26 October, 2010

Planning for Communities

Well, we now have the numbers.

There are 33,000 vacant units across the State, according to the National Housing Development Survey and an additional 10,000 units under construction.

It’s not much consolation to families living in unfinished estates, but I had thought the figure would be higher.

At the height of the boom we were building 90,000 units per year, and last year the figures were around 25,000.Even at this lower output figure the amount of vacancy is less than two years supply.

I suspect the housing units close to our main towns and cities will be occupied sooner than other developments. Just last week in Booterstown in Dún Laoghaire empty apartments were being snapped up at bargain prices, albeit at a massive discount. The units furthest away from where the new jobs are will be the more difficult to sell. Certainly the blanket use of tax designations in entire counties was flawed. It was naive at best to assume that property based tax incentives could lift all boats in economically depressed areas.

Someone suggested at last week’s Irish Planning Institute Conference that we had seen the end of apartment building and a return to the semi-detached house. I doubt it. I think what we will see is an end to the badly-designed slapped-up so-called ‘luxury developments’ surrounded by a sea of car parking in a field that was owned by someone who knew someone three miles down the road. That can only be a good thing. The new planning laws promote well-designed buildings in the appropriate location. We’ll see more mixed-use developments; terraced housing, and well-insulated homes closer to shops, schools and the workplace. That can only be a good thing.

Many of the empty housing units will eventually come under the control of the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA), and the survey information will be of benefit to the NAMA as well as to Planning Authorities. We’re putting in place a Housing Expert Group chaired by John O’Connor of the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency. Their first job is to approve a Manual prepared by planning and housing experts in the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government within the next few weeks that will assist agencies in managing the legacy of unfinished and empty housing units.

We need to be careful not to see empty housing units as a neat solution to local authority housing waiting lists. Many of these developments weren't designed with the needs of vulnerable housing clients in mind. Hopefully the lessons of 'sink' estates have been well and truly learnt by now. I had a good meeting with Fr. Pat Coogan from Respond a few weeks ago. I asked him what would he do if a hundred empty homes became available. He said he'd take twenty houses and use two of them to provide communal facilities and use the other eighteen as social housing. He'd then sell the other eighty to homesteaders who might purchase the homes for a knock-down price and put down roots in the community. Both groups of residents would support each other. I thought it was a valid proposal, and I'm sure will figure in the discussions that the NAMA and other agencies have over the coming months.

Currently there are strong powers available to the Health and Safety Authority to take action on sites that are still under construction. In addition Councils have powers under the Derelict Sites Act, the Dangerous Buildings Act and Litter legislation. Also, under the 2010 Planning Act we’ve given Councils and residents additional powers to “take in charge” parts of unfinished development. We’ll also be clarifying the powers available to Planning Authorities to use bonds or securities to ensure that works are finished off in housing areas.

If you’re living in an unfinished development chances are you’ve already looked at the plans in the Council offices and compared them to the reality of what’s been built. It’s important to itemise the problems and discuss them with the solicitor who handled the sale. They can advise you on what action to take. The primary responsibility for completion of a development lies with the developer, but if they’re not responding, you should take the issue up with the Council directly. The Manual that is being finalised by the Expert Group will assist Councils in using their legal powers to improve unfinished developments. Over the next few months Council’s around the country will be required to prepare Site Resolution Plans for all unfinished developments in consultation with the Expert Group, the developers, residents and other key stakeholders.

Other Government Departments can use this detailed survey to help them with their work. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation and the IDA can use the data to show prospective employers where there is ready availability of housing . Other Departments such as Education, and Arts, Sports and Tourism may find the information useful in thinking ahead. Some of the dwellings may well find a future as holiday homes. Others may become student accommodation.

From the Green Party’s perspective much of our work has involved reforming the planning system to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. Over the last year we’ve put in place a “refreshed” National Spatial Strategy, new Regional Planning Guidelines and a new Planning Act. We’ve also put measures in place to protect habitats and water supplies. In addition we’ve witnessed a halt to decentralisation, and a windfall tax on land that is rezoned. The recession has given us an unprecedented opportunity to learn from past mistakes and put in place policies that concentrate the right kind of development in the right locations.

An 80% windfall tax on “up-zoned” land which forms part of the NAMA legislation, dramatically reduces the incentive from land-owners to seek the rezoning of their land. This is as close as we’ve been able to get to the implementation of the 1973 Kenny Report without a constitutional referendum.

Joined-up planning policies have also been a focus of the reforms. Minister Gormley and I have put in place closer links between the National Development Plan and the National Spatial Strategy; Regional Planning Guidelines at the inter-county level , and City and County Development Plans and Local Area Plans at a local level. That may not sound ground-breaking, but if you saw some Local Area Plans you might be scratching your head wondering at to how they reflect national policies.
Most of the provisions of the Planning Act 2010 passed into law a couple of weeks ago. The new law puts an onus on Councils to review their plans within a two year period and ensure that the plan has an evidence-based core strategy. This will lead to a change from the laissez-faire plans of the past which failed to deliver on their stated goals.

Of course there’s also a process of education needed to up-skill elected representatives and officials. The Irish Planning Institute ran a well-attended seminar last week, and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has plans for regional information sessions around the country over the months ahead. In the UK the Royal Town Planning Institute runs a school for councillors back-to-back with their professional conference and I’m hoping to do something similar here.

The Scottish educationalist Patrick Geddes summed it up many years ago in three words – “Survey, analysis, plan”. For far too long we built without connecting these three essential elements.

Now is the time to get things right.

22 October, 2010

Taking the Luas to Bride's Glen and beyond

It was a good day, and there’s not too many of them around at the moment.

The Luas extension from Sandyford to Cherrywood was opening. I was saying a few words wearing my hat as Minister of State with responsibility for Smarter Travel and I took the opportunity to reflect as well as look forward.

Back in the 1980s decision makers seemed to feel that new roads could overcome any transportation problem. It was a mad time. In Dublin City, Dublin Corporation (renamed Dublin City Council in the late 1990s) was buying up old buildings left right and centre, knocking them and building roads. Thriving pubs, shops and homes were acquired, de-tenanted and then demolished. I was a student architect back then in UCD and we campaigned against these crazy policies. Meanwhile, in contrast to Dublin, cities elsewhere in Europe were building new tram systems and protecting older neighbourhoods. Cities like Grenoble and Nantes in France had put in place new light rail systems and they were working well. A friend of mine Jerome O’Drisceoil made up button badges with the simple slogan “Trams not Jams” and we gradually made our voices heard. The late Simon Perry in Trinity College exposed the folly of new road building in urban areas, and was an eloquent voice calling for rail investment. Finally the then Government commissioned the Dublin Transportation Initiative Study that led to a study advocating the construction of three light rail lines in Dublin. Two were built and we’re now proposing a Metro and Dart inter-connector that will provide further North-South and East-West links for the Capital.

The Luas Green Line which runs from Stephen’s Green in the City Centre South to Sandyford doubled in length last week. It now runs as far as Cherrywood in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. Around 26,000 additional residents live within one kilometre of the new stretch of line. Although some of the line runs through open countryside, most of the land is scheduled for development. At Cherrywood a Strategic Development Zone has been approved by Government under the 2000 Planning Act, and this allows for the fast-tracking of new development. Unlike the development of much of West Dublin where the housing was put in before the public transport, here we’ve put in place a high quality public transport link before many of the new communities are built. I pointed out in my speech at the opening that this was one of the rare examples in Irish planning where we’ve actually put the horse before the cart rather than the other way around. There was criticism at the opening at the lack of Park and Ride facilities being ready, but a large parking facility is due to open early next year at Carrickmines. There’s also a car park planned at Cherrywood, but it has been delayed due to the NAMA taking over loans relating to certain properties there. The lands at Cherrywood are scheduled for development as a new town in future years, so we have to be careful that we don’t take over key sites there on a permanent basis for surface car parking. The Bus/ Luas connections aren’t as good as I would like, and maybe there’s a role for the National Transport Authority to review this and suggest changes. However the 63 bus route now links up with the Luas which should work well. There’s also a role for the Council and the other agencies to improve walking and cycling access to the stops, as well putting in place some decent signage pointing out where the stops are.

The opening of this Luas extension was a good day for Smarter Travel, and for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. The extension came in at €293 million, under the €324 million approved budget. The project has created and is sustaining ‘Green Collar” jobs at every skill level from cleaners to line managers. A journey on the Luas requires one tenth the energy of a car, and that all helps tackle climate change.

Looking ahead, I’m working on the next step of extending the line as far as Shankill and Bray. Bride’s Glen is the last stop on the line, and Loughlinstown Hospital lies just across the old stone rail viaduct that spans the Shanganagh River that runs through the glen after which the stop is named. The alignment of the old Harcourt Street Railway line is still there, and although one or two buildings were allowed to straddle the line it would be comparatively easy to acquire the lands and put the line back in place. Ideally the Metro Project would eventually run between Swords and Bray, creating a backbone along which the city could develop over the next hundred years. I finished up my few words at the opening by quoting from Daniel Burnham –the American planner who produced the Chicago Plan in the nineteenth century. He stated:

“Make no little plans, they have no courage to stir men’s blood and probably will not be realised. Aim high in life and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram, once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.

Remember that our sons and grandsons will do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty, think big.”

If you remove Burham’s gender bias, I think you’ve a decent enough quote that can guide the proposals for the Metro and the Dart Interconnector . In tandem with the right planning and development decisions they have the capacity to change the face of Dublin for the better over the next hundred years.

15 October, 2010

Consensus and all that

It was what you might call an ecumenical gathering.

Olivia Mitchell TD from Fine Gael; Owen Keegan the County Manager, Cllr. Lettie McCarthy from Labour, current Cathaoirleach of the Council and myself. We were outside County Hall for the launch of the Bluelinebus proposal - an issue which we all support. More of that later.

Achieving consensus on local issues is a lot easier that it is on tackling the economic challenges that we face on the national stage. As you might imagine, after twenty-eight years in the Greens I've seen plenty of arguments, discussions, rows, and disagreements. However if consensus can be achieved, then we're a step further on in tacking the challenges that face the Irish Economy.

I was taken aback by Eamon Gilmore's interview in the Herald the other evening. He seems to feel he can solve the budget deficit without any impact on the middle classes. I'm glad to see that he came out in favour of charging for water, and advocated a third tax rate on incomes over €100,000 per year. However apart from those two measures, and a proposal for a higher charge on 'trophy' holiday homes he doesn't appear to have provided enough measures to tackle the crisis. Lets face it, 80% of budget expenditure goes on health, social welfare and education. An increase in tax rates simply won't be a sufficient measure to bridge the gap. Reducing the budget gap by more than €3 billion this year will be difficult to achieve, will impact on everyone and will involve tough taxation and budget choices. Changing the tax system must form part of the equation, and as David Cameron showed us across the water last week the law of unintended consequences can kick in very quickly. What sounded like a reasonable proposal to target children’s allowances on those who need them most came across as an attack on stay at home parents.

I don't envy Brian Lenihan and his cabinet colleagues the task that they have over the weeks and months ahead, but at least there seems to be greater understanding of the grave challenges that we face. He did point out in New York a few days ago that 'half of income earners pay no income tax'. I'd be interested in seeing how many of those are part-time workers. Meanwhile Prof. Brian Nolan from UCD has stressed the progressive nature of the income levy at an ESRI Conference. Hopefully consensus can be found when the Opposition responds to the Taoiseach’s invitation to talks on the four year plan in the coming days.

In the midst of the seismic events on the national stage there's also a lot going on in and around Dún Laoghaire.

The changes in the 4/4A, 63 and 46A bus routes are being implemented. This has involved straightening out bus routes, clock-face timetabling, and a roll-out of bus stop timetables that inform you when the bus will leave the stop that you're waiting out, rather than the depot. The Real Time Passenger Information displays are being installed and should be online later this year or early in the new year. I'm working with the National Transport Authority (NTA) to ensure that the information is made freely available so that budding software developers can produce their own apps for this information. The change come at a time when we've less money available for current spending on both roads and public transport. There are benefits from more direct 'straightened-out' bus routes with reduced journey times. The 63 now has a half hourly service along some of the old 46A route and connects up to the Luas. One other element of the equation is a panel in the drivers cab that advises him or her to speed up or slow down to keep on schedule. This should dramatically reduce bus bunching, and the tendency for 46As to travel in packs. I’m working with Dublin Bus to make sure that the service improvements match what has been promised.

I wrote to the County Manager a few months ago about the Sutton to Sandycove Project (S2S) for a cycleway around Dublin Bay. I'm glad to say that he has now produced detailed draft plans for a contra-flow bike lane at Blackrock along Newtown Avenue.This involves a fair amount of rearranging parking and double yellow lines, but if it goes ahead it'll be of huge benefit to those of us who cycle in and out of town along the coast. The Transport Committee had a look at it recently and appear to have deferred implementation, but I'm hoping that the councillors will give it the green light in the not-too distant future. It'd be a good start for the ambitious S2S proposal.

The 'Blueline' is a proposal for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposal that would link up the DART at Sydney Parade with the Luas at Sandyford. It was launched recently by the County Council. For most of its route it would use lands formally reserved for the madcap Eastern Bypass motorway proposal, and as long as its not a Trojan Horse for the Eastern Bypass I'll be giving it my support. It would link up St. Vincents Hospital, RTÉ, UCD and Sandyford Industrial Estate and comes with a price-tag of around €30 million. I'll be encouraging the NTA to include it in their plans.

On the Dún Laoghaire side of things I met with Gerry Dunne, CEO of the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company recently. While we still have our disagreements over the unauthorised demolition of the buildings on the Carlisle Pier, I'm pleased to say that he's optimistic about attracting cruise liners into Dún Laoghaire Harbour. Walking down the gangway and straight into the town of Dún Laoghaire seems to me to be alternative to being bussed out of Dublin Port. They've already produced a good brochure to support the project and have joined up with other Ports that attract Cruise traffic to promote the proposal. I'm hopeful that this comes to fruition soon.

I also met Elaine Carroll the new 'Brand Manager' for Dún Laoghaire a few days ago. Her work is part of an INTERREG project that links Athy in Kildare with Dún Laoghaire with Holyhead and Ryhyl in Wales. She's hoping that the outputs might include a book and shopping guide to the town of Dún Laoghaire as well as a dedicated website. This could learn from the good work over on MaryleBone in London ? She also will be interviewing hundreds of people around Dún Laoghaire on their thoughts on the town's future development. This is similar to the work I'm doing with the "Vision for Dún Laoghaire" initiative where we're asking people what they like about Dún Laoghaire and what they feel would add to the town.

The Dún Laoghaire Baths are also back on the agenda . The Council has prepared a €20 million plan for a new swimming pool. Being realistic, it'll be hard to find that money in the current climate. I'd be happy in the meantime if the Council went ahead with a modest plan to carry out some simple works and open the baths in the summer months for the next few years. A lower cost affordable plan would at least allow people to experience what the Baths could be like during the Summer months, rather than waiting a for a large chunk of money to appear for the Council's plans.Of course I'd love to see an all year round pool heated by solar panels, seaweed baths, a kids pool and a cafe, and I had a good meeting with Voya who have a fantastic operation in Sligo, but lets get the first steps right.

The Luas extension to Cherrywood opens on 16th October. I'm looking forward to being on one of the first trams out of Sandyford. Hopefully we can extend the line on to Bray along the old Harcourt Street railway alignment in the not too distant future.

04 October, 2010

Tough choices, difficult times

"Fighting for the last seat"

I was speaking to Brian Dowling from RTE, and he was interviewing me on the seafront in Dún Laoghaire, just beside the railway station. I had suggested the location to him, completely forgetting about the roadworks that were in full swing, so I had to try and compress it all into fifteen seconds, in between bursts from the jack-hammer.

"Look, the thing to remember about Dún Laoghaire is that it's unpredictable. The electorate looks carefully at the candidates in each election. I got the fifth seat in the last two elections and it's now been reduced to a four-seater, so I'll be fighting for the last seat.

"If people want a strong voice for proper planning, a commitment to improving bus and rail services and a focus on green jobs, then they'll vote for me."

I've a sneaking suspicion that he'll get get five separate but similar sound-bites from the five sitting TDs. He'll probably splice them all together into a 'fighting for the last seat' medley.

These are difficult and unprecedented times. It is tough being in Government at the best of times, let alone in the middle of a deep recession, but any government both then and now has these difficult choices. I remember in June 2007, asking myself do we go into Government now, knowing that the economic storm clouds were gathering above the Celtic Tiger, or wait? Despite the recession, I still feel it was right to enter Government at that crucial time.

Was the bank Guarantee the right decision, and should we have nationalised Anglo-Irish Bank? Well, we'll never know precisely what would have happened had we chosen a different route. However it seems to me, with two years of hindsight, that any alternative was more fraught with danger, and could have led to a domino style collapse of our banking system. At this stage we've provided the kind of response that many commentators advised was necessary, yet we're still waiting for the full benefits to show in market sentiment. At a time when we're borrowing substantial amounts for capital, and for current spending, it's crucial that we have international support for the action that we're taking.

What is the alternative? Labour seem to be floating the idea of borrowing even larger amounts to act as a stimulus for our economy. That seems like the actions of a gambler, betting the betting borrowed money on red, and hoping to win. I feel green jobs have a better future than red jobs, and that greater state efficiency, rather than more state control is the answer. Still, I was pleased to hear Eamon Gilmore talking up energy retro-fitting recently. I'm delighted that he's now advocating something the Green Party has been doing in Government for years. Still, I'm not sure though about his plans to scoop money out of the National Pension Reserve Fund for that purpose. I believe we have to think very carefully about how we invest money that has been put aside for future pensions. He also seems unsure about whether to proceed with the Dublin Metro, causing his colleague Tommy Broughan some sleepless nights.

It was curious to see "Joe the concrete mixer driver" being hailed in some quarters as a hero recently. It turned out that Joe's a developer, and has some issues around not playing local authority levies on dozens of unfinished houses. Part of the problems arising from the boom is that we allowed the construction sector to bubble out of control, aided and abetted by tax incentives and laissez-faire planning policies. Well, the 2010 Planning Act came into force last week, and this will help ensure that development is concentrated in the right locations. There's also an 80% betterment tax on rezoned land, in effect the enactment of the 1973 Kenny Report. It is satisfying to have discussed what needed to done when we were in opposition, and get a chance to implement these reforms in Government. Meanwhile we're giving advice on Ghost Estates to local authorities, and we’re focusing on practical steps that can be taken to provide decent facilities to existing residents, and ensure that health and safety concerns are addressed. There's lots of imaginative ideas for the future use of unfinished or vacant housing units, and we're working with Councils to promote their best use.

I'm writing this on the train to Westport, where I'm due to address the Institute of Architects this evening. Architects have been hard hit by the recession, with over 40% made redundant over the last few years, and many more struggling. The Conference theme is "The Architecture of Recovery - a Twenty-Twenty Vision for Ireland", and I'll be discussing how the Government Policy on Architecture as well as the National Spatial Strategy and the 2010 Planning Act can contribute to green jobs in construction. An emphasis on the quality rather than the quantity of building will provide more sustainable employment in design and building. Quality design is worth promoting, and I was pleased to attend the launch of Dublin's bid to be World Design Capital last week. I hope it succeeds. Meanwhile if you're interested a look through the door of any number of great buildings designed by architects in Dún Laoghaire, Galway or Dublin next weekend 7th-10th October 2010 check out Open House over at the Irish Architecture Foundation website, and they all have free admission.