January 22, 2006

Spatial plan a load of nonsense

Posted in Celtic Tiger · 4 comments ·
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Apparently, we have a National Spatial Strategy.

It was published some time last year, or maybe it was the year before. It was full of hubs, corridors and gateways. It said something about more balanced development, more decentralising of jobs and generally less congestion, commuting and snarl.

Like a national school project, a lovely map of the country was unveiled with lots of straight blue and red lines. It alluded to fancy-sounding things like radial corridors and seemed very progressive at the time. Economic activity,
research and employment were to be spread more or less evenly around the country.
Most crucially, this would take pressure off house prices in the Dublin area.

No expense was spared on the PR exercise to unveil it and the later plan for decentralisation of civil servants.

Unfortunately, just like the Luas, the National Spatial Strategy and plan for decentralisation did not join up.

Towns which were supposed to become hubs and gateways and, as such, were earmarked for jobs and development, didn’t get earmarked for civil servants. Other towns seemed to be getting government departments based on the precariousness of the local government politician’s electoral majority.

But who cared? Did anyone notice? For awhile, little else was talked about. The only problem was that it was all nonsense.

There has been little effort to plan the country and, even when there is planning, it is rarely implemented. Planning a growing economy is like clothing a growing teenager – you buy him expensive trainers and combats and, within six months, he has outgrown both.

Similarly, with a growing economy, roads that are adequate today are jammed within eight months. The capacity of some trains was increased last year, but they resemble the Calcutta Express already.

Towns that were villages in 2001 are now concrete jungles. So, even if there was an effective planning strategy, it needs to be modified, expanded and updated constantly.

But don’t worry about these hypothetical details, because the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing – our government says one thing and does precisely the opposite.

For example, last Thursday, the IDA- a central agent of government policy – unveiled plans to seek pre-planning permission for new high-tech businesses. The idea is that a tailor-made technology campus be put in place before investment decisions of large multinationals are made.

Having such ready-made sites available would obviously encourage investors to set up here. The IDA forecasts that 2,000 jobs will come to the campus in the next few years, which is great news. The only problem is that it is in west
Dublin. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, west Dublin is the most congested, badly-planned place in the country.

Now, let’s go back to the great National Spatial Strategy. According to this plan, this type of development was to be relocated away from Dublin, allowing the city to breathe and, in turn, to re-energise parts of the west and south of the country.

But no – that’s only in dreamland. Back here in Ireland, PR takes precedence over planning.

So this little development will add to the swelling of Dublin. But just how dominant is Dublin?

To get an idea of its bloated pre-eminence, let’s take a trip to our maternity wards. There were more babies delivered in Dublin in 2004 than in the entire province of Munster – an area 20 times bigger.

There were three times more babies delivered in Dublin than in the entire province of Connacht.

But these babies are not born to city dwellers; they are largely the progeny of the commuter class – the ‘Kells Angels’.

The census reveals a crescent stretching from Drogheda to Arklow, where people are commuting more than one and a half hours a day. This large ‘baby belt’ is home to the most fertile counties in the land and is creating a dependency
on Dublin that will be very hard to rebalance.

At the moment, Dublin’s truly overwhelming dominance means that commuting begins in the womb. The commuting foetus is uniquely Irish. In the same way as maternity books advise mothers to play classical music to their unborn children, the fact that expectant mothers from towns like Kells, Navan, Wicklow and Edenderry have to commute in the traffic to Dublin for scans and proper antenatal care, can be seen as perfect pre-birth training for life on the outside.

The newborn child will be able to tell his Mozart from his Bach, his hard shoulder from his roadworks, his unleaded from his diesel, his M50 from his N11, and his Abbeyleix jam from his Monasterevin bypass. A perfect traffic symphony for the traffic people – a sort of fanfare for the common commuter.

But who benefits from this haphazard development? The developers, for starters. It has been said that Fianna Fail is the political wing of the construction industry, and a quick glance at the residents in the Fianna Fail tent at the
Galway Races every year would suggest that this is not too far from the truth.

Is this closeness to the construction/land/property industry healthy? Obviously not, particularly as the housing market is overheated already. Think about the following statistic: we are building more houses per head than post-war Germany did when trying to rebuild itself from scratch.

Why are so many houses going up now?

Because they have to build as quickly as possible. Many developers who have bought sites at astronomical prices need to get the houses up immediately, just in case anything happens to the market. Nobody wants to be sitting on a huge
land bank on the day it dawns on the Irish that we do not need all these extra houses.

A conspiracy theorist would suggest that the reason for the National Spatial Strategy in the first place was to copper-bottom the investments of well-placed developers who saw their land zoned into perpetuity. The reason it has not yet been implemented is because the same developers’ other land banks have not been fully developed yet.

When they are, the government will introduce the plan in earnest. But who believes conspiracy theorists? Surely not you, not here, not now?

One of the less obvious problems with developer-led rather than planner-led policy is that it is anti-economic in nature.

Much of economics is about scale: if a town or a region has scale or mass, it can become self-sufficient. It will be able to sustain itself.

Typically, on the continent, regions are aggregated together to create a sustainable community of larger and smaller towns. They market and advertise themselves as one. For example, in Belgium, the towns of Bruges, Ghent and Ostend marketed themselves as the region of west Flanders, with predictably positive economic results that broke the commuter link with Brussels.

If this were done in the midlands of Ireland, it could prevent the great sucking sound of the area being drawn into Dublin with the attendant commuting and overcrowding issues.

The problem for the midlands now is that it might already be too late. None of the five main towns has a population of more than 20,000 and, as this column has pointed out before, close to half the populations of Athlone, Tullamore
and Mullingar now commute to work.

Without scale, these towns will be unable to resist the gravitational pull of Dublin and decisions such as the IDA’s one last Thursday will make that more difficult.

Moving 10,000 civil servants won’t do much either. Think about it: more than 120,000 people will move jobs this year.

This puts the hullabaloo about moving a few thousand civil servants into context.

But what about Cork, Galway and Limerick? Well, it appears that the spatial strategy does not see these as being in any way linked. It has been suggested that a motorway arc linking these three substantial cities would be smart and,
given the fact that they are the only three urban centres of any significance outside Dublin, this would seem the only way to redress the eastern pull of development.

But, of course, that might make too much sense and risk being seen as too revolutionary; and it might not suit the vested interests.

So we will just plod along, commuting in the sprawl where the new suburbs and older towns are unable to break the umbilical ties to Dublin – Ireland’s 21st century placenta.


  1. Pete

    “the day it dawns on the Irish that we do not need all
    these extra houses”. Well, I don’t see the land littered
    with empty houses, so maybe we do need them, although how
    we can have the highest house-building rate in the world
    AND the fastest rising house prices in the world, at the
    same time, is a bit of an economic mystery. It can only be
    caused by immigrants generating huge demand for housing.
    Perhaps the housing bubble won’t be burst by rising
    interest rates after all, but by a drop in the number of
    immigrants arriving? Imagine if the UK dropped it’s work
    permit requirements for new EU members?

    To be fair to the IDA, they have to operate in the real
    world, not in the world of political fantasy, so they have
    to locate their technology park where potential investors
    want it to be, not where the spatial plan says it should
    be. In my experience, many foreign investors won’t even
    consider locating anywhere but the biggest city, in any
    country they invest in. I think it’s a variation on the
    old “noone ever got fired for buying IBM” idea : if I am
    sent to Ireland to find a good business location, and I
    choose Athlone, and the business fails, I get fired for
    taking a bad decision. But if I choose Dublin, and the
    business fails, I don’t get fired, because I did the same
    as everyone else.

  2. john bennett

    It also shows that the IDA is still stook in the early
    1990s and their success in bringing intel to ireland. There
    is no guarantee that the future will be giant intelesque
    semi conductor manuafacturing plants. If they don’t succeed
    this time in luring a foreign multinational, is there any
    irish company capable of this activity or will it languish
    like the polaroid factory did in newbridge throughout the
    1980s with manicured lawns but devoid of activity.

  3. Same ole story

    “We all grumble about the weather, but nothing is done
    about it”. I’m sure everyone agrees Ireland is a developer-
    led country and we suffer the long commutes, bad housing,
    high prices, etc. as a result. But who is organizing the
    protests? Who is gathering the signatures? Who is
    demonstrating outside the Dail? Who is writing to the
    papers? Who is lobbying their TD? Who is handing out the
    flyers? Who is organizing protest groups? Who is acting
    watchdog on prices? Who is complaining to the Opposition?
    Who is making this an election issue? Who is calling for
    boycotts on petrol stations/supermarkets with excessive
    prices?

    No one. The Irish deserve their 1 hour wait just to get out
    of their sprawling estates, they deserve the shoddy
    workmanship on their houses, they deserve to sign their
    life away to a bank, they deserve the developer-led
    government, they deserve the worst government in Europe,
    they deserve the high prices from petrol to pampers, they
    deserve bad politicians who exist to line their pockets in
    a cushy job.

    Why? Because they expect someone else to do all the work
    for them. I have no respect and no sympathy for the people
    I see on the roads, going to work from 07:00AM, the €3
    coffee, the €2.80 tolls, etc. etc.

    Just look at the Kiev ‘Orange Revolution’ of 2004: millions
    of Ukrainians peacefully demonstrated daily against corrupt
    elections, and a large 24-hour tent city was set up, the
    people braving bitter sub-zeros temperatures night after
    night. People instinctively came together, bring tea,
    biscuits etc. Due to their efforts, the election was
    annulled and a second was organized.

    How many Irish people would do that, do you think?! How
    many Paddys will brave a bit of rain? But maybe they have
    to get home before rush hour…

  4. Gaurav

    I totally agree with previous comment. I am not Irish and I
    am one of thousands who moved to Ireland when Celtic Tiger
    was roaring. Now I am married, have a house living happily
    here.

    I love this country don’t get me wrong. I have moved here.
    But if petrol prices went up by 2 cents in India (My home
    country) there would protest in streets. People will become
    be very angry. Government is afraid of doing this.
    Government will think 10 times before increasing prices
    which will affect common man.

    But here new toll road is build between Kilcock to Kinngard
    and toll is €2.50. I can’t believe it. France last year
    build highest bridge in the world
    (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3237329.stm) and it just
    take €4 to cross it and it saves 45 mins. Here in Ireland
    it saves 10 mins and it cost more then half of it.

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