Thursday 22 May 2008

State stands on the sidelines as private sector walks off with ball

Public- private partnerships allow the State to offload social responsibilities to the private sector but there can be no illusion as to who then calls the shots, writes Mary Corcoran

IN LATE 2005 the first residents moved into their new homes in Fatima Mansions, in Dublin's southwest inner city. An ambitious regeneration plan conceived in 2001 was finally coming to fruition.

Dublin City Council entered into a public-private partnership with a developer selected through a tendering process to demolish the existing blocks of flats and redevelop the 11-acre site abutting the Luas Red Line.

The first new residents received the keys to their new home from then taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who was on hand to launch the redevelopment. Ahern described the public-private partnership responsible for the redevelopment as "a pioneering flagship project for the housing sector". Indeed, he expressed his pleasure that the template for redevelopment undertaken at Fatima was being applied elsewhere in the city.

From the State's perspective, the major concerns of the Fatima regeneration project - the provision of high-quality public housing, the development of a sustainable community, and the creation of a socially cohesive neighbourhood - have long been identified as sociologically desirable.

But Fatima also represents part of a wider project attempting to create a new political economy of urban development. This is apparent in the proliferation of place marketing and place development, institutionally directed towards selected urban zones.

From a developer perspective, the regeneration of Fatima (and other similar projects) is fundamentally about turning a profit, and if that requires getting into bed with the State - through public-private partnership - then that is what they will do.

The local authorities have made themselves prominent players once more in the housing sector by promoting a public-private partnership agenda. Unlike in the past, however, the State's new role is one of limited liability. The State, or local authority, is not in the housing arena as an autonomous player but as an agent whose primary task it is to smooth the path for the private developer.

But as we have seen in the past few days, when the going gets tough, the developers get going, leaving the shattered dreams of disadvantaged communities in their wake.

The cost of poor planning was brought home to local authorities in the 1970s and 1980s with the breakdown of social order in many inner-city and suburban social housing estates. Attempts to engage in limited physical refurbishments were doomed to failure, and many of these estates entered a spiral of decline. Cosmetic solutions could not address their problems.

The local authority in Dublin began divesting itself of its housing responsibility by selling its housing stock to tenants, and by handing over troubled estates (or parts of them) to housing associations whose job it was to redevelop, manage and maintain them. It seemed as if the State had embarked on a gradual withdrawal from the housing arena.

By the turn of the century, the Fatima Mansions complex, and others like it, had come to be seen as unsustainable in their current form. The seemingly intractable problems associated with inner-city housing complexes required visionary and innovative solutions.

The re-emergence of the State as a prominent player in urban development must be seen against the backdrop of a number of key factors, including: the growing knowledge and awareness of how cities and neighbourhoods are managed in other European countries; the turn towards partnership at all institutional levels requiring a multi-player approach to problem-solving; the lure of public-private partnership as a means of delivering infrastructural projects in a timely fashion, and the impact of modernising management systems within the local authorities themselves.

This volte face on the part of the State must also be seen as a (somewhat belated) response to civil society protests about the failures of Irish urban planning and development. The conjunction of these factors with the rise of the Celtic Tiger economy, which was generating both resources and also new housing demands, made it possible for local authorities to begin to think outside of the box.

Against a national and international backdrop emphasising the importance of good planning in order to create sustainable communities, local authorities became more receptive to the idea of change. The principles of urban planning took on a new salience, as the failure of simple bricks-and-mortar solutions became apparent. Local authorities began to sign up to the idea that housing provision needs to be integrated with wider policies that address the social, economic, cultural and environmental aspects of everyday life.

The planning approach taken within Fatima reflects a new "sociological turn" in local authority policy. Having effectively abandoned Fatima Mansions and other similar estates in the closing decades of the 20th century, the State had finally come back in. In the case of Fatima, Dublin City Council assumed the driving instructor's seat (with the private sector in the driving seat) to guide the regeneration project. While the State has made the running on public-private partnership, crucially it is the private sector that will deliver (or not), and ultimately it is the private sector that will benefit from such redevelopment projects.

In Fatima, for example, the redevelopment is based on a public-private partnership, whereby in exchange for the land (owned by DCC) a private developer has built 396 private housing units, 70 affordable housing units and 150 social housing units. According to Michael Punch of UCD, public-private partnerships represent the hidden face of power, because they entail disposal of public-owned lands in the private interest, producing symbolic if not overt segregation. In effect the State, while coming back in as a housing player, has adopted an arm's-length or limited liability role in relation to urban redevelopment.

The Fatima regeneration project has been widely promoted as an example of how government can work in the interests of its citizens. The template produced in Fatima gave hope to other disadvantaged communities in St Michael's estate, O'Devaney Gardens (both projects now in doubt because of the withdrawal of developer Bernard McNamara from the PPP behind their regeneration), and across the State.

But while Dublin City Council has helped to make the Fatima regeneration happen, it has also relinquished ultimate control of the regeneration agenda to the developers. Ultimately, these urban regeneration projects are owned and delivered by private sector interests, with the State sitting on the sidelines.

The decision of McNamara to pull out of a number of planned redevelopments in Dublin city attests to the fragility of the public-private partnership project. The developers call the shots, and when they decide that their profit margins are not optimised through such developments, or that new regulations which require a higher standard of build are too cumbersome, they are extremely quick to pull the plug, leaving the State without a partner, and holding the baby.

Mary P Corcoran is Professor of Sociology at NUI Maynooth

Irish Times

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