CAPPLANSPOTLIGHT

 

The Final Act of the Irish Electoral Cycle
We have entered the Final Act of the drama that is the Irish electoral cycle. The plot so far has involved harsh austerity, deepening neoliberalism, and widespread protest. But in the Final Act – at least in the play as scripted by the coalition government – these plot lines are expected to fade away as a new story arc emerges. Most immediately this will involve a raft of budgetary measures designed to return relatively insignificant amounts of cash to the wallets of various parts of the electorate. But, as the Capital Plan announced last week attests, it will also involve the promise of large-scale and geographically dispersed infrastructural investment.

While in one sense the Capital Plan is a mechanism in support of clientalism – allowing TDs the opportunity to bring the proverbial (and at this stage prodigal) bacon back home to their constituencies – it also serves to usher in the re-emergence of another central myth of Irish political and economic life: the myth of counterbalance.

The myth of counterbalance has been around ever since the Irish State decided to dismantle the walls of protectionism and open the country to the global economy. For various reasons Dublin has long dominated the country economically and demographically. The myth of counterbalance proposes to address this dominance by targeted policies designed to grow the economies of the other major cities.

I call this a myth not because such a feat is unattainable, but rather because, in Ireland, it has consistently proven itself to be. The myth of counterbalance emerges intermittently, the well-worn narrative dusted off to address the same intractable problem for a whole new generation.

Myth and reality
The idea of counterbalancing the growth of Dublin harks back to the Buchannan report on economic regions published in 1969. Buchannan proposed the creation of ‘poles of growth’, which would serve to counteract the unsustainable growth of Dublin. Throughout the 1970s Cork and Limerick were identified by central government as sites for targeted investment. However, while the official policy ostensibly favoured the creation of a counterbalance, in reality the recommendations of the Buchannan report were largely ignored, and later abandoned during the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In the Fanning report of 1984 on the impact of the recession on Cork, the notion of creating a counterbalance was resurrected. Fanning highlighted the need for targeted investment in infrastructure in the cities outside of Dublin, along with investment in indigenous small enterprises, in order to avoid the fallout from another round of global restructuring. In the report, Fanning advised against focussing only on short-termist policies and forgetting the goals of long-term sustainability. But then the Celtic Tiger came along and counterbalance was abandoned in favour of reducing corporation tax to a minimum and putting in place a series of incentives to attract a new round of foreign investment.

In 2002, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) once again broached the subject of counterbalance. Although politically weakened by clientalism, the NSS nevertheless put in place a framework to develop a number of ‘Gateways and Hubs’ that would act as regional centres of growth. There was a four-year gap, however, been the NSS and the publication of National Development Plan, which would link public spending to the infrastructural investment proposed in the spatial strategy.

In the interim, cities like Cork and Limerick launched ambitious development strategies that aimed to capitalise on the NSS. Cork Docklands Development Strategy, for example, inaugurated an entrepreneurial approach to development that transformed the city’s governance structures by inviting a host of private sector actors to shape urban policy. While the 2000s saw a new wave of development activity, the wider redevelopment of the docklands still depended on substantial state investment that, although promised, was not forthcoming. When the 2008 crash happened, one of the first programmes to be cut was the Gateway Development Fund for infrastructural investment.

Thus, the Celtic Tiger period of growth again failed to deliver on the promise of counterbalance.

The return of counterbalance
In the recently announced Capital Plan Cork is expected to get investment in key road infrastructure, an upgrade of Ringaskiddy Harbour and other projects including investment in a convention centre at the former Beamish and Crawford factory. The phantasmagoria of these plans was reinforced by a set of lavish visualisations shared by Simon Coveney on his facebook page. The Capital Plan is indicative of the re-emergence of counterbalance and, in the context of the eternal returns of Ireland’s boom and bust trajectories, the suggestion that we have exited the crisis and entered a new period of growth.

Dunkettle Roundabout Plans

Establishing shot from Season Two of True Detective… Sorry, visualisation of the upgrading of the Dunkettle Interchange in Cork.

But like previous iterations of the myth of counterbalance, we can see the contradictions emerge when we look a little closer at its practicalities.

Boundary issues
Over the last year, it had been recognised by Central and Local Government that the boundaries of Cork city did not encompass the functional urban area and that something would need to be done about it. A Local Government Review was set up to explore options. The logical solution would be for the boundaries of the City to be extended to more accurately reflect its functional area. This being Ireland, however, the simplest option practically was not necessarily seen as the simplest option politically, and – as was the case with Limerick previously – the solution proposed was not to extend the City boundary but to merge Cork City and County Councils.

Irish Examiner Cork MErger

Irish Examiner’s coverage of the proposed merger of Cork City and County Councils.

As reported in the Irish Examiner, Consultant Alf Smiddy and Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly argued that the merger would create “what would be by far the largest unit of government within the State”, which they contended would offer Cork the clout to successfully lobby for devolution of powers. The report stressed that the merger would allow Cork “to act as an effective counter-weight at the national level to the current economic predominance of Dublin and the eastern part of the country”. Alan Kelly argued that it would “put Cork in a position that it can compete on a regional basis with the conurbation that is around Dublin”.

Not everyone agreed. Two members of the Local Government Review, Prof Dermot Keogh and Dr Theresa Reidy (both academics at UCC), broke with the consensus and produced a minority report that stated their disagreement “with substantial parts of the draft report, the main finding, and most of the conclusions”. In a piece written for the Irish Examiner, Keogh and Reidy argued that after decades of delayed decisions on a boundary extension, the “amalgamation has been chosen as an easy political option” and that it wouldn’t solve the problems posed by Dublin’s dominance. Cork City Manager Ann Doherty later called the merger review “fundamentally flawed” and City Councillors sought to challenge the legality of Alan Kelly’s plans to proceed with it.

Myth interrupted
Cork’s boundary issues highlight the problems underpinning of the myth of counterbalance in Ireland. While ostensibly it has long been a central component of Ireland’s policy landscape, in reality it has never been pursued in any serious sense. The Irish state has been adept at spinning webs of visions, stories of ‘what will be’ woven with colourful images, maps and descriptions. But when it comes to frontloading investment into the necessary infrastructure, successive governments have balked.

Indeed, it would appear that Ireland’s period of neoliberalisation and entrepreneurialism has exacerbated the prospect of counterbalance. The suggestion that a merger of the local authorities would, by a sleight of hand, suddenly make Cork more attractive to international investment is indicative of a jaundiced approach that seeks to leverage an illusion of transformation to entice external forces to solve Ireland’s problems of uneven development.

What then is the purpose of the myth of counterbalance? It is an ideal that, while not in any realistic sense committed to, is perhaps periodically aspired to by successive governments. But more often, and particularly in the Last Act of the election cycle, it is a vehicle to carry the illusion of vision and the prospect of hope. The myth of counterbalance presents the notion that there is a ‘plan’. It tantalisingly dangles in front of the voting public the prospect that, within the crisis-ridden theatre of Irish politics, a socially and spatially equitable Ireland can be achieved. It is just beyond our reach, it seems to say, just beyond our grasp. Without fundamental change, it forever will be.

Cian O’Callaghan

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

A Haunted Landscape, the recent report on the housing crisis in Ireland published by NIRSA, identifies a ‘catastrophic failure of the planning system’ as a major contributor to the property crash and current housing crisis. While it is evident that governance failure in the planning and property development system contributed to unsustainable development patterns in recent years it is unclear where the actual problems lie. Is it a lack of strategic policy direction, an inconsistency between local, regional and national policies, clientelist and corrupt practices at the local level or the influence of perverse financial incentives or a combination of the above?

Aaron Wildavsky - American Political Scientist (1930-1993)

It may be argued that more fundamental questions need to be asked about our expectations of the planning system and more specifically how planning failure or success is evaluated. The academic literature on evaluation in planning highlights the difficulties in assessing the success or failure of spatial plans. American political scientist Aaron Wildavsky in 1973 famously argued that ‘if planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing’. He cautioned against an instrumentalist view of planning and plan implementation where planning becomes an attempt to control the future and argued that because uncertainty makes control of the future impossible, evaluating the failure or success of planning is an impossible task. More recent studies have argued for a more nuanced view of the application of spatial plans, arguing that strategic plans in particular should be evaluated according to their capacity to inform decision-making in practice. This perspective of course acknowledges that strategic spatial plans (such as the National Spatial Strategy or Regional Planning Guidelines) may not be the only or even the most significant influence on the ‘decision environment’ of planning in practice.

The ‘public interest’ is often cited both in public and academic discourse as the principal rationale for public policy intervention in land and development markets. Planning is conducted to safeguard the interests of the public or the common good and more generally to ensure a balance between public and private interests. It may be argued that it is self-evident that much of the development that has taken place in Ireland in recent times has not been in the public interest. Six hundred ghost estates clearly do not serve the public interest. At the level of individual planning decisions, however, it is more difficult to ascertain where the ‘correct’ balance between public and private interest lies. Critical to this discussion is the question of scale. In the planning context, the concept of the public interest is highly scale-dependent. For city and county councillors the public interest may legitimately be equated with that of the ‘local community’, local electoral constituency or Local Authority area. They are democratically elected to serve and make decisions on behalf of a particular spatially-bounded constituency. For councillors in parts Dun Laoghaire Rathdown for example, the public interest may translate into opposition to further housing development, irrespective of national or regional policies promoting urban consolidation within a designated metropolitan area. Similarly concerns for ‘balanced regional development’ in county Kildare as expressed by elected public representatives within the county are about ensuring an equitable balance between development in the North and South of the county which may in effect run counter to the explicit policy objectives for balanced regional development as expressed in the National Spatial Strategy.

Prof. Louis Albrechts University of Leuven

Spatial planning is in part about a negotiation of values articulated at local, regional and national scales of governance and by a range of sectoral stakeholders and policy coalitions. It is not simply a technical exercise, conducted in accordance with pre-defined universally accepted policy objectives. The final outcomes are therefore unlikely to conform exactly to the policy objectives or aspirations as set out by central government. Professor Louis Albrechts of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium argues that ‘planning is in politics, and cannot escape politics but is not politics’. He contends that the process of spatial planning involves defining the ‘values and images a society wants to achieve’. Any evaluation of the planning system in Ireland must take full account of the scalar and territorial dimensions of decision-making on planning issues and recognise the nature of planning policy and practice as a (legitimately) politically contested activity.

A recognition of the politics of spatial planning, however, does not reduce the need for a systematic investigation of the capacity of the planning system in Ireland to firstly guide the spatial distribution of development in accordance with agreed plans and secondly to provide a basis for coordination and integration with other policy sectors and activities.

Cormac Walsh

According to the 2006 census there were 51,441 housing units in Cork City of which 6167 were vacant (exc. holiday homes).  Between Apr 06 and end of 2009 the DEHLG housing completion data reveals an additional 3,579 units were built.  To put that in perspective, in 1996-2006 the number of households increased by 2,636 well below the vacancy and new build rates.  At the same time, Cork’s development over the last decade offers one of the best examples of plan-led development in Ireland. The Cork Area Strategic Plan and the Cork Docklands Development Strategy both aimed to implement an approach to development that was coordinated at the urban and regional levels, and aimed to stimulate growth that was in line with NSS guidelines and best practice in spatial planning.  So, if Cork followed an evidence-based approach to planning for development, why is it now suffering such high levels of vacancy?

There are a range of factors that influence this.  For one, development in Cork has suffered from unfortunate timing.  For the last decade, the projected growth expected from the docklands project has informed the scale and type of development in Cork city.  Cork is not characterised by urban density and does not have a legacy of apartment living.  The docklands project sought to fundamentally alter this pattern.  The project planned to stimulate the growth of the knowledge economy in Cork city by providing new office spaces in the docklands.  Additionally, the docklands would provide a range of new amenities (schools, parks, crèches, bars, restaurants, cafes) that would encourage both single residents and families to live and work in the city centre.  By the time the recession hit, the docklands project had yet to really get off the ground.

However, the developments that had happened in the city had based themselves on these projections.  Thus, developments like the Elysian that aimed to capitalise on the emerging trend towards apartment living were coming on stream at a time when the property market was imploding, making them an even more risky proposition in that they not only had to contend with a distressed market but also battle against entrenched consumer preferences.  At the same time, new housing estates were being developed in the suburbs.  Many of these came on stream at the wrong time.  Additionally, many prospective buyers had been priced out of the market as property prices soared, forcing them further out into the county.

Similarly in the County, expected growth was predicated on the designs of the CASP to create a commuter zone around the metropolitan city region.  Many speculative housing developments sought to capitalise on these trends.  Both the CASP and the CDDS are long-term strategies that were only beginning to see tangible results over the last three or four years.  As such, the recent surge of development interest in Cork was unfortunately in synch with the crash.

While these projects were certainly based on a strong rationale couched within the logic of spatial planning, it should also be said that the levels of growth expected from these strategies was excessive; the outcome of entangling reasonable and sensible projections with the fever dream of the Celtic Tiger.  Furthermore, even though Cork attempted to implement an evidence-based forward planning approach parts of the city and county were also characterised by the type of ad-hoc and clientalist developmental practices seen in other counties.  As David Counsell suggests in his study of the CASP, while on paper the plan suggested a coordinated effort by City and County Councils to plan and manage the growth of the region, the actuality was more fragmented.  Local Councillors still managed to rezone land for  development in towns and villages upon which massive housing estates were built that were in excess of reasonable demographic projections and against the objectives of the CASP.  Many of these developments are now unfinished ghost estates, while others are situated in areas without proper social provisions.

Rather than indicating the futility of evidence-based planning, the case of Cork demonstrates the problems associated with the fragmentation of the Irish planning system.  In the absence of joined-up planning, local authorities have only limited abilities to guide development in coordinated ways, and are often at the whim of local Councillors and developers.  While Cork certainly was not immune from the frenzied over-development of the Celtic Tiger period, the fact that to a certain extent this development followed a coherent plan means that in the long-run this may not be as destructive as in other counties, where development has left run amok without rhyme or reason.  Furthermore, it speaks more fundamentally about the difficulty of implementing a strategic approach to planning in the Irish context.  Because of the vagaries of planning structures and the lack of statutory regional policies, strategic planning is constantly challenged and undermined.

Cian O’ Callaghan and Rob Kitchin

As noted previously on IAN the 2009 Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill seeks to require that future decision-making by Local Authorities on planning issues is consistent with national and regional policy objectives.

A core element of the Bill is the introduction of ‘core strategies’ in City/County Development Plans. Statements of core strategy are required to demonstrate the conformance of proposed developments to national policy objectives. In this way City/County Development Plans will be required to provide a rationale for both existing and proposed residential and mixed-use zonings, including an indication of the proposed number of housing units to be accommodated on residentially zoned land. This requirement will potentially make it increasingly difficult for councillors and Local Authority management to zone large areas of land irrespective of the demand for housing within the locality or region and ensure consistency between the written statements of Development Plans and the associated zoning decisions of councillors, something which was often absent in the past (see for example Meath 2001 County Development Plan).

Regional Planning Guidelines for the Greater Dublin Area 2004-2016: Settlement Strategy (An example of a spatial strategy)

Spatial Distribution of Urban Development in the Greater Dublin Area: 1990-2006 (Source: MOLAND land-use datasets, analysis and mapping by the author) (An example of an evidence base)

The Bill also makes provision for an enhanced monitoring role for Regional Authorities. Regional Authorities are given an explicit role in the Development Plan preparation process, tasked with ensuring consistency with Regional Planning Guidelines (and effectively national policy). Significantly this enhanced role and responsibility for Regional Authorities is premised on the introduction of an executive role for Regional Authority staff. Currently the only official ‘voice’ of a Regional Authority on planning matters is that of the members (i.e. nominated councillors from constituent Local Authorities). This enhancement of the executive role of the Regional Authorities may, however, have significant resource implications, as existing capacities in terms of planning, research and policy development are quite limited.

The extent to which the Planning Bill (assuming it is enacted following the summer break) heralds a radical shift in planning practice remains to be seen. City/County County Plans in most cases include statements of consistency with regional and national policy and population and housing projections which are also generally broadly consistent with the NSS and Regional Planning Guidelines. In terms of implementation of the Planning Bill, the emphasis must be placed on monitoring, ensuring draft Development Plans are in conformance and more critically ensuring decision-making by Local Authorities on development proposals fully takes account of regional and national policy frameworks.

In particular, it is necessary for Local Authorities to assess whether a development proposal responds to an actual demand or need that is not already catered for by existing developments or proposed or developments, whether they are in the same Local Authority area or not. It is imperative that Local Authorities and An Bord Pleanála begin to refuse planning permissions on the basis that the demand for particular types of development is satisfied by currently and existing proposed developments. This criteria is over and above any consideration of consistency with Development Plans, Local Area Plans, or Regional Planning Guidelines which may have been produced five or more years prior to the time of decision-making on individual development proposal.

The experience over the last number of years has demonstrated all to clearly the outcome of incremental decision-making that does not have due regard to the bigger picture at regional and national levels, both in terms of the location and quantity of development. Strategic evidence-informed planning in this context requires a step beyond considerations of consistency with national policy objectives to decision-making based on a continuous monitoring of spatial development patterns and trends. Such a shift in planning policy and practice may require the development and application of a new spatial data infrastructure creating new challenges and opportunities for social and spatial science researchers as well as policy-makers and practitioners.

Cormac Walsh