In political struggles for publicly funded housing in Ireland since the 2010 crisis, the word ghetto has re-appeared. When proposals for social and public housing are put forward by activists, unions and others, one of the ways they are opposed, whether it be via mainstream media, or elsewhere is by the deployment of the word ‘ghetto’. Opponents of a massed public housing investment programme raise the spectre of the ghetto if we were to invest in a housing programme that meant more than a handful of public housing units in the same place. In this blog post I want to trace the birth and development of this use of the word ghetto in a public housing context in Ireland, not in a theoretical but an empirical way. This provides some evidence for a paper I am returning to again having put it to one side in late 2018.

The use of the word ghetto has been a feature of the story of local authority housing in Ireland since the 1980s. To understand the ways in which ghetto has become identified with public housing, we need to trace its origins. There is not a simple and defined correspondence with the use of the words ghetto and housing in Ireland. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, the word ghetto appears closely aligned with public housing in the newspapers of the time. To show how this alignment occurs, I have analysed the content of a range of articles, features and editorials for the period 1960 to 2015 where the words ghetto, housing and Ireland appear together.

While initial usages in Irish newspapers were concerned with the sectarian housing policies in Northern Ireland, later usages of the words show significant concern among policy makers and others for the potential and the reality of social housing to become like a ghetto. It is evident that ghetto emerges as a euphemism for housing segregation based on class. It is also more than a euphemism, as I will show. A wide variety of individuals, from politicians to government officials to members of the public, cite examples of concentrations of public and social housing in Irish towns and cities as something to be avoided in any new programme. Usage of the terms ghetto and housing together from about 1992/3 in particular onwards implies that mistakes have been made in the past in concentrating public housing because it leads to undesirable, yet unspecified, social problems. My content analysis shows how the development of public housing and planning problems are represented from this time as attempts to avoid ghettoization. Content analysis is a way in which to draw out significant themes from a corpus of text across time periods and can be used to show how specific ideas are represented together (Limb and Dwyer, 2001).

The Irish Newspaper Archive found the phrase ‘ghetto’ near ‘housing’ in 316 results in the period 1920 to 2018.  An Irish Times Archive search for the words ‘ghetto’ and ‘housing’, confined to Ireland, for the period 1960 to 2018 was also done. This second search yielded 243 results. In both databases a shift in usage over time is apparent. The word ‘ghetto’ alongside housing only appears with any frequency from the 1960s when it was used to describe the housing of nationalists and Catholics in the sectarian state of Northern Ireland. Discounting this particular usage and its usage to describe historical events in other parts of the world, a number of themes emerge from this brief overview of their usage together. The first theme identified in my analysis is that housing planning by local authorities, by its very house building activity, has created ghettoes. A selection of these usages shows a close association with public housing in particular. It is important too that such usage is found across a wide range of actors from across political parties. As early as 1972, aspiring Labour Party candidate (later minister) Ruairi Quinn wrote about Ballyfermot as a “poor community, a working-class ghetto with a high factor of crowding” (Mar 1 1972) having earlier described it as “a gross distortion of normal community in our society”. In 1976, a new private housing development in the Kildare town of Celbridge was offering a “mixed community within the development” in which the developer “anticipates the end of the ‘ghetto mentality’ that has disfigured many other Irish housing developments” (April 9 1976). When the 19th century housing at Mountpleasant in the south Dublin suburb of Rathmines was demolished in 1979, locals blamed the Corporation’s own policy for turning it into a ghetto through neglect (Mar 5 1979). In 1985, in the Donegal News, Fianna Fáil Councillor Bernard McGlinchey was recorded as warning that the town of Letterkenny could have social problems like the Dublin suburb of Ballymun unless “there is a rapid rethink on housing policies”. He sought the Council’s plans for the Ballyboe area of the town to be re-examined for fear that “The Council [would] site more houses in the area when the next allocation comes” and that it was “frightening that we are creating a ghetto in that area”. A total of 59 Council houses were planned alongside some private houses in a nearby site.

In 1986, with a new surrender grant scheme in place, Ray Burke TD, then a Fianna Fail spokesman, warned that the £5,000 given to local authority tenants to purchase a private house out of their own area was “creating a ‘ghetto’ in a Dublin housing estate”. He claimed that this policy resulted in higher unemployment and poverty in the district of West Tallaght. Other opposition deputies pointed out that only tenants in employment could avail of the grant and so those left behind were “becoming more concentrated with the unemployed, and an undesirable demographic imbalance was taking place.” This concern was echoed in a later report on house building activity during an upper house debate on small business (April 18 1986). The implication here is that the Council was creating concentrated areas of poverty by following national policy. Before 1990, the ghetto is used in an anticipatory manner, something to be avoided but only sometimes discernible as a problem.

The second theme identified is that public policy needs to avoid the ghettoes created in the past. By the mid-1990s, ghetto was being used in a near-historical framework as is clear from a 1996 Irish Times series entitled The Roots of Crime. The journalist frames the problem of crime as one of definition: “we are no longer defined by our green fields, but by urban ghetto areas which [police] call ‘hostile territory’” (Jan 22 1996). Later that year, a conference for local authorities heard how some of these authorities “use housing estates to hide rural poverty, creating ghettos on the edge of towns”. These council-established areas “had been, to some extent, ghettoised by virtue of their location outside the central areas of small towns” said consultant Trutz Haase. While this refers to much smaller urban areas than Dublin, the identification of an unspecified ghettoisation caused by public housing itself is evident. More especially, ghettos are identified by their own nature and characteristics rather than via their relationship to other policy measures of class formation.

In 1999, the Tuam Herald recorded that the Irish Auctioneers and Valuers Institute (IAVI) had expressed concern that the Government’s new Planning Bill would hinder the development of affordable housing because it encouraged building by local authorities to shorten their housing waiting lists instead of making private housing more affordable. Their statement, broadly in support of the bill, felt that “ghettos may be created within future housing developments with ‘affordable housing’ being segregated by a high wall from the main site and accessed independently…”. “Quality residential enclaves” in these areas would undergo price increases because they will not have the social housing element of the mooted bill nearby. The concern of the IAVI was for (private) first-time buyers and the lack of flexibility in densities envisaged under the bill. By 2000, a new Fingal Council plan to expand the older suburb of Blanchardstown was written about by the Irish Times’s environment correspondent as “littered as it is with ghettoised low-density estates, both public and private” (Nov 23 2000).  Other accounts from the 1990s show how the phrase ‘mixed tenure’ came to dominate discussion of large new housing developments at the edge of Dublin.

In the period 2002 to 2006, about 300,000 new houses were built in Ireland. Like the word ‘ghetto’, the term ‘mixed tenure’ is a code word used to describe mostly private housing with some element of social and/or affordable within a scheme. Both terms obscure the class relations that are materialised within urban space. Fears of “ghettos in the making” are allayed by building developments with a majority of private housing with some element of affordable and social housing. This bracketing of public within large private developments came to dominate home building in Ireland (through policy instruments of an increasingly centralised state) until the debt-laden crises that began in 2008. There is evidence then to suggest that the word ghetto is used in newspaper reports of housing policy in two ways: firstly that local authorities, through policy instruments not always of their own making, created ghettos in public estates. These areas are unspecified but identified invariably with public housing. Secondly, and as the 21st century begins, that new housing developments (all tenures) need to avoid the mistakes of the past where public housing ghettoes were built. In a feature on the new suburb called Ongar on Dublin’s north-west fringe, concern was expressed that higher densities would bring about ghettos (December 2 2006). Later-expressed fears about ghettos are not exclusively related to public housing but to newer suburban forms and populations that are seen not to be integrating with other communities. Where public housing is aligned with the fear of a ghetto aids the expansion of private housing over a longer time frame. The Planning and Development Act 2000 in particular instituted a defined proportion of each new housing development to be designated as public housing. This housing tenure’s marginalisation as time goes on solidifies the place of public housing as a small part of housing provision more generally. Furthermore large concentrations of public housing become strongly associated with ghetto-creation in a way that was not evident before the 1980s.

Eoin O’Mahony (@EducGIS)

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

The prelim results for Census 2016 make it clear that housing vacancy continues to be a serious issue in Ireland.  Given that new housing units grew by only 18,981 to 2,022,895 and population grew by 169,724 to 4,757,976m between 2011 and 2016, one might have expected vacancy to have fallen substantially.  However, housing unit vacancy fell by only 29,889 to 259,562.  Of these 61,204 are holiday homes (HHs), a slight growth of 1,809 from 2011.  On a base level vacancy of 6%, oversupply is 76,984.

Vacancy and oversupply varies geographically as Map 1 demonstrates.  Excluding holiday homes all but three local authorities – South Dublin (4%), Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown (5.7%) and Fingal (5.3%) – having vacancy rates (exc. HHs) above base vacancy.  In several cases housing vacancy (exc. HHs) is running above 10% and four local authorities have rates above 15%.  The issue is particularly acute in the north west.

Map 1: Housing vacancy (exc. HHs) in Ireland

Map 1: Housing vacancy (exc. HHs) in Ireland

One might expect that the vacancy rate has been declining everywhere, but this is far from the case.  In fact, vacancy has been rising in many EDs.  In Figure 1, each dot is an ED, with each dot above the line representing an increase in vacancy (exc. HHs).  In some cases the increase is quite dramatic.

07_Scatterplot_BxPltSo, the question is what has led some EDs to increase in vacancy?  Some of it is obsolescence – in any housing market 3-5 properties drop out of use in a year.  Some of it might be properties under-construction and on unfinished estates being completed (and thus counted) but are not yet occupied.  And some of it will be related to population change and migration.

Here, we want to look at the latter since a large number of EDs lost population between 2011-2016, especially those in rural areas (with towns in rural counties growing).

Map 2 shows population and vacancy (exc. HHs) categorised into four classes.

  1. (light blue): population decreased and vacancy decreased (687)
  2. (blue): population decreased and vacancy increased (705)
  3. (red): population increased and vacancy decreased (1497)
  4. (light red): population increased and vacancy increased (517)

06_PopChg_and_VacChgThe relationship we would expect would be classes 2 and 3 – where population decreased, vacancy increased, and where population increased, vacancy decreased.  And that happens in 2022 EDs (out of 3406).  However, in 1204 cases (c. a third), something odd happens: as population increases, vacancy increases (517 cases), or as population decreases, vacancy decreases (687 cases).  In the case of the latter this might be explained by obsolescence and household fragmentation.  We would be interested to hear of other possible explanations.

Without further analysis it’s not possible to determine the causes of this inverse relationship.  However, what the data does show us is that how housing vacancy is unfolding is not universal and there are different social and spatial processes at work.

Rob Kitchin and Martin Charlton

For the past couple of years the housing discourse for Dublin city has been one of housing shortages and a homeless crisis. The preliminary census figures published yesterday reveal that while the vacancy rates (exc holiday homes) for South Dublin (4%), Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown (5.7%) and Fingal (5.3%) are below a base vacancy level of 6% (in a ‘normal’ market we would expect c.6% of stock to be vacant due to selling/rental gaps, deaths, etc), suggesting that they have housing undersupply, Dublin City Council has a vacancy rate of 8.6% (exc. holiday homes).

In total DCC has 21,781 vacant units (20,844 exc holiday homes).  On a base vacancy of 6% (14,544 units) that suggests an oversupply of 6,300.

In other words, there is something pretty odd going on given the homeless rate has been increasing, large numbers are on the housing waiting list, and there’s a widespread belief that the city desperately needs to build housing.

So, what constitutes these 6,300 excess vacant units?

It’s somewhat difficult to know without visiting them and doing an on-the-ground survey, but let’s start with looking at the geography of vacancy in DCC.  Map 1 shows the % vacancy in the city minus holiday homes, and Map 2 shows change in the number of vacant units since 2011.

Map 1: DCC vacancy rates (exc holiday homes)

Map 1: DCC vacancy rates (exc holiday homes)

 

Map 2: DCC vacancy change 2011-16

Map 2: DCC vacancy change 2011-16

In Map 1, all the areas not shaded pale yellow has a vacancy rate (exc. holiday homes) above 6% base vacancy.  Much of the city centre and to the south have rates above 10%, and two EDs have rates above 20% (Mansion House B, Pembroke West B).  In Map 2, the blue areas have seen vacancy rates decline between 2011 and 2016, whereas red areas have seen an increase.  Interestingly, a number of areas have seen quite large increases in vacancy, especially within the canals near to the city centre, Ballsbridge and Rathmines.

Here’s some speculation as to what constitutes the excess vacancy:

  • some unreported airbnb/similar stock;
  • some second homes (used during week, but primary residence recorded as somewhere else);
  • some investment stock left empty;
  • some bedsits not yet converted after change in regulations that made them illegal;
  • some inner city obsolescence.

I’d be interested to hear about other possibilities.

Whatever the reason for the vacancy, it appears that this stock is not presently available to the market and therefore there continues to be a shortage of housing in the capital.

Rob Kitchin

Back at the end of May, Minister Alan Kelly was out flying a kite. His objective was to cautiously test public reaction to proposed new wind energy guidelines which would also see a new 700m mandatory minimum setback distance introduced between new wind turbines and private dwellings. The current guidelines, which include an advisory 500m setback, have been the subject to sustained and vociferous criticism by a plethora of wind ‘information’ and ‘awareness’ groups across the country. A public consultation on the revised guidelines launched in early 2014 attracted an unprecedented 7,500 submissions. Despite repeated pledges that the new rules would be published imminently, they have yet to emerge, it is suspected due to an internal row between Minister Kelly and Minister Alex White’s Department of Energy, Communications and Natural Resources; who are trenchantly opposed to mandatory setbacks. In the run up to next year’s general election, the battle lines have been firmly drawn with local protests becoming ever more heated. Not for the first time, Minister Kelly appears to have found himself at the epicentre of a political debacle and raised public expectations for a policy which he cannot deliver.

Mirror Picture 22.07.15

The reason of-course is spatial. Ireland has a fast-approaching legal obligation to achieve 16% share of energy consumption (electricity, heat and transport) from renewable sources by 2020.  It is estimated that any shortfall could cost the state up to €600 million. On heat and transport, progress has been abysmal. In customary fashion, government focus has therefore remained squarely on stimulating supply-side solutions in electricity generation. In reality, onshore wind energy is currently the only realistic available technology capable of attracting sufficient private capital investment within the rapidly shortening time frame (a trend not unique to Ireland). However, by 2020, Ireland would need to achieve annual wind power growth significantly higher than anything historically achieved to date i.e. an absolute doubling of installed capacity. A very tall order, given current planning and grid connection delays. It is therefore little wonder that DECNR have firmly set their face against further setback restrictions. Such is the geographical distribution of ‘one-off’ houses in Ireland that a mandatory 700m setback would result in less than 15% of the entire landmass of the state being available for development. However, as illustrated in Map 1 below, the vast majority of this available land is located in European designated Natura 2000 sites i.e. increasingly ‘no-go’ locations for wind farms due to strict new legal requirements and risk of planning failure . In contrast, as illustrated in Map 2, the current 500m guideline setback allows for a much wider range of locations as potentially available for development.

WW22

Map 1 & 2: 700m and 500m setback distances (Source: AIRO – Click on map for larger image)

When all is said and done, and after all the rancor, delays, expense and wasted political capital, even if we were to achieve targets, a paltry 16% of our total energy demand will be met from renewable sources. Beyond 2020, Ireland will be required to achieve ambitious new targets on a rapid trajectory towards a complete decarbonisation of our energy systems by 2050 i.e. tomorrow in energy planning terms. We will need all of the renewable technologies available to us (and more) to achieve this, including of-course an important role for wind energy. However, what these maps clearly bring into sharp relief is that Ireland is a contested and congested space and the conflicting land-use implications of renewable energy networks must be included as centrally germane to considerations on national energy policies and technology choices, including in the forthcoming White Paper on Energy to be published next month (see Andrews et al. 2011 for an interesting analysis of geographical footprint of alternative energy sources). The key flaw in the current National Renewable Energy Plan (NREAP) is that it is dominated by technological and resource considerations. It is therefore ‘spatially blind’ and does not factor in the socio-cultural and environmental contextual conditions into which these technologies will be inserted. Instead these considerations are very much relegated to secondary, exogenous and downstream issues with the planning system simply tasked with swiftly removing barriers to deployment.

Moreover, it is inescapable that if we are ever hope to deal in any fundamental way with the required renewable energy transition, the debate must be urgently repoliticised away from an exclusive focus on supply-side fixes towards analogous solutions on the social side. For example, transport (overwhelmingly by private car) accounts for one-third of Ireland’s energy demand, and growing rapidly, yet barely ever registers in the energy debate (See Figure 1). In fact, instead of transport demand growth being seen as an area of concern, government actually encourages it and then trumpets it as evidence of a recovering economy!

WW Graph

Figure 1: Total Energy Flow in Ireland, 2013 (Source: SEAI)

There is no scenario for an equitable shift away from fossil fuels which does not represent a radical departure at every level from the reigning business-as-usual neoliberal orthodoxy i.e. a strategic state and an active role for government in long-term national planning. That means intensive demand-side efforts supported by resource taxes and public investment; cheap public transport accessible to all; affordable, energy-efficient housing along transport lines; cities, towns and villages planned for higher-density living; land management that discourages sprawl; urban design that clusters essential services like schools and healthcare along transport corridors etc. It also implies a much stronger role for public sector utilities in developing renewable energy and to give communities the power to develop local distributed energy solutions. In short, as persuasively argued by Naomi Klein, it means changing absolutely everything about how we think about the economy. However, as I have previously blogged, even at this late stage we are failing to recognise this self-evident reality. We will therefore continue to pay a massive procrastination penalty for our legacy of decades of poor spatial and building control policies which have locked-in high fossil fuel energy demand and which will now be extremely difficult and costly to unwind.

Gavin Daly

gavin.daly@nuim.ie

See also the AIRO Wind Energy Strategies Webtool 

The recent closure of the Smithwick’s Brewery in Kilkenny City has end over three centuries of brewing tradition on the sixteen acre site. Its purchase by the local authority presents a once in a century chance to enhance the economy of the region and the liveability of the city. The Council are to be commended for purchasing the land at such a low cost. However, that was the easy part. Now begins the real work.

The whole place is dripping with heritage. However, heritage on a construction site is usually the last thing any developer wants to see. Clean, green, locations have few surprises and require less brain power to develop. Such sites provide the best opportunities to design easily, get planning, construct, and make a profit in as short a timeline as possible. This approach is certainly understandable, especially if you are the one paying. Heritage can add value but usually it is perceived to be not worth the trouble beyond a marketing driven sop. Typically, it is only in the highly developed marketplaces of major cities that heritage attributes are fundamentally incorporated into the design of a development. In these markets, heritage can be a key distinguishing factor that adds exclusivity and helps create a memorable experience. It is these latter developments that add positively to a city over a long period.

Kilkenny is a relatively small place. However, it is a small place that can think big. The Council obtained the Brewery Site at a bargain price. This allows the pressure for quick returns comprising crass buildings to be somewhat relieved. There is time to reflect. It is interesting to note that the city’s best spaces and buildings are almost all hundreds of years old. That is the timeline that should be thought about when planning the future of the site. These are also the places that have led to Kilkenny being such a great place in which to live, work, and visit.

Plainly, the heritage of the Brewery site will be central to the long term success of any development. Unfortunately, despite having some interesting ideas about the reinstatement of medieval burgage plots, the current masterplan lacks creativity when addressing the past. This is not surprising given that there was no obvious heritage professional on the project team. Thankfully though, there is time to amend the document.

In the current plan, archaeological finds are listed as an opportunity. Despite this, during a recent public consultation meeting I got the feeling that some senior Council staff saw archaeology as a threat. According to this perspective, archaeology is best avoided, not so as to conserve it, but because it costs money to remove and does not add value. Nowhere in the masterplan has the possibility of having an exciting urban excavation open to the public been entertained. In York, thousands visited the Viking dig. Elsewhere in the UK, at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, 100,000 tourists pay each year to witness archaeologists peel back the soil. Hundreds more pay to dig.

Currently, very little is known about the nature of the Brewery Quarter’s archaeology. Despite some previous disturbance, it is likely that the archaeological deposits are extensive, dense, and deep. Clearly, more information is needed to enable a well thought out redevelopment. If this has to be conducted, is it not better that archaeological investigation is embraced and used as an opportunity to increase both the number of visitors to Kilkenny and their length of stay? Nowhere else in Ireland would there be an urban excavation open to the public. It would also bring added authenticity to the Medieval Mile marketing initiative.

The Council themselves admit that the site will take years to fully develop. All this offers the possibility for a large scale excavation to occur over two or three extended summers. Such a dig would attract tens of thousands of tourists to the northern end of the city. Finds could be stored and displayed securely in the Brew House. A pop-up museum such as the one on the Parade last August has shown the public’s thirst for archaeological knowledge. In just four days 3,200 people visited.

Learning about a place and avoiding archaeology for construction is one thing but how about using the information? In the Rocks district of Sydney there is a four storey 106 room youth hostel built over one of the most important archaeological sites in Australia. Constructed on steel columns, the hostel hovers over the archaeological deposits. Like in Kilkenny, the landowner was the local authority. For many years they had identified the then derelict site as a place of high development potential. It was also place that if its potential was realised would rejuvenate an area which was underperforming. In 2006 they put out a call for suitable proposals on how to develop this archaeologically sensitive place. The judging panel – which was dominated by heritage professionals – chose the youth hostel (YHA) project.

A 99 year lease was then granted. An excavation that had been partially undertaken in 1994 was restarted. The dig was halted when the archaeological research questions were answered. Throughout the whole project heritage professionals were at the heart of the design process. The excavation informed every aspect of the build. On several occasions steel columns were moved to avoid newly discovered archaeological deposits. Ultimately, only 10% or so of the remaining archaeology was removed to make way for the 4,700msq development.

Today, the whole building permeates with its past. The central atriums of both blocks look down on to archaeological remains, tourists walk along reopened historic laneways, and tens of thousands of students go to the education centre to learn about early Sydney. Overall, the Rocks YHA is a massive success, not in spite of its heritage but because of it. Imagine a similar approach taken to the abbey of St. Francis and its extensive medieval wall foundations that lie under the concrete slab.

During a recent public consultation meeting there was much made of the removal and retention of existing buildings. It was disclosed that the Brew House and the former Mayfair Ballroom were to be kept while all other unprotected buildings would be removed. In order to aid transparency the report upon which these decisions were made was released. Unfortunately though, instead of clarifying issues, the report has perhaps muddied them. How, for instance, is a 20th century former ballroom worthy of keeping while a 19th century oratory listed on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage is not? Similarly, the brewing equipment in the Brew House is marked for full removal even though it is this same equipment that the building was constructed to house. Surely, this wholesale removal radically reduces the importance of the building? Overall, there may be very good reasons for the recommendations of the report. However, these are not obvious when reading the document.

Certainly, many of the tanks and piping in the Brew House will have to be moved for the building to be made useable. However, by taking out everything, the chance to create interesting and special internal spaces is massively reduced. More imagination is needed. Items that are deemed not suitable for retention in the building should be considered for use elsewhere on site. During the redevelopment of the Carlton and United Brewery in Sydney, a survey was undertaken by heritage consultants and an artist to assess the possible use of industrial heritage components for art pieces in the new residential and commercial blocks that were on the way. Closer to home, Lough Boora, Co. Offaly, has shown how the reuse of seemingly useless industrial artefacts can add significantly add to the distinctiveness of a place and its ability to act as a tourist attraction. Similar actions could take place here.

The possibilities presented by the Brewery site are almost overwhelming. However, no matter what the area is used for, the true incorporation of the site’s heritage into its redevelopment must be done. To do otherwise would undermine the uniqueness of the site, and its ability to significantly improve the economy and liveability of the city. Bad places are cheap. Good places that provide a sustained long term benefit are not. That is the choice Kilkenny – the Medieval Capital of Ireland – has to make.

 

This article appears in an edited form in the current edition of the Kilkenny People.

Liam Mannix, Heritage Consultant

Liam is a heritage consultant with experience of working across the private and public sectors in Ireland, Australia and Papua New Guinea. He project managed the educational programme of the Irish Walled Towns Network which won the EU prize for cultural heritage / Europa Nostra Award in 2013. @maxmannix

The following might be of interest to readers of this blog. Outline taken from: http://www.ria.ie/Publications/Books/Spatial-Justice-and-the-Irish-Crisis

1f0d6a25-3104-485e-8e53-82b77db843fb_146_220“As the global financial crisis enters its sixth year, this volume offers a wide-ranging critique of its handling. Academics in the field of social geography address the key political, economic and social shifts that have defined contemporary Ireland as it responds to the interrated collapses of the property market and the banking system. The concept of ‘spatial justice’ provides a cogent entry point for the authors into debates around austerity, equality and social justice. This volume enquires into the everyday concerns of citizens, planners and government officials alike. Each chapter undertakes a detailed examination of core aspects of the crisis and its management, including housing, planning and the environment, health, education, migration and unemployment. The analyses extend beyond the academy to questions of policy, governmentality, public participation and active citizenship. These contributions come from leading geographers across Ireland, the UK and North America.”

Contributors include:
Danny Dorling, David Harvey, Rob Kitchin, Mary Gilmartin, Gerry Kearns, Rory Hearne, Cian O’Callaghan, John Morrissey, Anna R. Davies, Ronan Foley, Adrian Kavanagh, David Meredith, Eileen Humphreys, John Agnew, Des McCafferty, Jon Paul Faulkner, and Marie Mahon.

Available September 2014

 

See here for more information: http://www.ria.ie/Publications/Books/Spatial-Justice-and-the-Irish-Crisis

Yesterday the Independent published an OpEd that discussed ways to try and start creating housing supply in areas that needed it – principally some urban centres, particularly Dublin.  It gave ideas grouped around land and sites, planning, costs, regulations, finance, and alternative solutions.  The piece was written by Karl Deeter, Ronan Lyons, Frank Quinn, Lorcan Sirr, Peter Stafford and myself, six regular media commentators on Irish housing.  The idea was try and see if six people who hold different views on housing and planning could reach a consensus position that provided practical solutions to creating supply.  The ‘rules’ were all the instruments suggested could be introduced quickly and with minimal or no legislative changes and it all had to be said in 900 words or less.

Inevitably, the list of solutions produced was a compromise and writing such a piece is an exercise in politics and principles.  No signatory on the piece is fully subscribed to each potential solution and all had to concede ground.  From my perspective, I have problems with removal or reform of Part V, I’m cautious about bringing aspects of Dublin planning regs in line with the rest of the country and the reduction of development contributions.  But I’m happy to see the use of the term housing sector not market, the advocacy of social housing and associated HFA financing and a reversal of the cuts to capital spending, and the ‘use it or lose it provisions’ on planning and land zoning.  I’m a little cheesed off that the Indo editors altered a couple of bits of the submitted piece, especially removing the phrase the “inventions should be time delimited”.

Some of the critique of the proposals on twitter and email has been that they overly favour market and developer interests.  There is, however, I think some degree of balance.  Ideas such as derelict/vacant site tax and a more aggressive use of the Derelict Sites Act are not in land owner/developer interests.  Moreover a range of interventions favoured by such interests were kept off the table: tax incentives, reduction of construction labour wages, radical laissez faire change to the planning system, alterations to build quality, radical changes to density targets, and state provision of housing.

What the piece hopefully does is move the discussion on from diagnosing the problem to practical solutions and towards action.  It provides a selection of options that can be debated and I would welcome counter-pieces.  If the piece does that, then it has done useful work.  At the same time, we also need to move towards action.  We have a real problem that has real consequences and is quickly getting worse, yet very little is being done to address the issue.  We therefore need that action soon, not in two or three years time.  If that requires compromise solutions, then I’m prepared to consider them.  And as this exercise proves, other interests are too.  What we can’t afford to do is nothing.

Rob Kitchin

Just last June, former senior planner with Donegal County Council, Mr. Gerard Convie, was successful in his legal challenge in quashing the findings of the Internal Planning Review published by the Department of the Environment in respect of allegations of serious planning irregularities in County Donegal. As previously reported on this blog, the Department’s Review found that there was no evidence of irregularities or corruption in relation to the complaints. The quashing of the Review’s findings prompted Minister Jan O’Sullivan to reopen the Independent Planning Investigation previously proposed by former minister John Gormley. Mr. Convie and Donegal County Council certainly appear to have a colorful history having been involved in a number of legal tussles in recent years. As widely reported in the media, back in 2002 Mr. Convie alleged that a “golden circle of corruption” operated within the planning system in the county. Mr Convie himself was suspended from Donegal County Council in 1999, allegedly for not following proper procedures in relation to a planning application on a piece of land in which he had an interest. The claims and counter-claims of corruption and irregularities played out in the courts certainly have more than a whiff about them and certainly merit full scrutiny by the newly reopened independent planning investigation.

In the aftermath of the case, there have been a number of unfortunate episodes which certainly do not paint planning in Donegal in the best light and give credence to the contention that, at the very least,  some very fundamental questions need to be asked regarding planning procedures and practices in the County. For example, a row has broken out between the HSE and Letterkenny Town Council over the recent high profile flooding of the newly opened €22 million Emergency Unit at Letterkenny General Hospital. The damage caused by the flood forced the closure of the hospital, extensive damage estimated to run to over ten million euro and even prompting genuine fears that the new unit will need to be demolished. As reported in the Donegal Democrat, the flood waters entered from a blocked gully above the site, became mixed with sewage, causing millions of euro in medical equipment to be destroyed, thousands of patient files soaked in foul smelling polluted water, walls and floors contaminated and the hospital only able to offer extremely limited services for the people of the county.

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It since emerged that the granting of planning permission for the new unit was conditional on a flood attenuation report being submitted to the council prior to the commencement of construction and that the potential for serious flooding was known about for over a decade. In fact, two reports dating from 2002 to 2006 which are freely available to download from the OPW’s www.floodmap.ie website raised very serious concerns about local flooding at Letterkenny General Hospital with the 2006 report plainly concluding:

“L8. Letterkenny Hospital, Letterkenny – River overflows its banks once every 3 years after very heavy rain. The Hospital is liable to flood.”

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However, according to the Donegal News a senior council official stated that this condition of planning had not been fulfilled and the flood attenuation measures were never received. While it may seem grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented that Letterkenny Town Council could allow the construction and operation of a brand new medical facility (accommodating vulnerable emergency patients) of critical regional importance to commence without requiring the most basic risk management measures of a known risk to be complied with, other recent events point to a general ham-fisted approach to planning in the county which suggest that the malaise was not merely a once-off.

For example, a recent edition of the Today with Myles Dungan radio programme reported on the problem of raw sewage overflowing into the sea in Dungloe and Burtonport. Resident’s describe the two holding tanks for the town’s sewage overflowing; the local beach festooned with toilet paper and untreated human faeces; manholes in the children’s playground overflowing with sewage; sewage flowing out of toilets in housing estates; the closure of the local oysterbeds due to faecal pollution; and a foul stench causing nausea and creating public health issues. According to the wastewater treatment specialist interviewed by RTE residents were living in a ‘toxic environment’. This issue does not seem to be unique to Dungloe and Burtonport with similar issues reported all around Donegal including in Bundoran and Glenties.

The reason of course is simple – although none of these towns have sewerage treatment plants or have grossly inadequate treatment plants, Donegal County Council sanctioned a massive ad-hoc expansion of new development in these areas throughout the Celtic tiger. In fact, a quick look through the Donegal County Council’s online planning enquiry system shows that the Council granted planning permission for hundreds of homes, shops, commercial premises – all with temporary private domestic effluent treatment systems. In one case in Dungloe, the Council granted permission for 94 residential units all to be serviced by a temporary septic tank. In the case of the Altán estate in Burtonport (which featured in the RTE programme), the Council granted planning permission for a 22 unit residential development with what is described in the application documentation as a ‘temporary contract cess-pitt’ as its primary sewage disposal system.

Leaving aside for one moment Donegal County Council’s apparent lax attitude to enforcing planning conditions as exemplified by the Letterkenny General Hospital debacle and the fact that septic tanks were until recently completely unregulated, it does not require a skilled expert to decipher from the picture of the Altán housing development below that the nature of the soil in many of these areas may be unsuitable for a septic tank system. In fact, the North West River Basin Management Plan concludes that there are as many as 60,000 septic tanks in this region located in areas where the soil characteristics are unsuitable for septic tanks and that there has been a proliferation in recent years of private sewage treatment systems for multiple housing schemes causing significant pollution risks.

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*The Rear of the Altán Housing Development in Burtonport showing the percolation area for the waste water disposal system

Donegal is obviously an extreme example of the planning chaos which gripped Ireland throughout the Celtic tiger but is by no means unique. The legacy costs of the rush to allow development regardless of location will continue to unfold for decades and will not just affect the local residents. For example, a 2012 report by the EPA found that 17 of Donegal’s 33 settlements had no required secondary sewage treatment. Of the remaining 16 that did have secondary treatment, 12 did not meet the required standards. As a result, in order to avoid serious fines under the EU Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, a minimum tax payer investment of €120 million is required to be invested in Donegal, including in retrofitting small peripheral settlements where even a basic planning assessment would conclude that development of the scale permitted was completely inappropriate. In a time of extremely limited exchequer resources, this wasteful expenditure is causing investment to be diverted from elsewhere, including areas where there is significant potential for economic development and employment creation.

Gavin Daly

At the recent AESOP/ACSP conference in University College Dublin, which brought together 1,200 planning academics and scholars from all over the world, Minister Jan O’Sullivan announced her intention to shortly bring forward a new planning policy statement setting out a new vision for the Irish planning system.

After the past few years of fire fighting, whereby the Government was desperately attempting to reign in the excesses of the Celtic tiger era and impose some control on the often reckless conduct of planning authorities, there is no doubt that such a vision is now sorely needed so that we can begin to effectively plan for the future. 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.

According to Minister O’Sullivan “…if the public doesn’t understand how the planning system works, why certain things are permitted and certain other things aren’t, then your planning system isn’t doing its job.” It is true to say that other than a vague comprehension of the legacy costs of ‘bad planning’, the public appreciation of what purpose planning serves in society has hit rock bottom, mired as it is in a perception of corruption, cronyism and ineptitude. This has not been helped by the complete failure of both the professional institutes and academia to effectively communicate a cogent mission and rationale for planning.

Planning is, at least in the public mind, typically reduced to development control i.e. planning applications. This is demonstrated by each and every time surveys are published showing a drop in the number of planning applications, which are inevitably accompanied by a chorus of calls for a reduction in public planners. This narrow technocratic interpretation (such as that conveyed in the BBC documentary ‘The Planners’) is something to which many public planners have grown both resigned and accustomed to. To be fair, this state of affairs has also been created in no small part by a deep cultural antipathy to planning in Ireland and an unfettered attitude to private property rights.

In a famous 1973 critique of planning, Aaron Wildavsky mused “if planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing” and there is more than a modicum of truth in this observation. In recent years the planning system has been lumbered with an ever more complex range of regulatory functions. Planners have had to come to grips with a whole host of new skills as well as grappling with the novel challenges brought about by the recession, most of which they plainly have no training for. A review of any county or city development plan will quickly show that planning is now the vanguard for an ever growing and diverse range of complex agendas such as housing policy, nature protection, flood risk management, vacant housing, renewable energy production, water quality protection, retail impact assessment, town centre management, economic development, climate change mitigation, landscape protection, heritage, infrastructure delivery etc.

Planning has now become so large and complex that the public planner cannot encompass its dimensions. As a result, county and city development plans are largely obscure and voluminous documents extending to hundreds of pages with vague policies often wrapped up in impenetrable jargon and mutually exclusive policy goals. Planners now find themselves at the nexus of so many contentious and contested policy debates and it is little wonder that the profession has retreated to the high moral ground of blaming politicians and sought cover in the banality of development control. I do not argue that mediating competing economic, social and environmental agendas should not be a core function of planning into the future. However, we must be aware that extending planning to cover so much merely serves to obfuscate what it is precisely that planning is attempting to achieve. A cynical critique would indeed conclude that maybe that is indeed nothing.

Of course, collapsing the purpose of planning down to a core agenda is a process fraught with danger. This was well demonstrated by the England’s recently published National Planning Framework (NPF). The function of the new NPF is ostensibly to simplify the planning code. However, the real rationale is clearly the perennial Tory neoliberal agenda of planning retrenchment and foreclosing all but a narrow debate around the economic growth agenda and boosting housing supply.

If there is one thing that any new planning vision for Ireland should definitely not be about is economic growth. This may appear a rather taboo notion in an environment where the consensus demands that every public policy is compelled to fully justify itself on the basis of the economy. However, it is readily obvious with even a cursory analysis that it is not within the gift of planning to grow the economy. Including growth as a core goal of planning tends towards overproduction (e.g. housing, zoning etc.); heightens competitive pressures between regions favouring larger urban centres; and systematically excludes qualitative social and ecological considerations which must be at the heart of planning thinking. Indeed the origins of planning were in mitigating the crisis conditions brought about by rapid economic growth.

In order to avoid mission creep and reassert the relevance of planning for the daunting challenges of the coming 21st Century we must therefore firmly place the horse back at the front of the cart. Rebuilding public trust in the battered image of the planning system compels us to create a new mission for planning which is realistic, relevant and serves to build a shared public understanding of its value. This must first start with an explicit recognition that planning involves making choices – planning is politics.

Any future vision for Irish planning must therefore return to the welfare state origins upon which modern planning was founded, rooted in concepts of social and spatial justice. This requires an explicit move away from the depoliticised, entrepreneurial growth agenda aimed at boosting supply side activities such as housing and infrastructure provision. A new vision for planning must be centred upon the public goods and services for which the spatial distribution is within the remit of the State to achieve. The delivery of public services requires certain infrastructure networks including, for example, transport, waste, energy and communications infrastructure as well as facilities and services related to health, education, culture and recreation – all of which require an integrated approach to settlement planning. A simple mission for this new planning vision could be: “To ensure that a certain socially agreed and necessary base level of services that people need are provided when and where that need occurs”.

In many ways the disconnect between public service delivery on the one hand and the spatial distribution of population on the other sums up the failures of the Irish planning system over the past few decades. This was laid starkly evident with, for example, the debacle in west Dublin where little consideration was given to the fact that a rapid increase in new housing would soon yield a requirement for new schools. Equally, in many rural areas, the collapse of the Celtic tiger artifice and the accompanying severe programme of public service retrenchment has left many communities without necessary services. In many cases these are areas where a massive ad hoc proliferation of scattered housing was permitted necessitating many people to travel large distances to access services and employment opportunities, or to live without.

In Germany, for example, the overarching aim in the development of the spatial structure of the national territory is to establish equivalent living conditions in all parts of the country. The Iceland 2020 strategy, which was forged after the economic collapse of the state, similarly puts the welfare and quality of life of its citizens at the centre of its national planning policy. In effect, a policy of equivalent living conditions would primarily benefit peripheral regions, since there are usually greater structural weaknesses and imbalances in these regions. Equivalency, however, does not mean that all regions must have identical infrastructure or that the income of all people must be the same everywhere, which is neither practicable nor reasonable. Regional equivalence of living conditions means that as many citizens as possible are able to participate equally in development of society. To approach equality of opportunity it is necessary to ensure certain minimum standards with respect to access to and the availability of services of public interest, to options for earning a living, to infrastructure and environmental qualities.

Placing social security and the equality of citizens to the fore of the agenda for a new planning vision would require a fundamental rethink of how we plan and provide a compelling rationale for promoting public acceptance as to why we plan. Upholding this principle at a time when public resources are limited could help inform a, heretofore absent, rational national dialogue on settlement planning. Importantly, it could also help close the gaping lacuna which has been the achilles heel of the Irish planning system for decades – the dichotomy between planning policy decisions made by local authorities and the opportunity costs to society associated with those decisions. The model underpinning the Local Property Tax, for example, comprises numerous spatially derived variables including relative distance to services and amenities. Therefore, in theory, the more households with good accessibility to local services, the greater the return to the local authority to maintain those services, thus creating a virtuous circle.

Such a vision should not be alien to Jan O’Sullivan who is after all a Labour Party minister. However, in an era of consensus-seeking where planning has become a depoliticised, stage-managed process which attempts to please everyone through ‘win-win-win’ policy solutions, I have no doubt that when published the new vision will be the usual fuzzy policy muddle of irreconcilable policy goals which superficially offers something to everyone but achieves very little.

Gavin Daly