24 Mar 2008

I paid a visit to the new Ballymun a couple of weeks ago and on first impressions it’s a one million per cent improvement on what was there before. Lots of good work has been done in an effort to create a proper town centre. There are fine new public and commercial buildings and some of the housing schemes are very nicely designed.

However, if memory serves me correctly, some newspaper recently reported that the Ballymun regeneration project was six years behind schedule and roughly €500 million over budget. I think it was Noel Dempsey who was quoted as saying that about €100 million of the overrun had gone on unanticipated administrative costs. Does this mean a hundred administrators received a million euros each? Or that the money got lost in some local authority overtime slush fund? Somehow this story - where a half billion euros in unexpected additional costs - didn’t gain traction; nevertheless, I understand the Minister is being quizzed officially on the matter so there may be more to come.

Meanwhile, word filtering back from the area is that some of the social problems with which the old Ballymun had become unfortunately synonymous are making an unwelcome appearance in the new Ballymun. It seems ground-up planning, good architecture, sports facilities and fancy coffee shops are not the answer to the bigger question of how to turn people’s lives around when they find themselves trapped on the isolated fringes of society.

Coincidentally, just this week a new and widely quoted report suggested that teenage boys from single parent homes located in underprivileged areas are thirty times more likely to appear before the courts. I don’t think I’d be reading too much into this report to suggest that the single parents in question are probably mostly women, probably all young and probably all forced to spend time out of the home working. Probably, they’re not best placed to offer the kind of mentoring that impressionable boys at a difficult age need to keep them on the straight and narrow. With a lack of positive male role models, is it any wonder that young boys fall under the sway of criminal gangs?

Architecture and planning aren’t the whole solution to social problems. If crowded conditions, small dwellings, non code complying apartment buildings, lack of mod cons, etc., were the cause of society’s ills the safest, most peaceful and most expensive areas of Paris would be ghettoes of violence, intimidation and anti social behaviour.

Obviously, we need – in fact, if we have any pride in being Irish, have an obligation – to come up with more thoughtful solutions than simple regeneration schemes.

Here’s my idea: what if the 35-year-old-plus section of the general male population got actively involved in a mentoring program with vulnerable young men in troubled areas to help build up their self esteem, encourage them in academic pursuits, increase their cultural references, take them interesting places and generally be at the end of a phone line when the temptation to follow the herd and do the wrong thing is gaining the upper hand? Is there an organisation doing this already?

By the way, a half billion euros are about to be spent on regeneration schemes for Limerick’s Moyross and Southill areas (a figure which will, no doubt, double and a project which will, no doubt, run six years over schedule). Nobody would wish anything but the best for the people who’ll benefit from this project. But Limerick City Councillor, John Gilligan, summed up concerns many have about the ‘clean slate’ approach by confirming that he’d ‘never been attacked on the street by a new bungalow’. 

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