Dublin Transformed: Behind the Hoardings

Philip Lawton, Dept of Geography, TCD and Eoin O’Mahony, School of Geography, UCD

Walking across The Samuel Beckett Bridge over the last few months, it is hard to escape the giant hoarding covering the Tropical Fruit Warehouse. It is an artistic rendering entitled ‘Abiding Traces’ by the artist Leah Hewson. This is the latest in what is now a relatively long history of development hoardings that have become a ubiquitous feature of new developments – both in Dublin, and on a global scale. Yet this one is perhaps unique, embodying the overlaps between urban development, investment strategies, and wholly enmeshed ideals of creativity within the contemporary city. This artistic motif conjoins with a dash of history – ‘Established 1892: Re-Imagined 2019’ – to give an air of both established heritage, and a  ‘new innovative future’.

These kinds of hoardings are now an almost common-place feature of Dublin Docklands. Slowly, but surely, since 2015 or so, the Docklands has become a focal-point of forms of  transformation last seen before the 2008 crash. The 2008 Great Financial Crisis flushed out the smaller operators and what we’re left with now are those that started making deals while in NAMA-hibernation. International companies, such as Oxley, Hines and King Street Capital have all joined up with Irish-based companies to provide the money to build large office blocks and apartments. Yet, these changes are not only confined to the Docklands, with the city and suburbs yet again undergoing significant transformations. In the office district of the south core, for example, on streets such as Dawson Street, Nassau Street and Molesworth Street, 1970’s modernist office blocks have been torn down and replaced by shiny new glass and brick panels. When taken together, this is the new and bold turn in Dublin’s continued emergence as an ‘entrepreneurial city’. In short, the coming together of capital and image-making strategies is bringing about profound changes in the way the way the city looks and feels. 

In the summer of 2017, as a means of analysing these changes, we began to systematically track the hoardings surrounding newly developing sites around the centre of the city. The use of stylized hoardings was a trend that, at the very least, can be traced to the Celtic Tiger period, where the hoardings concentrated on the luxury afforded by a new scheme. When recollecting this period, it is hard to forget Belmayne, with women in evening wear draped seductively across kitchen islands – a point that perhaps defined the moment when things began to turn. The more recent hoardings are muted, and less garish, with a focus on style. The work we carried out involved analysing the as-then existing hoardings, with fieldwork focused on the existing hoardings in Dublin 2, parts of Dublin 4, and the Docklands area. This was followed up through an analysis of related materials, such as websites and associated materials such as brochures.

The current hoardings range in style from the use of slogans, to large street numbers, to the rendering of an idealized future via photomontages. As we discuss in more detail in the finalized paper, the use of  street numbers – normally seen as wholly rational – so as to distinguish the building and tie it to the history of the particular locale in which it is located is of particular note. More specifically, in the case of Dublin 2 and Dublin 4, the hoardings are used as a means of affirming the presence of the building in an established up-market part of the city. Meanwhile, the emphasis within the Docklands is placed upon situating the particular building within a global frame of reference. This is achieved both through the slogans themselves, and through a charting out of the position of the building, both in the city, and in relation to the global scale, within the associated brochures and promotional material. 

Crucially, although developers seek to act in a self-interested manner, we also identified a form of collective image-making at work. Pointedly, although hoardings can be seen to be highly globalized in their reference-points, there is also something highly localized in the manner in which they are utilized. This is perhaps most explicit in the ways in which the particular locales are highlighted through the afore-mentioned use of street numbers, where a form of serial monotony has emerged. When viewed together, the manner in which hoardings are utilized demonstrates the overlaps between, on the one hand, the promotion of image making as critically analysed through David Harvey’s ‘Entrepreneurial City’, while also demonstrating the changing forms of growth machine dynamics in a city such as Dublin.

Finally, in as much as the hoardings, albeit temporarily, mark out specific parts of the city in a particular manner, they form a specific form of interface with the city in which they are situated. Here, in standing between the private and the public, they demarcate what the city is or should become as opined by the development industry. This is an idealization of a future that is desired and promoted through the intersection of globalized speculative capital, floating ideals, and both local and international actors. In as much  as these spaces are focused upon particular groups of people, the hoardings can be seen to reinforce an idealization of space that is focused explicitly of some groups at the expense of others. This reality is brought into full relief as the spaces being developed emerges from behind the hoarding. Spaces exercising the idealization of a possible future emerge fully formed, where property pieces gush how they are “… designed to entice “fun-loving, time-poor” professionals”, and with a price tag to match. With such in mind, it may not be that the hoardings have a causal impact, but they act as a means of reinforcing a dominant narrative about the city according to one particular set of actors with the power to reshape the city in their own particular image. Yet, as is attested to by the collapse of the boom of c.2008, the future it projects is a fragile one, with extremely unstable foundations that can fall apart at any moment.



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

Many of the posts on this blog have been critiques of the planning system, the construction sector/developers, the banking sector, and government policy or lack of.  A critique of the blog is that it doesn’t do enough to put forward solutions and a positive path forward, especially given widespread unemployment amongst former construction workers and development residing at the bottom of a deep slump rather than being a productive part of the economy.

In this context, a key challenge for Ireland is to re-grow the construction sector back to a normal, sustainable level as a productive part of the economy and to get construction workers back to work without exacerbating existing issues and problems with respect to property.  This is no easy task, but here is my suggested road map.

First, any attempt to resurrect construction activity in Ireland has to take place within a strategic approach to planning and property that strongly guides any development takes place.  The adoption of core strategies and revisions to the Planning Act are a step in the right direction, but are specific tactics, not strategic visions.

To this end, the government needs to put in place a strategic planning and development framework that combines spatial planning (what used to be the National Spatial Strategy, NSS) and sectoral planning (what used to be the National Development Plan, NDP).  The present NDP expires end of 2013; the NSS is hollow and in review.  The proposed Medium-Term Economic Strategy (MTES) 2014 to 2020 will focus on macroeconomic strategy and policy actions for achieving sustainable economic and employment growth, not planning and development.  The MTES needs to be complemented with a new NDP to run 2014-2020 to guide investment, underpinned by a NSS that will ensure coordination across sectors and locales.  In other words, it should consist of joined-up thinking.  The danger is that without a strategic approach, the development that does occur will be ad hoc, poorly linked, weakly leveraged and will slow recovery.

Both the new NDP and NSS need to be based on an evidence-informed analysis of the present state of property (housing, office, industrial, agricultural, etc), planning/zoning, and models of projected demand based on demographics, economic growth, labour market demand, etc.  This requires decent property data (we have some limited housing data; no independent commercial sector data) that have temporal and spatial resolution.

This strategic framework needs to be prepared to be selective.  Rather than trying to encourage growth everywhere, it should aim to grow selectively to create agglomerations and critical mass.  Agglomeration is important for growing jobs and the economy.  Employ a smart consolidation approach elsewhere (focus on quality of life and sustainability, rather than growth).  Limit further one-off housing: it is unsustainable in service terms (utility and service provision) and environmentally (water pollution, commuting, etc) and contra to popular belief evidence suggests weakens rural communities.

Part of the strategic framework should focus specifically on housing and produce a comprehensive housing strategy.  As well as planning for the future, this strategy needs to address all the issues affecting housing at present:

  • vacancy and oversupply in most of the country and pockets of undersupply in specific locales
  • large numbers of unfinished estates and poor build quality (issues of pyrite, etc.) that need to be retrofitted
  • huge numbers on the social housing waiting list, stalled regeneration schemes, collapsed PPPs
  • extensive mortgage arrears and negative equity
  • the lack of mortgage credit and a large proportion of cash buyers
  • the lack of finance for development and the lack of active developers
  • Supply of land.  Land has to be made available sensibly: land bank through NAMA, Site Value Tax/Kenny Report to get derelict/brownfield sites back into productive use, bring on strategic greenfield sites, and limit future land speculation.

Development needs to follow best practice planning principles and should be integrated in nature.  Residential development cannot be simply houses but also needs to be utilities, schools, creches, public transport, etc.  Piecemeal planning undermines formation of sustainable communities.  When housing construction occurs, all the other elements also need to occur at the same time (not several years later).

Second, the creation and delivery of any strategic plan needs to be properly resourced in terms of staffing and finance.

Proper planning requires administrative units capable of delivering: the Department of Environment is severely understaffed with respect to planning; regional planning authorities are shells; local planning authorities are emasculated; NAMA should be part of this coalition.

Development requires finance — there is a need to source investment capital given the Irish banks are not lending.  NAMA should fill the void where possible.  If there is true demand the market does not need stimulating and tax incentives/subsidies should be avoided.  The construction/development sector needs access to finance through loans not incentives.  Do not sacrifice measures such as Part V Social and Affordable Housing provisions of the Planning Act (we need social and affordable housing).

Third, we need new entrants into the sector to replace failed enterprises.

Encourage new developers through loans/grants — many of the older ones are bust, tied up in legal cases, or cannot access investment capital.  We need new entrepreneurs to enter the market who have fresh ideas and energy and do not have any of the bad habits and institutional memory of the old set.

Encourage new, large rental companies into the market and professionalize the rental sector.  The rental sector is under-regulated and is dominated by amateur landlords (70% own 1 or 2 properties).  Encourage cooperative and association housing and make finance available to them for new projects.

Specific ideas to re-grow the construction sector back to a normal, sustainable level and to get construction workers back to work

Invest in capital projects that will stimulate the economy beyond construction jobs (i.e. will provide the conditions that will attract inward investment and indigenous growth)  — public transport, utilities (electricity grid, water system, broadband), public infrastructure (e.g. school building — 1 in 3 schools still have prefabs and the number of children is growing; hospitals; universities, etc), selective road building, etc.

Proactively address the housing issues detailed above.  (1) complete viable unfinished estates and deconstruct the others; (2) address build quality and pyrite-infected homes; (3) restart regeneration projects and revive PPPs with new partners; (4) refurbish existing social housing.

Enable private housing in very select locations where there is a demonstrated demand/projected demand based on hard evidence.

Enable office development in very select locations where there is a demonstrated demand/projected demand based on hard evidence (remember >20% of office space in Dublin is vacant; in some parts >40%; similarly lots of empty retail/industrial space in Dublin and throughout the country).

Curtail speculative development of all kinds where there is no demonstrated need/demand. Under no circumstances create additional supply in areas where there is already oversupply as it will flat-line any recovery and extend related problems.

I am open to suggestions and debate with respect to this road map.  We need these kinds of conversations.  What I do not think is sensible is to have no strategy and plan and to simply try and muddle through and hope that inaction and the present lack of policies and direction will somehow solve our various issues.  They won’t; they are more likely to cause additional problems.

Rob Kitchin

In the UK, the government are looking to radically reform building standards and introduce much greater self-regulation of the construction industry.  Here’s how The Guardian open their story about such measures:

Regulations covering building standards, including fire safety and wheelchair access, could be torn up in a government plan to cut costs for the construction industry and boost the economy.  Ministers have ordered a wide-ranging review covering all aspects of building regulations, also including standards on energy efficiency. The review, which controversially includes the option of giving the building industry more scope for self-regulation, is the latest in a series of government initiatives intended to stimulate activity in the economy and drive job creation through investment in homebuilding.  Its aim is to prune regulations “significantly”.

Apparently costs to property developers and the construction sector are worth more than people’s health and safety and also the effects on the environment of poor planning and build.  Of course, health and safety and the environment are unlikely to be in the cost-benefit model for vested interests.  And nor, no doubt, are the costs for addressing sub-standard build in the future.

Perhaps the group that is charged with reviewing standards and the regulation process should visit Ireland and have a look at what happens when you de-regulate and let the construction industry self-regulate and dictate government policy towards planning, development and construction.  Perhaps they might wander our 2,876 unfinished estates, many of which are build in unsuitable locations and are in various states of disrepair, or visit Priory Hall where residents have been forced to live in rented accommodation for over 12 months due to fire safety risks, or Gleann Riada where an apartment block was demolished and residents are living in houses prone to gas explosions, or the over 12,000 homes affected by pyrite most of which are going to need expensive restoration work.  Or the houses that have been built on floodplains.  The list could go on an on.

Planning policy and building standards and regulations were introduced for a reason.  They improve and assure the quality, safety and design of buildings and the sustainability of environments.  They do not depress construction if there is market demand for property.  Britain only has to look at its banks – the other half of the equation in property development – to know what deregulation generally means: profit before good practice.  And it only has to look at Ireland to see what happens when you deregulate and introduce laissez faire planning and self-regulation of construction (and combine that with deregulating finance).

Given that Ireland often seems to look to the UK for new policy initiatives this kind of change isn’t good news for those hoping for improved regulation, standards and enforcement with respect to development, planning and construction in Ireland.  The only people these kind of changes help are property developers and construction companies in making more profit.  It is highly unlikely that any savings from cutting corners on health and safety will be passed onto to buyers.  All the risk will be though.

Rob Kitchin

Late last week the new Programme for Government was released and yesterday Willie Penrose TD was appointed as Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing and Planning, a so-called ‘super junior position’ in that it comes with a seat at the Cabinet table.

Firstly, I very much welcome that housing and planning have been recognised as being of sufficient importance that they merit a Minister of State, and have an elevated status amongst the junior ministry positions.  They are clearly two key, inter-related issues affecting society.

Housing is about shelter, home, community and neighbourhood.  There are some standout issues to deal with here – unfinished estates, the social housing waiting list, the regeneration of some social housing estates, confidence in the housing market, negative equity, mortgage payments, etc.  Planning is about ordered and organised development; it shapes what is built and should be an important part of addressing the crisis with respect to helping create the conditions for growth and recovery.  Decisions around development affect society into long term, in that what we build now the next generation will inherit, along with its associated costs in relation to servicing, maintenance, energy and fuel, productivity and competitiveness, the environment, and so on.

Below I have pulled out statements relating to housing and planning from the new Programme for Government, excluding the material around mortgages etc, and provide some brief thoughts in relation to some of them (material from the Programme for Government is in italics).  At the end of the post, I set out some of the things that I would like to see the new Minister for Housing and Planning do.


We will mandate the Minster for the Environment, in conjunction with Local Authorities, to bring forward a coherent plan to resolve the problems associated with ghost estates.  This plan will be developed in cooperation with NAMA.

This has already been done by last government through the expert group set up to examine unfinished estates.  The draft report is already in hand, and draft manual suggesting site resolution plans has been out for consultation.  There is room for improvement, but it will involve statutory changes.  I’m assuming here that the incoming government has an alternative solution that it wants to implement or wishes to refine/extend the plan that has been developed by the DEHLG.

We will introduce a staged purchase scheme to increase the stock of social housing, while achieving the best possible value for public investment. Under the terms of this scheme, leased dwellings will revert to the ownership of local authorities and housing associations at the end of the leasehold period.

As I understand this, it is a revised version of the Social Housing Leasing Initiative in that leased property will not revert to the developer after twenty years, but will become a state or housing association asset.

We will enable larger housing associations and local authorities to access private sector funding for social housing by issuing ‘social housing bonds’, secured on the value of their existing housing stock when market conditions allow.

We will amend the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act (1992) to require all local authorities and housing associations to register with the Department of the Environment if they wish to access Government subsidies or other supports for social housing provision

We are committed to urban regeneration to revitalise communities in areas such as Limerick to give families a better quality of life.

I would hope that this also means reviving PPP schemes for estates such as St Michael’s and Dolphin Barn, rather than exclusively focusing on the large projects that have attracted more media attention such as Limerick.  There is much social housing that either needs to be replaced or refitted to make more habitable.

We will improve the quality of information available on the Irish housing market by requiring that the selling price of all dwellings is recorded in a publicly available, national housing price database.

We will legislate for tougher and clearer rules relating to fire safety in apartment buildings and will introduce a new fire safety inspection and certification regime.

We will establish a tenancy deposit protection scheme to put an end to disputes regarding the return of deposits.

We are committed to ending long term homelessness and the need to sleep rough.

To address the issue of existing homelessness we will review and update the existing Homeless Strategy, including a specific focus on youth homelessness, and take into account the current demands on existing housing and health services with a view to assessing how to best provide additional services.

In line with our Comprehensive Spending Review, we will alleviate the problem of long term homelessness by introducing a ‘housing first’ approach to accommodating homeless people. In this way we will be able to offer homeless people suitable, long term housing in the first instance and radically reduce the use of hostel accommodation and the associated costs for the Exchequer.

We believe that prevention is better than cure and we will aggressively target the root causes of homelessness. By having a dedicated body to coordinate policy across Government we will target initiatives in cross cutting areas which will aim to prevent as much as possible problems like homelessness.


We will abolish the position of County Manager and replace it with that of Chief Executive, with a limited range of executive functions. The primary function of the Chief Executive will be to facilitate the implementation of democratically decided policy.

This seems to suggest that county managers will become the puppets of county councillors.  The irony of renaming a job as a Chief Executive and removing executive abilities is entirely absent.

A democratically-decided Regional or City Plan will replace the present top-down Strategic Planning Guideline model.

We will make the planning process more democratic by amending the 2010 Planning and Development Act to allow for detailed public submissions on zoning, and to rebalance power towards elected representatives.

I don’t fully follow these two points because development plans are decided by elected officials in a bottom-up process that is guided by a regional and national framework.  Councillors continue to hold the reserve function and sign off on plans.  Planners help put them together, and they do this inside an Irish and EU legislative framework.   The point seems to be that the incoming coalition view the new process, as directed by the new Planning and Development Amendment Act, as being too much shaped by the central state within a wider strategic framework.  To do away with a strategic planning framework, which this seems to be suggesting, would seem to me to be a major folly – we do need joined up planning across scales – plans need to be harmonised across local, county, regional and national scales so that they work in concert with each other and not against each other.

The POG seems to recognise this as it states: “We will seek to better coordinate national, regional and local planning laws in order to achieve better and more coordinated development that supports local communities instead of the current system that favours developer led planning.”

There is clearly a contradiction here.  Planning is accused of being both too top-down from the centre and developer-led, and yet the power to approve the plans lies in the hands of councillors (although the Minister of Environment has certain veto powers if local plans contravene good practice and legislative conditions).  In my view, planning has to be strategic because it needs to be part of the process for guiding development, growth and recovery to help get us out of the crisis we’re in.  That will involve tough decisions about where we want to concentrate development to create the critical mass – in terms of population, higher order services, infrastructure – needed for places around the country to be competitive in the global economy in terms of attracting FDI. Planning should not take place purely at the local scale, reflecting localism without adequate regard to wider regional and national aims and objectives.  Part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in is because we had planning that did not take adequate notice of principles of planning, lacked joined-up thinking spatially and sectorally, that did not fully understand its obligations with respect to EU directives and initiatives, that ignored evidence to inform decision-making, and that allowed cronyism, clientelism and localism to operate.  At the same time, planning has to be democratically mandated and people should have a say in the development process.  That said, councillors do need to have a good understanding of their roles, obligations, responsibilities with regards their planning remit and the principles of sustainable and balanced development.  We simply cannot afford to re-establish a weak, laissez faire planning system.

We will improve local transport access by making local transport plans an integral part of local Development Plans. We will force all local authorities to develop a transport plan in conjunction with their County/City Development Plans, and Local Areas Plans.

We will pass legislation to allow local authorities take housing estates ‘in charge’ after three years if there are no significant financial implications for local authorities, and substantially increase existing penalties for those who break planning laws.

We will require local authorities to carry out an ‘Educational Impact Assessment’ for all new zonings for residential development to ensure an adequate supply of school places.

Local authorities will be required to carry out a flood risk report in the preparation of their City and County Development Plans, and will also be legally required to manage flood risk through sustainable planning and development.

We will introduce a single national building inspectorate service.

We will examine what services could be converged between two or more local authorities, such as technology support, human resources and fire services.

We are committed to a fundamental reorganisation of local governance structures to allow for devolution of much greater decision-making to local people. We will give local communities more control over transport and traffic, economic development, educational infrastructure, and local responses to crime and local healthcare needs.

I have no idea what this last statement really means in practical terms, how such devolution will operate, or how communities will gain and exercise control.  It’ll be interesting to see what proposal they come up with.

What I would like to see with respect to housing and planning

That the progress made with the Planning and Development Amendment Act is continued.  That we push forward with joined up planning, with plans at different scales – local, county, regional and national – working in concert with each other, not against each other.

That we eradicate cronyism, clientelism and localism from the planning system, whilst planning remains democratically mandated.

That planning is informed by hard evidence and cost benefit and impact assessments, not anecdote and favour.

That councillors receive mandatory training on their roles, obligations and responsibilities with respect to planning, the logics, principles and practicalities of good planning, and the legislative framework in which planning takes place.

That the power of the reserve function and decision making comes with proper responsibilities and liabilities (e.g., if councillors ignore the advice of planners and others and zone land and give permissions for building on flood plains, those that voted in favour should be personally liable if those properties then flood, etc).

That we meet our obligations with respect to different EU directives relating to water, habitats, etc.

That we address pressing issues with regards to unfinished estates, making legislative changes if needed in order to make progress.

That we start to tackle the social housing waiting list – presently c.120,000 households.

That we continue through with urban regeneration schemes, including trying to get some PPPs back up and functioning, and we re-fit and upgrade sub-standard social housing.

That we make significant progress in tackling the issue of homelessness.

That we make much more progress on producing good housing data across a range of key performance indicators – including house prices – but also commercial property (for which we have no data except that generated by the property sector).

That we take advantage of the opportunities for long term land-banking given the land holdings in NAMA and the DEHLG land aggregation scheme.  We should not sell sites that know we will need in the future for schools and other public facilities back to the private sector at the bottom of the market and then have to buy them back in 8-10 years time for several times the sale price.

That we introduce mechanisms to stop the hoarding of zoned development land, so that it is used in an orderly process.

That the National Spatial Strategy continues to be a key organizing framework for a revised National Development Plan and that coordination with the Regional Development Strategy in the North continues.

A change of government is always a time of opportunity to take a fresh and revitalised approach to issues.  The appointment of a Minister of State for Housing and Planning is a welcome development.  The Minister faces many pressing challenges and hopefully he’ll start to make good in-roads into them at the same time as improving and strengthening our housing provision and planning system.

Rob Kitchin

Earlier posts on this blog pointed to the current period of crisis as an opportunity for rethinking accepted ideas, policies and practices in relation to future planning and development in Ireland (for example here and here). The introduction of a new Government with a fresh mandate and (potentially) fresh ideas (see here for a critical perspective!) provides a further opportunity to critically reflect on the role of spatial development policy and practice in the current context.
Understood in its broad sense, spatial planning refers to a state-led interventionist activity that seeks to pursue particular objectives for society through a focus on the diversity and specific qualities of individual places and social and economic relations across space. In contrast to traditional forms of land-use planning, strategic spatial planning claims to provide a focus for the coordination of the spatial impacts of other sectoral policies and public sector investment decision-making processes. In this way the National Spatial Strategy and Regional Planning Guidelines should be expected to inform the proposed new National Development Plan (2012 – 2019) and the decision to progress a new technical university for the Southeast in agreed Programme for Government.

The ‘governance capacity’ of spatial planning strategies is however critically dependent on their capacity to steer the geographical distribution of development and provide a reliable indication of the intensity, quantity and type of development anticipated occurring over the period of the plan. If this capacity is absent then higher level objectives in terms of providing a spatial dimension to sectoral policies will remain aspirational. Unfortunately the record of the past decade indicates that the governance capacity of spatial plans in Ireland, at national, regional and local levels has been rather weak indicating a need to fundamentally rethink some of the basic premises of planning and development thinking in Ireland.

The pointers outlined below are intended as an initial contribution to progressing the debate rethinking planning and development in the current context:

1.    Future planning and development policy and practice needs to make a clear distinction between development in its socioeconomic sense and spatial development. Potential economic benefits in terms of employment generation or commercial rates revenue cannot be the overriding factors in decision-making on spatial development, i.e. the future development of the built and natural environment.

2.    Spatial planning needs to be founded on realistic assessments of projected future growth (or decline) in population, numbers of households, numbers in the labour force and of the economy more generally. Spatial planning decision-making should therefore be needs-based and forward looking, thus reducing the risks of both undersupply and oversupply as we have witnessed recent years.

3.    Spatial planning policy and practice needs to be founded on acceptance that significant areas of the country most likely will not witness significant levels of development or employment creation and may need to plan for continued decline and population loss due to emigration. In this respect, Ireland has much learn from other parts of Europe and in particular parts of eastern Germany, where post-reunification expectations of rapid development have gradually given way to an acceptance of a need to plan for declining population, ‘shrinking cities’ and reduced economic circumstances.

4.    Spatial policy needs to balance normative vision with a pragmatic orientation. The NSS and Regional Planning Guidelines have provided a valuable frame of reference in terms of outlining desirable future spatial development objectives and patterns. The laudable policy goals of balanced regional development and ‘physical consolidation’ of the Dublin metropolitan area need to balanced with an explicit recognition and readjustment of future spatial development prospects in light of the experience of recent development trends. These development trends are well documented and include extensive peri-urban development, ghost estates and a markedly variable performance of Gateway cities.

5.    Spatial strategies should attempt to create a space for shared understanding and agreement among key stakeholders, including political representatives planning professionals, community development and environmental interests. Whether the proposed ‘democratically decided Regional or City Plan’ (Programme for Government, p. 27) with a significantly reduced role for City/County Managers is the best approach to this is of course another question.

Cormac Walsh

NAMA have today revealed a bit more of a detailed breakdown of the NAMA loan book in Northern Ireland and its geography.  NAMA NI loans total £3.35bn (c. €4bn) and relate to 180 individuals and companies.  The loan book is 5% of NAMA’s portfolio.  Undeveloped land accounts for £2bn (60%), investment properties £1bn (29%), and land and property under development, £350m (10%).  Just 1% relates to residential development. With respect to Geography: 32% of the loan portfolio is located in Belfast, 21% in County Down, 19% in County Antrim, 8% in County Londonderry, 7% in County Tyrone, 7% in County Armagh, 4% in County Fermanagh and 2% in the city of Derry.

What is striking here is the amount of land in the portfolio.  I’m assuming that the £2bn figure is after the haircut is applied and using Nov 2009 prices.   Of course the market has fallen since Nov 2009 and £2bn in today’s market will buy an enormous amount of acreage, so one presumes the NAMA holding constitutes a very sizeable landbank.  Given the geographical spread of the loans, much of it has to be located in rural areas and around small towns and villages, and one presumes that it’s main commercial usage over the short term is agriculture.  It would be very interesting to get a further breakdown of the size of the landbanks, where they are, and how much was paid by NAMA for the loans on them, so as to get some idea as to how they view the long term use of the land – I’m working on the principle that much larger haircuts will have been applied to land that has limited development potential and is more suited to agriculture.

The size of the land holding in the portfolio is what troubles me.  It is the part of the portfolio that has fallen most in value and will be more difficult to sell on, unless an investor is prepared to sit on it for a while to let it appreciate in value.  Most developers seek to turn land over quickly because it’s a sunk cost with no working return.  Clearly NAMA has time to wait for the market to stabilise and recover before selling on, but even so that’s a lot of land to be managed, sold on or developed.

Clearly, one of the concerns for the Northern Ireland property market is for NAMA to destabilize it through firesales, and Ronnie Hanna, Head of Risk and Credit, who released the figures today, went on to try and reassure that this would not happen and that NAMA will act responsibly.  To quote him, he said that NAMA would:  “assist in the stabilisation of the property market in Northern Ireland, by providing liquidity to the market and by being able to take a longer-term approach where necessary”.   That’s all well and good, but what I would like to see is a more detailed business plan as to how NAMA intends to try and realise its assets over the long term in NI given the nature and geography of the portfolio.  This is likely to provide more reassurance to the property market there.  At the minute we’ll still at very broad brush generalities, though at least it’s a small step in the right direction.

Rob Kitchin

Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Éamon Ó Cuív and Minister for Regional Development Conor Murphy MLA announced today that a joint consultation on a Framework for Collaboration on Spatial Strategies for the Island of Ireland will commence on Tuesday, 15 February for an 8-week period.

As the press release states: ‘The consultation document identifies key planning challenges faced by both jurisdictions and discusses the potential for collaboration in spatial planning. It sets out a non-statutory framework for collaboration at different levels within the public sector which should result in mutual benefits.’

It continues: ‘Welcoming the public consultation process, Minister Ó Cuív said: “The island of Ireland faces considerable challenges in building a sustained economic recovery in a future that will be increasingly dominated by globalisation. One of the ways the island will flourish will be through practical co-operation between north and south in meeting the planning, investment and environmental management needs of today in a way that will turn into the economic and job creation opportunities of tomorrow.

“I believe that the new Framework for Collaboration will deliver a real step-change in planning for this island, harnessing the complementary strengths of both rural and urban areas and delivering real mutual benefits at both a local border level and the larger island level. For example, more effective sharing of information between planning systems north and south on economic, housing, transport and environmental trends will enable a more joined-up approach to planning in border areas.

“Furthermore, the framework provides a mandate for practical co-operation on planning and infrastructure co-ordination within border areas and beyond.”

I should be clear to declare an interest in this.  NIRSA is a partner institution in the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) – along with University of Ulster, Centre for Cross Border Studies, and the International Institute of Urban Development (based in Boston) – which undertook the research and wrote the original framework report, which was commissioned in 2006 by InterTrade Ireland.  The research argued for a collaborative approach to spatial planning on the island of Ireland, and the advantages of joined up thinking on all-island basis in relation to planning and development, particularly in the context of globalisation and the need to enhance collective competitiveness.   As the press release says: ‘On the island of Ireland, creating a competitive and high quality environment for economic development through collaboration on strategic planning and infrastructure investment are key areas where Northern Ireland and Ireland share opportunities and challenges.’

The consultation document is available to view and download here. For those interested the original, longer report – Spatial Strategies on the Island of Ireland: Development of a Collaborative Action – published in 2007 it can be downloaded here (note: submissions are in relation to the consultation document which has come through several stages since, not the original report).

Submissions or comments on the consultative document should be sent to the contact address below by 11 April 2011.

Mr Eoin Bennis,
Planning System and Spatial Policy,
Department of the Environment Heritage and Local Government,
Custom House,
Dublin 1.
Email: eoin.bennis@environ.ie

Rob Kitchin

The Heritage Council has just published its report – Proposals for Ireland’s Landscape.  From the Heritage Council’s perspective, the Irish landscape is a core cultural resource, a source of identity, and a sustainable economic  resource through farming, forestry, tourism and heritage – it is both our inheritance and our gift to the future.  They argue that over the boom years we lost sight of this, building one-off McMansions all over the countryside, built on floodplains, constructed estates, retail parks, industrial units, etc, in, and routed roads through, inappropriate locations that impact on the natural/cultural landscape and the lives of citizens in negative ways that leaves a poor gift to future generations.

“Things are always in flux, and the accelerated pace of building and development witnessed over the last decade in Ireland has left a mixed legacy of successes and failures that we are going to have to live with for the foreseeable future. Greed masquerading as ‘development’ visited an enormous amount of unwanted and unnecessary change on the Irish landscape during this period. [These developments] are permanent reminders of what happens when profit is put before people. …  Even if there were no economic crisis, the utilitarian approach to the landscape witnessed over the last decade would still have been unsustainable because it is onedimensional and exploitative, both of the finite bank of natural resources and of people.  We can no longer be passive about landscape management or the capacity of nature to forgive our excesses.”

They have five proposals as part of the National Landscape Strategy for moving forwards that re-prioritises landscape and sense of place as a resource in the here-and-now and a gift for the future drawing on the European Landscape Convention (ELC):

  1. Establishing a Landscape Observatory of Ireland (LOI)
  2. Introducing a Landscape Ireland Act
  3. Landscape proofing of existing primary legislation, government programmes and policies
  4. Promoting a vibrant research and learning culture on landscape
  5. Increasing public participation, accessibility and the use of local knowledge in landscape management

They would like to see landscape proofing to become an active part of local and regional planning, be community-led and participatory, and be central consideration in the work of state agencies such as NAMA (which is predominately concerned with economic matters, rather than landscape inheritance).

The extent to which citizens will want to prioritize landscape over their sense of entitlement to build where they like is debatable, and is likely to divide communities between the imperatives of individualized and collectized inheritance.  Nevertheless, the Heritage Council is right that this is a debate we need to conduct and work through to decide on the landscape gift we want to leave the next generation.

Rob Kitchin

There have been mutterings about a massive Chinese investment into the Athlone area for a few months.  On Saturday the Irish Times carried a piece providing a little more detail about plans for a enormous trading hub on the outskirts of the gateway town.  The hub would act as a site where buyers from all over Europe can sample and order Chinese goods and meet sellers and company representatives without having to travel to and around China.  A kind of permenant Chinese trade fare/expo in Europe. The preliminary design statement details that it will be: “the greatest commercial and trade centre, tour centre, cultural centre, amusement centre and international conference centre in Europe”.  According to the Times, the plans include a convention centre in the style of a Chinese palace, two five-star hotels, apartment complexes, a railway station, two bus terminals, a school, a medical centre, a fire station, a six-hole golf course and a 180m tower topped with a rotating viewing gallery.

Shanghai on Shannon?

What I think is interesting about the piece is not the proposal to create a major new investment into the Athlone area by Chinese entrepreneurs, but the way in which it is being advanced.  As the Times says itself: “the project seems to be advancing stealthily.”  By stealthily it does not mean progressing through the usual enterprise investment channels with IDA, local development boards, etc, but using political networks to build political buy-in and backing at the highest levels.  The potential investors used a local restaurant owner to make contact with local TD Mary O’Rourke, who passed them on to her son, Aengus O’Rourke (president of the local chamber of commerce), who introduced them on to his cousin, Conor Lenihan, who lined up the Taoiseach and local TD and Minister in the DEHLG, Michael Finneran.  Interestingly, a suitable site seems to have been included in September’s local development plan, designating 302 hectaures in the Creggan area as a potential site for a ‘world-class enterprise, innovation and trading hub’.  And yet, anyone who has any contact with the group or is associated with the project were uncontactable or declined to comment.  Hmmmm.

I’ve nothing against the proposal at this stage – I barely know what it consists of given that there seems to be little information beyond a couple of newspaper articles – but it would be a huge step forward if any proposal were to proceed in a transparent way through the proper channels and succeed on its relative merits, rather than progressing along the path of political cronyism. Heaven knows we need investment.  We also need good governance and government.  The two are not incompatible.

Rob Kitchin