The debate in this newspaper between property developer Johnny Ronan and journalist Frank McDonald on high-rise in Dublin is both important and healthy. Whether Dublin is a city in which high-rise of 16 to 20 storeys - or 45 in Ronan’s case - is both permitted and encouraged or whether we opt for a lower-rise spread-out capital, is a choice to be made by the people of Dublin – whether you define Dublin as the city or the wider metropolis.
Prodded by Europe, Ireland amended its constitution in 1999 to recognise the role of local government in providing a “forum for the democratic representation of local communities in exercising and performing at local level powers and functions conferred by law and in promoting by its initiatives the interests of such communities” (article 28A).
However, such recognition left local-government powers, resources and functions entirely for decision by the Oireachtas. The only guarantee in the article is that local elections will take place every five years at a minimum.
So who decides whether and where high-rise can or should take place in the greater Dublin area? We have medium-height tower blocks in Sandyford – a part of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. We have special development zones scattered hither and thither in Dublin’s periphery. The area once governed by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, where limited high-rise is already permitted, is now run by Dublin City Council officials. We have strategic housing developments of high-rise apartments in the pipeline for small sites speckled across the city and counties.
In reality, local democracy has a very limited role in determining what our cities look like, how they develop and where they develop. Zoning is a permissive and negative control on development.
Apart from derelict sites, owners of zoned land are free, within limits, to decide on the timing, density and heights of development. The local authority, as planner, rarely takes the initiative. Strategic housing development has been fast-tracked as a single process governed by An Bord Pleanála.
That board is not local government. It is not even a part of local government. It is not elected and has no powers, say, to acquire land compulsorily to bring about urban renewal.
The new Land Development Agency will not be part of local government either. Local-government officials are soon to be empowered to divest local authorities of land in favour of the LDA without the consent of elected members.
Further erosion of democratic control is justified on the claim that local authorities failed to make land available for home building.
As I have argued here recently, the axis of paralysis between local authorities and the Custom House, the supervisory department, has resulted in catastrophic underprovision of homes, whether private or social, and has resulted in an uncontrolled sprawl.
Recently in the Seanad some of these issues were briefly considered. One member pointed out that planning controls in Wicklow meant that local towns and villages were not providing sufficient homes to keep their schools and services open.
On the other hand, the horror of daily commuting in the greater Dublin area visited on many young working parents ground down by travel and childcare commitments is also a hot issue.
I pointed out to Eamon Ryan – Green Party leader and Minister for the Environment – that his party’s preoccupation with rail over road would not in the reasonably foreseeable future meet the travelling needs of our growing population. Even if the rollout of broadband makes it possible for working from home to obviate commuting for many, developing our road system still makes sense.
If cars are all electric in 10 or 15 years and if all lorries and buses and vans are powered by hydrogen (as may happen), there is still a case for completing the motorway network to the northwest and in the Munster region. We are not destined to enter into some kind of economic sleepy hollow once the Covid emergency is over.
There is a fully-worked-out plan to build a Luas line to Lucan. But it has been quietly shelved. Another Luas line to the northwest is now proposed. Metrolink is still on track but we have not decided democratically whether its southern route should go via Terenure to Tallaght as favoured by Ryan or whether it should cannibalise a large portion of the Green Luas line (closing that line for two years in the process). The National Transport Authority favours the latter option. How will these matters be decided democratically?
Going back to the Ronan-McDonald debate, nobody, including McDonald, opposes all high-rise in Dublin. The issue is whether Ronan decides where and when it should take place or whether the people of Dublin should take that decision in a transparent and democratic manner.
Like many other matters, constitutional provision for local democracy is window dressing that makes very little difference. Politics, not referendums, is the way forward.