Author Archives: David O'Connor

Looking after best interests of Dublin must be top priority

Lorcan Sirr and Conor Skehan

The Irish Times – Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A new style of dynamic manager is needed to live in the city and ensure it is properly run.

WE NEED to stop ignoring Dublin. And let’s be clear: what is good for Dublin is very good for Ireland. In no way is that an anti-rural statement. Far from it.

Dublin and its associated region, especially the industrial ring just outside the M50, is the engine which keeps Ireland moving. Monies generated here enter national coffers to run regional hospitals, develop rural tourism, fund local authorities to maintain their areas, protect our water, wildlife, beautiful landscapes and much, much more.

 

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Insights from Dublin for City Development Beyond the Crisis

“From Making a City to Being a City”

Recently a group of Dutch and Flemish planners visited Dublin on a three-day mission to find out how the city is coping with the crisis.  The visitors comprised of many disciplines including planning, urban design, transport, anthropology and city marketing.  The visit involved meeting communities as diverse as Smithfield, Darndale, Newmarket and Northern Area Fringe.  The visitors met with project champions for Lifeline, the Complex theatre, the Dublin Food Coop, the “Learning for Life” project and the Fumbally Exchange “New Creative Quarter” initiative, among many others.   The DIT School of Spatial Planning also hosted a forum where discussions were had with Dick Gleeson, Chief City Planner of Dublin City Council and Mark Dyer, Research Driector of Trinityhaus along with other speakers from Ireland and the Netherlands.

The visit was a chance to get a flavour of how the crisis is affecting the city physically as well as socially.  And it was an opportunity to meet with some of the local community champions that might, some day, be seen as the people who lead the city to a better place.

After the trip Stipo, the Dutch urban planning consultancy who organised the visit, surveyed all of the people who came on the trip and asked them what they learned from the experience.  What emerged was a document (downloadable from the Stipo website) which reflects on the impact of the sudden downturn on a city, but also how planners might react in order to create an opportunity from the crisis.

It is refreshing, perhaps, to gain a fresh and objective perspective on events as they happen.  It is also a tribute to the community leaders, politicians and officials who took the time to meet with the visitors that such positive and useful insights could be gained from a three day visit.

http://www.stipo.info/Artikel/Dublin_between_crisis_and_new_energy

For more information about the visit, contact David O’Connor at david.oconnor@dit.ie or  Jeroen Laven at jeroen.laven@stipo.nl.

 

Transport 21 is dead, but what is to replace it?

At the recent Transport Ireland conference Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Leo Varadkar TD, strongly intimated that a root and branch overhaul of our existing transport policy is due to take place in September 2011. The first key question is whether he is referring to our actual transport policy or our transport investment program, which are not one and the same thing, or both.

Our actual official transport policy is contained in “Smarter Travel – a sustainable transport future 2009-2020”.  It is the first time we have had a transport policy proper and it was broadly welcome, containing many progressive actions and a far more enlightened approach than practice hitherto.

A failing of the policy, however, was to wholeheartedly adopt “Transport 21”. Transport 21, is what the previous two governments adopted as our national transport investment program.  This policy was a quickly cobbled together amalgam of infrastructure proposals from many agencies dumped into a single highly publicised announcement during 2005.  Accompanying the press release was an implementation timetable.  This timetable was an extremely ambitious program to invest €56bn in hard transport infrastructure.  The program is now pretty much blown to bits, as much by unrealistic timeframes as by the ever deteriorating exchequer revenue position.

The Minister didn’t definitively state if he is referring to replacing Transport 21 or fully throwing out Smarter Travel.  The latter would, given its attention to environmental and social concerns, require more vigilance from those with an interest in sustainable transport.  However, tallying with the Minister’s statement is the following interesting remark on www.transport21.ie which suggests a new infrastructure plan is on the way:

“Transport 21, a capital investment framework under the National Development Plan, was launched at the end of 2005 and ran until 2010. It will be superseded by the new National Development Plan from 2012.”

So there you have it.  Transport 21 has been quietly, quickly and officially laid to rest.  So what will be in the “new National Development Plan” about to replace it?

As most people well know, there isn’t much money in the pot for any infrastructure so it will be quite a piece of gymnastics to produce such a Plan unless it incorporates a radical move to more cost effective strategies such as BRT Networks, carbon fuel tax increases and deepening the already positive emphasis on cycling contained in “Ireland’s First National Cycle Policy Framework”.

To make matters even more interesting, the National Transport Agency, established to plan, procure and deliver transport services for the entire State, has to deliver a Transport Strategy for the Greater Dublin Area imminently.   The draft of this Strategy has been through public consultation (www.2030vision.ie) and contains more or less all of the megaprojects programmed in Transport 21, including Metro North, Metro West, DART Underground, etc.

The NTA Strategy is a Strategy for Dublin which must be completed by the NTA.  The DTA Act requires that the Authority “shall endeavour to ensure that the first transport strategy shall be published not later than one year following the review of the regional planning guidelines for the GDA” which presumably is legalese for “we’d like it if they do but it doesn’t matter if they don’t”.  Their deadline in that regard is 15th June 2011 for the record.

The question is what influence or role will the National Transport Authority (NTA) Strategy play in the national development plan?  The Minister has the sole responsibility to sign off on the Strategy for Dublin and it becomes binding on all other development plans once he does so.  How that would dovetail with a new National Development Plan is anyone’s guess.  Whether it includes the Transport 21 megaprojects is another.

As an adjunct to this discussion, it is most interesting that the NTA has no brief to prepare a National Transport Strategy giving the Minister and his office relative freehand in this regard.  It is a huge anomaly in the various bits of legislation that the NTA’s primary function is a Strategy for Dublin.  The NTA also has an advisory body which is Dublin-centric albeit powerless.  The NTA is governed by a board of 9 members appointed by the national Minister.  This is not necessarily an accountable corporate governance setup, to be determining decisions of such magnitude and importance to the future of the city and her dwellers.

David O’Connor is lecturer in Transport Planning and Urban Design at the DIT School of Spatial Planning, Chair of the M.Sc. Spatial Planning programme and is Chairperson of the Spatial Planning Graduate Network

 

A measure that would give power back to the people, and provide a new way to fund public infrastructure

Tax Increment Financing works in North America, but to be a success here would require a reform of local government.

The penny is beginning to drop that Ireland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe and the debate has begun in earnest for democratic reform. This can be seen in discussions surrounding the Dáil and the number of TDs, what they do and how they do it. The very presence of the Seanad is under threat from the main parties. The operation of local government is also under scrutiny. Whatever might or might not happen to the Dáil and Seanad, reform at local government level is very likely.

Is private funding the future for regeneration projects such as Ballymun?

Central and centralised government has arguably been responsible for much of the current economic debacle. Hence, the role of local government will be reassessed to see if affording greater power to the regions and local authorities – existing or newly reformed ones – could result in more efficiencies, better democratic procedures, and more locally responsive authorities. That’s the theory anyway.

Local government control over the raising and spending of its own finances above and beyond commercial property rates will be central to any debate about reform of governance. Reduced public finance available for infrastructure and regeneration developments, coupled with reform of governance, will lead to the need to explore new strategies for raising public funds.

In the UK – and particularly in Scotland – this search for new ways to fund local development has led to an exploration of a concept known as Tax Increment Financing (TIF). TIF is not something new. It has been bandied about in various guises for many years. Around since the 1950s in the US, and popular in places like California and Chicago, TIF is a method of raising private finance for public infrastructure or development. Funds raised this way are repaid by future increases in local tax revenue from the improved facilities.

We need something like this. In 2007, Ireland ranked near the bottom of a 17-country European table in physical infrastructure. We were also near the bottom in the business-performance category. Ireland’s global infrastructure ranking has since improved, but at the same time funding has dried up, with spending on it due to be cut by €3bn to €5bn over the next four years.

Infrastructure does produce results. In Britain, for example, it is estimated that every £1 invested in infrastructure produces £10 worth of benefits in business support and job creation. These projects are typically done as a joint venture between the lender and local government.

Competence, both professional and elected, at the local government level is a prerequisite for the successful operation of TIF. They are long-term projects and can be complex to manage. For this reason, such a scheme should only be introduced in tandem with fundamental local government reform. A scheme of revenue raising that commits an area to repayments for many years needs to be introduced and implemented by people who will act in an open, competent, honest and considered way. Gombeen-ism and clientelism has no place when the long-term stakes are so high.

There are, of course, risks attached to TIF, the principal one being that the anticipated increase in tax returns on completion of the new infrastructure or development is over-estimated. This will lead to a situation whereby local government is left with insufficient funds with which to make the required repayments to the original lenders. This risk is greatest where population, and associated future income, is low. Another danger is that businesses may simply move from one location to another, thereby taking their commercial rates from one local authority to another. Again this risk is greatest

TIF is most likely to be successful and appropriate in larger metropolitan areas. In Ireland, this probably means it would only work in the Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway urban areas. Smaller areas will have less potential to raise income post-completion, and will have even less potential to attract lenders. Practice so far has seen the potential value of projects capped, typically at around the equivalent of €600m.

Crucially, a proper consideration of risk sharing is key to TIF; specifically, it involves commitment to the idea that if lenders are providing capital at a rate of interest which includes a premium for risk, then if the project fails to deliver expected returns they must take their share of the financial losses. Lenders will have done their research, calculated the figures and costed accordingly. If they lose, they lose.

It can only exist as part of a new fiscal system of local revenue generation and such changes, in turn, will require reform of Ireland’s property markets. In the residential market, this will involve production of the long-awaited register of property prices. On the commercial side, it may mean the adoption of European-style shorter leases with more frequent rent reviews pegged to inflation rather than the market. It may also involve a modernisation of commercial rating practice.

Transparency in transactions and valuations – or the lack thereof – has been a massive issue in the last decade. This is particularly pertinent when it is the taxpayer who will reap the rewards, but also foot the bill, as with TIF.

Ultimately it won’t solve all our urban regeneration ills, nor provide all needed infrastructure, but is worth considering. Central government hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in the last few years, so perhaps it is time to return some power to the people at a local level.

Dr Lorcan Sirr and Conor Skehan lecture in the College of Engineering and the Built Environment at Dublin Institute of Technology