If the last decade was dominated by ‘creativity’, then ‘innovation’ has surely now been well and truly adopted as the current buzzword of choice. This can be witnessed throughout various institutions and endeavours, from the recently re-titled Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, to Innovation Dublin (an outcome of the ‘Creative Dublin Alliance’), and the  TCD/UCD Innovation Alliance. It is hard to trace exactly where the focus on innovation came from. Perhaps notions of ‘culture’ and ‘creativity’ are too difficult to clearly define, too loose around the edges, so to speak. Innovation is clear. It has a direction and a specific output. It represents a desire to connect diverse elements such as scientific output, technological change, the creative arts, and, at times, the social sciences towards largely economic goals. The new Provost of Trinity College, Professor Patrick Prendergast, recently emphasised this perspective as follows; “When James Joyce wrote Ulysses he was being disruptive in changing the way we think about the novel. Joyce was a true innovator. A century later he might have created Google” This might have been a throwaway comment, yet it highlights the current desire for that which might once have sat on the outside to be brought centre-stage. Certainly those areas associated with ‘culture’, the arts, and ‘creativity’ remain a feature of current activities and debates, but increasingly there seems to be a desire to quantify their actual impact. While I am not questioning the role that those sectors focused upon innovation in various guises (such as the afore-mentioned tech and science sectors) will play in reshaping the Irish economy in the coming years, there seems to be a very real danger that the role of those elements that are less tangible, such as the ability to critically engage with, and challenge, the structures of society, will become lost in the search for direct  and measurable outputs at every turn. While economic recovery is paramount, the current period also offers the potential to challenge the very structures that shape our society.

'Trees on the Quays': Proposal for 'Vertical Park'. Source: http://www.treesonthequays.com

To narrow the focus a little here, the recent plan,  by Mahoney Architects to convert the half-built Anglo Headquarters into a ‘vertical park’ raises some interesting questions about the relationship between innovation, the built environment, and the widely accepted norms of property markets. As outlined on the project website; “The Trees on the Quays project  proposes to radically transform the shell of the abandoned Anglo Irish Bank Head Quarters into an innovative Public Park which will become a focal point for the commemoration of the Centenary of the Irish Republic.” There is much to be admired in this proposal, both in as much as it would stand as a permanent reminder of the problematic nature of a system so orientated towards property development, and the ability to transform it into something completely different for public use. Crucially however, the potential for such a project to gain traction or receive support lies in the willingness of different agencies, such as NAMA and the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, to challenge the status quo. It will take a willingness to show that land-use is not simply at the mercy of booms and slumps, and that the alternative use for the Anglo Headquarters (or similar half-built developments) is not just about finding temporary solutions until, as The Irish Times recently stated, “…the property market recovers.” If Irish society is to get past the obsession with property that so dominated the last two decades, there must be a willingness at different institutional levels to challenge the meanings of urban space beyond that which is related to the property market. Ideas such as the Vertical Park, and similar proposals by NamaLab, can help redefine the meanings of our towns and cities, so long as they are allowed to. This requires critical reflection of the structures that contribute to and shape urban space in the first place.

Philip Lawton

The Journal.ie yesterday picked up on a Dail question asked by Sandra McLellan, T.D. to the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, T.D.   Noonan responded by saying that NAMA will release shortly a database of NAMA properties.   The Journal.ie suggests that NAMA will ‘publish a comprehensive list of all the properties under its control.’  I interpret the Dail statement differently – that it will not be publishing a comprehensive list of all the properties in its portfolio but that it will only publish properties that are in ‘control of receivers appointed to enforce against NAMA debtors (appointed either directly by NAMA or by participating institutions working on its behalf)’.  In other words, they are only putting up the properties they are seeking to offload (effectively advertising them).  If the properties are not in receivership they will not be included in the database.  Whilst it would be preferential to have a list of all NAMA properties this is at least a start. Hopefully, more data will follow in due course.  Another Dail question in this regard might be a useful one.

Here is the Dail question and answer, with the latter part of the answer confirming that NAMA will give first option on receiver properties to public bodies, thus fulfilling some social and economic objectives.

53.  Deputy Sandra McLellan  asked the Minister for Finance  if he will engage with the National Asset Management Agency to identify buildings and properties in its portfolio which might be suitable for local sports pitches and facilities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13705/11]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan): NAMA has, in the first instance, acquired loans and it advises me that property or other assets securing these loans remain in the possession of debtors unless it takes enforcement action against them. I am informed that, under an initiative currently in preparation, NAMA will shortly include on its website a database of properties which are under the control of receivers appointed to enforce against NAMA debtors (appointed either directly by NAMA or by participating institutions working on its behalf). This will provide a single source of information on NAMA assets which are for sale and it will be updated on a very regular basis. It is expected to be up-and-running within a matter of weeks.

Within the context of its commercial remit, NAMA has made it known that it is open to considering proposals aimed at contributing to broader social and economic objectives, including facilitating public bodies and it has committed to giving first option to such bodies on the purchase of property which is within its control and which may be suitable for their purposes. In these circumstances, NAMA is available to meet with public bodies to discuss any specific proposals that they may have regarding local facilities.

Rob Kitchin

At the first day of the Irish Planning Institute’s annual conference, Minister of State for Housing and Planning Willie Penrose has given some indication of what is coming down the tracks in terms of planning and housing policy and a bit more information concerning unfinished estates and land dezoning.  I’m not attending the conference, so this post is based on the reports in the Irish Times and Independent.

The Minister revealed that NAMA only has the loan book of about 10 per cent of about 150 of the worst unfinished estates that pose health and safety risks.  I’m not sure quite what has happened in the last couple of months, but it was previously reported by the Advisory Group on Unfinished Housing Developments that there were 348 estates where vacancy is over 50% that pose significant health and safety risks.  Somehow 200 estates seem to have been taken off the health and safety risk list, although it is highly unlikely there is any significant change on the ground.  Regardless, the point is that NAMA actually has influence with respect to a relatively small number of estates.  Rather, the vast majority of unfinished estates requiring substantial work were financed by foreign-owned banks operating in Ireland.  If the developer has gone bust and defaulted, then these estates are owned by those banks and the liabilities with respect to health and safety rests with them.  It’ll be interesting to see how they respond to these liabilities and the obligations they impose and complete works or make sites safe.

The Minister revealed about 28 per cent of the loans at Nama relate to land and development, about 16 per cent are in the Dublin area.  I’m not quite sure what this really means.  Dublin area is quite vague – is this the four counties, the metropolitan region or the commuting footprint or some other area? Is the Dublin portion 16 percent of NAMA loans or 16 percent of all land (ie 4.5% of all loans)?  Is the 16 percent land value or land size?  Certainly the vast majority of zoned land in the country is outside of Dublin.  Presumably much of this land has also been financed by foreign-owned banks operating in Ireland.  Either way, land values have dropped substantially in value – 75-95%, especially if it was bought at zoned prices and it has been dezoned.  If NAMA has overpaid for land, then this will be one part of their loan book that will underperform.  Saying that, the NAMA land, along with the DEHLG land aggregation scheme, represent a real opportunity for Ireland to take a long term strategic approach to spatial planning underpinned by a landbank controlled by the state.  Over the long term, if this approach is taken, the state will massively benefit in both planning and financial terms.

In terms of dezoning, 12 of the State’s 34 local authorities have so far made changes to their development plans which has led to thousands of sites being reclassified as either surplus to present planning need or unsuitable for development.  The remaining local authorities will have dezoned land by October.

There will be a national co-ordination group established to oversee action by local authorities in dealing with the most problematic unfinished housing developments.  The report of the Advisory Group on Unfinished Housing Developments will be published in the next week or so.

He stated that the planning system should be “focusing demand in a way that will rekindle market interest in stalled developments”.  I’d be very interested to see the detail as to how it is envisaged this should happen.

He reaffirmed the commitment to the core strategy approach and evidence-based requirements to planning as set out in the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010.

He also stated: “We are refocusing on revitalising our city and town centres, moving against the tendency of the Celtic Tiger era to envisage extensive, even sprawling extensions of our cities and towns, drawing the lifeblood out of older, established central urban areas.”  Again it will be very interesting to see the detail in terms of such revitalisation.  The rhetoric might be good, but it is the substance that matters.

Rob Kitchin

It’s not just Ireland’s newest build of unfinished estates that requires maintenance, restoration and completion work. The Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) have just released a statement, reported in the Irish Times, concerning the fate of some of Ireland’s historic buildings, such as the Hume Street Hospital in Dublin, bought by developed Michael Kelly for €30 million in 2006. They note that such buildings are suffering in two respects. First, that some of them are being left to the mercy of the elements, with nature doing a fair amount of damage to the structures. Second, that some of them are being visited by plunderers and vandals. For example, in the Hume Street case, the roof has been plundered of lead and building of copper piping, and no doubt ornamental fittings and other items. Belcamp College, on the north side of Dublin, was recently ransacked and set on fire.

The RHA strongly criticise NAMA for failing to ensure that developers with properties in their portfolio properly secure and maintain historic buildings. They argue that ‘conduct of omission as in itself an act of vandalism.’ They have accused the organisation of ‘not taking its legal responsibility seriously in regard to appropriate protection of several historic buildings currently under their ownership’ and said its ‘response to our approaches to them . . . has been evasive and ambiguous’. NAMA it said, would not admit to possessing the loan book on certain historic properties and would not any commitment with regards to safeguarding them. In this sense, NAMA is staying true to form, as it’s hardly a paragon of openness and transparency.

NAMA has responded by stating that it does not directly own any of the properties, only the loan books, and a spokesperson for the agency said that ‘it is incorrect to say that Nama has a direct responsibility in this area’, although it ‘has directly taken action with the property owners or with the relevant authorities to try to ensure that the properties are properly secured.’

However, properly secured is not the same as properly preserved and in response, the RHA has said that ‘section 141 of the 2009 Act that established Nama gave it the authority to seek “entry and maintenance” orders in the District Court to secure any building “at risk from trespassers or vandalism”.’ They would clearly like to see NAMA be much more proactive in forcing developers to secure and preserve Ireland’s architectural heritage.  The alternative route will be, as with the Hume Street Hospital, seeking planning enforcement notices to try to force both the developer and NAMA to take action.  That action has been taken by Dublin City Council and it requires repairs to be carried out by April 29th (this Friday).  Having to serve notice on NAMA to ensure saving some of our most historic buildings is not an ideal way to proceed, but it might well be the principle route open to the RHA and others unless a more proactive approach is adopted by the agency and developers.

Rob Kitchin

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

Frank McDonald writing in today’s Irish Times reports that the local area plan for Bandon has zoned land for an additional 1,700 houses.  And yet he notes that land is already zoned for 1,500 houses, much of it it seems within the NAMA portfolio.  There are 6,119 houses in the Bandon Electoral Area Local Plan as of 2010.  The DEHLG survey of unfinished estates show that there are 9 such estates in the town of Bandon itself with a total of 370 planned units, of which 229 have been commenced (84 are occupied; 105 are completed and vacant, 40 still under-construction).  4 of the 9 estates have yet to be fully completed.  There are 305 unfinished estates in County Cork.

The local area plan then begs the usual questions. Why does Bandon need land zoned sufficient to increase the number of residential units in the area by 50%?  As it presently stands, the area already has an oversupply of units that it is finding it difficult to source residents for. Does the area really expect to double in size in the next 2-10 years (in other words are the population projections realistic)?  And why does the area want to zone land above and beyond that in the NAMA portfolio, on which the taxpayer has staked it’s financial future, at this point?  Surely additional zoned land is going to undermine the potential value of existing zoned lands, thus undermining the ability of NAMA to fulfil its mandate, and thus run counter to the national good?

It may well be that Bandon forms part of the Cork commuter belt, and it is projected to grow in the future, but surely land should be zoned on a needs be basis?  Or is there some other agenda at work in the local area plan?  Or perhaps the plan is still caught in a different era?  Whatever the rationale, it seems extremely unlikely that Bandon is going to need land for 3,200 additional houses in the immediate future.

Rob Kitchin

CIF and NAMA were never going to be happy bedfellows.  The former represent the interests of developers and builders, the latter is charged with relieving the banks of property loans to try and address the banking crisis, and to manage and offload those loans on behalf of the state and taxpayers.  Whilst most citizens view NAMA as a bailout to developers, keeping them afloat when most of them would have gone to the wall a couple of years ago, CIF views NAMA as a predator that is trying to radically overhaul and restructure the building industry, is trying to gain at the developers’ expense and country’s best interests, and is a punative instrument that is inflicting more harm than good on the property sector.

As reported in some of the papers today (here and here), Lombard Street Research have just published a report commissioned by CIF, attacking the rationale and practices of NAMA (which makes interesting reading).  NAMA has responded by arguing that the developers are living in denial and they need to wake up to the new realities of property development and the market. Whilst there is undoubtedly a number of issues concerning the formation and operation of NAMA, CIF’s principle problem is that there is little public sentiment for their views given that they’re clearly a vested interest who seem to care for little else other than the interests of its members (which they try to spin as, what is good for us, is good for the country – the same as they did all through the boom).  From NAMA’s perspective it is finding its work tough because the banks and developers seem very reluctant to work with it, they are economical with the truth, are slow in coming forward with documentation and workable business plans, and are clearly more interested in their own self-interests than acting as good citizens in dealing with the present crisis.  No doubt the spat will continue to run and run.  There are unlikely to be any winners and ultimately citizens will pick up part of the tab.  Sounds about par given the history of the crisis so far.

Rob Kitchin

Brian Lenihan’s full statement on banking released this morning also has a section on NAMA.  Interestingly it states:

The Government has decided, having consulted with the NAMA Board and the European Commission, that where the total exposure of a debtor is below a €20 million threshold in AIB and Bank of Ireland, that debtor’s loans will not now be transferred to NAMA. The threshold had previously been set at €5 million. … I have been advised by NAMA that there are 650 debtors with property-related debts of between €5m and €20m in these two banks. They account for just €6.6bn of the aggregate €80bn volume of NAMA eligible loans.”

So, €6.6bn worth of smaller loans will not be transferred to NAMA after all, as “Loans of this size can be efficiently managed by the banks themselves through their network of local representation and relationships.”   Which makes one wonder why they needed to be transferred in the first place?

It would be interesting to know the geography of these €5-20m properties.  One assumes that there is a lot of housing and land outside of the principal cities which have just exited the potential NAMA portfolio.  What will be left is the more viable, larger developments in more prime locations (along with the more marginal stuff transferred from Anglo, Irish Nationwide and EBS).  One assumes this means that a large chunk of the marginal sites and the owners who have less experience and weaker or no business plan have fallen out of NAMA’s remit.  This will certainly make the life of NAMA easier, and make it more likely to succeed, with the banks themselves left to work out what to do with the properties.  Presumably they will either try to make them going concerns or off-load them at a loss.  It will be interesting to see how such offloading might affect the work of NAMA given that these impaired assets will no longer be coordinated by a single entity.

Rob Kitchin

Joan Burton, quoted in the Guardian, describes this morning’s announcement about the latest bank bailout costs as ‘Ireland’s Black Thursday.’  Patrick Honohan announced this morning that the final bill for bailing out Anglo Irish Bank, all being well, will be €29.3bn, another €3bn is to be pumped into AIB (making the State the majority shareholder) and another €2.7bn into Irish Nationwide.  The figure for Anglo could rise to €34.3bn if the haircut being applied to the remaining loans being transferred into NAMA exceed 67%.  The State is now the majority shareholder in four banks (AIB, Anglo, Irish Nationwide, EBS).

Quoted in the Irish Times, ‘Mr Lenihan said today’s final figures for repairing Ireland’s banking system would provide reassurance to investors:  “The overall level of State support to our banking system remains manageable and can be accommodated in the Government’s fiscal plans in the coming years.”‘

Manageable?  Well, hopefully, but at what cost?  A year’s tax receipts at present is €33bn.  The €29.3bn that’s gone into Anglo has disappeared into a black hole never to be seen again.   Another €15.4bn has been pumped into the other banks (Bank of Ireland, AIB, Irish Nationwide, EBS), which hopefully will be recovered over the long term.  The €40bn or so going into NAMA may or may not pay back depending on the nature of the assets transferred in and whether the Irish property market recovers sufficiently over the next 10-15 years.   The government are presently borrowing €20bn per annum to bridge the gap between tax receipts and the cost of running the country.  Since the bank guarantee two years ago, the Irish state has borrowed a fantastic amount of money, so much so that the Guardian reports that government debt now exceeds GDP, with the deficit 32% of GDP (easily the highest in Europe).  If there is a reason that overseas investors are nervous, this is it.  Our economy has shrunk markedly, our unemployment and welfare bill grown significantly, our austerity measures do not seem to have worked, the banks have been financial blackholes, and we owe a fortune. Yet we are committed to reducing the deficit to 3% of GDP by 2014, committed to the bank guarantee, and to paying back our debts in full.  Hardly reassuring.

The government are trying to draw a line under the bank bailout.  Lenihan, again quoted in the Guardian, ‘insisted that these were the final figures, adding “this bring the crisis to a closure”. “We’re quite satisfied that the balance sheets of the banks have been cleaned up and restored and the banks are ready and fit to go back into business”.’  That said, the government has insisted that the bank bailout would only cost so much before, and the banks were sound, and everytime it has been woefully wrong and had to announce another round of expensive bailouts.

It is not unsurprising then that citizens and international investors are wondering whether this really is the last time; whether this is the last black day in a string of such days.  For all our sake’s let’s hope it is, because it’s going to take a generation or more for the Irish taxpayer to pay back the debts of bailing out the banks.  And paying it back is not going to be easy unless there is a radical transformation in the present state of the Irish economy and it will involve quite a bit of pain (get ready for the tightening of belts come budget day).

Rob Kitchin

As a grand urban project Cork Docklands has certainly had its share of problems.  Managed by City Council in lieu of devolving responsibility to a separate authority like the DDDA, the process has been one of slow evolution, as the local authority within their limited powers attempted to stimulate developer interest, steer existing landowners towards considering redevelopment, and keep the project a priority within national capital funding streams, all the while adhering to best-practice in international planning standards.  Iconic tasters like the City Quarter Development on Lapps Quay and the Elysian offered appetisers for the banquet that was to come when the area twice the size of the city centre would be redeveloped.

Howard Holdings City Quarter Development on Lapps Quay

By 2008, it looked like the main course was about to be served when a number of large sites were lined up within various stages of the planning process, most notably Howard Holdings Atlantic Quarter that was set to become the lynchpin of the entire project.  Gradually the major players had lined up behind the plan.  But just as the steel and concrete of these sites was about to turn the ethereal work of the planning authority into something rigid and fixed, the gathering black cloud of recession cleared the playing field and scattered all betters to their proverbial hedges.  The Docklands project went from being a question of ‘when’ to again being a question of ‘if’.

One of the biggest problems facing the project was Central Government’s unwillingness to unambiguously commit to funding the infrastructural provision needed for upgrading the waterfront.  On the surface, Central Government have always claimed that Cork Docklands is a policy priority with their full support and backing.  However, this commitment has yet to translate into budgetary provision making the capital needed available to Cork City Council.  Such a scenario continues unabated.  Speaking recently about the lack of provision for Cork Docklands within the Government’s infrastructural investment programme, Minister for Education Batt O’ Keeffe suggested that

“There’s no point in me making predictions but the Government is committed to the Cork Docklands. It’s an issue we will be discussing at Cabinet in early September and you can be sure that Micheál Martin and myself will be to the fore ensuring Cork gets its fair share.”

Despite the less than certain assurances of capital investment, developers such as Greg Coughlan of Howard Holdings’ were confident enough in the project to invest millions in assembling sites and enlisting architects and consultants to construct lavish plans and hyperbolic promotional videos.

Artist Impression of Howard Holdings proposed Atlantic Quarter Development

Coughlan is currently facing jail for contempt of court for failing to supply a statement of his assets to investors pursuing him for €28.1 million for loans relating to a Polish development.  On the front of the Irish Examiner a few months ago, this news was presented next to that of planning permission being granted (though not funding committed) for two new bridges in the docklands, part of the irony being that Coughlan’s Atlantic Quarter development was one of those set to benefit most from these new river crossings.

Thus it seemed as if Cork Docklands had anchored in a kind of development limbo.  The plan had been rolled out to such an extent that it wasn’t going to just disappear into thin air.  The Dockland project exists, has been made to exist over the last decade through a few plans and strategies, hundreds of newspaper articles and speeches, countless conversations, negotiations, and schemes, and a couple of prominent developments.  At the same time the financial crisis was sucking the Irish property market into a sink hole, the gaping hole in the Irish banks and the staggering levels of vacancy and oversupply putting a more or less abrupt end to new development.  It seemed like something as ambitious as the scale of Cork’s Docklands project wouldn’t be enlisting any cranes for a while.

But recently Cork has again begun to rumble with the promise of new projects to replace those that have stalled.  In light of the sudden absence of the events centre first intended for Mahon Point and subsequently as part of Atlantic Quarter, Owen O’ Callaghan has recently slated plans to build a 5,000 seat venue in a development on Albert Quay.  In the same week as O’ Callaghan’s plans were announced, An Bord Pleanála ruled against Origin Enterprises 11-storey office-based development on Kennedy Quay (Irish Examiner). 

The most extravagant of these plans is Gerry Wycherley’s €750 million planning application to redevelop the Marina Commercial Park (MCP).  The proposed development features more than 800 apartments, providing homes for up to 2,230 people, a marina where they can park their boats (you’ve just got to love that feature), a range of community amenities, a visitor and science centre, the Ford Experience, which is expected to attract up to 300,000 visitors annually, and a new central plaza to provide a hub for the community, including a creche and library.  The aims are ambitious.   As suggested by the Cork Independent, the “planning application aims to transform the 24-acre, MCP into a vibrant, socially inclusive community within the City’s south docklands, where people will live, work and play, creating 1,200 jobs in the process”.  An article in the Irish Independent rather grandly suggested that “Cork is to defy the recession by pushing ahead…” with the project.

Artist Impression of Wycherley's plans for MCP

But at the same time these rumblings on the waterfront could be as far away from becoming a reality as Brando’s mumbled dreams of being a contender.  Wycherley’s proposal comes with a series of caveats.   He lists three factors “outside of [the company’s] control” that need to happen before they can move on the project.

“Firstly, we don’t know how long the planning application will take to process. There is no reason why it wouldn’t get planning permission as we’re compliant with everything but we don’t know how long it will take. Secondly, there is a serious infrastructure deficit at the moment. Centre Park road will have to be raised at least three metres as well as improving transport links between the site and the city centre. Finally, even if the other two were there in the morning, we couldn’t do anything because the market isn’t there. It would be commercial suicide to move on this without the market but we need to have everything ready and in place for when the market turns.”

All in all these conditions are pretty significant ones, which at heart expose how much the property market in Ireland has changed in the last two years.  Wycherley is hedging his bets on all counts.  The application is essentially suggesting what could happen with the site and certainly not what will happen.  It is no longer a case that Government capital expenditure can in any way be assumed to be forthcoming.  The Government’s precarious backing of the Cork Docklands project is now even less assured given the chronic hole in the public finances.  Just as significant is the fact that there can no longer be assumed that there is a market for commercial and especially residential property in Ireland.  In essence Wycherley’s proposal is saying what could happen in an alternative reality where the Irish Government had money and the property boom was still booming.  While he is certainly cognisant of these factors, there is still a hint of the blind Celtic Tiger confidence in the way the project is talked up.  He suggests that “Obviously, at the moment, the residential market has bombed so we won’t start building the residential part of the project until there is a clear demand and we can move units. But I’m confident that the market will pick up. The demographics are good in that regard”.  The rationale behind such good demographic projections, however, remains patently unclear.  For Cork City Council the announcement of the project is clearly positive in that it keeps the Docklands within the public eye and provides them with a more tangible bargaining tool to lobby Central Government for capital funding.  If the proposal is in line with the planning regulations for the site (which the developer claims it is) they will grant it planning permission. Yet there is something illusory about all of this which begs the question as to what planning permission actually means in an Ireland after NAMA.  Clearly from his own admission Wycherley has no intention of starting development on the site immediately, nor in any defined time period.

Perhaps lustrous plans like these are means of looking sharp for upcoming NAMA nuptials, a pretty peacock’s plumage to appease and please the prospective mate.  Because in most cases it is now NAMA that hold the power over Ireland’s urban future.  For sites to go into development the final say rests not with the developer or with the local authority, but with NAMA.  How exactly this new arrangement will pan out will decide a lot about the future of the country.

As for Cork Docklands, the project will undoubtedly soldier on, this latest episode one more in a its storied evolution.  While proposals like this one can provide media fodder that keeps Cork’s ambitions of density and sustainability front and centre in a news nation characterised by misery and miasma, it is important not to get caught up again in the tornado of excess that characterised the Celtic Tiger.  Cork’s fastidious record of strategic planning may have had the outcome of some developments receiving an unfortunately anti-climatic opening, but this culture should be retained in the face of less optimistic times.  What is important now may not be the grand statement but ensuring that when development happens it is to a scale appropriate to encourage sustainable growth.

Cian O’ Callaghan