I want my agencies back please.
Best wishes for Christmas,
This sad letter from a good city, Dublin, was spotted just before being posted up one of the chimneys at Poolbeg.
Many might think there are other things the fair city should be after from the great man: a metro (perhaps the city knows better), a directly elected mayor (it’s a bit complicated), housing (now Dublin didn’t come up the Liffey in a bubble, you know, and that is exactly what our clever city might be thinking).
But, you see, Dublin once had development agencies and they may have been the best thing it ever had. In 2013, the government made a questionable decision to dissolve or wind down three of the best: the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, the Temple Bar Cultural Trust and Ballymun Regeneration Limited.
These were effective, transformative organisations and were dispensed with for the wrong reasons within months of each other.
The three place-based organisations were busy regenerating and reimagining formerly benighted parts of the city. The work of two of these was far from done, Temple Bar was and probably still is in danger of overheating in its staggering levels of cultural and economic success.
The secret was a team of dedicated individuals, from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, and a strongly area-based mission. Docklands had a “cultural officer” and invested in branding. Temple Bar became experts in not just planning, design and careful regeneration, but cultural development in its best sense.
Invaluably, they also had a finance stream and were independently tasked with the delivery of solid masterplans for their areas. They were also very participatory organisations, which were accountable to their communities.
Docklands had representatives of the local community, academia as well as big business and government on its council. While there were investigations into wrongdoing, particularly with regard to property dealings the Docklands became involved in, neither the social mission or planning function of that body were implicated.
Ballymun Regeneration also invested deeply in collaborating and engaging with its communities.
Then, in 2013 it was decided to take their functions back into Dublin City Council.
The problem is that Irish local authorities simply aren’t place-based enough to manage areas in the intense way that these agencies did.
They are corporate entities, vertically organised with multiple departments, seldom organised to deal with local issues in the intensely coordinated way that’s needed. That is not a slight on the many talented and dedicated individuals working there. Dublin City Council’s brief and focus is probably just far too wide, serving 600,000 people.
Germany, by comparison has 12,000 “gemeinde” (literally “communities” but more like municipalities). The average population is under 7,000 people, and the elected gemeinde council is the key local decision maker. Now that is place-based.
Want to know how many mayors there are in France? There are 36,000 actually, one for every 1,800 inhabitants no less.
It is an understatement then to say that Ireland does not have a strong tradition of local government. But the agencies were a panacea for this, dealing with strategic places that needed attention the most.
The Local Government Reform Act 2014 certainly had positive elements, but fell far short of facilitating “place-based” visions for communities.
One agency is still out there continuing to do extraordinary “area-based” work. The Grangegorman Development Agency is staffed with multi-disciplinary experts, blessed with a steady finance stream and grounded by a world-class masterplan.
The health, education and community campus being developed on the formerly tragic lands of St Brendan’s Hospital is transforming its area in a way that is unimaginable to the thousands who worked and convalesced there.
Beyond this 70-acre site itself, the regeneration project is having a positive effect on the surrounding communities. Stoneybatter, Cabra, Phibsborough and Smithfield are all doing well by the Grangegorman project.
So could the agency model be used again, and as a means of tackling the city’s most pressing crisis: availability of adequate housing tenure? Yes, if used in the context of the city’s six Strategic Development Zones.
The Greater Dublin Area has six fast-track planning schemes, known as Strategic Development Zones (or SDZs in the planning lingo): Adamstown and Clonburris (both in South Dublin County Council), Cherrywood (Dun-Laoghaire Rathdown), Hansfield (Fingal), North Lotts & Grand Canal and Poolbeg West (both Dublin City Council).
Between them they have an outline planning permission from An Bord Pleanala for over 40,000 houses, to be situated in attractive, well-planned neighbourhoods.
The government, in partnership with the constituent local authorities, should move to establish a new agency for each of the city’s SDZ landbanks.
In doing so, it should create new posts and position two well-qualified professionals (possibly a planner and an urban designer) within each agency. It is right that the government should have an interest since these are “nationally strategic” designations.
The local authority should follow suit with at least an additional two qualified staff. And the model they could well follow is that of the Adamstown Planning Office.
South Dublin County Council formed the Adamstown Planning Office back in 2003, staffed with a multi-disciplinary team, tasked with the development of the Adamstown SDZ.
The office was a de facto agency under the 2000 Planning and Development Act. It held regular and transparent steering-group meetings with landowners, councillors, community members and other key stakeholders such as transport agencies and power utilities.
The Adamstown Planning Office was wound down, or at least its last meeting was held in 2013, probably because development ceased post-Celtic Tiger. (Yes, another one bit the dust.)
Up to that point, it had been delivering houses and communities with jarring success. Schools, parks, public transport and community facilities were all being delivered to a high-design specification, even before some very attractive housing schemes were occupied.
The office should be reinstated, along with five other such agencies, to continue to build sustainable, well-planned communities around the city, speedily and effectively. Dublin City Council may be in the throes of doing this for North Lotts, but it is unclear what level of transparency and resourcing that effort will have.
For the SDZs to be successful, they need three things: a well-designed masterplan; a finance stream; and a multi-disciplinary agency that acts with transparency and accountability. Establishing the latter would be an excellent starting point.