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Irish Politics

The Constitution of Ireland is no barrier to regeneration

As we approach the centenary of the destruction of the Customs House, then the seat of Ireland’s Local Government Board, by the forces of Dáil Éireann in 1921, it is perhaps time to consider afresh  the role the rebuilt Customs House has played in the newly independent Ireland for the last hundred years as the seat of the Department of Local Government, now known as the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.

In a week where Dublin’s city manager has publicly and controversially advocated the increased use of Dublin’s open spaces as land for urban building, there is quite a deal of evidence that thinking in the Customs House and among its cohort of prefects or county and city managers is very, very conservative indeed.

I suggest that the major problems that Dublin faces in the next 12 years (when the national population is envisaged to grow by 1.1 million) is not an excess of open space; on the contrary Dublin’s problem is under-use of its existing developed space.

We cannot continue to carpet Wicklow, rural Dublin, Kildare, Meath and Louth with commuter-belt housing estates as an unthinking response to housing shortage and population growth. Already the transport infrastructure of the greater Dublin area is choking. I remember well when the members of the government in which I served between 2002 and 2007 were very worried about the potential public backlash from the likely delays resulting from the widening of the M50 from four to six lanes. Now there is a growing case for a second peripheral motorway 15 miles further out than the M50.

Even the soon-to be-joined-up but very inadequate Luas network at peak hours is groaning with commuters pressed like sardines into an inadequate number of tram-sets. As the economic recovery quickens, traffic jams are spreading across Dublin’s road network.

Dublin needs to be the subject of a radical, active plan of regeneration. At the heart of that plan must be the realisation that the existing built-up city must be transformed into an area where a vastly increased number of Dubliners can live and work.

While preserving the character of many precincts and streets which are part of the city’s cultural heritage, we simply have to plan for a greater density of urban development. And we have to implement that plan. The existing combination of passive urban planning with private enterprise development is not working.

Telling people what they may do and may not do and then simply hoping that they will somehow be driven to implement a plan by market forces is a dead duck. Just look at how much living space above retail premises lies empty in spite of repeated incentive programmes to encourage such use. No city has been regenerated in that way.

What is missing is active urban planning and regeneration. That involves the use of compulsory acquisition powers for major site assembly. It involves planning precincts, streetscapes and mixed land usage. It involves granting building leases to developers to build in strict accordance with those criteria. It involves implementation of policies on integrating social and affordable residential housing with private housing in city centre developments. It entails very much increased building density, much greater apartment living, combined with liveable streetscapes and communities.

As I wrote here before, Haussman in Paris and Dublin’s Wide Street Commissioners owed their success to active regeneration based on compulsory powers.

The schools, shops, pubs, cinemas, theatres, colleges, libraries, parks, and cultural institutions and the roadways are already there, many of them decaying for want of use and de-population. Inner city public transport, and dedicated bicycle-only roads and lane-ways, and pedestrian routes, must become the pleasant, practical norm for movement in the city. These need critical mass in terms of residents to be economically viable. Private enterprise will not provide them.

One of the most disturbing aspects of our present inertia is the constant muttering from the public service and from some politicians who were suborned by the same public service about the Constitution being an obstacle to regeneration, planning, housing provision, and redevelopment. I heard it myself when Attorney General and when a minister. It is always spoken sotto voce. It is never particularised.

Exactly what part of the Constitution prevents exactly what from being done? That question is never answered.

Even existing legislation such as the Planning and Development Act 2000 envisages local authorities using CPO powers to provide lands for redevelopment by developers other than the local authorities. But such development site-assembly by local authorities is very rarely used. Hence we also have an abjectly ineffectual “use it or lose it” Derelict Sites Act regime.

There is no constitutional reason at all why land must be derelict before it may be compulsorily acquired for area redevelopment or for the purpose of site assembly.

The only thing the Constitution requires is that existing owners’ property be protected from “unjust” attack. Where compulsory purchase is done bona fide for legitimate reasons and by reference to the public good, the Constitution only requires fair compensation for the property owner – to be judged usually by the value of the land and/or the costs consequential to dispossession.

I believe that much of the muttering about the Constitution as an impediment to CPO-based development is explained by a simple lack of appetite by bureaucrats to become involved in the CPO process in the first place. That might also explain why their beady eye is turning to public open space or to the sites of obsolescent and neglected public housing schemes.

When you think of it, there is one common denominator to many of our current problems and the causes of urban decline, dereliction and urban sprawl – the local authorities overseen by the Customs House. Local authorities, in their planning role, decide on low densities, open spaces, maximum height restrictions, and the like.

For decades large areas of Dublin, such as the Liffey quays, suffered from planning blight due to unimplemented road plans. Dereliction followed. Much of Dublin’s north inner city is run down due to the failure of the local authority to ensure balanced redevelopment. Poorly maintained public housing schemes dragged their neighourhoods into decline and decay, as I know from my own experience in Dublin 8 in the 1980s.

Is it not strange that public housing planned and built by the local authority in the last fifty to eighty years now requires to be demolished in Ballymun, O’Devaney Gardens, Charlemont Street, Dolphin House and elsewhere, while much older public apartment housing in many city centre locations could be refurbished and are highly valued? How does that speak to the competence of the local authority as an engine of regeneration.

And anyone who looks at the bunkers at Wood Quay must still gasp in amazement that the designers of that complex now sit within it claiming to be the arbiters of urban design, street design and the need for a human scale for present and future design in Dublin city.

I weep to think that these people also gave the go-ahead to the second essay in architectural barbarism now being implemented by the ESB in Fitzwilliam Street. Could the ESB not have retired to Sandyford and allowed someone else the opportunity of restoring Dublin’s Georgian mile? Why did they have to stay where they were neither needed nor loved? And spare me the functional brutalists’ condescending condemnation of pastiche architecture. I know ugly when I see it. I shudder to think what the present-day centre of Warsaw would look like if sniffy contemporary views on façade-ism and pastiche held sway in the post-war years.

If Dublin is to be regenerated as a beautiful, heavily populated city, we need a new renewal agency that is neither based in the physical bunker at Wood Quay nor the intellectual bunker at the Customs House. Is that too much to hope for?  


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