Dublin needs long-term survival plan if it is to survive 10 more years of expansion


THE success of the Celtic Tiger over the past five years or so seems to have doubled nearly everything in Dublin - the output of the economy, the levels of traffic, the price of property and the activity of the building industry. The big issue is can it continue?

Many of us who have seen three earlier economic booms disappear as quickly as they started are half expecting the clock to strike midnight and for the Tiger to turn into a Pumpkin! However, it may not all come crashing down on the first of January next or thereabouts. Then what?

Our young professionals and other workers are determined that Ireland will have at least another 10 years of growth and success. The economists say that they are right and that Ireland will have the GNP per person in 10 years equal in per capita terms to that of Germany or Switzerland.

So, who is planning for a further doubling or trebling of per capita GNP with its impact on traffic, property demand and the building industry, as well as other infrastructure services including water and sewerage?

The answer is that no one is even considering let alone planning for these issues. It would seem that no one has the courage at either the administrative or at political levels to even ask the right questions. Could it be because they are all over 50 years of age or is it that 10 years is an eternity in politics and public life? To make my point about the absence of long term planning, take just a few examples:

Parts of the M50 are now running at over 90 per cent of capacity. If current trends continue, additional lanes and new flyovers will be required to cope with traffic growth in the next five years. Although the construction period will take nearly five years, not a single piece of detailed design to expand capacity has been carried out.

Dublin Airport may have the runway capacity to cope with 20 million passengers, but it is very obvious to the layman that the local traffic arrangements in the vicinity of the airport cannot cope with a doubling of throughput.

For those who commute by train, it is also clear that the DART and other suburban rail lines are struggling to cope with the current volumes. The provision of a few extra rail cars and new signalling will not enable present systems to carry large numbers of extra passengers even five years hence, let alone in 10.

LUAS will make little difference to the overall volume capacity, even at today's commuter volumes.

Electrical supplies are at a critical level and expansion of generator capacity is needed (and planned by the ESB).

The shortage of zoned and serviced land for new housing seems to have come as a surprise to the powers that be. Yet the population profile indicating that growth in demand has been known for many years.

WE need a paradigm shift. We have to do away with the sticking plaster approach. We need a brave new plan for the Dublin region. A plan to make it one of the most efficient, user-friendly places for living, working and business in Europe. We need ambitious leaders with vision, research, resources and the courage to make it happen.

We in Ireland must make our own plans and political choices. But we can learn from others. We can and we must match the level of investment in infrastructures which is commonplace across much of the EU, especially the cities of Germany, The Netherlands and northern European countries. We should be aware of the re-emergence of regional policy and strategic planning throughout the UK, including Northern Ireland.

As Dublin sprawls in an unplanned fashion into the midlands of Ireland, might we not learn from the US where state governments and urban authorities are rapidly introducing growth boundaries (e.g. Tennessee, California and Oregon), reforming urban finances (e.g. Minneapolis) or integrating land use and transportation as in Seattle?

In 1963, Toronto introduced a long-term strategic plan to re-position the city within the North American urban systems. Some 36 years later, Toronto has risen from a provincial town to become a world city. It has trebled or quadrupled its population. It is a major financial core. Much of this success is due to imaginative investment in good planning, a follow through of infrastructural development, the integration of land use and transportation and continuous innovations in the domain of urban governance. There are numerous examples from which Dublin can learn.

In such an approach, we should plan for a region with a population of 1.5 million to two million people by 2025. This new Dublin should have as good an infrastructure as Brussels, as much style as Paris, be as friendly and welcoming as Galway and be as good a place to do business as New York.

Those charged with preparing the plan should also have the responsibility for making it happen. It should be carried out in much the same way as a design team takes responsibility for designing and then implementing a complex building project. As history has taught us, planning without responsibility for execution is too easy.

Such a plan would not be starting with a blank piece of paper. Parts of that planning/implementation process are already in place, such as the corporate tax regime which makes this economy a very attractive location for business. The digital communication network is as good as the best (or soon will be) but after that, there is a lot to be done, particularly in the areas of property - commercial and residential. The property industry knows that the necessary skills are there to make it happen if the right leadership or blueprint is in place.

In the transport and water services areas, the private sector is ready, willing and able to implement good plans.

But the task of envisaging and planning a city must be led by Government. Is it not time to appoint a Minister for the Dublin region focused on the year 2010?

A few years ago, we took a major step backwards from having the ability to master plan a new Dublin. This was when the Dublin area was broken into four autonomous local authority areas, Fingal, South Dublin, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown and Dublin City. In theory, a Dublin Regional Authority now carries out a measure of co-ordination. However it has no power, no resources. This was fully recognised at the time and may have been appropriate for the then prevailing political environment and an economy growing at 2 per cent per year. It is not appropriate now.

If we do not take a new approach to the growth of Dublin, then we may kill the Celtic Tiger. A growing tiger needs a bigger cage. Evidence of constraints are appearing every day. Staff costs are going up in Dublin due to the infrastructure problem. This is as a result of rising house prices and longer commuting times. Low paid office workers will not spend over two hours per day trying to get into, or home, from the IFSC. They will want more money to enable them to live closer to work. Office costs are rising because of the lack of availability of downtown sites.

MOVING goods around Dublin is becoming extremely expensive due to traffic delays. One haulier friend with 10 trucks had to buy two extra trucks last year to deliver the same volume of goods because of traffic delays. New housing cannot be constructed on the west side of Dublin (close to rail lines) because of the absence of drainage.

All chartered surveyors reading this article will have their own examples of the economy being squeezed by absence of infrastructure of one kind or another.

The surprising thing is that the money is there to make Dublin a great place to live, work and conduct business. We are currently repaying public borrowing at a cost of only 3 to 4 per cent per annum. We are well within our borrowing capacity and like any good business with expansion potential, we should be investing in our future.

Of course, each part of a master plan for Dublin should be tested for investment return and viability. At the moment, no such schemes are even on the drawing board and no one seems to be planning for the long term.

There are no plans for a new M50, which would be five or 10 miles further out.

There are no plans for an additional high volume rail line to serve growing or new suburbs or new towns. (The Myles Wright Report provided a framework plan for the development of what are now Tallaght, Clondalkin and Blanchardstown).

There are no plans to give high quality transport services to special suburban locations such as the airport or the IFSC. For example, by quality I mean similar to the new Heathrow express or the RER in Paris. (Expecting executives who have been travelling for five hours to sit on a tram beside shoppers says something about the attitude of our current transport planners - the rest of the world moved on from there 10 years ago - look at cities such as Toronto, Singapore and most European capitals.) There are no plans for a large increase in water and sewage capacity to serve a large growth in population. The most worrying thing is that there is no real debate on the issue. We are focusing in on short-term issues and short-term solutions (the Bacon Report is short term, as is the LUAS). The big picture is being ignored.

This is as much a political issue, as it is a business or social one. The need to take a long-term approach is a political one. If the common people believe that the Tiger will shortly turn into a Pumpkin, then there is little surprise that Mary Harney, Bertie Ahern and John Bruton are ignoring the big picture. Or is that what leadership is about?

Ireland and Dublin have a simple choice - plan for the long term or put up with the consequences.

W.K. Nowlan is a management consultant and chartered surveyor specialising in advising investors and users of commercial space. He is a former property director of Irish Life Assurance plc, and visiting professor of the University of Ulster.