30 Jun 2008

Public Private Partnership is an unbreakable colt out of a mare called Celtic Tiger by a sire named Lucifer. After a dodgy showing in Infirmary Road a few weeks ago, his career came to an end at Heustongate last weekend.

The Public Private Partnership has been around in various forms for quite some time but the ‘new model government’ version – that panacea for every type of public service development, from housing to health care, from crèches to schools – emerged in the late 1990s. The basic idea was that that if you needed a new facility but hadn’t he money to build it, you could encourage a local developer to build it for you by sweetening up the development potential on their site. For example, if the developer agreed to build the service outlet you were looking for and rent it back to you, you (the planning authority) could give him a few extra apartments on the same site to make the additional cost worth their while.

Amongst Public Sector types, the PPP achieved cult-like popularity. Within the Local Government community, it was a way for County Managers to prove to the rest of us that they weren’t a hindrance to Ireland’s new prosperity but were, instead, an important part of it. Swept off in the spirit of pro-activism, Assistant Town Clerks restyled themselves Directors of Services, becoming ‘development facilitators’ who ‘acted outside the box’ to ‘maximise strategic outcomes’.
But somewhere along the way a wrong thing happened. The PPP approach to development gradually fudged the lines between the Local Council’s sexy new role as development huckster and its traditional roles as A) provider of services and B) dispassionate adjudicator of planning applications.

With regard to ‘B’ it often happened that planning authorities found themselves on both sides of the equation: for example, Cork City Council recently approved a large development on the Grand Parade. It would be fair to say that due to its scale, it was not the kind of project you would normally expect the Council to award permission to. However, the proposed development included a new, state of the art City Library which, when built at the developer’s expense, would be handed back to the city. I’m sure the City Council didn’t for a minute use a different standard in adjudicating the Grand Parade development than it would for an application you or I would make for a house extension, but they’d have to agree that the situation had the potential to be perceived that way.

But it’s with ‘A’ – provision of services – that you’ll find the PPP’s deadly sting. The public service has a duty to deliver certain basic requirements regardless of how hard the banks try to squeeze their private development partners. The provision of social and affordable housing, for example, cannot be held to ransom (as it currently is in five areas of Dublin) just because some mega developer won’t make a profit. Affordable housing must be provided wherever and whenever needed. 

So, when our slowing economy eventually shows new signs of life and the unholy alliance of Planning-Authority/Developer finds more exotic ways to blind us as to what they’re really at, we must stand firm to ensure that some of the failures of the PPP system are never repeated: when it comes to the provision of urgent services, take your fancy pyramid scheme someplace else. 

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