Wednesday 29 November 2006

Spatial plan a load of nonsense

David McWilliams tells us planners what he thinks of the National Spatial Strategy:

Apparently, we have a National Spatial Strategy.

It was published some time last year, or maybe it was the year before. It was full of hubs, corridors and gateways. It said something about more balanced development, more decentralising of jobs and generally less congestion, commuting and snarl.

Like a national school project, a lovely map of the country was unveiled with lots of straight blue and red lines. It alluded to fancy-sounding things like radial corridors and seemed very progressive at the time. Economic activity, research and employment were to be spread more or less evenly around the country. Most crucially, this would take pressure off house prices in the Dublin area.

No expense was spared on the PR exercise to unveil it and the later plan for decentralisation of civil servants.

Unfortunately, just like the Luas, the National Spatial Strategy and plan for decentralisation did not join up.

Towns which were supposed to become hubs and gateways and, as such, were earmarked for jobs and development, didn’t get earmarked for civil servants. Other towns seemed to be getting government departments based on the precariousness of the local government politician’s electoral majority.

But who cared? Did anyone notice? For awhile, little else was talked about. The only problem was that it was all nonsense.

There has been little effort to plan the country and, even when there is planning, it is rarely implemented. Planning a growing economy is like clothing a growing teenager - you buy him expensive trainers and combats and, within six months, he has outgrown both.

Similarly, with a growing economy, roads that are adequate today are jammed within eight months. The capacity of some trains was increased last year, but they resemble the Calcutta Express already.

Towns that were villages in 2001 are now concrete jungles. So, even if there was an effective planning strategy, it needs to be modified, expanded and updated constantly.

But don’t worry about these hypothetical details, because the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing - our government says one thing and does precisely the opposite.

For example, last Thursday, the IDA- a central agent of government policy - unveiled plans to seek pre-planning permission for new high-tech businesses. The idea is that a tailor-made technology campus be put in place before investment decisions of large multinationals are made.

Having such ready-made sites available would obviously encourage investors to set up here. The IDA forecasts that 2,000 jobs will come to the campus in the next few years, which is great news. The only problem is that it is in west Dublin. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, west Dublin is the most congested, badly-planned place in the country.

Now, let’s go back to the great National Spatial Strategy. According to this plan, this type of development was to be relocated away from Dublin, allowing the city to breathe and, in turn, to re-energise parts of the west and south of the country.

But no - that’s only in dreamland. Back here in Ireland, PR takes precedence over planning.

So this little development will add to the swelling of Dublin. But just how dominant is Dublin?

To get an idea of its bloated pre-eminence, let’s take a trip to our maternity wards. There were more babies delivered in Dublin in 2004 than in the entire province of Munster - an area 20 times bigger.

There were three times more babies delivered in Dublin than in the entire province of Connacht.

But these babies are not born to city dwellers; they are largely the progeny of the commuter class - the ‘Kells Angels’.

The census reveals a crescent stretching from Drogheda to Arklow, where people are commuting more than one and a half hours a day. This large ‘baby belt’ is home to the most fertile counties in the land and is creating a dependency on Dublin that will be very hard to rebalance.

At the moment, Dublin’s truly overwhelming dominance means that commuting begins in the womb. The commuting foetus is uniquely Irish. In the same way as maternity books advise mothers to play classical music to their unborn children, the fact that expectant mothers from towns like Kells, Navan, Wicklow and Edenderry have to commute in the traffic to Dublin for scans and proper antenatal care, can be seen as perfect pre-birth training for life on the outside.

The newborn child will be able to tell his Mozart from his Bach, his hard shoulder from his roadworks, his unleaded from his diesel, his M50 from his N11, and his Abbeyleix jam from his Monasterevin bypass. A perfect traffic symphony for the traffic people - a sort of fanfare for the common commuter.

But who benefits from this haphazard development? The developers, for starters.

It has been said that Fianna Fail is the political wing of the construction industry, and a quick glance at the residents in the Fianna Fail tent at the Galway Races every year would suggest that this is not too far from the truth.

Is this closeness to the construction/land/property industry healthy? Obviously not, particularly as the housing market is overheated already. Think about the following statistic: we are building more houses per head than post-war Germany did when trying to rebuild itself from scratch.

Why are so many houses going up now?

Because they have to build as quickly as possible. Many developers who have bought sites at astronomical prices need to get the houses up immediately, just in case anything happens to the market. Nobody wants to be sitting on a huge land bank on the day it dawns on the Irish that we do not need all these extra houses.

A conspiracy theorist would suggest that the reason for the National Spatial Strategy in the first place was to copper-bottom the investments of well-placed developers who saw their land zoned into perpetuity. The reason it has not yet been implemented is because the same developers’ other land banks have not been fully developed yet.

When they are, the government will introduce the plan in earnest. But who believes conspiracy theorists? Surely not you, not here, not now?

One of the less obvious problems with developer-led rather than planner-led policy is that it is anti-economic in nature.

Much of economics is about scale: if a town or a region has scale or mass, it can become self-sufficient. It will be able to sustain itself.

Typically, on the continent, regions are aggregated together to create a sustainable community of larger and smaller towns. They market and advertise themselves as one. For example, in Belgium, the towns of Bruges, Ghent and Ostend marketed themselves as the region of west Flanders, with predictably positive economic results that broke the commuter link with Brussels.

If this were done in the midlands of Ireland, it could prevent the great sucking sound of the area being drawn into Dublin with the attendant commuting and overcrowding issues.

The problem for the midlands now is that it might already be too late. None of the five main towns has a population of more than 20,000 and, as this column has pointed out before, close to half the populations of Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar now commute to work.

Without scale, these towns will be unable to resist the gravitational pull of Dublin and decisions such as the IDA’s one last Thursday will make that more difficult.

Moving 10,000 civil servants won’t do much either. Think about it: more than 120,000 people will move jobs this year.

This puts the hullabaloo about moving a few thousand civil servants into context.

But what about Cork, Galway and Limerick? Well, it appears that the spatial strategy does not see these as being in any way linked. It has been suggested that a motorway arc linking these three substantial cities would be smart and, given the fact that they are the only three urban centres of any significance outside Dublin, this would seem the only way to redress the eastern pull of development.

But, of course, that might make too much sense and risk being seen as too revolutionary; and it might not suit the vested interests.

So we will just plod along, commuting in the sprawl where the new suburbs and older towns are unable to break the umbilical ties to Dublin - Ireland’s 21st century placenta.

David McWilliams’s book The Pope’s Children, published by Gill & Macmillan, is in shops now.


No comments: