There has been a lot of commentary in these pages and elsewhere in relation to urban dereliction in Dublin, and the piecemeal and inadequate response to the consequences.
To put one matter out of the way immediately, there is no – absolutely no – constitutional issue based on a property rights argument in tackling dereliction, underutilisation, or inordinate delay in the case of urban land.
There is no constitutional right to keep scarce urban land and buildings in a derelict, underused, ugly or disfiguring state. That applies as much to unlisted as to listed buildings. It applies to cleared sites as much as undeveloped or decaying buildings and structures.
Not merely is there no constitutional impediment to addressing these issues in a radical way; there are many statutory powers already in place, but largely unused, with which to do so.
What is impeding the creation of a beautifully restored urban core for Dublin is an almost suffocating paralysis on the part of the agency to which the responsibility to use its powers – Dublin City Council, as planning and housing authority.
Planning, building and restoring Dublin’s urban core can’t be left to a serendipitous process where it is left to be done spontaneously by developers
It is true that the use of eminent domain – known here as powers of compulsory purchase – in many statutes is cumbersome. But the onerous court-based stages of confirming some forms of statutory compulsory purchase are not required by the Constitution. The real problems lie elsewhere.
Planning, building and restoring Dublin’s urban core cannot properly be left to a serendipitous process where the agency of the community passively hopes it will happen spontaneously by developers assembling sites for redevelopment over decades.
Streetscapes must be actively planned if we want beautiful urban environments. They require standards, continuity, and sometimes uniformity relating to user, appearance and overall form. There must be a proactive plan for every big city-centre street and precinct. More than that, derelict, underused or unsightly spaces and buildings must be made subject to the real and immediate likelihood of an urban redevelopment agency using powers of compulsory purchase to ensure redevelopment to a decent standard.
That agency should also actively assist in site assembly for redevelopment and grant commercial building leases to developers on a “use it or lose it” basis to secure speedy redevelopment.
For this, we need a 21st-century reincarnation of Dublin’s 18th-century Wide Streets Commission – an agency that actively surveys for dereliction, underuse or redevelopment needs in our urban core. This agency would not be concerned so much with widening street as restoring and developing streetscapes and liveable urban community.
Open spaces surrounded by ugly and derelict buildings remain bleak and unwelcoming - no matter how many bike-stands and skating facilities you plonk in them
It would not need huge investment of public money; its primary function would be to kick-start and oversee conservation, restoration, and redevelopment where necessary in our urban core, especially to bring back decent city centre living opportunities for Dubliners.
If you say that the Council should do this, I say look around you. That body has proven itself to be the creator of urban blight. Take a long hard look at its Ballymun regeneration project. By any standard of urban planning and aesthetics, that has been an abject failure. Worse still, the latest failure came in the wake of the council’s complete failure to maintain its own 1960s redevelopment.
In fact the council itself has a huge portfolio of dereliction and urban blight on its own books.
We need a new executive agency – not a hapless attempt to get the council to perform the functions from which it has resolutely abdicated responsibility since the 1930s.
I asked here some time ago why we were building Dublin to be ugly and soul-less. When was the last time you saw a new building in Dublin and thought, “I would like to bring a visitor to see this”? Who or what is responsible for the appearance of Dominick Street or of Cuffe Street/Kevin Street? Where is the aesthetic? Where is the coherence? Does anyone in the council know or care? Have we any sense of urban beauty or character?
Do we think naively that Dublin’s gracious streets and inner-city leafy suburbs happened by the same accidental, fragmented passive “planning” regime that we have today?
Instead of addressing these questions, the council – housed in its architectural excrescence at Wood Quay – has concentrated on changing street use. Open spaces surrounded by ugly and derelict buildings remain bleak and unwelcoming – no matter how many bike-stands and skating facilities you plonk in them.
The council is transmuting into the much easier role as a road authority. Its most recent plans for street use are dangerously close to strangling the capacity of Dubliners to access or cross through their inner city at all. That is not good enough.
This is not a task for the failed city council or for the ponderous and large-scale Land Development Agency. We need something different.