Wednesday 7 January 2009

Sean Dunne's casting of himself as a victim a bit rich

Sound planning rather than the indebtedness of developers needs to be uppermost in our minds as we await a Bord Pleanála decision, writes Sarah Carey

TALKING ABOUT the fate of Seán Dunne's development in Ballsbridge, my county councillor father recalled a meeting of Meath County Council back in the 1970s. A councillor was pleading the case of a farmer who had applied for planning permission for two houses on his land.

The farmer owed the then Agricultural Credit Corporation a lot of money - a not uncommon predicament in an era of high interest rates and wildly fluctuating land prices. He also had a daughter. His plan was to sell off one site to pay his debts and build a house for the daughter on the second. Though the councillor wrung his hands and embellished the sorry state of the farmer's finances, Michael McFadden, the official in the planning department, was unmoved. "Bad debts make for bad planning," he declared.

McFadden has long retired and though my father still quotes him, too many forgot the axiom. In fact, county councils themselves were guilty of granting permission in order to pay debts - their own. A county like Meath that experienced a massive population explosion but no matching increase in central exchequer funding found itself under particular pressure. Levies paid by developers to the local authority on grant of permission were a tempting source of finance. Many suspect that some permissions were granted with the levy rather than the merits of the application in mind. Planners are now faced with applications knowing that a refusal could visit financial ruin on the developer.

How heavily will Seán Dunne's debts weigh on the minds of the members of An Bord Pleanála when they decide his case, due for announcement on January 30th? Personally, I've an open mind on the plan myself. Though Ballsbridge has many lovely streets, the stretch of Pembroke Road on which Jurys stands is cheerless and dull. It needs redevelopment. The objections of residents are indistinguishable from the protests of residents in any location to any development.

But I wonder if the minds of the members of Bord Pleanála will be concentrated on issues other than planning. It would take incredible bravery to turn down Dunne's application and let's face it - bravery isn't exactly a national trait, is it?

The Irish are the masters of the sneakin' regard; we have informers not whistleblowers, and staying inside the tent is considered evidence of genius rather than hypocrisy. Independent thinkers are barely tolerated and rarely admired. Is it asking too much of the powerful but low-profile anoraks in Bord Pleanála to trigger the collapse of Seán Dunne? Do they have the nerve to ignore the economics and focus on the architecture? There's a lot of psychology and not much planning involved in that decision.

In that context and never having met Dunne, it's hard to know if his recent interview with the New York Times was a really smart move or an extraordinary exercise in self-delusion. I suspect the latter, but either way, he successfully reframed the debate on Ballsbridge. It's not about planning but money, begrudgery and most bizarrely, Seán Dunne as victim. Was the board paying attention?

For the first time he raised the prospect of insolvency and he didn't need to tell us the seismic consequences of that event. The big developers might not be pillars of the community these days, but they are cornerstones of the economy. If one goes down, they bring a lot with them. Ballsbridge might not need a diamond-shaped tower block but the economy does.

When asked about criticism of his billion-euro project and his OTT wedding to Gayle Killilea on board the Christina O yacht, he said: "Jealousy and begrudgery are still alive and well in Ireland . . . It's part of the Irish psyche and it is the result of 800 years of being controlled by other people, of watching everything the master or landlord is doing."

How convenient to believe that one's critics have flawed characters rather than differing opinions. How satisfying to associate that flaw with a peasant psychology rather than a distaste for vulgarity. Dunne is right about begrudgery being an Irish characteristic but widely off the mark when he identifies himself as being a victim of it. Builders and bankers were elevated to hero status in the past decade. Contrary to Dunne's view, it was those who issued a word of caution who were ridiculed.

In another statement we see a hint that despite his success, he really does see himself as a victim. He's risen from humble origins to achieve financial success but perhaps not the self-awareness necessary to deal with his own psyche.

In discussing the prospect of insolvency should the banking crisis continue he says: "But the one thing that I have is my wife and children - that they can't take away from me." But who is "they", Seán? If the project fails and you lose a lot of money, "they" won't take anything from you. You'll have lost it. You had the dream and should it succeed you can rightly take all credit. If your gamble fails, the responsibility is yours alone.

Some might say failure to take responsibility for our own problems is part of the Irish psyche, too. Probably the result of 800 years of blaming the master or the landlord. The 11 members of Bord Pleanála are the masters of Dunne, Ballsbridge and an important leg of what's left of the economy.

Big dreams and bad debt makes for big pressure. Only three weeks to go. Dunne says he can handle it. Can the board?

Irish Times

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