Politics


There will be tens of thousands of words written this week about Donald Trump’s first year as President of the United States. His first 12 months has been characterised by a gummed-up domestic policy and letting the military apparatus do what it wants elsewhere in the world. In Europe, we may look askance and turn our noses up at the sheer grubbiness of it all. Within the EU we may find ourselves silently smug about how different things are here in Europe. There are however echoes of Trump’s vision for Making America Great Again (MAGA) among the 27 members of the Union. In Hungary, Poland and Austria, right wing parties lay bare the ugly face of late capitalism with anti-immigration measures and welfare retrenchment. In the UK, the unfolding Brexit mess brings with it a number of considerable political and economic costs yet to fully explored. Anyone living near the border in Ireland could attest to this. Similarly, people in Ireland are not immune to the midnight tweetings and wild policy pursuits of a leader who may not see out his first term without a dirty political fight. Trump and his cabinet are determined to bring jobs back from overseas to employ US residents as a way of shoring up working class support. It is not clear yet how US capitalists are taking to this idea but even a moderate success in this regard would make a considerable difference to the Irish economy, north and south.

Two incidents in recent weeks point to how this may unfurl in Ireland. Firstly, Apple is planning to build a data centre near to the town of Athenry, Galway. The planning application has been upheld but not without a chance for the High Court to review a decision to allow An Bord Pleanala’s decision to have effect. Two residents sought a review of the decision on a technical ground.  They claimed that the EIA was based on eight halls of data servers and not only one as sought in the application. Other people in Athenry have been out marching in favour of the planning application, citing that jobs would be lost to some other location if local politicians do not support the application. Not unrelated to these movements of course is the fact that the Irish state will bend over backwards to accommodate a company that owes us at least €13,000,000,000 in unpaid tax. On his return from a recent US visit, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar committed to Apple, indicating that his government will do anything to curry the company’s favour. It has been reported that “the Cabinet is developing a detailed position on the role and importance of data centers, including on their designation as strategic infrastructure”. It is not at all clear how many jobs would result in the Athenry project (perhaps 100?) but it will be a significant drain on our electricity grid.

During this time, across north America, cities have been competing for Amazon’s second headquarters. Mexican, Canadian and US cities have been offering tax breaks, highway construction and whole city blocks in bids to ensure Bezos’s company would land in their turf. As an aside, it was not radically different under previous administrations, Obama’s included. ‘Infrastructure’ is fast becoming code for the reshaping of entire cities using privately held surplus. This resonates in Ireland where a deeply embedded cluster of policies lowers corporate tax rates and environmental monitoring to ensure foreign direct investment. In Ireland we like to convince ourselves that FDI is because we offer an educated and English-speaking workforce, implicating all schoolchildren in an ideological project since at least the mid-1970s. In reality, as the Panama Papers, Wikileaks and the Paradise Papers all make clear, Ireland’s economy is best in class for tax avoidance. International best practice eludes our health service but in the matter of squirrelling money forced out of people’s labour and pockets, we are among the elite. (What is it about islands and tax avoidance?)

Global finance and money moves quickly around the world, landing in different places in different ways. Regional geographers and others examine this unevenness in great detail. We need, however, to connect political struggles like the election of Trump and the re-emergence of reactionary governments in the EU with this unevenness. The attraction of high quality jobs can no longer act as cover for large scale tax avoidance and politicians in Ireland may have to realise that quicker than they think. The game with the highest stakes is that of money flow derived from profit. The implications of MAGA are being felt in east Galway and elsewhere in the Republic. This is not because of what elected politicians have or have not done in Galway but because of what happens in Washington and California.

Eoin O’Mahony

Teaching Fellow, School of Geography, UCD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gavin Daly

Last month, negotiations on the exit of the UK from the European Union commenced. As noted elsewhere, Brexit constitutes a critical milestone of game-changing significance not just for the UK but also for the EU and indeed for the Republic of Ireland. In November 2009, it was argued in the initial post on this blog, that the establishment of NAMA represented a critical moment for Irish Geography. Brexit represents a critical moment of transformation with perhaps similarly far-reaching consequences for geography of the island of Ireland. Brexit represents a reconfiguration of territoriality with direct implications for North-South, Ireland-EU and Ireland-UK relations. I argue here that Brexit thus requires critical and sustained engagement from the geographical community. To date, much of the discussion and debate on Brexit has occurred at macro-level against the backdrop of an implied simplistic geography of ‘London and ‘Brussels’ or the UK and Europe. Discussion of a ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland has occurred for me the most part without due reference to the complex territoriality of Northern Ireland post-1998.

A Briefing Paper recently published by the Centre for Cross-Border Studies sets out the specific geographical implications of ‘flexible and imaginative solutions’ for Northern Ireland post-Brexit. Significantly the paper highlights the potential role of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) as a political framework for territorial relations ‘on these islands’ post Brexit. The GFA is composed of three strands concerning the devolved governance for Northern Ireland (Strand I), North-South (Strand II) and British-Irish (Strand III) relations. Crucially these strands are mutually interdependent:

To reach a negotiating outcome that undermines any one of the strands of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the geographical spaces they represent would be to undermine the entire Agreement given that they are all interdependent (CCBS, June 2017).

 In this context, the Irish and British governments have pivotal roles as co-guarantors of the GFA. The interdependence of the three strands goes to the heart of the territoriality of Northern Ireland. It follows that this territoriality must be understood relationally – in relation to the UK, the Republic of Ireland and, indeed the EU. This perspective serves to relativize the perception of Northern Ireland as a bounded container space within the UK. Katy Hayward has argued cogently on QPOL that different normative ideas on sovereignty are at the heart of the Brexit debate:

At the heart of this Brexit debate are two different conceptions of sovereignty. If the EU is about the growth of sovereignty by sharing it, Brexit is, in essence, a move to deepen sovereignty by restricting it to the territory of the UK (QPOL, June 2017)

A relational understanding of territoriality helps in moving beyond black/white, either/or solutions to the Northern Ireland question. Maintaining a (for the most part) porous and open border does not need to lead to a border poll and political unity. A hard Brexit does not need to lead to a hard border. The CCBS Briefing Paper sets out a possible post-Brexit geography whereby the island of Ireland under Strand II of the GFA becomes an in-between space allowing access for goods and services from Northern Ireland (but not the rest of the UK) to EU / European Economic Area markets. An alternative model would allow free movement of goods and services between Ireland and the UK due to Ireland’s status as a co-guarantor of the GFA. A recent House of Lords report on the implications of Brexit for devolved governance in the UK, has furthermore suggested that Northern Ireland could maintain compliance with EU law in order to minimise discordance the impact of the border on North-South relations.

Both of the above approaches indicate the potential for imaginative solutions (not necessarily the political will), which requite innovative engagement with territorial relations on the island of Ireland, but within the context of existing frameworks. In the period since the GFA, the island of Ireland has emerged as a coherent functional space with extensive effort gone into the development of shared cross-border spaces for cooperation at community, local authority, regional and inter-jurisdictional levels. Reflecting this, as discussed in a previous post here, the proposed National Planning Framework (RoI) makes substantial reference to the North-South, island of Ireland context and the work of the border area networks. The International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) among other organisations has played a key role behind the scenes, in fostering spaces for cooperation in spatial planning and local and regional development within the border region. Reflecting the near-invisibility of the border in the landscape, a comedian quoted anonymously in Garrett Carr’s The Rule of the Land wryly remarked, “We are going to need the border again… if anyone can remember where we left it”.

The shared border region, and indeed the idea of the island of Ireland as a functional space may be understood as soft, non-territorial spaces. They are informal spaces, located outside the regulatory sphere of nation-state territoriality but very much located in shadow of territory and dependent on formal territorial relations, including in this case the GFA. It is likely that in the post-Brexit context such soft spaces will acquire increased significance whether on the island of Ireland or in terms of Ireland-UK or indeed Northern Ireland-Scotland relations. Indeed a number of scholars of European integration and EU reform (e.g. Jan Zielonka, Andreas Faludi), the future of European integration lies in precisely these forms of soft space, in moving beyond the straitjackets imposed by dominant conceptualisations of the EU as a ‘club of nation states’ and embracing flexible boundaries, soft spaces and variable geometries.

Brexit will lead to paradigmatic shifts in the political geographies of these islands as well as of Europe more broadly. These shifts will play out at multiple scales from that of the EU to the micro-geographies of the Irish-Northern Irish borderland. It is imperative that current and future debates on post-Brexit geographies are informed by critical, theoretically informed perspectives recognising the complex relationships between shifting territorial spaces and the lived places that lie behind them.

Dr. Cormac Walsh

University of Hamburg and ICLRD

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

The problematic of rural Ireland and the rapidly emergent conditions of an increasingly urban-focused economic recovery has recently hit the headlines and moved front-and-centre in the concerns of both the media and government. RTE aired the “The Battle for Rural Ireland” documentary featuring the forlorn parents of emigrants and boarded up rural towns followed by the all too familiar, and equally depressing, ‘debate’ on Claire Byrne Live. The column inches of newspapers have similarly carried numerous commentaries on the flatlining rural economy and rural depopulation with the chair of the government’s CEDRA commission, established to champion rural development, decrying the painfully slow progress in implementing its rural job creation strategy.  Dr. Brian Hughes on this blog and in the national media has been to the fore in arguing that the notion of balanced regional development is a fallacy and that “the future is urban” – something which the political class is loath to accept. Meanwhile, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has declared 2015 “the year of rural recovery” where the fruits of economic growth will be spread equally across the land. Minister Simon Coveney was also on message pointing to the resurgence in agriculture and that reports of the demise of rural Ireland had been greatly exaggerated. The IDA has even been mandated to develop new strategies to convince multinationals to invest outside of major cities while the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation proposes to publish new Regional Enterprise Strategies. Ireland’s uneven economic geography – temporarily masked by the property bubble – has re-emerged as a major political battleground for the upcoming general election and the trite urban versus rural ‘Punch ‘n’ Judy’ show, which has disastrously hampered the national territorial planning agenda for decades, appears set to continue in perpetuity. Such is the political uneasiness that, just like in 2002 when the publication of the NSS was delayed by a general election, it is unlikely that the proposed new National Planning Framework (NPF) will be seen any time before 2017. Plus ça change.

It is of course an inescapable reality that for a country where the entire economic foundation is built upon attracting mobile international capital in high-value knowledge economy and export-orientated sectors, such as ICT and financial services, that Ireland’s future is urban. The international experience and literature on why this is so is voluminous, requiring little explanation here. Worldwide, urbanisation is progressing at an unprecedented pace. Unless there is a major shift in national economic philosophy or global conditions, no amount of strategising or rural broadband schemes will permit Ireland to buck that trend. Simply put, capital will locate where it is most profitable and that invariably means in cities. However, rather than continuing to flog the dead horse of a specious urban/rural dichotomy it would be perhaps more productive in the context of developing the new NPF to instead conceive of a new understanding of what urbanisation means in 21st Century Ireland.  We continually persist with outdated notions that ‘up in Dublin’ is some spatially discreet, densely agglomerated and bounded entity roughly delineated by the M50 motorway. Equally, we tend to mawkishly cling to 19th century romantic notions of rural Ireland as sparsely populated verdant and pastoral countryside ‘bright and cosy with homesteads’. Neither exists, and these crude morphological or population-centric typologies are extremely misleading lenses into the recent dynamics of Irish urbanisation. Instead, it would be more instructive to reconceptualise urbanisation as a dynamically evolving process which is taking place at wider spatial scales with ever-increasing reach and extending outwards into broader operational landscapes, including new forms of land-use intensification, counter-urbanisation, logistical chains, commuter hinterlands, core-periphery polarisation and uneven development. Both rural and urban are increasingly interwoven, shapeless, formless making it difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. Distinctions that made sense in the past have become entirely moot.*

The 'Real' Urban Ireland

The Real Urban Ireland (Source CSO 2012, Pg. 25)

Maintaining the contested urban/rural political soapbox serves only as a comfortable façade for a body politic to beat their chests and engage in a disingenuous performance of seriousness towards the welfare of ‘Rural Ireland’ while the inevitable reality unfolds around them. As a consequence, in a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem, we have unwittingly managed to produce the worst of both worlds – places that are neither city nor countryside – and much of the unplanned spatial chaos we have inherited today. Somehow, along the way Irish policymakers seem to have conflated economic spill-overs with sprawling ex-urban zones of high accessibility as a prescription for halting rural depopulation (what Fianna Fáil’s Eamon O’Cuiv approvingly terms the ‘melting ice-cream effect’). Therefore, perhaps the biggest mistake the new NPF could make is to continue with this hackneyed straitjacket of the urban/rural binarism and the notion that Ireland can be analytically carved up into two distinct spatial categories for intervention. The ignored challenge facing ‘Rural Ireland’ is, in fact, that it is in variously advanced stages of becoming urbanised. If we continue to relegate ‘Rural Ireland’ as being outside the urban condition then we will forever misdiagnose the problem. As a result, we will persistently fail to frame the appropriate policy responses to address the implications of these ongoing processes for the future forms and pathways of urbanisation and, more generally, for the organisation of the built environment. Perhaps it’s time to confront an uncomfortable premise – ‘Rural Ireland’ no longer exists.

Gavin Daly

* Neil Brenner, ‘Implosions/Explosions: Towards a study of planetary urbanization (2014)

In late January, the Irish Times reported that the Fine Gael Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe was pressing ahead with the privatisation of a number of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann routes. This is a proposal that has been doing the rounds for years. It has been part of at least three government programmes since 2007. Having failed to convince the drivers’ unions of his plan, Donohoe is now putting 23 Dublin Bus routes and 5 Bus Éireann routes out to private tender. From a geographic perspective, this plan is of interest because part of the proposal is that no privatised route will “terminate in the city centre and are primarily orbital routes, or services carrying commuters from rail stations or large shopping centres to suburbs”. Why is this? What is the rationale for doing it this way? It will not take long but this is part of a plan for wholesale privatisation, working inwards from the city’s periphery to the centre.

In this post, we want to briefly examine the geography of the Dublin Bus routes considered for privatisation. We examine the demographics of these ‘orbital’ areas. It is an attempt to understand the politics of this transport policy and to see if there is a relationship between these routes and specific socio-demographic indictors. We use CSO/AIRO maps at small area and electoral division levels to examine what public is served by public transport. These districts are generalised census units which aggregate a large amount of information in a single measure. All of the routes proposed for private tender serve suburban locations, albeit very densely populated ones. In the absence of route-specific passenger load data (a vital part of commoditisation), it can be argued that some of the routes proposed for privatisation have been in decline since the early part of this decade. For example, routes 63 and 75 serve many of south Dublin’s affluent areas where travel by private car is more usual. The map below shows a part of Dublin’s suburbs alongside the percentages of Professional Workers in each area.

map 1The map shows how the routes proposed for private tender travel through areas of relative affluence in terms of social class. A map for private car ownership (a basic proxy for affluence) yields broadly similar results. Routes 63 and 75 travel through this affluent and car dependent part of south Dublin.

Map 2How will private tenders operate in areas of higher car dependency and among those in higher social class groups? If the imperative is to profit and not service, what attracts a private operator to these routes? Looking at Blanchardstown, a western suburb, a number of routes are proposed for privatisation. The map below shows the percentage of an area’s population in the skilled manual social class. Areas that are soon to have privatised bus services have up to 20% of their population in this class, arguably those most in need of mass transport.

Map 3Finally, and in the same area, the areas with many households with access to two cars is relatively higher in the south when compared to the area north of the main road (indicated by routes of the 270 and 17A). Using the All Island Deprivation Index data for the north city area, we can see that the 17A and 220 routes serve areas of high disadvantage but that these are served by other bus routes. In Blanchardstown, the 236 and 200 routes proposed for privatisation serve areas of relatively high disadvantage.

Map 4While the routes proposed are said to be ‘orbital’ they serve tens of thousands of people travelling to and from work, retail and education every day. To whom they are orbital is only a consideration to a network and its planners that makes the city centre the terminus for most routes.

What is being achieved by the proposal of these routes to be sent for private tender? At an initial glance, it seems that there will be differential effects across the city. In the southern suburbs, where two car ownership is higher than other parts of the city, a less frequent privatised bus service will matter relatively little. In areas where the bus is the only form of frequent transport, operating routes on the basis of something other than profit is a social good. It forms part of a social wage. Along with the recent contraction of schedules and the number of vehicles, certain areas of Dublin are now more dependent on this service when compared with others.

A privatised route will have to generate income and to do so can only increase fares and / or lower wages. We have seen this for refuse collection since 2001. Taking the city as a whole, the private tendering of these ‘orbital’ routes is a testing ground for more extensive privatisation on other, more lucrative, routes in the years to come.  A private operator is not going to want to compete on one route but on many across the entire network. If a route is operated by a profit-driven company, the license to service the route will need to stipulate the regularity of the service. A route that runs at peak times only and does not operate outside of this peak defies categorisation as a social good. Ours fears for privatisation is that there will be a focus on running a bus only on that exact slot in the schedule that will be busy. There is little assessment of the route within the system as a whole. Having operated a route for perhaps two years, private operators will be back at the minister’s office door arguing for access to these more lucrative routes.

Eoin O’Mahony, Assistant Lecturer SPD/DCU & Omar Sarhan, GIS and data enthusiast

After four years of little tangible progress in respect of planning policy agendas, the government recently published a new Planning Policy Statement (PPS) to reaffirm its strong belief in the value of a forward-looking, visionary and dynamic planning process” together with the heads of two new planning bills. The first introduces a new vacant site levy and revised provisions in relation to social and affordable housing. The second presents proposals for the long-awaited planning regulator, following the recommendations of the Mahon Tribunal. It also sets out the legislative context for the successor to the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) – the National Planning Framework (NPF).

Both bills have also not been without their criticisms from, for example, the Irish Planning Institute and An Taisce. The proposed vacant sites levy mechanism appears so cumbersome so as to be unworkable in practice and exposes the strategic error in opting for a property tax over a more progressive Site Value Tax. I have previously blogged on the criticisms surrounding the independence of the planning regulator. Regulating planning is not like regulating the taxi industry. Planning is spatial politics – making choices on the use of land which are irreversible and will have profound intergenerational impacts. While I acknowledge that the track record of most former ministers inspires little confidence, the idea of handing such power over to a technocratic regulator outside of democratic oversight would be fraught with danger. It cannot be simply assumed that the regulator would be a benign or progressive force.

The high-level political commitment in the PPS is, of course, welcome – basic ‘Planning 101’ type stuff. The new mantra for the planning system is to ensure that “the right development takes place in the right locations and at the right time”. However, what is actually happening in the micro-politics of everyday practice, and which will no doubt continue, is more like ‘any development, in any location and at any time’. For example, in the majority of local authorities, ad hoc ‘one-off’ housing currently accounts for well over 70% of all new residential units granted planning permission and in many cases it is over 90% i.e. diametrically contrary to the lofty principles of the PPS.

The broader point here, and relevant to the preparation of the new NPF, is Niklas Luhmann’s famous assertion that planning is possible if people are used to being planned. Irish people clearly are not. The political class is equally apathetic, even ideologically hostile, to long-term policy planning. The reason the NSS failed was due to thousands of individual acts of resistance – death by a thousand cuts – which cumulatively undermined the whole foundations of the strategy. This was aided and abetted by the vague nature of NSS policies and objectives which simultaneously offered something to everyone and nobody at the same time. Text could always be pulled out of the NSS to justify almost any manner of development proposal regardless of location, the upshot being a complete loss of steering capacity.

While there will always be broad acceptance of notional long-term planning strategies and feel-good intentions as advocated by the PPS, short-term considerations will always win out in concrete practice. Such outcomes are often tied to emotional pleadings around children of landowners and the promise of local jobs which are impossible to resist. We are already seeing a return of the ‘development-at-all-costs’ culture which gripped the Celtic Tiger, where those questioning development proposals on the grounds of national policy are being pilloried by national and local politicians. Surely, it must be a concern that in almost 50% of planning cases where a decision of a planning authority is sent for an independent review to An Bord Pleanála, that decision is reversed?

In short, we must be realistic about the prospects for the NPF. There is growing academic evidence of the widening gap between the theory and practice of spatial planning, and Ireland is obviously a clear case in point. In fact, it is difficult to point to any instances where national spatial planning has actually worked. Simply, persisting with all of the borrowed buzzwords of the late 1990s (e.g. balanced development, gateways, hubs, networks etc) for continuity’s sake would be foolish in the extreme. So would be to try to ignore the contentious spatial politics at national level by shirking responsibility to the new ‘super regions’.

The fact of the matter is that Ireland is not a blank page onto which we can sketch abstract spatial policies. This has been amplified by the legacy of the Celtic Tiger which has accreted a complex economic, social and political geography which creates manifold path dependencies which cannot now be unpicked. These geographies are adversarial to national planning and present as countervailing headwinds to any strategy aimed at focusing development and infrastructure into a limited number of growth centres. Our widely dispersed settlement patterns make both the politics and technicalities of such explicit choices impossible. In fact, it is hard to conceive of a more unfavourable environment for conducting national spatial planning. Concentrating resources in one location inevitably means withdrawing them from others. Spreading them too thinly automatically undermines a strategy aimed at spatial concentration. The recent HIQA report on the under-performance of regional ambulance services, and the subsequent political outcry, is instructive here.

So in the end the NPF, like its predecessor, will fudge it. Within the fog, all development regardless of location will be justifiable. This depoliticised consensus will of-course suit the wider elite political project of maintaining the primacy of Dublin and Ireland’s competitiveness at the global scale. The NPF and the illusion of balanced development implies a form of spatial Keynesianism whereby resources are redistributed territorially. However, imposing artificial constraints on the growth of Dublin will inevitably be presented as counter-productive. FDI will simply not move to peripheral regions, but overseas. Figures released by the DJEI show that almost half of all FDI jobs created in 2013 were in Dublin with Cork, Galway and Limerick accounting for the majority of the balance. Demographic analysis by the Western Development Commission also shows that population is projected to become more regionally concentrated, particularly in Dublin and the Mid-East regions.

We have previously marshaled great effort and expense to produce a NSS which ultimately proved pointless. Before we embark on another fool’s errand we should first be asking ourselves the simple question – unless we are willing to confront the spatial politics that such a strategy implies, is there any point? Our experience  is clearly that a spatial strategy based on a bland depoliticised consensus is equal to no strategy at all.

Gavin Daly

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