28 March, 2014

It's Time for a Greater Dublin Mayor

In 1991 I was elected as a councillor onto Dublin City Council. Before we took our seats on the new City Council we were issued with robes to wear for the formal first meeting. As a councillor my robes were green and blue. Councillors first elected in their ward were referred to as aldermen and wore the same robes but with an extra yellow strip indicating their status. 

However, as I walked into my first meeting in Council Chamber I spied someone wearing bright purple robes. This was Frank Feely the unelected City Manager, whose self-chosen robes summed up the anti-democratic nature of local government in Ireland since the 1920s. Not only did he get to choose his own robes, but he, and all other unelected city officials then and now have huge powers over decisions that affect our lives.

A year ago I tweeted that the “Dublin Mayor idea will die a slow painful death by way of committee. Bad for Dublin, bad for Ireland.” Unless there is a change of heart by Fingal councillors this may well be the outcome. Apparently they aren’t overly enthusiastic about a directly-elected mayor, and have the power to block the proposal. Asking the sitting councillors of Dublin whether they want a directly elected mayor is like asking turkeys for their views on Christmas. They may well decline, given that their status depends on the status quo. Had the Green Party’s proposals for a directly elected Mayor for Dublin come to fruition we would have had a Mayor for all of Dublin directly elected by the people of Dublin next May, rather than the Fine Gael proposals that at best will result in a mayoral  election in five years time.

The blame can be firmly put at Phil Hogan’s door for setting up a process that seems doomed to fail, unless there is a change of heart. Even his master-plan for local government reform “Putting People First” contains a breath-taking anti-urban bias as he proposes giving Dublin City equal powers to Westmeath on regional issues.  It seems clear, that although Phil Hogan is Minister for the Environment, he is also a Fine Gael TD for the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency, and doesn’t want to devolve power to Dublin or other cities.

Currently national government decide on the important issues that cities should be deciding, and councillors are mostly left to sort out issues of maladministration. It doesn’t have to be this way; around the world great cities have good mayors. There are many examples of mayoral vision from strong and coherent city leaders. The challenge in Dublin is that the current divide and conquer approach of four different local authorities with four different agendas, managers and mayors elected on a revolving basis is confusing and dysfunctional. Henry Kissinger asked who he would talk to if he wanted to talk to Europe. We need someone to talk to when we want to talk to Dublin. The current mayoral system operates on a revolving door basis every twelve months, and ensuring a disturbing lack of continuity in city governance. We need a strong voice, an Ed Koch, a Pasqual Maragall or, whether we like him or not, a Boris Johnson. We need someone who has a strong, coherent vision for Dublin.

All across the world, strong cities have directly elected mayors. Georges Frêche one of the most colourful and controversial voices in the south of France was mayor of Montpelier for 27 years. Under his mayoralty the city thrived. That is why most French people when asked say they would like to live in Montpelier. Barcelona would not be the same without the legacy of Pasqual Maragall, who transformed that city from industrial backwater to hosting the 1992 Olympics. He made the city tick, and work effectively because he was a strong and dynamic civil leader who united the city and brought the Games to Barcelona. We all remember the scenes at the diving events, where the divers competed with the city as a backdrop. That was no accident, it happened because there was a strong mayor. We need such a mayor in Dublin.

We need the strong strategies and policies, which come with a directly-elected mayor. Four separate systems are not working. When Fingal speaks with one voice, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown with another, South Dublin and Dublin City with others still, there is no coherence, and no metropolitan vision for the nation’s capital. Visitors who come to Dublin are constantly confused about the various mayors from each of the city’s local authorities. It is not just visitors but Dubliners who do not understand how the mayoralty chain revolves every 12 months between different people who are briefly a voice for Dublin and then disappear from public view. However, against the odds though we have had some great mayors in Dublin city. I have strong memories of Carmencita Hederman and her fantastic contribution to the city during its Millennium year. Half way through the millennium year, she was replaced. That is no way to run a city or a region. Dublin is the driver for so much of the nation. We cannot change leaders every 12 months and expect coherent and effective leadership for the city.

If one does not like what the mayor does, one can still kick him or her out by using one’s vote. Under the current system this cannot happen. This gives the permanent government of county managers who in place for seven years the upper hand, and diminishes the role of elected representatives.

The legislation introduced by the Green Party in the last Government provided for a mayor who would co-ordinate water, waste, transport and planning policies. Time and again, we return to the legacy of bad planning decisions across the country. The people of Dublin are still picking up the tab for mad rezoning decisions that took place in Dublin County Council in the 1980s. Councillors were allowed rezone land without any sense of responsibility and without a mayor who had the bigger picture about what the city might be. When it comes down to strategy, plans and implementation, a directly elected Dublin mayor will have a coherent voice and will be there for the long haul.

In many places, a city’s lifeblood - its economy, cultural life and sense of place - is channelled through its mayor’s office. One only has to look at Shirley Clarke Franklin in Atlanta, Martin O’Malley in Baltimore, and Fiorello La Guardia in New York City, all strong dynamic people who made things happen. I can easily recall the last four mayors of New York City – Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Michael Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani.  They all contributed to making New York great. The same kind of voice is needed in Dublin. The nations’ capital needs a directly elected mayor. Such an office will be good for Dublin City, the four counties of Dublin, and for Ireland. With the election of a mayor, democracy would be transformed and the days of unelected managers who could chose to wear purple robes will be gone for ever.

26 January, 2014

Answers needed on Ballymount Fire

Like many Dubliners I woke up on Saturday to the acrid smell of smoke. At first we thought there was a fire in the house, but as dawn broke we could see a large dark plume of smoke in West Dublin coming from the Oxigen plant in Ballymount. It soon became clear that one of Ireland’s largest buildings had gone up in smoke. The Recycling facility accepts waste from all over Dublin and beyond. Most of the contents of the  city’s green bins ends up being processed there. Thankfully, no-one appears to have been injured in the immediate blaze, but as the fire smoulders on 48 hours after the blaze there are many questions for the Environmental Protection Agency and Oxigen to answer.

A minimalist statement on the Oxigen website states ”Oxigen Environmental would like to assure all customers that the fire at our Ballymount, Dublin site will not disrupt any services.”  Their Twitter feed was last update on 18 December last. This lack of information is entirely unacceptable for a company that accepted over three thousand tonnes of hazardous waste at their site in 2012.

Thousands of people live close  their site at Ballymount near the Red Cow Interchange, and if I was woken by the smell in Stoneybatter siX kilometres away i can only imagine what the smells and fumes were like in Crumlin and Bluebell that lay in the path of the smoke cloud.

Thankfully the Environmental Protection Agency issued advice stating that those in the path of the smoke plume should  stay indoors and keep windows and doors closed. However people need to know how dangerous the smoke is, and whether parents should move young children or elderly family members away from the area. It is unacceptable that more detailed information is not available two days after the blaze. The EPA also doesn’t appear to have up to date information available on their air quality website although their air quality Twitter feed gave some information, but no detailed breakdown of the type of pollution.

There are also questions to be answered from Ballymount as to why they were storing so much inflammable waste on the site without adequate fire breaks between stacks of material wrapped in highly inflammable plastic. An image of the plant taken from above last Summer shows a huge amount of material in rows over a hundred metres long.

South Dublin  County Council needs to comment on whether their Fire Certification allowed such a large amount of flammable material to be stored in close proximity to the plant itself.

Another worry is how much pollution of groundwater and rivers has occured. The run-off from fire-fighting has potential to kill fish life and pollute the Camac River and the Liffey, and it is unclear whether measures to retain this contaminated water were in place.

Dubliners are entitled to more detailed information about what has occurred in Ballymount. Parents with young children who live close to the Plant are justifiable afraid and concerned for their children. The company and the various local authorities and other agencies need to make available clearer information to the general public

Looking ahead there are questions about the cause of the fire and whether all permits and permissions were in order. We do know that there were two fires at the plant in 2012. South Dublin County Council must state whether Planning Permissions and Fire Certificates were in order. The EPA must consider whether the storage of so much waste on the site was compatible with the Waste License that they issued.

22 November, 2013

Let's shed some light on City and County Managers’ meetings

It's time that more was known about meetings of the County and City Managers’ Association (CCMA). They're one of the most powerful organisations in the country. Their thirty-nine members have much of the responsibility for the spending of  about €4 billion a year on running local authorities, and around €3 billion a year on capital expenditure. That's serious money. Clearly they've a lot to talk about. And yet when you try and find out how often they meet or what decisions they make make it can be quite a challenge.

The Local Government Management Agency (pictured above) hosts the CCMA's  web pages which state that the CCMA works "to ensure that the influence of Managers is brought to bear on the development and implementation of relevant policy." It goes to say that "CCMA represents its members on external committees, steering groups and organisations and develops evidence-based positions and makes submissions on relevant issues." That all sounds good and worthy, but it would be useful if the minutes of their meetings and any associated reports were made available to the public so that we know what is discussed. Greater transparency could improve the quality of the decisions that are made, and reduce legal challenges and appeals.

I served for over a decade on Dublin City Council as a councillor, and had the opportunity to watch Managers exercise their power and influence over major investment decisions on transport, waste, water and other issues. After the  Local Government (Dublin) Act 1993 was enacted, three new County Managers were appointed to the new counties of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal, and South Dublin. These Managers meet on a regular basis to discuss matters of common concern.  It stands to reason that these Managers have to liaise with each other and co-ordinate what they do, but the public interest would be better served if the minutes of these meetings were placed in the public domain. In theory the powers of the managers and those of the council are balanced, however the growing complexity of decision making means that many issues have been resolved before they are presented  to the Council. I sometimes got the feeling that the meetings before the council meeting were the ones that really counted

Occasionally the corporate view of the CCMA is visible when they make submissions that enter the public domain. Back in 2010 in a submission to the Department of the Environment they suggested that the burden of compliance with environmental regulation on Local Authorities was high, and that there should be a move towards self-compliance. Their submission also proposed that the EPA should scale back on monitoring licensed facilities where historic results have remained constant. You could argue that constant values should require a more detailed inspection procedure. Of course unnecessary red tape should be got rid of, but where do you draw the line?

 All too often when it comes to the big decisions that will affect the city for the next hundred years there appears to be an over-emphasis on solutions that favour large new-build engineering projects. The future to our water woes requires a large new pipe to the River Shannon; The waste problem demands a major incinerator; Sewage treatment can be solved with another huge wastewater treatment plant in Ringsend, and on it goes. Might this be put down to the managers meeting in conclave on a regular basis? I suspect it is. On many occasions I've found myself arguing for conservation measures, rainwater harvesting, recycling instead of new mega-projects, yet the City Manager insisted on the silver bullet of the major project that will solve all our ills. I suspect this is partially due to the heavy engineering and administrative background of many of these individuals. It may also be influenced by the outsourcing of many of these large decisions to consultancy firms that like to present the single large solution to the problem. An exception to this has been the move by the four Dublin Local Authorities to implement Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) for rainwater management in greater Dublin, but it is the exception, not the rule.

The problem in these uncertain times is that we can't quite predict the level of growth or demand that over the next five years, let alone the next twenty. This creates a challenge for decision-makers. It may mean that spending half a billion euro on building a pipe to the Shannon for Dublin's future water supplies is not be the most cost-effective solution. Perhaps we should be investing money in fixing more of the leaks that waste 36% of our water before it gets to the taps. Perhaps we ought to have considered alternatives to a single large incinerator in Ringsend where the EU has had to call a halt to a client management and public relations contract that has cost us €30m before the project has even been built. Who knows? Of course the lead-in time to these projects can be lengthy, and this is an added complication, but the public interest might best be served by asking people for their opinions and input at the earliest possible stage.  

Environmental Impact Assessment tries to ensure that the alternatives to any project are given a fair hearing, but from my experience the consideration of these alternatives is not explored in depth. In recent years there has been a significant shift towards involving citizens in decision-making at the initial stage of the process. The Aarhus Convention established this principle which has been implemented by various Directives from the European Union. I suspect that if the general public were more involved at the brain-storming stage of the process we would come to more sustainable and cost-effective solutions. 

In these uncertain times maybe we should be opting for smaller projects to solve some of the big questions that City and County Councils face. These can be then be scaled up, if required. However county managers seem to have a fondness for bringing the big project solution rather than the question to the council chamber.  City and county managers should be more open about what they discuss, and what proposals they are making on on our behalf when they meet. The CCMA Executive tells us that they lead on the key issues to be tackled – mainly “big picture” / high level issues. In fairness to them they did open a twitter account last April but it has only had nine tweets over the last eight months. That's a start, at least, but in the twenty-first century in the interests of transparency the details of their deliberations should be available to all. If we know what city and county managers are discussing when they meet we might have a more informed public debate and discussion at an earlier stage. Chances are it would lead to better decisions.

08 October, 2013

Incentivising construction? Be careful what you wish for

Looks like it might be back to the bad old days if the rumours about scrapping or reducing the 80pc rezoning tax introduced by the last Government is anything to go by.

If this does happen it’ll be back to the nods, winks, brown envelopes and the occasional headlock for any councillor  who plays the green card in the Council Chamber.

Removing this tax would be a betrayal of all the lessons learned about bad planning during the boom years. It would mean a return to the bad old days of land speculation and councillor-led rezoning. The rezoning tax as it is currently enacted in the NAMA legislation implemented the 1973 Kenny Report on Building Land. It would be foolish to dilute this legislation.

Rezoning contributed significantly to the pyramid scheme of land rezoning and inappropriate development that led to the collapse of Irish banks. The last thing we need is a return to the bad old days of boom-bust planning and development. This is in danger of occurring if the windfall tax introduced by the Green Party through the NAMA legislation is dropped. 

Tax incentives have been proposed for certain works to existing buildings in Limerick and Waterford City, and this scheme is awaiting EU approval. This proposal if implemented carefully could encourage employment in refurbishing older buildings. However  It would be crazy  if the  Government were to drop the land rezoning tax,  as this is the first defence against the inappropriate rezoning of greenfield lands.

Rezoning more land in Dublin or elsewhere does not make sense. Currently there’s 2,500 hectares of land zoned for housing in the four Dublin Counties. This could provide space for 130,000 housing units at fairly modest housing densities of fifty units per hectare. To put things in perspective, this would provide homes for a quarter of a million people. Anyone who suggests we need to encourage more rezoning is mad as a fish and needs a reality check. Sure, there’s a problem in getting banks to lend, but that’s a very different issue from proper planning.

Those houses? They're on the road out from Castlemaine to Dingle. If you squint you might see the tumbleweed. The trees have probably grown a bit since the last time I looked, but I haven't seen much sign life there.