Planning


In July 2017, I posted a piece on this blog, arguing that the exit of the UK from the European Union constitutes a critical moment in Irish geography, with far-reaching consequences for the island of Ireland. I was (and continue to be) convinced that there is a strong spatial dimension to Brexit which is often overlooked in the mainstream academic and policy commentary. Brexit is fundamentally about territoriality. Brexit does not simply have geographical consequences; the act of the UK leaving the EU ruptures our taken-for-granted understandings of the position of Ireland within Europe and, in relation to the UK and, perhaps most North-South relations on the island of Ireland. Brexit is metageographical. The future of ‘European space’ is at stake. All of this makes, I believe, a persuasive case for a critical and sustained engagement by geographers and other spatially inclined thinkers with the phenomenon of Brexit and its implications, both in a critical, theoretical sense, in terms of how we understand territoriality in Europe, and in an applied in sense, in terms of addressing the challenges posed by this geopolitical moment (see also Boyle et al 2018).

Image source: The Irish Times

Since July 2017, things have of course moved on. Yet the fundamentals have remained the same. The UK formally left the EU on 31st January 2020. Yet, Brexit continues to have a Beckettian quality. ‘Leaving’ is a gradual process (as Jim was fond of reminding us) and there continues to be much uncertainty concerning the end of the transition period as a substantial agreement on the future relationship seems as far off as ever. Meanwhile, the current public health crisis has prompted a return to hard borders within Europe and restrictions on movement that few would have thought possible, just a few short months ago. Once again, the ideals of the European project are tested by a crisis of existential proportions. Much depends on the willingness of EU Member States to effectively demonstrate solidarity within Europe.

In May 2018, Gavan Rafferty (Ulster University) and I convened a session at the Conference of Irish Geographers in Maynooth focused on the implications of Brexit for cross-border cooperation and spatial planning on the island of Ireland. This session drew on the expertise of the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) in engaging with planners, policy-makers and other stakeholders at local, regional and national levels concerned with regional development and spatial planning in the border region, North and South, in the period since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The papers from this session subsequently formed the backbone of a Special Issue of Irish Geography, which has been published online just this week (official publication date November 2019). The papers explore the process and practice of creating spaces for cooperation across the Irish border, pre- and post- Brexit. Drawing on both critical theoretical debates on territoriality, soft spaces and spatial imaginaries as well as applied practical experience, the papers in the special issue highlight the scope for, but also the challenges of working with the ‘island of Ireland’ as a ‘soft space’ in the context of Brexit. It is argued that soft forms of public policy, working under the radar, in the shadow of territory should continue to play a significant role post-Brexit, but that sustained institutional and political support will be required to support these informal practices.

It is hoped that this publication will foster further critical reflection and engagement on the issues it raises as the implications of Brexit for the North-South and East-West relations become clearer.

Cormac Walsh (University of Hamburg and ICLRD)

The individual papers in the Special Issue are available to download (open access) from the Irish Geography website.

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.

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.

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  

 

Poor Shane Ross. Offered the chance by Richard Boyd-Barrett to begin moving Ireland’s transport policy into the 21st century, he blew it with a short-sighted, idiotic answer to a parliamentary question. Boyd-Barrett asked if Ross would undertake a cost-benefit analysis of free public transport. Did Ross think long and hard about it? Apparently not. His answer was ‘no’ and for evidence he rolled out the notion that it’d cost the exchequer an extra €600m. Game over? It shouldn’t be.

Consider:

(1) Free public transport is a matter of inclusion, well-being, and happiness. It works for those using the Free Travel Scheme. It permits movement; grants access to the city, the country, to friends and family. Extended to everyone, free public transport would give a massive happiness boost to everyone who wants to get out and about. Inclusion and well-being should be the main argument for free public transport. It’s about ‘the right to the city’ (and the country).

(2) Free public transport – albeit with extra investment (in electric buses; trains fuelled by hydrogen; [gasp!] an underground metro) to deal with rising passenger numbers – would further reduce carbon emissions. We need climate action and Shane Ross, as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, should be taking the lead, not obstructing things with daft arguments. He needs to get a grip and realise what we’re dealing with. The sooner we get people out of cars, onto bikes, onto buses and trains, the better. Let’s go.

(3) Free public transport makes the overall transport system more efficient and kinder. It could reduce the dwell time while buses wait for passengers to alight: no more hanging about as everyone taps their Leap card or pays the driver. Buses and trains could eradicate spending on the hardware and software used to collect fares. No more barriers. No more lines of tired people at the Dart station while they wait to tap off. And no more fines on the Luas for the unaware tourist who didn’t realise they needed to tag on. In short, the system would be more efficient and less authoritarian. Staff on the Luas or Irish Rail could spend more of their time helping people. What are we waiting for?

(4) Free public transport can make Ireland’s cities better places to live, or at least work. Congestion costs a fortune and is exhausting. It also stinks, pollutes the air, and causes asthma. For the thousands of workers who can’t afford to live in urban areas, moreover, free public transport to their job in the city puts more money in their pocket to be spent on what they care about (kids, eating out, holidays, whatever).

(5) Finally, Ireland’s tourists spent €4.9bn in 2017. 13% was spent on transport. That’s €637m, although of course some of this covers taxis. Free public transport permits tourists to spend (OK, some of) that money in restaurants or visitor attractions. Jobs. Happier tourists. A more balanced tourism market across the country. And if we made free public transport a cornerstone of Fáilte Ireland’s marketing campaign, surely more tourists would be tempted to visit. If nothing else, the country sends a message: come and move around; you’re welcome. Here is (at least a big chunk of) the €600m that blind-sided Shane Ross.

Can we just get on with making this country better now?

Alistair Fraser

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%.

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 21.35.15

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

In the last couple of days I’ve been asked to comment on two issues around property data, both relating to vacancy (though we could easily have a similar discussion with regards to housing completions, homelessness, etc).  The first relates to housing vacancy and a report by Fingal County Council that contends that the vacancy levels in the local authority have been ‘grossly overstated’. The second about commercial vacancy and present rates. In both cases it’s difficult to provide strong answers because systematic data collection with respect to both is problematic and the state does not provide official data on either, except on housing vacancy every five years through the census which is a sub-optimal timeframe to be working from.

With respect to housing vacancy. I can’t find the report or press release from Fingal CC, but a story in the Irish Times reports that they believe vacancy levels are well below those reported in the census. It’s difficult to assess fully whether that’s the case without seeing the full methodology or data. What is reported in the IT is:

“The council initially conducted a desktop exercise on the 3,000 supposedly vacant properties. When commercial properties, as well as those in construction or in the planning process, were eliminated the figure fell to 361 properties. ”  They then visited 74 of the 361 homes to check on occupancy, though it’s not stated how those 74 were sampled.

Of those 74 visited, they discovered that only 13 were actually vacant. In other words, rather than having a vacancy rate of 5% (as reported in the 2016 census – 4,944 vacant units + 289 holiday homes), they have a rate of about 1% – far below what might be an expected base vacancy level of 6% (there are always some units vacant due to selling, gaps between renting, working temporarily elsewhere, people in healthcare, etc.). I have no doubt in the 18 months since the census in April 2016 properties that were vacant will have been occupied, however it seems unlikely that vacancy is so far below base vacancy, which is what the IT piece seems to be suggesting.

In terms of method it is unlikely that the CSO shared the individual addresses of vacant properties as identified in the census with Fingal. But if they were working from census data then it does not include commercial properties, nor properties under-construction, or in the planning process, or derelict. So removing those properties from census counts would make no sense – they were never counted by the CSO. Indeed, in a rebuttal story in the Irish Times, the CSO stand over their data and method – which is to send enumerators to every property in the country, to visit upwards of ten times if they fail to get an answer, and to talk to neighbours to try and ascertain the use status. I’m assuming that Fingal got their data instead from Geodirectory who source the information on occupancy from postal workers delivering or not mail. How accurate those data are I’m not sure and presumably the company would stand over their fidelity.

Regardless of the method, there is clearly a large discrepancy between what Fingal CC are finding on the ground in their small sample and what the census enumerators found 18 months ago, and presumably what An Post workers are finding. That discrepancy suggests we need a much more systematic and timely way of generating data on housing vacancy.  The government have set up a crowdsourcing means to generate vacancy information – vacanthomes.ie – where members of the public can log homes that they think are vacant, which can then be checked by local authority staff. There are well known problems with crowdsourcing such information, including coverage, representativeness and keeping the data up-to-date, and these data certainly could not be used as official statistics. Much more realistic would be a quarterly vacancy survey (much like the quarterly household survey) – probably carried out by the CSO who have no vested interest in local housing/planning data.

In terms of commercial vacancy, the state produces no statistics on the rates of vacancy for offices, retail units or industrial sites. It is a massive hole in our knowledge of the property sector. The only data that are produced are those by Geodirectory (which are limited in detail) or the property sector itself (hardly an unvested party, and the data are a product and can disappear from websites or go behind paywalls, and lack spatial granularity – usually just Dublin/rest of country or regions). In relation to commercial properties there is also a need to understand their characteristics, such as type, spec, condition, location, etc. as well as the size of space vacant, not just how many units. For example, imagine that there are ten units on a high street.  Nine of them are 1000 sqm in size and one is 5000 sqm.  If the larger unit is vacant then the vacancy rate per unit is 10 percent. However, the vacancy rate by floor area is 35 percent.  In other words, one cannot simply look at the absolute number of vacant units, rather we also need to consider the type and size of the units that are vacant. Trying to prepare local and county development plans with a fuzzy knowledge of existing development is a sub-optimal way of conducting planning and can lead to oversupply and property crashes (as per the last 20 years). Like housing, we therefore need good, reliable, timely data to understand the commercial property sector and we need the state to produce them.

In my view, there needs to be a branch-and-root review of property data in Ireland. This needs to start with asking the question: what data do we need to generate to best understand planning, housing, commercial property, infrastructure need, etc? Then to discover where the gaps are and to review the veracity and fidelity and fit-for-purpose of existing data generation and to fix as necessary. This includes assessing whether the data are being generated by the most appropriate generator. We then need to put in place the processes to produce those data.

With good quality data that people trust we might avoid different agencies producing wildly varying estimates of some element of housing or commercial property, such as vacancy rates, and we would greatly aid our planning and economic development. However, if we carry on as we are, we’re going to continue to fly half-blind and only have a partial or flawed understanding of present conditions and we are going to replicate mistakes of the past.

Rob Kitchin

The National Spatial Strategy was officially scrapped in 2013 by then Minister, Phil Hogan TD.  Soon after, the development of a replacement strategy, the National Planning Framework, was announced.  On Thursday the initial consultation document was published by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, and launched at Maynooth University by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, the Minister for DHPCLG, Simon Coveney TD, and Minister for State for Housing and Urban Renewal, Damien English TD.  It sets out the process and timeline for formulating the full NPF and provides an initial framing of government thinking with respect to what should be included in the plan.

The NSS was widely considered an unmitigated failure for a number of reasons: there were too many gateways and hubs; it was misaligned with its funding stream the NDP; it was not supported by government, agencies and local authorities and was actively undermined; and it was not implemented on a statutory basis (see this post for a full history and explanation). So have lessons been learned?  The Taoiseach would like to think so, stating at the launch that in the NSS, ‘towns were placed against towns, politics against politics … and we are not going there again.’ Instead, the NPF will seek to be more cooperative, coordinated, and regionally based.

The rationale for the NPF is broadly the same as the NSS.  It is to coordinate spatially the development of sectoral areas (economy, transport, housing, energy, education, health) and guide and drive balanced regional development as the population continues to grow.  If development is not managed and it is left to business is usual to deliver shared national goals, then Dublin will continue to expand, the regional cities will have modest growth, and smaller towns and rural areas will stagnate or decline, the document argues.  Instead, the document argues that there needs to be:

  • a coordinated, strategic approach with a twenty year time horizon;
  • this approach needs to be backed by government across departments/agencies;
  • be aligned with public/private investment, including capital spend;
  • a focus on health and well-being, the environment, North-South relations, as well as economic and property development;
  • a recognition that it is a strategy, not a wish list and that it will involve making hard choices;
  • address all parts of Ireland, avoid the perception of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, but avoid unrealistically seeking to treat all parts of the Country in the same way;
  • include a particular focus on implementation and evaluation, with capacity for review.

The proposed approach to organize and operationalize the NPF through the regional assemblies and in alignment with regional spatial economic strategies that are presently being prepared.  Rather than towns competing within a region, they should cooperate and work together as clusters.  And there should be stronger urban-rural interdependence, with large and small towns supporting rural communities.  Nonetheless, it is argued that there is a need for concentrated development of the five principal cities – Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford – and the towns around them, to create strong growth polls for business and to realise agglomeration effects and to create scales of economy/critical mass for service and infrastructure delivery.  Unlike other countries with a similar sized population – Scotland, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand – Ireland has a weak city structure with just five cities with a population above 50,000 (and only two above 100,000), that limits the ability to create balanced growth.  More modest growth will be sought in regional towns.  While growth would be welcome in rural areas, the priority is to stop further decline and to create resilience, sustainability and to improve quality of life.

There are a couple of big challenges in preparing the full NPF and getting it put on a statutory basis.  The first is the seeming paradox between ‘making hard choices’ and ‘addressing all parts of Ireland and avoiding the perception of winners and losers’.  The plan needs to make strategic decisions and prioritize areas for development and investment while also persuading everybody that those decisions are for the ‘national/regional good’ and that there is something there for them.  Given the legacy of the NSS, the localist/clientelist nature of Irish politics, and the siloed nature of government depts/agencies, that will be a challenge.  Second, and related, is given that the proposers are a minority government, the process of getting political support may involve a watering down of the plans aims, or the plan being tweaked in a way that undermines the plan’s logic to curry favour or ensure votes.  Third, in preparing the plan, it needs to be made clear how it will be implemented in practice, how it will be resourced, and how its progress will be tracked and steered back onto course if it falters, to persuade people to have faith that this isn’t a NSS v.2, but a strategic plan that will actually work in practice.

As someone who is in favour of a planned and coordinated approach – through a guiding framework, not a heavy-handed roadmap – the publication of the consultation documents for the NPF is a welcome first step.  The next step is to develop a full plan that can achieve political and public buy-in.  Part of the process to try and ensure this is, on the one hand, to produce a detailed evidence-base and various scenarios, and on the other to invite submissions as part of a consultative phase.

To make a submission about the proposed NPF go to the website and follow the instructions provided; or npf@housing.gov.ie; or write to:

NPF Submissions,
Forward Planning Section,
Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government,
Custom House,
Dublin D01 W6X0

The deadline for receipt of all submissions is 12 noon on Thursday 16th March 2017.

Some related media commentary: RTE 1, Drivetime interview; RTE Radio 1 News at One; RTE 1 Primetime.

For additional information see the Ireland 2040 website.

Rob Kitchin

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

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