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Making a difference for Dublin

Dublin Chamber of Commerce president Brendan Foster talks about his packed agenda for the remainder of the year

Brendan Foster: “I come from a practical world and I want things to work.” Photograph: Conor McCabe Photography

Brendan Foster: “I come from a practical world and I want things to work.” Photograph: Conor McCabe Photography

 

A true-blue Dub, Dublin Chamber of Commerce president Brendan Foster is intensely proud of his Cabra upbringing and the fact he shares an alma mater with the serial All-Ireland-winning Brogan family – St Declan’s College in Cabra West. This is reflected in his approach to his role within the Chamber, which can probably best be described as passionate, committed and energetic.

That passion and energy is evident when he talks about his priorities for his year in office. “Every president has a few key strategic initiatives that they want to further,” he notes. “It’s not about a legacy, it’s about making a real difference for the city and the people who live and work in it.”

And he’s very much talking about substance over shadow. “I come from the consulting world and I hate strategic plans and vision documents that have no basis in reality,” says the Grant Thornton partner. “I come from a practical world and I want things to work. I have gained a lot of knowledge in relation to the infrastructural issues affecting Dublin through my work as chair of the Dublin City Council audit committee over the past four years. I want to put that knowledge to work in helping to address the infrastructure deficit faced by business in the Greater Dublin Area.”

He believes there is scope for greater co-operation between the Chamber and the four Dublin local authorities in this regard, particularly in terms of speeding up infrastructure projects. “When you see how long it takes to get projects moving, it is clear that something needs to be done. I would like to see the Chamber engage more with the local authorities in relation to this, but not just at executive level. We also need to engage with the elected councillors and the people who elect them.”

Engaging at all three levels is very important due to the structure of our local democracy, Foster believes. “Councillors have to be mindful of their electorate and that is only right. But businesses in Dublin pay €650 million in commercial rates to the four local authorities each year and are effectively disenfranchised when it comes to having a voice in how the money is spent. When you are talking about issues like density and the lack of housing for people who live and work in the city, you need to deal with all three layers.”

Engagement with the people of Dublin will be facilitated through the “Big Dublin Survey” later this year. “We are going to ask the people who live and work in Dublin what their concerns are,” he explains. “I want to address the negative sentiment towards the business community that we hear from certain quarters. Unfortunately, this sentiment is reinforced by some politicians and elements of the media.

“Dublin is responsible for 40 per cent of the country’s GDP,” he continues. “We’ve got to look for ways to change this negative perception of business. We have to engage with the population, the councillors and the executives of the four councils to do this.”

Foster also believes it is time to look again at how Dublin is governed. “We have to ask why we have four local authorities. We have to ask why we would have a directly elected mayor if we still had four local authorities. We also have to ask why we split the county council into three in first place. We at least need to have the debate. I want to promote real discussion around the governance of the Greater Dublin Area.”

He suggests consideration could be given to the establishment of a Dublin regional authority and that this would give real meaning and substance to a directly elected mayor. “The four local authorities would operate as service providers to the new authority, submitting their annual budgets for approval. Ideally, the Dublin regional authority would be headed by an executive officer who may be elected directly by the citizens of Dublin.”

He says this debate should take place in the context of the Chamber’s Dublin 2050 vision document launched last year. “We have done a lot of work on this and we have fed our vision into the National Planning Framework. But this is a long-term vision and no one can tell at this stage how things are going to turn out in 2050. We need to select three or four short-term objectives within the overall vision and make sure they are achieved.”

Among his objectives in this regard is to ensure Dublin does not lose out under the new National Planning Framework. “We can’t go back to the urban-rural divide. People have to recognise that Dublin is a gateway city and that a successful Dublin is for Ireland as a whole. There is a danger that when the new framework is finalised Dublin will be disadvantaged in relation to other areas of the country. I am going to speak loudly and often about this and why Dublin should be at the centre of the framework.”

Housing is another near-term objective. “All the statistics are telling us that between 300,000 and 400,000 more people are going to be living in the city in the coming years. We urgently need 90,000 new homes for these people. There is a lot of talk about developer profits and so on at present but very little action when it comes to making provision for future housing needs. We need to talk about homes for workers moving in to the city.

“The IDA and Enterprise Ireland are doing a great job at creating employment but there is a real danger that there won’t be enough housing to accommodate the workers. The discussions around social housing and homelessness are important but we’ve got to look at the ongoing needs of the people who work in the city as well.”

He laments the fact that the Chamber’s proposals on density and height were rejected in the formulation of the latest five-year city development plan. “We lost the battle on that unfortunately. It’s a pity because we weren’t looking for Metropolis or Hong Kong or anything like that. We just wanted sensible heights and densities to be able to cater for the growing population.”

The ramifications of that decision will be felt long into the future, he claims. “The National Transport Authority is developing infrastructure based on the population distribution of a low-density city. That will be a mistake. We need to start planning for increased density now.”

That is easier said than done though, with funding for transport infrastructure projects in short supply. “The standard answer from the State organisations is that they don’t have the money for these developments,” he acknowledges. “But there are ways of raising money. There are alternative sources of finance such as public-private partnership that can be explored. We should also look at alternatives that have worked in other jurisdictions. We can also get derogations on borrowing limits if we are creative.”

He is frustrated by the apparent lack of urgency on the part of Government on this issue. “We are just dancing in the dark at the moment; we are going nowhere and if we don’t do something soon we will move into another crisis. It’s not just me saying that – Dublin Chamber of Commerce and others have been saying it for over a year.”

The delays in delivery of projects even when they do get the go-ahead are another source of frustration. “Look at the National Children’s Hospital. People are still arguing about where it’s going to be built and fighting against it. These things just delay projects and escalate costs. We can’t afford uncertainty like that in relation other projects. That will just drive business out of Dublin and Ireland and into other jurisdictions.”

His other key objective is to see a greater focus on diversity and inclusion. “The whole area of culture and diversity is very important from a business perspective. Culture is something we do very well, as the 1916 centenary celebrations showed. Dublin is a great place to live and work partly because of our positive attitude to diversity and inclusion. Of course, diversity and inclusion can be buzzwords in some ways. But we need to promote an understanding that they do affect our ability to attract and retain the best people. All of the best business leaders get it. Diversity and inclusion is not just a good thing in itself, it’s good for business as well and anyone who doesn’t take it seriously will suffer as a result.”

That agenda should be enough to keep anyone busy but Foster still manages to find time for his hobby – cycling. And even this is being put at the disposal of the Chamber. “I’m an obsessive cyclist,” he admits. “We are going on a sponsored cycle in Spain in the summer to raise money for charity. We are blessed in Dublin city that we are so close to the mountains and other places where we can cycle at weekends.”

And how does he feel nearly four months into his presidency? “I enjoy making a contribution. I have done this all of my life in every organisation I’ve been a member of. I enjoy interacting with people and challenging myself every day. As president, you have to be alive and alert to issues outside of your own business and I enjoy that too. You have to have fun as well of course and I have had the opportunity to meet some great people through the Chamber.”