eschewing its cities. In 1969 the first ‘modern’ spatial strategy, the Buchanan Plan’s objective of achieving an accelerated growth of fifteen or so of the provincial cities and larger towns was politically rejected. Subsequent ‘politically dominated’ planning strategies have sought to ‘give a little to everyone in the audience’ instead of implementing a policy of concentrating the State’s limited capital resources to a few chosen locations which have the potential to grow at a much faster rate than the norm and thereby ‘capture’ the benefits of scale, of critical mass and of urban agglomeration.

The irony is that if today’s Ireland had such ‘concentrated lumpiness’, this policy direction would have considerably mitigated the depth of the recession that has visited so many of its small towns, villages and open countryside. Agglomerative ‘spillovers’ from larger Regional cities and large towns remains the only certain way to counteract rural decline. Ireland has yet to learn that painful urban economic lesson.

Because of the bias favouring town growth, exacerbated by the population deflection from unaffordable housing in the cities, especially for Dublin, their aggregate growth has been much lower than might otherwise have been expected. During 1996-2011 the State population increased by 26.53% whereas the cities grew by just 16.42%, – i.e. even less than the 17.72% for the non-nucleated rural areas and towns/ villages of 5,000 and under.

This paper concludes that the capacity to generate ‘spill-overs’ are currently constrained, limited perhaps to Dublin and to the CASP area surrounding Cork City. Thus, it should come as no surprise that due to the defects of past strategic spatial planning policies, rural emigration is rife and economic downturn is magnified for regions which do not have large towns but especially cities.

Full paper

Dr Brian Hughes, DIT

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

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

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

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

Unemployment map

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cian O’Callaghan

We’re living in weird times. Contemporary capitalism is nasty. And it seems like the number of winners shrinks each year, just as material inequality continues to grow. Yet opposition – albeit strong in fits and starts, here and there, now and then – doesn’t seem to get anywhere. The political process shows up the state for what it is: a capitalist-friendly state. A capitalist state. Small in number are the serious and strong political parties of the left that promise anything other than minor reforms. Opposition emerges – a brave and committed Occupy This or That, a vision of an alternative that comes in on a tide of pressure to seek out something better, but always seems to leave with nothing in hand. Still capitalism persists and its neoliberal form, so brutal and violent in its subtle ways that call for freedom for all but ultimately freedom to profit and avoid taxation, charges on.

What is going on? Why is it that we have widespread dissent amidst widening shitness, but actually-existing effective opposition gets nowhere? What’s going on depends on the place at issue. What explains Ireland, say, can’t necessarily account for the U.S., the U.K. or some other place. But yet there have to be – and there are – some general features that we can consider.

Here’s one. Look, contemporary capitalism doesn’t work for lots of us, but in its cultural reproduction (that is, in the sorts of state- or firm-sponsored cultural interventions that seek to entertain us all while also selling the goods that need to be sold to keep capital circulating) enough of us are tempted to stay on its side. And look again. That’s all it needs to do: keep just enough people on the side of the conservative trades unions, or voting for reformist rather than radical political parties; keep enough people believing in the promise of a shiny better future, such that the marches or protests of the disaffiliated don’t attract the mass support that, say, headed out to the streets when Mubarak’s regime fell (remember those scenes? That awesome sight of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Egypt’s poor and oppressed cheering his downfall? Have we really, truly, seen that sort of mass anger on the streets of Europe, on the streets of Dublin?).

So how is this happening? One standout aspect is what we encounter in between the drivel (and, yes, occasional brilliance) on TV, on radio, and online. What’s in between? Things like the lottery. Sport. Commercials for perfume. Or the advertisements telling us that, if we save or spend or dream, we too can afford to buy private versions of once-publicly-owned services, such as care for our elderly parents. I’m sure you know all this already, but I’ll continue anyway.

Take the lotto. It opens up a thought somewhere in our minds, even in those who don’t ‘play’, that millions of euros might actually fall upon us one day. And one effect of this dream is that we’re then led to question how much we would want that bounty to be taxed. Wouldn’t we – like the Michael O’Leary’s or Richard Branson’s – also want to keep the bulk of it to ourselves? Doesn’t the lotto dream subtly and quietly encourage enough of us to find sympathy with the rich? Yes. The lotto dream works in contemporary capitalist society (and is therefore embraced, absolutely loved, by the capitalist state) because it breeds in enough of us some potential solidarity with the O’Leary’s and co. The same sort of high rate of tax that might hit our millions is the same rate that right-wing parties rail against. Sure, its reduction over the years has fallen on all of us wage- or salary-earners, whether identifying as ‘working’ or ‘middle’ class; but with the lotto dream there’s the possibility that those millionaires might be us one day, after all, why are so many people ‘playing’? Hence the thought, however dream-like: ‘Might that higher rate of tax that progressive discuss hit me one day?’ In this way, the lotto works by encouraging an implicit (and, for some, explicit) antipathy towards a truly progressive tax system and by extension an equitable society, capitalist or not.

Sport plays much the same role (and yes, I know, it’s also a major distraction, a way to avoid reading about what’s happening in Syria or Liberia or processes closer to home). The time when I might have dreamt of playing professional sport has passed, but now there’s my kids: ‘Might one of my sons somehow buck their genetic fate and be decent at something? Might they play for Barcelona and earn the big wages?’ What then? Am I, or enough of my parenting peers, sufficiently committed to notions of equality to support a properly progressive tax rate? Or does this dream, this slight chance, keep me open to the idea of a regressive society, even one like Ireland with a ‘best in OECD class’ progressive income tax structure (but also an easily-forgotten sales tax structure that raises two-thirds of what income taxes raise but which does so by hitting the poor and the stinking rich at the same rate)? Sport leaves the door open. Besides its success in keeping us in front of the TV for long enough that we absorb the ads on the side of the football pitch, on the shirts, or at half-time; it serves a purpose today because it offers a glimmer of a hope that we, too, might one day be the family swimming in cash. And if we are, would we really want our incomes taxed sufficiently to cover society’s needs? Would we support effective taxes on inheritance? Isn’t inequality inevitable and, well, natural and, well, acceptable?

As for ads, nothing is as striking today as the J’adore perfume advertisement with its beautiful and determined star striding into a room, grabbing dangling silk sheets, and then climbing to a higher place, to a stunning urban architecture with its soaring skyscrapers and glistening glass where only a few can take in the phallic view and appreciate the ‘success’ of consuming luxury. The future is gold. Dreamt up in agencies, tested on audiences, bought into and agreed upon by well-paid executives living lives most of us cannot imagine – although contemporary TV shows such as the Apprentice make sure we capture the odd glimpse of the spaces they occupy and the material goods and power that surrounds them – these ads tell us: you, too, can dream; the 1% is open; just reach up, aspire, ditch the past, and believe in the structures and processes that gave us our wealth. Enough of us are buying this crap, both the perfume and the dream.

But it doesn’t need to be luxury goods. In the selling of goods and services of the most basic kind – in the way they seek to attract us and insofar as the owners of (and decision-makers behind) these products believe we will buy based on how we encounter them – we also meet up with a cultural side of capitalism that stinks to the core but yet seems to give enough of us a sense that, yes, maybe this is what I really need and will want and should support.

Nothing smells so foul here as the sorts of advertisements for private home care for the elderly. Once a public good, once something we would have hoped the state would provide to us all in our old age, it is now increasingly privatized, regulated to some extent (of course? for how much longer?), but offered by firms with clever names and concluding jingles that make us dream of becoming elderly in their care – consider here the Irish radio ad for Home Instead, which ends with a jungle sung by someone who you might think will feed you your soup, brush your hair, cut your toenails, and then wipe your back-side whilst gently humming the jingle in your ear, reminding you of bygone days. We needn’t really think it all through. We needn’t dwell on the fact that the care workers will be harassed by line managers, told to get to the next house asafp, paid pittance and maybe only able to work for such low pay because the state’s stepping in with family income supplement. But in hearing these ads and in thinking through the life we (or our [grand]parents) might have without them, we are tempted (and encouraged) not only to buy their services but also to buy into, and then support, a state-market relation under contemporary capitalism that bolsters the entrepreneur, wants to see them do well, and ultimately believes in their innate right to create a market, and indeed profit. Not only: ‘Maybe Home Instead will improve our family’s quality of life.’ But also: ‘Maybe I’ll be the entrepreneur one day. Maybe I’ll find a way of delivering a once-public good. Maybe the market is a good thing.’ That these sorts of ads are played during the all-too-pervasive ‘business’ sections of radio shows, with all their celebrations of the wonders of entrepreneurship and their job-generating powers… well.

So look, through ads for such services as care for the elderly, or goods such as perfume, but also via technologies of distraction and consent such as the lotto and professional sport: contemporary capitalism creates a world in which it can survive. It sucks enough of us into a dream that the upper echelons in society – the world of business class and comfy seats and penthouse suites on a luxurious city break (hey Aer Lingus in-flight magazine, I’m looking at you) – are open to us all, just so long as we use our ultimate loyalty card, refuse to believe in any sort of alternative, and shut (the ____) up.

Alistair Fraser

 

BeyondPebbleIn May 2011, I posted a review of the book Redrawing Dublin by Paul Kearns and Motti Ruimy (Gandon Editions, 2010). In it I critiqued some of its arguments and its wider approach to urban regeneration. In recent weeks, the authors of Redrawing Dublin have published a follow-on book – Beyond Pebbledash  (Gandon Editions, 2014). The book offers a re-working of some of the arguments contained in Redrawing Dublin and has been published to parallel an artistic installation involving the recreation of a façade of a pebbledash house in Collins Barracks (see more here). Given this publication coincides with some of the key challenges of the present time and that in the introduction to the new book the authors have also made reference to my original critique of Redrawing Dublin, below I have taken the opportunity to engage in some of the arguments it presents. This is particularly focused upon the newer parts of the text.

As with the timing of Redrawing Dublin, this is an apt time to question the future of the built environment in Ireland, albeit for what are now largely different reasons to 2010. The built environment encompasses and is bound up with so many of the challenges facing Irish society that it becomes difficult to untangle the various elements. That the Beyond Pebbledash project seeks to engage with these challenges – not least through engagement with local schools – and the wider challenge of urban discourse should be commended. Moreover, that the project challenges the dominance of the three-bed semi-detached house and its relationship to market-led approaches within debates about housing should also be welcomed. However, I contend that from the perspective of creating a socially balanced and sustainable city, the central arguments contained within Beyond Pebbledash offer a questionable policy approach. Although setting out to be somewhat playful in its approach, the driving force, or central premise, of this book is to promote the city for middle-income and upper-income family living. While I don’t take issue with this in and of itself, I argue that the manner and extent to which it is being pushed is in danger of exacerbating the very problems the authors seek to challenge.

In setting out this critique, it is acknowledged that Dublin, as with other urban centres in Ireland, faces considerable challenges. The following is therefore not in defence of urban sprawl or, indeed, opposed to the densification of the city. There is a significant amount of merit to a dense city core, including walkability, the potential for cycling infrastructure etc. That increased apartment size would improve quality of life is also something worth taking very seriously. However, it is one thing to promote high-density living, but to fetishize it as being representative of the virtues of middle- and higher-earner lifestyles enters dangerous territory. Instead, as briefly outlined at the end of this review, we need to look very carefully at the connection between factors of governance, justice and their relationship to the city in addressing the future of the built environment in Dublin and other Irish towns and cities.

As argued above, the central premise of Beyond Pebbledash is to promote the city for middle- and higher-income earners. This is used in conjunction with high-density living as a means of conveying what the authors perceive as a more livable city. This is most strongly articulated through the representation of the future of the Georgian core. Here, the authors argue that policy should promote Georgian Dublin as a living quarter for middle-income and, more particularly, higher-income families. This, they argue would help to promote social-mix in the city through a form of trickle-down effect: “Attracting higher-income families back to the city would assist in consolidating, often fragile, residential living elsewhere in the city centre and inner city. Dublin’s Georgian red-bricks along Upper Mount Street and other streets may, in time, become the fashionable equivalent of the New York brownstones” (2014, p.158). That this is fostered as being the end-state of Dublin is severely questionable policy-making. That one particular social group, who already have a significant advantage in the selection of housing, would become the central feature of policy making represents a severely imbalanced approach to urban regeneration – not the social mixing they seem to believe it will result in. Furthermore, that this is being promoted at a time where housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable for many raises further doubts about its merits as a policy objective. If anything, placing such debates in the context of the recent social trajectory of New York brownstones highlights how such approaches result in an increasingly unequal city, something that the authors of Beyond Pebbledash state themselves to be opposed to.

In pursuing its arguments, Beyond Pebbledash is in conversation with a number of urban discourses, all of which remain somewhat invisible or implicit. As an example, their perspectives of debates about anti-social behavior and gentrification are summarized as follows: “But the very concept of the desirability of living in an inner-city neighbourhood can often provoke illogical thinking. It’s as if certain areas of the city can never really become desirable places to live in; perhaps worse, they somehow shouldn’t. To suggest otherwise is to risk ‘gentrification’. Residential desirability for some is suggestive of something vacuous, unreal, and denuded of the political earthliness of regeneration.” (Kearns and Ruimy, 2014, p.135). Continuing, and to give emphasis to their argument, the authors refer to this supposed perspective as portraying a “profound bigotry of place.” Here, the authors make it explicit that there is a desire amongst an unidentified group to accept the city as it is.

This, however, is a false-representation of debates about urban regeneration in Dublin and other cities. To take the example of gentrification, it should be made clear that it is not that critical urban discourse somehow wants poor quality urbanism or a city plagued by anti-social behavior. Instead, amongst other factors, critical urban discourse argues that attracting the middle- and upper-classes back to the city (a dominant urban ideology of the last three decades or so) does not actually solve complex social issues. Instead, Kearns and Ruimy aim to depoliticize highly charged forms of urban change and perceive urban transformation as a simple exercise of getting on with so-called difficult decisions. This perspective ignores how bound up these issues are with social class and power. To ignore or dismiss this is not just a matter of dismissing academic arguments, but is in danger of ignoring how the city is shaped, for whom the city is for and who the city should be for in the future. These debates are also not something isolated to one particular section of enquiry, but, as is emphasized by the so-called ‘poor door‘ discussions in the UK lately, are becoming central to debates about the nature of current approaches to urban transformation.

There is a pressing need for policy discourses about city life to challenge the notion that cities can be ‘saved’ by making them more attractive to middle-income and higher-income people, and not to continue reproduce such perspectives. This is a somewhat nuanced debate, but solutions to the tangled-web of urban change – including the social problems discussed in Beyond Pebbledash – need to be led through structural approaches (both in urban and suburban contexts), some of which might be contradictory. In setting out what we as citizens want Dublin to be, and thinking through what might make it better, there is a need to think about for whom it is better for. This would bring us to questions of, for example, justice, land ownership, affordable rents/ownership, and wider questions of governance (including a significant increase in integrated decision-making within Dublin’s four local authorities so to promote inclusive decision-making). Such approaches would not preclude social mix, but would be aware of the importance of looking at social context when implementing such policies. When taken in combination, such approaches must also be seen in the context of wealth redistribution and its impact upon reproducing urban society.

There is already evidence that policy is seeking to look at alternative models of urban transformation, and possible departures in this regard have recently been outlined by Dublin City Council. There is no reason that these approaches could not include the re-use and densification of development parcels in the city centre. However, in so doing, it must seek to achieve a balanced approach and not an approach that is based on the philosophy that the attraction of middle-income and high-income residents will solve its issues. While Kearns and Ruimy perceive their approach as leading to a balanced social structure, evidence from cities such as London would point to the opposite. Indeed, unless policy seeks alternatives to this discourse, we may well be looking at a greater level of social polarization in the coming decades. Given its levels of vacancy, Dublin, of all cities in Europe, has a chance to take a different approach. The answers to this involve looking at alternative structural models which question the roots of challenging social issues such as inequality and promote the means to alter them.

Philip Lawton

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