2 Feb 2009

When his Ballsbridge development was refused planning permission by An Bord Pleanala Friday, Sean Dunne blamed it all on the Irish planning system. He said that the planning process in this country took too long, was too complicated, cost too much money, was too confusing, etc., etc., and likened the system to a game of roulette.

Interesting choice of words. 

Five years ago, in the course of a project I was working on in Waterford, I crossed paths with one of our household-name, Dublin based property developers (not Dunne). I finally took advantage of the chance encounter to float some ideas with this Property Supplement Darling about how the planning system could be reformed so that the consideration of development proposals might be a less speculative, less expensive, fairer, faster, clearer, nicer, easier and less capricious process, as well as being more obviously designed to serve the public interest. 

The A-List Developer agreed with me that, from a public interest point of view, the system we have in this country couldn’t be worse, founded, as it is, on no clear ideology and managed, as it is, by perhaps the least qualified professionals in the country. He concurred that Ireland would be better off with the type of system they have in places like Germany where development plans are soundly reasoned, crystal clear and leave no one in any doubt as to their intentions.
Pushing my luck, I wondered if the Frequenter Of Tax Havens might be open to discussing the matter further with me? It seemed to me that, as we were on a similar wavelength, discussions could prove fruitful: in the back of my mind a thought was beginning to take shape that the reforms of the planning system which I had been discussing with my little coterie of colleagues for so long might find a broader audience if they were in some way endorsed by the Driver Of The Most Silver Car In Ireland.

It was at this point in the conversation that the lines of communication hit some static. The Prominent Supporter Of The Arts adroitly made it clear to me that, although he agreed that the Irish system was as bad as you could imagine a system being, it was not in his interests to see it changed. You see, he said, it’s the possibility for exploiting the confusion inherent in our system which gives the property developer the opportunity to make so much money. If, the Charity Event Sponsor wondered, we had a system like they did in Berlin or New York where the development potential of a site was clearly defined in the development plan, how on earth would anyone get rich quick?

The genius which Irish property developers share is not their capacity to see an extra storey in a development proposal that the rest of us are incapable of seeing, it’s in their ability to hoodwink planning officials into believing that the extra storey isn’t even there. The roots of this success lie in the fact that untrained decisions makers don’t have the background in architecture, planning law, urban theory, accounting, finance, political science, etc. to correctly evaluate what’s being put in front of them. When a flashy developer shows up in their office with A) a model produced by a Brazilian bord, Oslo based, Farsi speaking architect the planner hadn’t until that very morning heard of before but now suddenly realises is a God of design, and B) a silver tongued planning advisor who convincingly argues that the main use of the proposed development is a community crèche and that the other one hundred storeys of commercial office development above the crèche are merely accessory (I’ve been at one or two of these meetings – they happen), planners' heads get turned. The policies they thought they’d understood pretty well when they read them in the Development Plan that morning turn out to mean something completely different by the time the meeting is over. 

This is pretty much what happened in Ballsbridge. So vaguely was the Dublin City Development Plan written that somehow those who put the plan together in the first place – the planners (whom you would think might remember intending at the time of writing the plan that no high rise buildings should be built in the area) – found a way to justify approving an application for a bunch of tarted up, spec-dev, high rise buildings. Nothing – absolutely nothing – in the Dublin City Development plan hinted at the fact that an application such as Dunne’s would fly. Sadly, nothing in the Development Plan said otherwise. Sadly, nothing in the Development Plan said anything. 

I don’t really believe Sean Dunne when he says he thinks planning in Ireland is like a game of roulette, because if he knew all along he was playing roulette he wouldn’t have gambled a highly leveraged half billion euros plus on the spin of a wheel. I’m pretty sure Dunne fully understands what the Irish planning system actually is: a confidence trick where ponzi schemers bamboozle recognition-desperate councillors and faux-discerning planners into doing whatever it is they want them to do. And that's all it is.    

Monday, February 02, 2009 3:51:19 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)

Bravo. This is the clearest and most rational excoriation of the whole rotten, tottering edifice that is spatial planning in Ireland today. you'd be wasted on Fine Gael!

fintan duffy
Monday, February 02, 2009 10:36:57 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)

Very kind of you to compliment the piece, considering the version I posted wasn't the final draft and full of typos. (I've tried to clean it up.)

Permit me to return your compliment - Ireland doesn't benefit from the fact that you are not a participant in the public debate. Actually, it's not a compliment: I'm simply stating something which you know to be a matter of fact.

But, let me ask you this: if you woke up in the morning and decided, after all, to focus your considerable talents on making a change to our community, how would you go about doing it? I'm serious about this question, I really want to know what you would do. You and I are pushing 50 - people like us don't start revolutions, we haven't got the wherewithall to get a new political party off the ground. Apart from joining Labour or FG and trying to change things from within, where to we go? What are our options?

BTW, the vibe I'm getting is that FG won't run me in the locals. And that's okay, they have to do what they have to do.

And yet, I won't shut up.
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