The conference “Towards a Real Housing Strategy–Solutions to Ending the Housing Crisis” held in SIPTU Liberty Hall on Saturday, 3 October 2015 opened with a declaration of a housing emergency in Ireland. This declaration came from the likes of Dr. Rory Hearne, a housing expert and previously a Lecturer at Maynooth University, Fr. Peter McVerry of the Peter McVerry Trust, and public representatives from Dublin City Council and Galway City.

Dr. Rory Hearne notes that the most recent government reports released show the severity of the situation: over 100,000 households on the social housing waiting list; 80,000 households on short-term rent support, half of whom aren’t on the social housing lists; 30,000 households on the long-term RAS rent supplement; 50,000 households have received a repossession notice on their mortgage in 2014 and another 100,000 households are in mortgage arrears; and a further uncountable number of households are in poor quality public and private accommodations, possibly tens of thousands. These numbers start to tell the many stories of a deep structure of housing distress in Ireland.

The conference was called by Housing Action Now to create a dialogue, conversation, and ultimately to create strategies and goals for a real housing solution. This agenda created space for conversation in smaller groups for this conference open to the public. The entire afternoon at the conference was devoted to small group conversations to create a list of short and mid-term goals, of strategies for achieving those goals, and to report back to everyone to create a larger call for action.

The outpouring of powerful personal stories shook me, and the tremendously powerful statements by academics and activists well-versed in the issues and possibilities instilled me with a hope, that a right to housing can be brought about by careful planning, good organizing, and deep passion for the issues and for the rights of all people of a place to live, a place to flourish, and a place to call home. (more…)

Ballyvaughan Signpost

Fintan O’Toole has a piece in the Irish Times today decrying the removal of the road signs at Ballyvaughan.  He argues that it signals three kinds of stupidity.  First, that it erodes a sense of place.  Second, that it undermines local democracy.  Third, that it illustrates a lack of joined up thinking between the NRA and the needs of tourism and local economy.

The argument about place is well made.

“Like the rocks on the nearby seashore, it has accumulated an exotic accretion of barnacles and seaweed, in this case about 20 signs. They point in a conventional way towards other places: Lisdoonvarna, Corofin, Killimer, Fanore, though until fairly recently there were two signs for Lisdoonvarna, one pointing left and the other right. But local businesses and attractions – BBs, Monk’s Pub, the Tea and Garden Rooms, Aillwee Cave – gradually added their own markers. The result was a kind of organic art installation, a riot of letters, colours and angles.

The signs didn’t just point to particular places, however. They also indicated a certain kind of place, an Ireland that is a little bit different, a little bit more richly textured, where place itself is a multi-layered concept. It is not a piece of Paddywhackery or of self-conscious performance for tourists. It’s a real, functional thing that happens to tell you something about the way Irish people think of where they are. … The Ballyvaughan signpost is this kind of conversation stuck on to a pole to form a prickly porcupine of possibilities. …

There are now no pointers at all to the businesses along the coast road to Black Head, one of the most beautiful stretches of Ireland. This may be a small thing in itself, but it points to three different kinds of official stupidity, each of which has had a disastrous effect. The first is the stupidity of not understanding the importance of place. Place isn’t an abstract concept. On the contrary, it’s where all the big things come together – economics and society, the past and the present, the idea of what is distinctive with the idea of a shared space. And one of the things we screwed up so mightily in the boom years was this sense of place. Putting 300 suburban houses on the edge of an old village of 200 houses, leaving the whole thing as a ghost estate, is what happens when a sense of place is lost.

For the NRA, the Ballyvaughan sign isn’t an aspect of a particular place, it’s an affront to the proper sense of placelessness. They see the village as an obstacle to be driven through in the most efficient manner possible. As an NRA spokesman explained: “The purpose of signing on the road network is to promote safety and efficiency by providing for the orderly movement of traffic”. The sin committed by the signpost is that it exceeds its proper purpose of being exactly like every other signpost.”

The other two arguments are a bit more tricky.  Admittedly we’re talking about a signpost here and there is latitude for some commonsense and pragmatism, but at the same time one of the prime reasons we’ve ended up in the mess we’re in is because of a lack of good governance and the fact that we haven’t been following sensible rules and procedures.   The reason we have ghost estates on the edge of villages is not solely because a sense of place was lost and local democracy was not allowed to operate.  In fact, local democracy in the form of councillors were allowed to lose the run of themselves and good practice around planning failed to take place.  There is a clearly a tension here between being over-officious and leaving things too loosely governed.

Exceptionalism is always a difficult issue to deal with.  Exceptionalism around one road sign is okay.  All road signs and it becomes a major issue.  Clearly a balance has to be found between local interests and good governance and democracy.

Rob Kitchin

A recent post on this blog asks whether local authorities should be temporarily relieved of their decision-making powers. In response a number of critical questions can and should be asked:

1. Would centralised decision-making be any less subject to the influences of misplaced political judgement?

2. How would centralisation deal with the apparent legal issues arising in relation to dezoning?

The question of overzoning and overdevelopment does need to be dealt with but centralised control may not be the best answer. Indeed effective strategic planning at the local and regional levels is currently impeded by the neccessity to follow a common set of population porojections, produced at national level and sanctioned by the DoEHLG which are recognised by regional planners to be wildly out of line with realistic expectations of future growth given current levels of unemployment and emmigration.

Experience in Northern Ireland would suggest that a centralised system of planning can lead to beuracratic decision-making where planning decisions are made according to a tightly prescribed policy that is blind to questions of spatial context. It is also possible that centralised decision-making would open the door for a system based on tradable development rights and permits,  favoured by some infleuential environmental policy experts both in Ireland and elsewhere. Relieving local authorities of their planning powers would serve to seriously undermine the authority and legitimacy of local government at a time when a renewal of democratic principles of accountablity and civic responsibility is required.

Cormac Walsh

Late last week, I attended an interesting talk in which the ‘moral compass’ of planners – and local authorities as a whole – was questioned.  During the ensuing discussion, an enthusiastic debate played out as to whether planners are to blame for ‘allowing’ the overbuild that characterises every county in the Republic of Ireland.  As a planner, I agree that, yes, we have to take a certain degree of responsibility for the state of the (blighted) landscape in which we find ourselves living —- I emphasise a ‘certain degree’ given that the role of the planning system as a whole has been little considered or unpacked, as argued by the NIRSA report A Haunted Landscape — but I cannot accept that as a profession, we have lost our moral compass.

At the heart of our planning education lies the concepts of the common good, community, social justice and the accommodation of people in place (not just in terms of housing but also in respect of access to services, mobility, leisure and recreation, to name but a few).  What transpires in practice does not usually live up to the aspirations of planning educators or  graduates – the reality is that local government is too ill-equipped to thoroughly address all aspects of planning and the focus rests on short-termism and politics – two pillars of poor planning.  And, of course, what people are taught and what they then actually do are two different things.  One factor at play in this regard, for example, is where the planner ends up working; the working ethos of a planner in local government will inevitably be different to that of a planner working for a consultancy or developer.  And where a planner first worked for local government and then went to work for a developer – as happened quite frequently during the ‘boom years’ – it would be inevitable that their moral compass becomes recalibrated, possibly even dormant; but not lost.

The problem, as I see it, is that the planning profession has lost not only its voice but also its authority and power in the process of decision-making.  Within the workplace, and I refer specifically to local government here, planners are no longer taken as seriously as they might with their role in the planning and development process relatively diminished; an outcome of the politicalisation of planning.  Planners’ recommendations can be disregarded at the whim of senior officers and/or elected officials.  Too often, I have heard stories from colleagues working in local government of occasions where they have been told to say nothing – by their Directors of Service or County Manager – at either council meetings or discussions with developers on proposed applications.  That the voice of an expert in their field can be so blatantly taken away – instead of encouraged and embraced in the interests of the community to which a proposal may relate and the wider common good of the county and region to which it belongs – is a true failing of the local government system as it is currently structured.

The Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010 finally gives play to the hierarchy of plans that was proposed under the Planning and Development Act 2000 – namely, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS), the Regional Planning Guidelines (RPGs), County and City Development Plans, and finally, Local Area Plans.  But what is the point of having this hierarchy in place if the views and recommendations of the planners who are the drafters of these documents (containing a mixture of policies and maps) – with their multidisciplinary perspectives (geographers, sociologists, environmentalists, conservationists, economists, psychologists) – can be so easily ignored?

The solution?  Greater emphasis needs to be placed on the recommendations of planners when it comes to determining planning applications and preparing development plans.  To this end, it should not be as easy, as is currently the case, for officials – elected or otherwise – to override the recommendations put forward by planners. And yet, while this is part of the democratic mandate of councillors – to speak for the communities they represent – the resulting practices are unreflective of democratic principles.  It is clear that change is required to the current status quo in decision-making – but, in the case of the reserved function role of elected officials, there appears to be little appetite for reform.  But were that appetite in place, changes that should be considered, so as to strengthen the democratic principles of planning, include:

  • Elected officials should have to undertake an accredited course in understanding the planning system prior to being able to engage in any debate on a planning-related topic (whether planning application or development plan); and with any change in the legislation, all councillors should have to attend an ‘expert’ seminar on the implications of the new law;
  • Where elected officials work as estate agents, auctioneers or in other fields related to the planning field, they should be prevented from contributing to debates on planning applications or zonings to avoid clear conflicts of interest;
  • Directors of Service with responsibility for planning should have a background in the planning system; in this way, they would then better understand the decisions of planners and the reasonings behind these standings / recommendations (and while the brief of Directors of Service increasingly tend to extend beyond planning only – also covering for example, community and enterprise, or infrastructure, for example – the multidisciplinary nature of planning ensures that a director with a planning background could equally, and fairly, administer these other functions).  You wouldn’t after all have a nurse head up an accountancy firm or an engineer run a hospital ward?

There are many faults with the local government structure as it currently stands; but care needs to be exercised when confusing these short-falls (even failings) with a loss of morality among the local authority planning profession.  The planning system is complex and planners are often the foot soldiers not the generals.

Caroline Creamer

Quiz time… Question: Who said: “I’m not going to be tied down with numbers”?

Answer: Brian Lenihan, Ireland’s Minister for Finance.

Recap: RTÉ’s last night (Thursday November 4th) special Prime Time was dedicated to the upcoming budget, which will be announced on December 7th. We all know by now that it will be a painful one; the government has already made clear that we can expect €5.5 to €6 billion ‘adjustment’ as part of a 4-year plan to save €15 billion. Although we know that the €6 billion frontloading will be painful, we know very little about how we are going to feel the pain, and how painful it’s going to be for different people. As of now, the government has indicated that the bulk of it will be spending cuts (about €4.5bn), with tax increases kept to a ‘minimum’ (€1.5bn). But what is going to be cut, who is going to be affected most …etc are still unknown variables in the equation. And Brian Lenihan, who was interviewed on Prime Time last night (not live though), did not give much information on that, while presenter Richard Crowley and other guests on the programme spent most of the on-air time speculating on how the cuts and taxes would be distributed. Brian Lenihan was just keeping in line with the decision of the government not to publish the details of their 4-year plan in the coming days as it was initially planned, and to leave it to the end of the month, after the (long-in-the-waiting) Donegal South West by-election that is to be held on November 25th after the High Court ruled on Wednesday (November 3rd) that the 18-month delay for this by-election was ‘inordinate’ and unconstitutional – a ruling that the government is appealing. As noted by the Irish Times in today’s edition, “the Government is hoping to minimize internal dissent by leaving as little time as possible between the publication of the plan and the budget on December 7th”. In other words: no debate please. ‘Democracy’ you said?

Irish Times - Front Page -5/11/10

So Brian Lenihan kept mum on the details of the ‘plan’ and of the upcoming budget in particular, on Prime Time last night. One thing that he clearly stated though was that “[he was] not going to be tied down with numbers”. Not tied down by numbers? A Minister for Finance??? The comment came as a reply to Richard Crowley asking about future government’s borrowing and the high level of (over 7% at the moment, compared to average levels of 2 to 4% across Europe). Brian Lenihan attempted to dismiss the question as he said something like “we have enough in the government’s coffers to keep the country going until the middle of next year, so no need to borrow”. Until the middle of next year? Wow, phew, I feel much better now, I thought we were about to run out of money, but we have until the middle of next year. The presenter insisted with his question though, and mentioned that sure the government was going to need to borrow again around February-March, because we will need money (you know, to keep the country running after the middle of next year), and asked something along the lines of “what will you do if the interest rates remained as high?”, insisting on the fact that they may be as high as 8% (and, as admitted by Taoiseach Brian Cowen, they are not foreseen to be lower than 6.4% in 2011). That’s when Brian Lenihan replied: “I’m not going to be tied down with numbers”. (I know, I’ve written down that quote several times already, but I just can’t get over it…. A Minister for Finance in charge of the budget who says that he is not going to be tied down with numbers?!? Americans would add something like ‘WTF?!?’ here – not meaning to be rude, but I feel that expletive sounds about right here, I reckon that’s how many people would feel hearing that). So, just wondering, does that mean that all these numbers that have been dropped on us like bombshells lately (€35bn, the cost of the Anglo-Irish debacle; €15bn, the size of the hole in the government’s account; €6bn, the planned ‘adjustment’ in the upcoming budget …etc) should still be taken seriously? Or does that mean that Brian Lenihan does not feel tied down with these numbers either and that it may well be that Anglo-Irish will cost, say, €50bn rather than €35bn? (after all, at the end of 2008, less than 2 years ago, it was supposed to be ‘just a few billion euros’… and it kept going up after that). The bottom-line is that ‘accountancy’ (literally) has been banned from the government’s lexicon and Brian Lenihan made it clear. Again, as he said, he is not going to be tied down with numbers…

There was plenty of other stuff in Prime Time last night, but that one quote was what stayed in my mind for hours then, because it is so scarily exemplar of how the current government approaches the issue: we have a plan … but not really (because we know we might not stick to it, plus, we’re not really good with numbers) … but we don’t want to talk about it (again, no public debate please).

Delphine Ancien

The current Planning Bill which is due to be enacted before the Dail breaks for the summer next week has been described in the Irish Times as a ‘Rolls Royce’ of planning legislation. It is heralded as the centrepiece of the planning reform agenda of Minister Gormley’s term of office.

The Bill will have significant implications for planning policy in Ireland and in particular for the relationship between the plans of Local Authorities and the policy of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (DoEHLG). The Bill seeks to ensure consistency between City/County Development Plans, Regional Planning Guidelines and the National Spatial Strategy and provides a more evidence-based approach to planning. In particular the Bill makes provision for future City/County Development Plans to be supported by a statement of ‘core strategy’ which sets out a rationale for the settlement strategy pursued in the plan itself. The Bill has the potential to make it very difficult for councillors to push through zoning proposals which are in conflict with national or regional policy objectives.

The full implications of the Bill have received limited debate, however. I focus on one key aspect here: implications for the relationship between central government, regional and local authorities.

It may be argued that the Bill provides for a more hierarchical and centralised planning system, characterised by increased policy direction from central government. A core principle of the planning system currently is that of subsidiarity: that decision should be made at the lowest level possible. While there may be ample evidence supporting a curtailed role for councillors, it may be argued that it is equally important to ensure that future spatial planning and regional development policy is prepared with due regard for policies articulated by Local and Regional authorities in addition to national objectives and concerns. Regional Planning Guidelines (RPGs) provide a potential framework within which this negotiation or consultation process might take place, provided RPGs are not viewed solely as in implementation mechanism for the National Spatial Strategy (NSS).

The current NSS was prepared at a time of economic growth where it was possible to set out a vision where practically all regions and localities could benefit, based on their individual ‘potentials’. A ‘refresh’ of the NSS is due to be published shortly. This review of a key government policy document has not, however, emerged as the outcome of a transparent consultation process. It is not mentioned for example on either the website of the DoEHLG or that of the NSS itself. It is possible that given the ‘current economic climate’ the NSS refresh or any future review may favour a less ‘balanced’ approach to regional development in Ireland.

Cormac Walsh

An interesting and passionate opinion piece in the Irish Times today by Theo Dorgan arguing that representative democracy is simply not functioning as it should, at present.  An argument that chimes Fintan O’Toole’s assertion in Ship of Fools, that Ireland is still not a mature democracy.

“This democracy of ours is breaking down, on a scale and in a manner that we have not seen before now, principally because there is now a profound contradiction between what we expect of government, and what government thinks it is there for. In my view, the Government now thinks its sole duty is to manage the State as if it were its own property. […]

However imperfect and in constant need of adjustment it may be, representative democracy seems the sanest and fairest practical way to regulate the complex business of the modern State. For representative democracy to work, there must be a complex relationship of trust between the ruled and the rulers.

If I am to be ruled, if I am to consent to be ruled, then I must grant government considerable latitude in its decision-making processes provided only and always that government acts honourably, scrupulously, fairly and attentively in the discharge of its business.

It has become terrifyingly clear that this Government is really, truly not listening to us. All criticism is dismissed, jibed at, spun out of meaning – as if we are not really there.

A licence to govern is not carte blanche to do as you please between regrettably necessary elections, to behave wilfully, even stupidly, between polling days, with a mental resolve to gloss over mistakes (and worse) in your pre-election literature in the hope of being returned to the merry-go-round. Government is a process, an ongoing process whose driving force, so to speak, is the constant renewal of mutual trust. […]

If we are to survive the present crisis we will need a government prepared to feel shame when it lets us down, prepared to put the national good before party or sectional interest, prepared to listen to, learn from and act upon the collective, unbiased intelligence, including the moral intelligence, of its own people.”

It’s an interesting piece.  It’ll probably won’t be “dismissed, jibed at, spun out of meaning” as he fears, but rather the more usual strategy adopted – it’ll be ignored.  Perhaps the most interesting thing in the Irish case, is that despite many people being unhappy with how the country is being governed, there is very little explicit, well organised protest or calls for political reform.  We are a long way from pots and pans being used to bring down a government, as in Iceland.  It seems we have little appetite for a ‘mature democracy’.