Planning rethink needed to address suburban future

Fri, Jul 1, 2011, 01:00

ANALYSIS:Population trends show we are heading towards an unsustainable future of dependency on cars

DESPITE PLANNING policies to consolidate our cities and official commitments to “sustainable development”, preliminary results from this year’s census show Ireland heading inexorably towards a suburban future and locking itself into long-term car dependency.

Commuterland is king, enthroned by the motorways that cost €20 billion-plus; these new arteries have made it possible for so many people to live in the midlands or Border areas and work in Dublin. Long-distance commuting is also the pattern elsewhere in Ireland.

At a regional level, the mideast (Meath, Kildare and Wicklow) no longer has the highest rate of net inward migration, and has fallen behind the midland and Border regions. “This represents the expansion of Dublin’s commuter belt into these regions,” the report says.

It would also seem that the State may reach a population of 5 million by 2020 – unless emigration grows substantially – and this would have huge implications on public services, particularly health and education.

“It is therefore imperative that Government looks to the future and moves forward the planning and design of strategic projects to ensure there is a pipeline of ‘shovel-ready’ schemes,” according to Paul Keogh, president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland.

There is evidence, however, that emigration is gathering pace. While there was “strong net inward migration” in 2006 and 2007, “this was followed by a switch to net outward migration in more recent years”, the census reveals – and it is likely that this trend will grow.

The saddest statistic in the figures released yesterday is the 5 per cent decline in Limerick city’s population since 2006. It also recorded the greatest net outflow of people, at 17.2 per thousand, indicating that something is seriously wrong with its city life.

The population of Cork city also fell, by a marginal 0.4 per cent. And like Limerick, population growth was picked up in its hinterland, with an increase of 10.3 per cent since 2006. In Limerick’s case, the census recorded an increase of 8.3 per cent in the county area.

Limerick city’s district electoral division of Galvone B lost nearly 44 per cent of its population – a staggering fall in just five years. The city’s Ballynanty district electoral division also recorded a decline of nearly 16 per cent while Limerick North went down by 11 per cent.

Almost everywhere, the same pattern of suburbanisation is repeated. In Co Laois, which scored the highest population increase nationally at 20 per cent, the biggest single jump was in the district electoral division of Portlaoise Rural, where it went up by 32 per cent, even as the town’s population fell.

Sprawl is now evident all over the State. In Kerry, for example, Tralee and Killarney recorded losses, of 11.1 per cent and 5.1 per cent respectively, while a census map of population density per sq km shows large pink areas extending far outside their boundaries.

Some of the decline is due to the “empty nest syndrome”, with grown-up children moving elsewhere. This would account for Ballymun, in Dublin city, falling by 17 per cent; Mionlach, in Galway city (down 13 per cent) and Kilnamanagh, in South Dublin (down nearly 10 per cent).

With the single exception of Dublin’s north Docklands, which racked up a spectacular 85.4 per cent rise in population over the past five years, the highest levels of growth were in suburban or formerly rural areas – led by The Ward in rural Fingal, with its 57.9 per cent increase.

Balbriggan Rural was up by 57.5 per cent; Kilcoole, Co Wicklow (44 per cent); Glencullen, in rural Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown (28.3 per cent), Jobstown in Tallaght (22.9 per cent), Lucan-Esker (15.5 per cent), Navan Rural (12.6 per cent) and Blakestown, Fingal (11.4 per cent).

Inevitably, the census has also confirmed Ireland’s over-production of new homes. The number of houses or apartments in the State increased more rapidly than the population – by 13.3 per cent, to more than 2 million, compared to 8.1 per cent for the population.

More significant is where this happened. The largest rise (21.2 per cent) was recorded in Co Laois, followed by Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim and Longford (all above 19 per cent), while the lowest increases were in Co Limerick and the five cities. So much for urban “consolidation”.

There has also been an increase of 10.5 per cent in the number of vacant houses or apartments, compared to 2006. With just over 30 per cent of its homes vacant, Co Leitrim again leads the field, followed by Donegal (28.5 per cent), Kerry (26.5 per cent) and Mayo (24.8 per cent).

This would suggest that many of the vacant units were holiday homes, although the Central Statistics Office said enumerators were told to look for signs such as “no furniture, no cars outside, junk mail accumulating, overgrown garden, etc” before classifying them as vacant.

More surprisingly, one in 10 houses or apartments in Dublin city was classified as vacant at the time of the census last April. This is emphatically not a holiday home phenomenon, but rather more evidence of the fragility of the housing market.

Fingal County Council will take comfort from the population growth in its administrative area of 13.8 per cent, and is likely to use this to bolster the case for Metro North. The growth rate in Cavan was marginally higher, at 13.9 per cent.

What the preliminary results of the census show is that there is now a pressing need to review the National Spatial Strategy, originally drawn up in 2002, and to focus on a smaller number of “gateways” and “hubs” if we are to have any chance of achieving sustainability.