Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Chaos at the Crossroads

Read this up to Xmas. Here's a review:

Despite the rhetoric of some politicians, most of the Celtic Tiger prosperity derived from external factors such as a sustained US boom, advantageous exchange rates, low energy prices and EU transfers. However, a select group of politicians and public servants, including Alan Dukes with his Tallaght Strategy, the IDA, and those who championed a low-tax environment, deserve credit for creating the conditions under which we could take advantage of those factors. Reading Frank McDonald's books and Irish Times articles, one might believe that such principled public servants are the exception. McDonald has been compared to the American political commentator and documentary director Michael Moore. Moore wages a dramatic crusade against alleged corruption in the Republican Party. Meanwhile, McDonald has vociferously highlighted the flaws in Irish policy regarding planning, development and the environment. Like Moore, some see him as extreme. However, he has provided a necessary counterbalance to the development lobby and, most importantly, he has made us think about what we are doing to our environment.

In writing Chaos at the Crossroads, McDonald is joined by James Nix, who provides ballast in terms of the scope of the book. Together they take the cause to a new level with a 400-page blistering attack on what they describe as the "sloppy thinking, political chicanery, bureaucratic incompetence and pandering to vested interests" that comprises the Irish approach to planning and development. The purpose is a call to arms for outraged readers.

The book opens by accusing the Government of misinterpreting sustainable development as "development that has to be sustained". Certainly there is some justification in this criticism as there appears to be an unhealthy obsession with sustaining high rates of economic growth as measured by overall productivity rather than focusing on productivity per person and maintaining full employment. Ultimately, economic growth is only desirable if it enhances well-being. It is not an end in itself. The central thesis of the authors is that irresponsible planning and development decision-making has resulted in economic growth producing unnecessary negative consequences for quality of life. They endeavour to show this by examining urban sprawl, the proliferation of rural (particularly urban-generated) housing, poor performance in reducing greenhouse gases and bungled transport plans.

Through a series of anecdotes about dodgy decisions combined with plenty of illustrative photographs, McDonald and Nix capture much of the drama surrounding the heated debate that has been a feature of planning and development in recent years. The authors' "bad guys" include Martin Cullen (their "Minister for No Environment"), Bertie Ahern (photographed taking donations in the tent at the Galway races), Charlie McCreevy (and his daft decentralisation policy), the Irish Rural Dwellers' Association, and a selection of councillors. Their "good guys" include Ian Lumley, Michael Smith, An Taisce, Ed Walsh, the Greens and a selection of notables lamenting the destruction of the Irish landscape including Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jeremy Irons, Roy Foster and Neil Jordan. Throw in the odd damsel in distress who, due to mismanaged planning by the "bad guys", has to get up at 5am in Portlaoise to drive to Dublin to work, dropping off the kids on the way, and you have an entertaining, albeit depressing, planning drama.

The authors quite rightly focus on policies being based on little or no evidence. "Back of the envelope" opportunist policy-making is illustrated by a critique of Charlie McCreevy's decentralisation plan and by the flimsy detail in "Transport 21". Pandering to vested interests is demonstrated by, among other examples, the plan for the expansion of Dublin airport which puts the interests of the unions ahead of those of the travelling public.

The book concentrates on demonstrating the negative effects of poor decision-making and parish-pump politics caused by multi-seat constituencies which lead to national politicians being obsessed with local issues when they should actually be governing in the best interests of the nation. In addition to the "chaos" predicted by McDonald and Nix, this will ultimately damage the national economy.

The tendency to see environment and economy as being in competition rather than mutually reinforcing also remains a problem as exemplified by the Government's mistaken view that a carbon tax must hurt competitiveness. The decision to shelve such a tax draws just criticism from the authors.

The opponents of McDonald and Nix will complain the book is excessively negative - explicit solutions are contained in the last 35 pages of the 400-page volume. The authors are quick to highlight negative planning decisions but give less emphasis to where the system has been shown to work, through appeals to An Bord Pleanála, for example. It would also be interesting to read their views on areas of dispute within environmentalism such as intensifying housing in wealthy suburbs and differing opinions on incineration.

Nevertheless, this catalogue of poor, and in several cases highly suspect, decision-making will be of interest to both friends and foes of the authors. If you are the former, the book will provide plenty of material to back up your opinions and make you more passionate about the cause. For the latter, the book presents a series of propositions, opinions and some evidence that will be infuriating but hard to refute.

Given the importance of good planning for our future wellbeing, this book is required reading for all.

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