Former Secretary General at the Department of Finance, and currently head of consultancy firm RHH International, John Moran believes Ireland needs a complete rethink of how we build our country and plan for the future.
John Moran believes that suburbia and rural living are going to die, that we should say good riddance and embrace dense, urban living. Just before he left the Department of Finance, he worked on a medium-term economic plan for Ireland: “Part of that was how would the country move forward and the big issues that would have to be dealt with”. He is now the Irish Director for the European Investment Bank, which involves looking at how the Bank should be investing in the future of Europe in terms of infrastructure. This and his work on the Limerick Economic Forum led him to get involved with the Ireland 2040 project, which will provide a document outlining the framework for future
development and investment in Ireland (www.npr.ie).
“You could have this situation where Dublin grows and grows and becomes incredibly congested. Housing becomes incredibly expensive in the city centre, you have people moving further and further out and the quality of life continues to deteriorate.”
His views are not without their critics, and there are many people in Ireland in whose interests it is to maintain the status quo, like landowners at the edge of our cities, who would rather see houses growing than barley; car manufacturers and retailers who benefit when people live in isolated areas with little or poor public transport; and, city centre property owners who will see the values of their properties rise as long as space in our urban areas remains scarce.
“If you continue that process, you divide the country between people who benefit from the status quo and the people who do not benefit from it. It is not just a case of having money and not having money; this is a split at all levels of society. If you continue that split, then you run the risk of having a very fractured society, one where the have-nots are increasing in number and the haves are decreasing, at least in percentage terms, and you get to the core, fundamental questions being grappled with in many countries in western Europe about inequality and ultimately, society loses.”
Once John started speaking out about the future of the country, he found a lot of his time was taken up by it: “Because the views I was expressing were not just what’s good for my back garden; it was a broader, macro-position for the country. It was resonating in many different places in fact”.
“It’s very hard to think of a very good example of Irish town development or urban development since probably the foundation of the State.”
John thinks the way to get Irish people to see themselves spending their lives in city centres is by making city centres much more appealing: “There’s probably not much to be gained by some form of forced displacement. I think the opportunity Ireland has that countries with more stable populations don’t have, is that while we have the disadvantage of finding ways to house and accommodate a growing population, we also have the opportunity to start by focusing on giving those people – who are the kids of the people who are already in Ireland coming out of university, going into the workforce, looking to live on their own, the people coming back to Ireland who left, or the people coming here for the first time ever with their families – a better urban option”.
By doing this the people who are living in suburbia (many of them not by choice, he points out) will start returning to the cities: “The only option for a young family with two or three kids should not be that they have to have a one-and-a-half or two-hour commute because there is no building going on in the areas where the jobs are”.
One major problem in Ireland that he sees is that a lot of our existing city scape consists of just two-storey buildings, even around central Dublin: “When you have a lot of the available land consumed by gardens, which are zero density, and two-storey houses, you have to go even higher with the building on the available land to get the average up to a certain level”.
With this lack of density, it is difficult for Ireland to provide public services: “Once you get beyond the urban spaces as we know them, you get into an awful lot of individual houses, which is not the case even in Northern Ireland”.
“The only option for a young family with two or three kids should not be that they have to have a one-and-a-half- or two-hour commute because there is no building going on in the areas where the jobs are.”
Planning our country
We’ve never done planning for the future well in Ireland, according to John. While we had a relatively stable population from the foundation of the State until we joined the EEC, afterwards it rose significantly: “I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of planning that growth in terms of developing the right type of infrastructure for that to happen. And we now have the problems that come from that”.
As an example of this, he notes how congested Dublin has become. The capital has been built on a suburban model, rather than one of dense population, which would permit effective delivery of public services, such as public transport: “I’m therefore not sure (hopefully we can, but I’m not sure) if we can turn around the mindset to allow us to plan out 30, 40, 50 years and to make the big decisions that are required. It’s very hard to think of a very good example of Irish town development or urban development since probably the foundation of the State. Most of what people think of when they think of that in Ireland, tends to relate to periods back in the 1800s”.
Action needs to be taken
With the population set to increase by 1-2m people in the near future, John sees some options and hard choices for the country. One is that massive amounts of investment are made in Dublin for it to be able to absorb the extra people, and provide good living conditions for its residents, including the over 65s population, which will treble to 1.5m by 2050: “If that massive investment is put in, then achieving a city of Dublin that has 4m people in it, that works effectively and works efficiently, should be possible. It’s just very hard to see either a decision by the Government to do that, because historically we’ve never been good at doing that, or the population of Dublin such as they are at the moment being open to the kind of radical decisions that would require, in terms of densification of the city and disruption to the city to retrofit a lot of the things you would need”.
Another option (a poor one according to John) is that Dublin is left to grow the way it has been with relatively little intervention, with more and more greenfield construction on the outer extremities: “You could have this situation where Dublin grows and grows and becomes incredibly congested. Housing becomes incredibly expensive in the city centre, you have people moving further and further out, and the quality of life continues to deteriorate”.
“Because the views I was expressing were not what’s just good for my back garden; it was a broader, macro-position for the country. It was resonating in many different places in fact.”
He favours another alternative that he believes would benefit the county: the policy objective of not having everyone living in the east: “Let’s imagine a world in which Waterford, Cork, Limerick, Galway – potentially somewhere else like Portlaoise or Sligo – all become very well connected by public transport. They each have individual, high-quality services so people don’t necessarily have to move from one to the other for jobs or for third-level education, etc.
“That way you distribute the desirability of living in any one place, which makes housing more affordable in all of the places. You have quality services in each location so that people can live closer to the centre of those locations, and quality of life therefore improves”.
John believes these cities would act as economic engines across the country and help to make the rural hinterlands of those areas more sustainable too.
John notes that in many parts of America, the car-based, suburban-living fatherland, the model is being rejected: “I think we need to think about what that means as a trend for us. What should Ireland be doing, when we’ve done very much the same in terms of planning, with individual housing and suburban estates even at the edges of small towns”?
The same level of car dependency is not the norm in many parts of Europe, where there are models that could make our cities more appealing. One example which always comes to mind for John is Aarhus in Denmark, which was once Denmark’s third city: “They went through a process of trebling their student population, and investing in their hospital so that it became not just a good hospital but possibly the best hospital in Denmark. They have developed a really vibrant city with some bold and ambitious architecture. It is a city that has gone through a total renaissance and is now Denmark’s second city. An approach like that for our own regional cities could see them suddenly becoming much more attractive places for people to live and, economically, more competitive options than Dublin, provided that they remain incredibly well-connected to Dublin. Because the bottom line is that without Dublin, Ireland won’t succeed”.
“A lot of urban planners now say that what you’re actually best off with is a mixed-height
approach to development.”
Fear of heights
Density in part means taller buildings, something there seems to be an aversion to in Ireland, and John thinks there are two reasons for this. Firstly, we’ve never had them before: “Secondly, because the tradition of Ireland, and this is very important when it comes to understanding our cities, is that for many years in the late 1800s and the 1900s, the only tall buildings we had were Georgian buildings, which were often the location of the worst neighbourhoods and the worst living conditions at the time”.
We have also made some bad choices when it comes to housing such as “the clearing of neighbourhoods and the building of models like the Ballymun towers, which weren’t actually good models in the first place”.
This leads to people approaching the question of tall buildings with certain biases, but John doesn’t think every building should be a skyscraper and notes that a lot of urban planners now say that what you’re actually best off with is a mixed-height approach to development: “But you perhaps get higher and therefore more dense as you get closer to the principal transport, the node”.
“Once you get beyond the urban spaces as we know them, you get into an awful lot of individual houses, which is not the case even in Northern Ireland.”
Challenges to development
The provision of one-off housing is something which must be looked at, especially because of changes to EU law: “It is probably time to draw a very hard line around our towns in rural areas as well, and to stop allowing building outside unless a person is, from a professional perspective, tied to that location”.
Recommendations to the Government have recently been made to change county boundaries to allow for the growth of some urban areas. For example, it was suggested that part of Kilkenny be redrawn into Waterford to allow Waterford city to grow. This was met with bitter opposition and the proposal was rejected. So how can urban areas grow into neighbouring counties?
John says: “By disconnecting GAA jerseys from planning decisions”.
There is the option of removing economic and political boundaries from the county system, so people from
neighbouring counties might wear different colours at a GAA match but vote for the same councillors.
“We saw in Limerick when we combined the city and county councils in the last couple of years, which again weren’t even based on GAA grounds, we have seen the renaissance in the fortunes of Limerick. “It has been run much more holistically. The next step would be to have much more collaboration between Limerick and Galway and Waterford and Cork”.
“The professions like the surveyors are well respected. If they had a strong voice in this debate and participate to the fullest extent in the debate in terms of where it’s going, I think that would help to sway some people.”
What can surveyors do?
Surveyors should be fully informed about the debate because, John says, it is often more emotional than factual: “The professions like the surveyors are well respected. If they have a strong voice in this debate and participate to the fullest extent in the debate in terms of where it’s going, I think that would help to sway some people”.
John says the National Planning Framework document is one of the most important documents to identify Ireland’s path for the next 15 to 20 years: “It is such an important document, it is important that everyone help contribute to it”.
So will we see the changes?
“I think it is happening already. I’m not saying it’ll happen easily but it is happening. If you walk around or cycle around Dublin in the morning now in certain neighbourhoods where facilities have been provided for people cycling, particularly around the Grand Canal, you see that people are voting with their feet so to speak and they’re not using cars anymore.
“I think that this will happen when the Government decides it should happen and I think they’re getting to a point where they’ll have no choice with climate change controls and the rest. People will very quickly follow, if not lead them”.
John Moran is from Limerick and after many years working in the private sector became Secretary General of the Department of Finance in the midst of the financial crisis in 2011. Previously, he worked in the Central Bank of Ireland and for Zurich Capital Markets. He left the Department of Finance in 2014, and founded his own consultancy firm, RHH International, in August 2015.
Journalist and sub-editor with Think Media Ltd.