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Irish Politics

New Dublin taskforce needs to devise robust solutions for the city

The bottom is falling out of the new office property market in Dublin. Commencement notifications for new office developments have dried up. While cranes are still visible on the skyline on office developments that have commenced, the penny seems to have dropped that there just won’t be all those tenants willing to pay top-dollar rents for state-of-the-art, high-rise, high-spec, environmentally friendly office space in the city centre any more.

Will existing surplus vacated office buildings be repurposed as apartments? That is not as easy as it seems if planning guidelines and building bylaws remain unchanged.

The key question is how we get more people to live in Dublin’s city centre. The development plan process has not yielded sufficient city-centre living spaces for families. New apartment developments are comparatively plentiful in outer suburbs but not in the urban core of Dublin. New hotel developments are still happening in the city centre. And with existing tourist hotel accommodation being used as emergency housing for the homeless, the hotel trade is buoyant at one level – that of the owner.

But, in another sense, the catering and hospitality sector is struggling. Hence, the mooted new grants scheme reportedly under consideration at Government level this week.

An Post chief David McRedmond has patriotically agreed to head what is described as a “high level” taskforce with a 12-week time frame come up with proposals for a “cohesive and focused” list of proposals to make Dublin a more “thriving, attractive and safe cityscape, and a desirable location to live, work, do business and visit”, in the words of a Government plan announced by Taoiseach Simon Harris.

Twelve weeks will expire in late August. By then, Dubliners will have elected a new city council. The taskforce, consisting of not more than 12 people, among them a few councillors, is to work with existing plans for the city centre, including the council’s controversial traffic plans, and the NTA’s BusConnects plans.

I wish David McRedmond and his taskforce well in their endeavours. But all this raises the question of why it took to the twilight days at the end of the current Government’s and council’s terms to act on these issues. The newly elected council will not even be given a collective opportunity to address these issues in July and August. It also smacks of the Taoiseach’s Duracell bunny, all-action, hit-the-ground-running, frantic honeymoon campaign to counter falling opinion poll support for his new-look government.

If the taskforce is to do more than box ticking, it needs to understand and devise robust solutions for problems that have been endemic in Dublin’s administration for decades.

Is Dublin City Council to become a body that actively assembles sites and designs schemes for new city-centre housing projects to include, private, affordable and social housing? Or is the council simply to await accidental and protracted housing activity as and when private developers assemble their own pocket-handkerchief sites, as it does at the moment?

Will there be streetscape plans? Or will the relentless march of low-quality, soulless, random, infill developments continue to degrade our capital? Who will decide where and when construction is focused?

It is all very well to talk of new towns on the city’s outskirts as is happening now as is mooted for Clonburris and Seven Mills. But exactly who is to drive the regeneration of the city centre as a living, liveable community? The city’s council has the power but not the inclination to do that.

We need a radically different way of doing urban renewal. We need vision and a new Dublin architectural vernacular. We need positive and imaginative planning of our streetscapes and urban precincts. We need fire regulations that encourage people to live in our heritage and protected structures. We need an agency that actively pursues derelict and underused properties for immediate redevelopment.

All of this is obvious – and has been obvious for decades. Instead, we have had an ineffectual, dull-witted system of local prefectures posing as local democracy in cities. Planners and engineers became the same thing; they are radically different.

While McRedmond’s taskforce, when eventually constituted, may deliver a report in a 12-week time frame, the sands are running out fast in the parliamentary process. No new powers, practices, laws or institutions will be created, or policies implemented before the next general election.

Finally, there seems to be a suggestion that traffic congestion is Dublin’s problem. It is not. Much of the current congestion is deliberately created by our transport engineers with their traffic-light sequencing, lane segregation and road closures. Planned traffic engineering will not, I think, improve our urban core. The new traffic plans may create an economically lifeless, deserted urban doughnut, and further damage the commercial and cultural vibrancy of Dublin’s city centre. We deserve much better.

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