Our greatest challenge must be to avoid the trap of suburban sprawl


The need for "sustainable neighbourhoods" has been underlined by a housing report, writes Frank McDonald.

Month after month, new housing areas are being developed throughout the State that will lock their occupants into abject car dependency and all the other downsides of suburban sprawl - isolation, segregation, long commutes and children being chauffeured everywhere.

It is as if the 1997 Sustainable Development Strategy and the 1999 Residential Density Guidelines simply don't exist. And with this year's output of housing expected to exceed 75,000 units, the need for "sustainable neighbourhoods" has never been more pressing.

Like Israeli settlements on the West Bank, new houses are "facts on the ground"; once built, it is unlikely that they can be removed - whether located in sprawling suburban estates tacked on to towns and villages, or dotted all over the countryside as "one-offs".

The National Economic and Social Council (NESC) has performed a useful public service in its report, Housing in Ireland: Performance and Policy, by spelling out the need for "a clear vision of the kind of high-quality, integrated, sustainable neighbourhoods that are worth building".

It likens the magnitude of this task to other great challenges that Ireland faced and met over the past half-century - the Lemass-Whitaker "opening up" of the Irish economy in the 1960s and the creation of a dynamic "new economy", through social partnership, from the mid-1980s onwards.

Much of the problem lies in misguided "self-perceptions", as the report says. "The re-casting of policies and approaches in the 1980s challenged the self-perception that the Irish are a creative and convivial people, but not capable of high-grade manufacture of sophisticated objects.

"Achievement of the new principles of urban development and social integration seem to be blocked, more than anything else, by the self-perception that Ireland is so attached to extensive development that . . . we cannot make quality, sustainable, socially-cohesive cities and towns."

NESC disagrees with this fatalistic view. "Since the earlier perceptions were confounded by the emergence of a prosperous society and a world centre of engineering and information technology, there is no reason why we cannot prove ourselves wrong again," its report says.

For Dublin, in particular, "it is crucial that decisions on the next generation of infrastructural investments are made quickly and given priority", according to NESC.

These would include the €1.3 billion plan for an underground rail link, or circle line, between Heuston Station and Spencer Dock.

"A narrow cost-benefit approach to public transport investment decisions, which measured current demand and usage, would miss a fundamental aspect of urban development: transport not only connects existing places, it makes new places," as the report says. That critical link between rational land use and the availability of public transport has been missing in the past.

Its absence helps to explain why so many people in the Greater Dublin area, as well as visitors to the city, find it so difficult to get around what is supposed to be a European capital city.

It is obvious that proceeding, willy-nilly, with the creation of a vast, sprawling north American-style "edge city" on the outskirts of Dublin is in nobody's interest - other than car dealers and motorway builders. The same applies on a smaller scale to Cork, Limerick, Galway and other urban centres.

The NESC report pulls no punches either on the need for more social housing. With politicians trading claims that all or nothing has been delivered in this area, it clearly spells out that €1.4 billion a year - some 50 per cent more than at present - will be required to meet social housing needs to 2012. Other measures proposed in the report should also be adopted - notably a review of "Section 23" tax reliefs for the provision of private rental housing, and the imposition of a tax on second homes to reflect the true costs of servicing them, as the ESRI also suggested some time ago.

Perhaps the Minister for Finance, Mr Cowen, will see the sense of these measures, seeing as he is already reviewing a wide range of tax reliefs. The Minister for the Environment, Mr Roche, might also request local authorities to satisfy him that they are implementing the residential density guidelines.

But are they listening? Or will this NESC report simply gather dust on bureaucratic shelves, like so many others before it?

If it does suffer the same fate, we will only have ourselves to blame for not being wise enough to confound our own self-perceptions of what is, and isn't, possible.