Sunday 20 June 2010

Return to Commuterland

In 2003 FRANK McDONALD and KATHY SHERIDAN wrote an award-winning series of articles about the areas of Leinster colonised by commuters during the boom. Revisiting, they find that much has changed and that - despite all the haphazard planning and half-buit houses - many of those who moved now love their new home

Ghost estates, negative equity and soul-sapping commutes are the legacy of our planning-free property bubble. Cleaning up the zoning mess won't be easy, writes FRANK McDONALD , Environment Editor

The mantra of the boom years might well have been “Build it and they will come.” And for 10 years or more it worked. But the frenzy of construction was bound to come to an end, leaving Ireland littered with incongruous developments – as well as tens of thousands of vacant houses in ghost estates.

In 2003, when we first took a long look at the commuter counties, it was evident that much of this unplanned growth had been fuelled by Dubliners fleeing exorbitant property prices. Getting their hands on relatively affordable houses, even in places they had barely heard of, seemed worth the commute.

The trend of Dublin leapfrogging into Leinster and even, with Cavan and Monaghan, into Ulster ran counter to all planning policies, but this was simply ignored. The complacent view at the time was that the growth of Commuterland would tail off when the houses “out there” lost their value, which they now have.

It was in many ways a plan-free zone. Sure, there were plans aplenty – at local, county, regional and national level. But none of them really meant anything, as council after council indulged in an orgy of rezoning so that landowners could cash in on development values and every county in Leinster and beyond could grab a share of Dublin’s growth.

Local area plans intended to provide orderly frameworks for development were often subverted by councillors and used as vehicles to satisfy the greed of farmers, speculators and developers. And regional planning guidelines that were meant to take a broader view turned out to be paper tigers that could safely be ignored locally.

In 2002 the independent Kildare councillor Tony McEvoy and Michael Smith, then chairman of An Taisce, sought a judicial review of the Meath county plan. The High Court upheld it despite evidence that it didn’t comply with the Greater Dublin strategic planning guidelines and that rezoning decisions were influenced by lobbying from landowners. This ruling by Mr Justice John Quirke exposed the guidelines as meaningless: all the councillors needed to do was to “have regard to” them, which could involve merely giving the document a sideways glance. There was no legal requirement on councillors in Meath, or anywhere else, to comply with regional planning guidelines.

The High Court decision opened the floodgates, with councillors rezoning land to beat the band – more often than not against all planning advice. Field after field on the edge of a town or village was turned into gold, and not a finger was lifted by successive ministers for the environment until Dick Roche quashed the Laois county plan in 2006.

Four years earlier Martin Cullen had declined to use the 2000 Planning Act to rein in councillors in Gorey after they zoned enough land for development to cater for up to 10 times its population.

Asked by The Irish Times in 2003 if this was not in complete defiance of public policy, Cullen said: “Yes it is, in the very narrow purist sense. But it’s not in the context of catering for what has happened in Ireland in the last few years. This massive bubble of young people came through, and where the hell were we going to put them?”

They were “making choices” to live “down the country a bit” and commute to Dublin. “The gamble is that as we develop further on, this will change.”

Of course, it didn’t change. A whole new Commuterland opened up, in some cases encouraged by tax incentives; much of the housing explosion in Longford, for example, happened because the whole county was covered by former finance minister Charlie McCreevy’s misguided Upper Shannon Rural Renewal Scheme.

“The real villain was McCreevy’s decision to go with it, giving strong incentives for investors,” one senior planner said. “All the damage is the result of that. An interdepartmental group was put together to look at the impacts of the scheme, just two years after it was introduced in 1999, and recommended that it should be stopped.”

Its unforeseen consequences were noted by Carl O’Brien of The Irish Times in December 2008 when he visited Battery Court, “Longford’s most prestigious address”, and found about half of the 100 or so houses built and work on the rest abandoned. With no signs of life, it was “eerily quiet, almost like a post-apocalyptic scene from a science-fiction movie”.

There are scenes like this almost everywhere now, as property prices collapse – particularly in Commuterland – and developers go bust, with their unsustainable bank loans going into Nama. Empty houses, shops, retail parks and shopping centres are all grim evidence of how the boom was so grotesquely mismanaged. Few brakes were applied. In some cases the Department of the Environment withheld funding for water and sewerage schemes where land was zoned against planning advice. In others An Bord Pleanála simply refused planning permission where the zoning went against sustainable development.

But these were exceptions in a rip-roaring era that left us with thousands of hectares of zoned land that’s not developed. In Commuterland Laois is tops, with 1,678 hectares, followed by Meath (1,652), Wexford (1,382), Cavan (1,161), Kildare (1,147), Offaly (1,044), Westmeath (977), Louth (948), Longford (910), Wicklow (714) and Carlow (408). “Meath has six or seven times what it needs,” one planning source said. “But it’s a much deeper problem in the BMW [Border, Midlands and West] region, particularly in Longford, Roscommon, Leitrim and Sligo.”

The Department of the Environment is surveying every county, trying to “profile the status” of unfinished estates in terms of the number of houses completed, still vacant or at various stages of construction before the builders walked away. Based on this, the department will formulate a policy response. It is also planning a manual for local authorities on how to deal with unfinished estates.

“This relates very much to Nama, because it will be the owner of a lot of these properties,” the source said. “Its main function is to get the best value for taxpayers, but it will have to make choices. If it finds that there are 100 houses approved, of which only 20 are occupied, 40 vacant and the rest unfinished, including roads, public-safety problems arise. If Nama wants to extract a saleable asset out of that, it will have to resolve issues with the local authority and may have to abandon those parts of an estate that are no longer viable.”

A great deal of putative development land will have to be dezoned, whatever about the distress this causes to its owners and their bankers. This process has already got under way in Co Kerry, where councillors have started to unravel decisions that led to 2,529 hectares of land being zoned – enough to house six times its population. Nationally, for the foreseeable future, planning policy will seek to consolidate Dublin and other cities.

“In the Dublin area, where the ‘completed but not sold’ overhang would meet less than a year’s demand, we’ll be prioritising Adamstown and Clonburris, where the State has put in €500 million in public investment,” the source said. “We have to make sure that we corral whatever emerges from the ashes into locations like that.”

The new Planning Bill should help, given its emphasis on the need for councils to demonstrate that their development plans comply with regional planning guidelines, the National Spatial Strategy and sustainable-development principles. Given that new guidelines are due to be finalised later this year, it is seen as essential that the Planning Bill is enacted before the Dáil breaks for its long summer recess. Only then would county managers and planning officials be able to say that inappropriate zoning proposals can’t be adopted – because now they’re against the law.

Against the odds, the blow-ins bed down

Rather than returning to the city, many of those who lived in the commuter belt in 2003 have been joined by their extended families, writes KATHY SHERIDAN

The sky did not fall in. The commuter towns we explored seven years ago did not explode and die. Blue-jerseyed Dubs failed to storm the capital after a second nuclear winter in Rochfortbridge.

It failed to happen because the view that miserable first-time buyers were being forced from their sophisticated native city into injun territory was always too simplistic. There was nothing homogenous about them, for a start. Sure, some talked gleefully of selling up in Drimnagh, Clondalkin or Walkinstown for fabulous money, getting a house twice the size for buttons 75km down the road and lashing the remainder on a good car.

But privately, in countless cases, there were deeper motives, never articulated for fear of upsetting good former neighbours: worries about children being enmeshed in antisocial gangs, a woman too frightened to walk to the shops, an inner-city school so deprived even teachers were bailing out.

Many of those who landed in Ratoath, then the fastest-growing commuter centre in Leinster, were ready-formed families trading up. Rochfortbridge was alive with Dubs in love with their spacious houses, big gardens, safe neighbourhoods and good local schools.

In Carlow and Gorey middle- class couples who missed Dublin’s variety and cosmopolitanism firmly believed they were giving their children a “country” ethos and freedom to roam.

The vast majority of those we interviewed in 2003 are still there. A cynic might suggest that of course they are; who can sell a house in Rochfortbridge or Carlow now? But how to explain, then, the startling number of parents and siblings who joined those pioneers? Or the offspring who failed to flee to Dublin as soon as they came of age? A couple who fled north Dublin eight years ago now have parents, siblings and offspring – 21 in total – living all around them in Rochfortbridge.

Some are mortgage-free, which suggests free choice. The teenage daughter of a Walkinstown family, who hadn’t quite taken to it when we talked seven years ago, has since married another Dub blow-in and settled in a house only metres from her parents’ home. Her brother has also bought in.

There were casualties, of course. The man who despaired that “in Dublin, house prices are unaffordable, but here is inaccessible” abandoned Gorey a year later for a dormitory town nearer Dublin. The exhausted cries of the baby being hauled out of bed at dawn to be loaded into the car were finally intolerable, and the long-promised commuter train and bypass were nowhere in sight. There was the inner-city girl, now 20, who moved to Carlow at 12 but couldn’t be kept out of Dublin. “She’s just a city kid,” sighs her mother now, as the daughter kicks up her heels in London.

Seven years ago, for an outsider, it was sometimes hard to see an upside. Freedom to roam was not the first phrase that came to mind in the little village of Ratoath, with its rampaging development, negligible amenities, lack of footpaths, poor lighting and thunderous traffic. Neither Rochfortbridge nor Portlaoise had a playground. The lack of a commuter train in exploding Gorey was inexplicable. Water and sewerage capacity was inadequate even at that stage. And for all the talk of great “country” schools, it was clear that no one on high was doing the sums.

In 2010 water supply remains a talking point in Rochfortbridge, where it arrives unreliably, through asbestos piping, and the town still awaits its playground. Ironically, the delay in upgrading sewerage capacity saved places such as Gorey and Rochfortbridge from further developer madness.

AGAINST ALL THE odds, these places have come a long way. Most have magnificent new arts and community centres, fine new schools and booming sports clubs. Transport links have improved hugely. In seven years Ratoath has created an entire new infrastructure.

If there are heroes in this story, they are the community activists, boards of management, parish priests and even some councillors and officials who consulted, raised funds, compiled reports, attended meetings and relentlessly badgered those in authority to live up to their responsibilities.

John Scott, a Glaswegian project engineer who arrived in Ratoath 10 years ago with his wife and two young children, remains astonished at the amount of lobbying required to get a basic essential, such as a school. “The Government tries to delegate responsibility but not authority,” he says.

By contrast, the number of creches, thin on the ground seven years ago, has reached saturation point, says Sonya Duggan of the Kilminchy creche in Portlaoise, and there is no longer a level playing pitch between trained professionals and home-based child-carers. Numbers of children in creches are falling because of job losses and couples finding their own way through the thorny thicket of work-life balance.

In 2003 this was a major source of angst, but even then surveys showed that families with two full-time working parents were not as common as was generally believed. Rochfortbridge and Rathoath had as many stay-at-home mothers as commuters, and quite a few had landed local jobs with child-friendly hours. Nonetheless, many mothers were marooned at home with largely absent fathers.

In Rochfortbridge, at Niamh Gallagher’s Little Rascals creche, the number of children in her charge full time has fallen dramatically since 2003; just five out of 60 now, and in general they arrive later. Sonya Duggan reckons that her full-time numbers are down by half. Many are in for three days a week – “a combination of fathers losing their jobs and parents working out a better work-life balance”.

The difference now is that many fathers are striving for that balance. Some have increased their days working from home as technology improves and managers learn to trust remote workers. Conor McAllister, who lives in Ratoath but runs the Grafton Barber on Grafton Street in Dublin, uses CCTV to monitor the business from home.

Commuting frustrations have also eased. Through the boom years the crisis points were predictable, says Dr Gerald White, a Portlaoise GP, recalling how “the wheels came off” for many commuting parents when someone fell ill. “The exhaustion factor kicked in, and they would come looking for a physical cause.” With the arrival of better roads and public transport, he is seeing a distinct improvement. “Most would tell you the road journey is much simpler. The train service is much improved . . . but now, of course, there are new and different worries. One or both are losing jobs. There’s a lot more pressure.”

Fr Gerry Stuart, Ratoath’s parish priest, who is seeing the new primary schools finally swimming into focus, likes to think that the recession is “a way for the soul to catch up with the body”. It’s as good an analogy as any for what happened to the commuter counties in boom-town Ireland.

Irish Times

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