New Ireland: New ideas by David Puttnam, Dermot Desmond, Catherine Motherway and more

We asked leading experts for changes that could improve how we live

The pandemic has presented Ireland with an opportunity to wipe its slate clean and make fundamental changes.

The pandemic has presented Ireland with an opportunity to wipe its slate clean and make fundamental changes.

 

Now that we know we can do things differently when we have to, we asked leading experts and specialists across a range of sectors for changes that will improve how we live in a post-pandemic world. Here's what they said:

Catherine Motherway.
Catherine Motherway.

Healthcare

Catherine Motherway – Intensive Care physician
Healthcare is a finite precious resource that we need to use wisely and be prepared. The experience of the last 18 months can help us shape a better service.

Public health: Following public health guidance is key to disease prevention during Covid. We need to continue with disease prevention in our population. Obesity, diabetes, drug and alcohol abuse are significant adjustable risk factors for cancer and many diseases. The burden of these diseases can be mitigated if we follow advice as we did in the last 18 months

Healthcare capacity: We entered into this crisis with one of the lowest critical care bed-to-population ratios in Europe. The pandemic exposed this as one of our serious vulnerabilities. We managed to temporarily increase capacity from 255 to over 350 staffed beds. The effort of many (staff, and the population’s adherence to lockdown) prevented our system from being overwhelmed but at the expense of deferral of scheduled care. A doubling of our bed numbers is now promised by politicians. This should support high risk elective work and ensure we operate at 70 per cent capacity allowing for future surges in demand.

Decision making in healthcare: We must continue to foster a combination of local decision making within agreed collaborative governance structures. Local leaders, given the space and time, can find local solutions with the clinical programmes and the backing of frontline staff. Groups like the Medical Leaders Forum meeting with the chief medical officer, Minister for Health and Department of Health should continue to shape how we plan our new Ireland health service.

Digital innovation: The increased use of IT for virtual consultation and communication should continue. While in-person consultation will still be necessary, in many instances, virtual follow up in the patient’s own home without the need for travel will be welcome. Staff training opportunities can now be accessed online and virtual meetings bring international expertise together.

Staff wellbeing, recruitment and retention: The key to healthcare is staff. They need to be supported, respected and valued in their work, have access to training, education, research opportunities, psychological support and must have sufficient numbers to deliver quality care. Access to affordable housing, and transport to their workplace is vital. Their views and requirements need to be respected and facilitated. A true cultural change which is patient focused and staff friendly will reap rewards.

Dermot Desmond. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Dermot Desmond. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Housing & property

Dermot Desmond – businessman and investor
Dublin has the highest rents of all EU capital cities. A starter home in Dublin is twice the cost of one in Belfast. We must rectify this by deflating prices for zoned land and controlling selling prices.

Irish housing policy has concentrated power among a small number of institutional developers to the detriment of the small builder and competition. Site ownership is corralled and planning permission hoarded to the detriment of housing supply. Apartments are left empty for protracted periods for fear of putting downward pressure on rents, while developers are allowed to sit on planning approvals granted. Simultaneously the State is inflating prices by guaranteeing rents, overpaying for social housing, utilising the SHDs (strategic housing developments) to reduce the quality of housing while protecting developers, and transferring public lands to private ownership.

We must cease using tax benefits to seduce foreign institutions into purchasing Irish homes at inflated prices. The following measures should also be taken . . . 

Planning permission: All planning permission should include conditions that require work to commence within one year of grant and work to complete within three years. The practice of requiring large-scale issues to be agreed as conditions to the permission subsequent to its grant should be discontinued. Where there is any breach of conditions the State should retain the right to impose the cost of default on the developer and the right to have the work completed

Vacant property levy and tenant lease breaks: Where a landlord owns more than five rental properties, a vacant property charge equal to 50 per cent of the market rent should be levied if the property is vacant for more than three months. This would impact all professional landlords, including tax-exempt institutions. (Allowances would be made for significant renovations on older buildings). Tenants should be enabled to break all residential leases on three months’ notice, thereby ensuring landlords are not charging above market rents. Similarly, the State should have a right to impose an increasing levy if zoned residential land is not being developed.

Utilise State land: The State should become directly involved in the master-planning and building of new housing on State-owned land to facilitate the smaller builder and encourage competition.

Social and affordable housing: Ten per cent of the completed units in all large-scale housing developments should be provided at nil cost to the State and a further 10 per cent provided at cost. This would deflate land prices and recognise the benefit the State is conferring on developers and land owners through zoning and planning permission.

Derelict and unused sites: Greater use should be made of compulsory purchase orders to transform vacant/derelict/unused sites in city centres into residential development.

Stable communities are built by people with a long-term interest in where they live. This can be achieved for families via high-quality design and an appropriate sensitivity to the nature and scale of the receiving environment. The current policies inflate land prices, inflate the cost of housing, damage the quality of housing and protect institutional developers. Worst of all, we have created policies that have indentured the Irish tenant.

Bill Whelan.
Bill Whelan.

Live entertainment

Bill Whelan – composer
Before the effects on the Pandemic began to be felt in general, the community of musicians, composers and performers was already experiencing a massive loss of earnings. This was due to the piratical practices of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), which governments, notably our own, had done little to rectify or regulate. In fact, we gave them all a massive Ceád Míle Fáilte and showered them with tax breaks.

Since 1999 with Napster, creators of music had begun to feel the effects of the broadly accepted notion that intellectual property should magically morph into a commonly held resource for the benefit of everyone. What we had called “songs” became “content”. We were no longer writers but “content-creators”. And we had entered, as I heard it enthusiastically described by gurus like Larry Lessig, “the era of sharing”. For reasons that were unclear, this “sharing” did not apply to other industries like pharmaceuticals, car manufacture or household goods.

The blow dealt to the creators of words and music was finally delivered a sucker punch by the arrival of Covid 19. Musicians had already given up on earning anything significant from their intellectual property, and had migrated en masse to live performing. Cruelly, the pandemic shut that down along with all our other social activities.

Ironically, the ISPs continued to thrive as the whole world moved to the internet and Zoomed, YouTubed and Spotified ourselves through the isolated landscape of masks and elbow bumps.

In the context of the creative industries, what have we learned?

In my own case, I recorded a film score this year - remotely. I could not get an orchestra in Ireland due to restrictions, so I sat in my studio in Roundstone while a multiple-tested David Brophy travelled to Vienna and conducted a 70-piece orchestra playing my score. It was the same as if the orchestra were next door to me. I also recorded musicians as far apart as Co Louth and North Carolina and incorporated their performances into the score. It did point to future possibilities.

Nothing however replaces the creative intimacy of performance. In the same way, I don’t think Covid will ever remove the need for humans to experience the transcendence of a live performance in a concert hall or theatre. We may have to suffer a period when venues are only half full, but I believe it will bounce back.

Less resilient will be the capacity for the old revenue models to return for the creators of intellectual property, but perhaps these turbulent months will afford us a period of re-evaluation and redesign.

David Puttnam.
David Puttnam.

Education

David Puttnam – film producer and educator
I turned 80 this year. As someone born amid the embers of the second World War, who witnessed the Apollo moon landings and saw the first personal computer go on sale, the future is something I’ve both looked towards and lived through. I feel as though I’ve spent much of my life imploring successive generations of leaders not to stumble into the same mistakes as their predecessors, especially in relation to the future of learning and work.

Four years ago I spent a good deal of time thinking about these issues in relation to Ireland: in 2017, during my time as Ireland’s Digital Champion, I authored a series for RTÉ called Making Ireland Click, which explored the country’s relationships with the evolving digital ecosystem.

One episode was dedicated to the need for a greater investment in education to provide young people with the skills needed for the future of work. Four years on, many of those ideas seem frozen in time.

Successive governments have been resistant to change when it comes to educational priorities, assessment frameworks and levels of funding. In fact, government expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP has been on a broadly downward spiral since the 1970s.

Glimmers of hope are slowly trickling out. In recent weeks we learned that the Department of Further and Higher Education will receive €225 million as part of the economic recovery plan, with particular provisions for SOLAS, the skills agency.

But the crux of the issue is how that money is best spent. The Government’s pledge to establish a citizens’ assembly to re-think and possibly reform education is a step in the right direction: we need to listen to students about the learning methods that work best for them; we need to support teachers with continued professional development and create more opportunities for them to collaborate and learn from each other.

Most of all, we need to embrace the changes required to bring Irish education into the 21st century.

Creativity is a wholly sustainable asset, and one Ireland has in abundance; it will also be the great differentiator in the digital world and therefore needs to be incorporated into every aspect of learning methodology. In reality, the only way to generate curious thinkers is to abandon rote learning, and completely overhaul current systems of assessment.

Now in my ninth decade, I’m reminded of the words of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami: “The clock is ticking, the hours are going by. Possibilities decrease, regrets mount.” The future has a tendency to become the present. The time for action is now.

Dr Tara Shine.
Dr Tara Shine.

Climate

Dr Tara Shine – environmental scientist, director of Change by Degrees
We are challenged to reduce our carbon emissions as individuals, businesses and a country to safeguard the climate and our future. But does this also mean we have to reduce our expectations – or is this a chance to improve our quality of life?

One of the hardest part of reducing my carbon footprint before the pandemic was work related air travel. Now I can participate as effectively in a meeting in London from my home in Kinsale as I can wasting a whole day flying over and back to the UK. In a post-Covid world it will no longer be reasonable to refuse me the option to participate remotely. The team in my business has grown during the pandemic – we are scattered across Ireland and the UK and haven’t yet met in person, yet we work perfectly well together.

Less commuting means less emissions and more time for family, exercise, volunteering and connecting with our communities. Remote and hybrid: more flexible working is here to stay. What we have to plan carefully for is the rise in IT-related emissions from online working, and we will need to accelerate our national programme to upgrade homes, making them cosier and more efficient.

Now is also the time to rethink the use of space and our natural resources – rewilding public parks, restoring bogs, growing sustainable food, repopulating rural villages and reinvigorating our town centres to become places where people live rather than just commuter destinations. Inspired by pedestrianised streets, outdoor dining and the joy of green spaces, we can make our cities people-centred rather than car-centred. Having breathed cleaner air, we can finally take steps to reduce air pollution, say goodbye to the internal combustion engine, end our reliance on solid fuels for heating and reduce the use of fertiliser on the land.

This transition should be shaped by a bottom-up conversation with employees and citizens about the Ireland they want to live in, grow up in and grow old in. Employers have the opportunity to co-design better work lives with their employees. The benefit will be rebuilt communities and revived relationships with each other and the natural world.

David McWilliams.
David McWilliams.

Urban regeneration

David McWilliams – economist and writer
The main economic consequence of the pandemic will be the effect it has on the future of our cities, the way we work and the notion of commuting. It is highly likely that we will see a blended workforce. Employees will save time – their most valuable resource – by eliminating hours spent commuting. Companies will save on costs, without undermining revenue, and boost profits.

Real societal change happens when technology and societal norms change at the same time and create the catalyst for real lifestyle change. The pandemic made remote working possible. Now that we have adapted to Zoom and Teams technology, things will never be the same again.

The implication is that cities that relied on the commuting worker or the business traveller to fill bars, restaurants and hotels will need to adapt to becoming living cities, places where people live much more densely. Commercial and retail rents will plummet. In Ireland, among other things this means eliminating urban dereliction.

Dereliction blights all Irish towns and cities. It is unsightly, wasteful and antisocial behaviour by inappropriate owners. Owners of derelict buildings are actively prolonging a campaign of devastation against our towns and cities. Dereliction is vandalism for the property-owning classes, which drags down the value of the property around the afflicted building, penalising good owners for the behaviour of bad owners.

Commercially, dereliction is often seen as the result of owners not having enough money, but in reality it signifies the opposite. Only the truly wealthy can afford to allow such an asset fall into disrepair. Every derelict building is a potential home or group of flats ready to be converted.

If we want to save our cities and towns and regenerate them, the main change must involve heavily taxing empty and derelict property while at the same time offering generous tax breaks for renewal or conversion. The tax could be avoided if the empty property is sold, encouraging inappropriate owners to sell, but they should be required to sell within, say, three months and, if not, the tax would be levied.

The subsequent glut would force prices down. In contrast, enterprising developers who want to bring these buildings back to use would avail of tax breaks not unlike the urban renewal breaks of the 1990s. Urban regeneration and heritage need to be the centrepiece of post-pandemic economic planning.

Peter McVerry. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Peter McVerry. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Homelessness

Fr Peter McVerry – homeless campaigner
Do we have a housing/homeless crisis? Apparently not, according to the Government. During the pandemic crisis, emergency measures that would never be contemplated in normal times were introduced: our personal liberties were severely curtailed, schools closed, a ban on evictions and a rent freeze were introduced – previously considered to be unconstitutional. The private health system became a public health system and even pubs were closed.

However, the Government response to the housing/homeless crisis has been business as usual, with a few tweaks. The ban on rent increases and evictions, which was so effective that it reduced the number of homeless people by almost 2,000 in a short space of time, has apparently become unconstitutional again, and been abolished.

Landlords are now free to increase rents by 8 per cent to make up for lost time. Why are rent increases not limited to the rate of inflation?

The Department of Housing is well aware that most landlords are now circumventing the 4per cent rent increase by demanding “top-ups”, anything from €125 to €200 per month, from renters who often struggle even to pay the “advertised” rent. Why are “top-ups” not made illegal?

The increase in stamp duty for investment funds buying 10 or more houses, in order to ensure housing for first-time buyers, is hardly radical. First-time buyers only buy one house. Why was the increase not applied to any fund buying two or more houses?

Speculators are holding a lot of land, waiting for the price to increase. At least 30per cent of the cost of a house is often the cost of the land on which it is built. Why does no one in Government ever mention the Kenny report, which would control the price of building land and thereby reduce the cost of housing?

Many of the proposals that could make a difference to the homeless/housing crisis are rejected on the grounds that they conflict with the constitutional right to private property. Where is the urgency to insert the right to housing in the Constitution, which would at least provide a level playing field?

There is a basic conflict between the interests of investment funds, landlords and banks, which benefit from rising rents and house prices, and the interests of people struggling to pay the rent or the mortgage or to save for a deposit. The answer to the above questions tells you which side the Government is on. Crisis? What crisis?

Eamonn Quinn.
Eamonn Quinn.

Food futures

Eamonn Quinn – businessman and investor
Trends in food retail happen slowly. In 2001 I was part of a retailing research group that looked at the impact of online shopping on the grocery market. Our conclusion was that it would take probably five years for online to reach 5 per cent max of the grocery market, probably lower. We called it the problem of getting the chicken through the letterbox; getting the delivery to a home at a time someone would be there to receive it.

In fact, 20 years on the online market share for Ireland is still below 5 per cent. Consumers are slow to change habits built up over many years, particularly when the new technology does not work perfectly the first time.

Change needs a catalyst and Covid was certainly that. Consumers who were aware of online shopping but had never tried it were forced online and many found it not as difficult as they thought. Also, those that might have been working and commuting to an office were now at home.

As any research company will tell you, consumers are a confusing lot. The same customers ordering online from Buymie because they are not prepared to stand in line to get their groceries can also be found quite happily queuing for organic sourdough or bragging how they had secured a precious jar of Howth Honey (guilty as charged).

What the pandemic has done is expose consumers to more possibilities much faster than would have happened naturally. What’s clear is that the chicken through the letterbox problem has been solved.nWe can get our groceries in an hour and we have personal relationships with our postman and a range of couriers who we trust where to leave things when we’re not home. Leaving us time to stand in line for something we value more.

The post-Covid retail world is one with more options for consumers. The winners, as always, will need to get close to their customers and deliver a great service time and time again.

John Bruton. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
John Bruton. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Government

John Bruton – former taoiseach and Fine Gael leader
It is in the nature of government, that big decisions often have to be taken quickly, with incomplete information. A lot has to be taken on trust. Even science-based decisions leave a big margin for human judgment. So the more a country’s disaster preparation plans have been publicly rehearsed and road-tested, the more likely they are to work.

Ireland has benefited disproportionately from globalisation, and from speedier travel and communications. Being on an island is no longer the disadvantage, nor does it provide the protection, that it used to.

In one year we have suffered the largest global epidemic in a century and the biggest ever cyber attack on an Irish State institution. These will not be one-off events. Cyber attacks are a new form of undeclared inter-state warfare.

Other threats are more predictable. The carbon price Ireland will have to pay will rise inexorably given limited global supplies of lithium and cobalt. So austerity in the use of energy may become obligatory.

Our Government can borrow cheaply now. But when these loans have to be rolled over, interest rates may have risen. If the interest rate then exceeds the growth rate of our economy, we will be back in the mire of 2010. Ireland’s liabilities for pensions and health care will rise steadily, as the population ages and the working tax base shrinks.

What can we learn about preparedness for multiple crises from the Covid experience?

The democracies which had the best pandemic plans on paper, the US and the UK, did poorly. Their plans did not survive contact with the enemy. The democracies who felt threatened for other reasons . . . Taiwan, South Korea and Israel . . . did best. Their plans were not just on paper, they had road-tested them in military fashion.

Only states have the necessary coercive powers to make a fully effective crisis response. But states must work together. Article 196 of the Lisbon Treaty gives the EU power to “support and complement” member states action on “natural and man-made disasters”. On cyber attacks, the EU should work closely with Nato, which has the specialist expertise.

The Covid crisis has led to an increased understanding of the vital role of government, at both EU and national level. It also reminded us that government works in silos, some of which are not good at talking to one another. Crisis management plans must not be filed away, they must be rehearsed, over and over again.

Sinead McSweeney. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Sinead McSweeney. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Future of work

Sinead McSweeney – Twitter vice-president, EMEA
Will things ever go back to normal? Does anyone even want to return to the way things were? These are some of the questions with which I and other leaders at Twitter have grappled since we introduced mandatory work from home guidance for all employees across the world.

Even before Covid-19, it was our chief executive’s stated ambition to move to a situation where anyone anywhere in the world could work for Twitter. The primary driver is to ensure that our workforce reflects the diversity of the communities we serve and truly represent a global conversation.

No one expected to realise such a lofty ambition overnight. But here we are, still working from home and what’s more, we are thriving. Over the last year, we have grown our user base, increased revenue and added over 20 per cent to our global headcount. We’ve demonstrated that we do not need to be sitting in an office together to have high performing teams and colleagues.

If we are to have a truly diverse workforce, we need to meet people where they are. We need to be mindful that individuals have different needs and are at different stages of their lives and, for some, working from home has proven to be an attractive option.

The key to the future of where we work will be optionality – where do I do my best work when I need to collaborate with colleagues (office), do deep reading and research (home), tick off the emails and “urgent/important” jobs (maybe the park on a sunny afternoon).

We’re conscious that there are many people who are anxious to get back to the office. Equally, there are others who are anxious about getting back to the office. Our offices are ready and have been for some time and we have a global decision-making framework to guide when we open offices.

However, our message to our employees is clear: returning to the office is their individual decision. We will open the doors and we will be there to welcome them, but they decide when they’re ready. And I promise to try not to hug everyone.