Re-engineering Ireland: Part I
24 July 2018
In the unabridged version of John Moran's speech to Engineers Ireland's 2018 annual conference, he argues that if we are to design and build a better and fairer future for all, we must re-engineer our built and planned environment
In the unabridged version of John Moran’s speech to Engineers Ireland’s annual conference in Limerick last April, he argues here, in Part I, that we must design and build a better and fairer future for our citizens but, in order to do so, it will require re-engineering our built and planned environment. (Part II can be read here.)
I attended my godson’s confirmation this morning and, watching over 100 kids who were just a little more than 10 years of age, made me think, what will the world – what will Ireland – look like for them in another 40 years when they get to my age?
With an accelerating pace of change, the Ireland of 40 years ago, when I made my confirmation, is unrecognisable. Now cast your minds forward another 40 years into the future and yet, of course, we should be planning for seven generations and so imagining even further. Unlike many politicians, engineers do not build just for the next three to five years. It is why as a group they have a special skill that they can bring to this debate regarding Ireland’s future.
Handling population growth
We are so lucky to be a country with a rising population but let us get one thing clear: mere population growth is a bad indicator of success. Population growth badly handled, means quality of life for citizens can deteriorate and, worse, in badly dividing up a finite amount of land, we can get very unfair results. But well handled, it can be the guarantee of greater economic prosperity for all.
To do so well, you cannot avoid the hard choices, though, and we should not let our policymakers shy away from them. Well-functioning ecosystems, buildings or neighbourhoods are engineered – they do not happen just by accident.
Earlier, you heard from Pat Daly about the renaissance of Limerick. How it is turning itself around and becoming known as the ‘comeback city’. The progress to date too did not happen by accident. As Michael Noonan explained recently in a different forum, behind the scenes a careful plan has been implemented over a number of years, to make the city more appealing as a place to live, to diversify the sectors of economic activity across many different sectors and reduce vulnerability to a Dell-type closure.
Focus was directed at improvements in connectivity for the region, whether air, rail, shipping and road. And work continues on rebuilding the historic urban fabric of the city, including for affordable residential living and contiguous counties for residents and tourists alike and investing in services like recreation, health and education.
As engineers, you will know there is not necessarily just one perfect style and the best buildings need to evolve with time. Countries and cities are the same. It is why I was delighted to see such a broad set of topics for the conference today and so honoured to be able to be part of the conversation. I congratulate the organisers for taking such a broad and welcome view of the subject matter.
In a world where citizens are becoming less and less trusting of their governments and populism continues to expand, as we saw recently in Italy and in Hungary, it is all the most critical for all stakeholders to put aside their reticence to get involved and express their views openly and loudly.
The price of success badly managed
For decades, Ireland has done a particularly brilliant job at many things, marketing the country, getting disproportionate world attention on St Patrick’s Day for our little island, having a pro-business tax and other environment and with it very considerable success in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) and, more recently, growing some world beaters of our own.
With that success, though, have come new demands on our built environment to which we have not, I believe, faced up to honestly or effectively. The increase in the many new people (many newborn generations of Irish families) who call Ireland home today has helped with those successes but, also, opened up fissures in our society and divisions.
Compare a nurse who bought a three-bedroom house, garden and parking spot close to Dublin city centre 40 years ago and the position in 2018 of any of his three kids, or a new immigrant nurse trying to find a home close to work in Dublin’s city centre. Worse, think of the difference in household income of his sister, who worked also in the service of the state as a teacher earning about the same salary, but out the road from here in Newcastle West.
A country which treats people so differently cannot be doing a good job. These conflicts are echoed for ‘just about managing’ people all over the country and manifested in so many ways:
1.) Think of the fairness of allowing people who have always had a car to expect to be able to continue to drive to town to work even if their action creates congestion and pollution for their neighbours who are willing to travel the same journey together in a carbon-friendly bus or train.
2.) Think of the impact of people who have a driveway with their house or even a private garden near the centre of a city and expect to have the right to keep this expensive city real estate even though they may no longer even drive a car or have kids who want to play in that garden while others get pushed further and further out from the centre as centre real estate is too expensive.
3. Think of people who built a house on the farm beside their parents some decades ago and think it only reasonable that their own children should be able to do the same on another plot of zoned agricultural land who, when they get planning permission for a one-off house from the state, give their children an advantage not likely to be available to children of other parents in the state.
4.) Think of people who own their own house in trendy areas and who will see windfall increases in value drop out of the tax net altogether even though [it was] created because of taxpayer-provided infrastructure. Meanwhile, renters in the same area see their rent rise when the neighbourhood becomes more fashionable.
What these examples show is that the way in which we have treated land and home ownership may not be fit for purpose for a country with not so much a stable population but a significantly growing population like we now have.
How long more will these disadvantaged groups continue to accept rules and regulations and subsidies which tend towards the protection of the vested? How long more before it breaks out into more significant social protest and unrest than we even saw during the water protests and nearly saw about rising rental levels.
The traditional divides between left and right in European politics are breaking down because today even people with great qualifications working really hard to advance are finding they are simply not able to aspire in any way to the same life as professional or semi-professional people who did exactly the same one or two generations before.
In Ireland, we are not immune from those issues. Indeed, it is little talked about but the dynamics of population growth in Ireland make this a particularly acute issue. Over the years from 1916 until entry into the European Union, the Irish population rested rather close to three million people. Since then, it has moved to above 4.75 million. It is going to continue upwards – and this is great – towards six million.
Laissez-faire approach to development
But rather than plan well for this growth (which seems to have crept up on us), we have had an all too laissez-faire approach to development and to the built environment. With our island once home to eight million people, it did not seem to occur that we ever needed to plan this carefully. There was plenty of land to go around.
To make matters worse, we also piled almost all of the state architecture and services in or around one of our smallest counties – Dublin – with a restricted hinterland as it is by the sea. By contrast, in the earlier years under British rule, cities like Limerick and Cork prospered much more equally with Dublin.
This meant that as less and less was happening elsewhere, Dublin land became more valuable relative to other places for those living there and more and more expensive for those who had to move to the capital. Today, average rents in parts of Dublin city centre are more than three times the average rent here in Limerick city centre, a mere two hours away by train.
To make things worse, instead of continuing the rather dense urban infrastructure of pre-Independence years, with our growing affluence, we adopted with zeal the car-based suburban or one-off housing model we were seeing on television. Our towns, and especially Dublin sprawl – with it generating large profits for owners of previously agricultural land – and ‘nimbyism’ ruled the roost when the ‘densification’ of existing urban footprints was considered. We have built more than 500,000 one-off houses since the early 1990s, I believe, probably on an acre of ground each, which makes a land mass the size of Wexford removed from productive agricultural use.
Among the worst performers in Europe for energy efficiency
We got another wake-up call this morning with the publication of a report showing our housing stock is among the worst performers in Europe for energy efficiency, and it noted the particularly larger size of Irish homes – once more a sign of individualism rather than living for the common good. A sign of the lack of public realm and services as, for example, people build playrooms or study rooms for their own children to amuse themselves in splendid isolation rather than have them play or study with others in municipal playgrounds or libraries.
As more and more people needed to get into and out of a rather low-density expensive Dublin core, with its restricted hinterland, we focused spending on roads radiating out of the city and in services for this dispersed population growth while, at the same time, under-investing in our urban spaces and related public services.
Without a network of dense nodes of population to be connected to each other, we dismantled the rail systems and relied on private car ownership (itself a rather expensive proposition) to get everybody from A to B.
We are now reaping the consequences of these choices. Let me be rather blunt: As we undo the short-term damage of the crash to our economy, the really awful medium-term consequences of bad management of our country in the years leading up the crisis are now being revealed.
For me, the more serious and much less talked about consequences of mismanagement of Ireland for decades are the structural problems hardwired into our country by bad or no planning decisions around the types of housing we built, about where we built that housing, about under-investment in our public transport system and built urban environment and the inefficiencies we have now embedded into the cost of the delivery of public services – including essential ones like health, security, broadband, energy, water, waste, education and the rest.
It will require great re-engineering of our built and planned environment to design a better and fairer future. And a better future cannot be measured on purely financial terms by counting the money in the pocket of citizens, the size of their home or the number of cars in the drive.
We must change the debate, as we should be doing in a more advanced economy, so that success is people being ‘well-off’ measured in broader terms, such as a happiness index and fairness of opportunity to all who call Ireland home whether newcomers or established long-timers. Re-engineering for this success will require a new approach where the common good is put much more ahead of individualism.
Without radically revisiting our views on property rights and the needs of the common good, those lucky to be invested in housing, especially owned housing in certain parts of the country – particularly close to Dublin – will have an advantage in life which can never be caught by those living further away or entering the system de novo.
Against a backdrop of growing inequality in the world and a growing sense that many of our citizens are being left behind despite growing prosperity, there are many uncomfortable truths that we must face.
I tend, by nature, to be optimistic about society, and especially Irish society. Our nation has been built very much on ‘a sense of community’ for generations. By facing up to these problems honestly and innovatively, I believe that in this great country we can create a much fairer and more stable society into the future while retaining the competitiveness necessary for our economic prosperity.
Because, in truth, Ireland is a great little country which has very successfully traded its way to ever increasing prosperity in recent decades. We’ve made things more difficult for ourselves by crashing the government finances numerous times. Much of this because we do not do planning for the future well. The last crisis has only made things worse as, for much of the last decade, we have had to focus on the very survival and stabilisation of our nation, not investing for the future.
And, at a European level, in reality, the same is true. Europe has been falling further and further behind other economic similarly sized blocks. We celebrate a growth rate of two per cent at the moment whereas a number of decades ago that would have been a reason to fire all of the policymakers.
While I welcome the recent increases by the government in the allocation of money to capital spending, we are simply not investing in today’s infrastructure at rates which are moving us forward fast enough. We are hardly keeping up with depreciation – and that against a backdrop of significantly increasing population.
Our public transport and health systems are not servicing us well all over the country. How many times have I been left at a bus station in Dublin as full buses pass by or drenched crossing the unsheltered platform at Limerick Junction – a major intercity exchange point.
Our housing crisis gets worse by the day, not better. We still are unable to produce a really world-class university. And the quality of life we are offering is not up to the standards now available in other European countries.
Overdominance of Dublin to detriment of regional cities
We know what problems exist in Ireland now as the system starts to creak – overdominance of Dublin to the detriment of the regional cities; rural towns becoming commuter towns – not their regional cities but in fact Dublin – and rural villages dying as their population becomes dispersed in one-off housing; driving not to the local village but rather to the nearest suburban shopping centre for groceries and services.
On top of this, there are global changes to be taken into account which make our choices a little harder. These include advances in technology; ecommerce; transformation of the car industry; climate change; growth of urbanisation; ageing populations; shifting populations; and growth of cities – all of which will profoundly change how we live our lives into the future (but the not too distant future).
All of these were identified in the recent National Planning Framework. But, sadly, much of the outcome reacting to a political kickback in the weeks up to publication suggested we are not yet ready at a political level to make the correct choices to deal with urbanisation trends and changing transport patterns There were positive ideas, but the allocation of funding to many disparate competing priorities will prove whether lessons have been learned or not.
However, I remain optimistic that there is a way forward. The essence of the re-engineering is twofold. Firstly, creating a greater fairness of opportunity and treatment for more people including increases in our population, and do that by providing OPPORTUNITY in more places than just in the centre of one city.
Secondly, recognising that the common good is better served by people who are prepared to live with the compromises that come from living in greater proximity to their neighbours. It makes delivering public services cheaper, and we must reward that.
As a corollary, for those currently living in the more individualistic ways we once tolerated – even encouraged – we should continue to support them as best we can but also work to provide more attractive and more sustainable lifestyle alternatives for them as they move into different phases of their lives and be determined not to continue to encourage these bad choices of the past for others just because doing so is politically appealing at the next election.
So, with these two principles in mind, what might a more holistic re-engineering of the way Ireland works look like? I see a number of steps, which will be discussed in Part II in the edition of August 7.
Author: John Moran, social entrepreneur and former secretary general of the Department of Finance. The views expressed are personal and not to be attributed to the European Investment Bank in any wayhttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/2018/07/24/re-engineering-ireland-part/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/a-ajm1.pnghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/a-ajm1-300x300.pngCivilEngineers Ireland,housing,infrastructure,transport