Michael McDowell: Daft white-water rafting plan is anything but a capital idea

Dublin is being destroyed by unelected officials and a lack of genuine local democracy

November 27th, 2019: Dublin city councillors will next month be asked to give the green light to a new white-water rafting facility on George’s Dock in the IFSC. Video: Smart Docklands/Dublin City Council/Dublin Docklands

 

Am I the only person in despair about Dublin City Council and the almost complete absence of effective local democracy and decision-making in our capital city? I hope not.

A city that could even be contemplating the “redevelopment” of the derelict, boarded-up and endangered Joyce house on Usher’s Quay as a low-grade hostel with a new block to its rear and at the same time allow its city manager to propose the expenditure of €22 million (at the latest count) of public moneys on a white-water facility (of use to the fire brigade) in a basin near the Custom House, is a city that has lost its way, to put it charitably.

Already, the city’s management has spent €1 million on the white-water rafting design. An elected council that could tolerate such a grotesque failure in managing priorities deserves the sack.

Dublin City Council has failed miserably as a housing authority. Look at the O’Devaney Gardens fiasco for proof

The “old hands” on the council know that you get nowhere unless you allow the unelected management to rule the roost. Newcomers to the council soon realise the price that is to be paid for crossing swords with their unelected masters.

The city council has a budget of nearly €1 billion and about 5,800 employees. It has outsourced most of its services, including water supply to Irish Water. It has failed miserably as a planning authority. It has failed miserably as a housing authority. Look at the O’Devaney Gardens fiasco for proof.

Unscrupulous landlords

All around our capital city, an unscrupulous minority of landlords are raking in money with gross overcrowding of rooms with multiple bunks sleeping four to six people in small rooms and back-garden sheds.

Between the departmental geniuses in the Custom House and the city managers, bedsits were outlawed in 2013. That was on foot of a delayed-action ministerial housing regulation made in 2009 on foot of campaigning by a homeless charity. I will charitably omit to identify the minister or the charity.

But the result was that between 8,000 and 12,000 low-cost dwellings were emptied at a time when the housing shortages were accelerating. The problem with bedsits, we were told, was the sharing of kitchen or bathroom facilities.

In 2019, shared-living “boutique” accommodation involving shared kitchen facilities became ministerial departmental policy again in the Custom House. Pity the thousands who had been evicted from bed-sits in 2013.

The city council seems to have no real function in transport policy, where all real decisions are made by an unelected National Transport Authority (NTA).

A computer-generated image of the proposed white-water rafting facility at George’s Dock, Dublin. Image: Smart Docklands/YouTube
A computer-generated image of the proposed white-water rafting facility at George’s Dock, Dublin. Image: Smart Docklands/YouTube

Councillors have virtually no say except in making very questionable gestures such as extending the 30km/h cycling speed limit (18.64 mph) to cars commuting in the suburbs. MetroLink and Luas development are, apparently, above their pay grade.

Likewise, the unelected NTA has come up with some bizarre proposals in its BusConnects planning. Councillors can decry NTA proposals but they can’t stop them.

The real question is one of power and control. The Custom House simply will not concede real autonomy to local government

There are no overall plans or standards for street design and frontage styles. There were such standards and plans for the rebuilding of O’Connell Street in the 1920s. Developers now ram up utterly incongruous office blocks cheek-by-jowl along our streets. Look at Cuffe Street and Kevin Street for examples.

East German mess

I never cease to wonder at the wrecking of Smithfield by the city planners. A huge open cobbled space with magnificent visual potential was transformed by the planners into a horrendous East German mess festooned with absurd lamp units and low-level buildings.

If you have the time, compare Blackhall place as now reconstructed by the council with photographs available online of the Georgian street that they demolished there in the early 1960s.

But what can we expect of a planning authority located in its own remarkable creation at Wood Quay?

The real question is one of power and control. The Custom House simply will not concede real autonomy to local government. Such powers as are left in councils are largely exercised by prefects, now known as chief executives, who used to be called county and city managers.

So unwilling is central government to concede power to councils that it cannot tolerate the idea of an elected mayor for Dublin who might do something about social and affordable housing.

Lands acquired by the Dún Laoghaire council for social and affordable housing at Shanganagh from the Department of Justice have now lain empty and derelict for 15 years.

The Custom House, which funded that purchase, is now thinking of giving the lands to their own national housing agency to carry out a development. Dún Laoghaire’s manager moved to Dublin and is now at the helm of a council which is fighting with the Custom House about the legalities of redeveloping O’Devaney Gardens.

Things could be very different. Dublin could be expanding to the east. The industrial part of Dublin port could be relocated to Bremore. The port area could be a new, high-rise urban centre to complement the older parts of the city we love.

If we had genuine local democracy in Dublin, all of this could happen. Instead we are spending at least €22 million on white-water kayaking for firemen and issuing boil-water notices for the rest of us.

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