Business Irish

Sunday 22 September 2019

Capital spending: Can national plan build a Dublin fit for 2040?

Can a blueprint caught between the regions and unrealistic notions of a 'Manhattan-by-the-sea' really improve the capital?

Can a blueprint caught between the regions and unrealistic notions of a ‘Manhattan-by-the-sea’ really improve the capital?
Can a blueprint caught between the regions and unrealistic notions of a ‘Manhattan-by-the-sea’ really improve the capital?

Fearghal O'Connor

It was perhaps fitting that the idea of moving Dublin Port was thrust back onto the agenda just days before a massive new government investment and planning framework was launched.

An old debate - in reality settled long ago - the fanciful notion to move the country's biggest port by far, to replace it sometime in the distant future with a shining high rise city quarter, re-emerged even as crucial decisions about the city's actual future were being made and were going largely undebated.

The new National Planning Framework to 2040 and the accompanying and interlinked National Development Plan 2018-2027 aims to rebalance growth towards the regions and to break what government officials have described as Dublin's "unplanned gravitational pull".

The Government initiative as a whole - billed as Project Ireland 2040 - is based on the premise that the country's population will grow by one million people over the next 22 years. It aims to refocus this growth away from the capital and towards other cities and regions.

Nevertheless, by 2040, an extra 540,000 people could inhabit the eastern and midland region that is now Dublin's effective hinterland. Sprawling development over decades out into this hinterland has left the city facing huge and never-ending problems with regard to transportation and it is unclear that the new plan will help much in this regard as the population grows.

Yes, the Metro has been relaunched and repackaged yet again. But Dublin Chamber of Commerce, for example, has expressed its concern around what appears to be, once again, the long-fingering of the Dart Underground plan. While Metro will bring a very welcome new services along the length of its track, the Dart Underground plan has been viewed since the early 1970s as the way to interconnect much of Dublin's disjointed rail network. The new plan sees the delivery of the crucial tunnel section of this plan pushed off until some time after 2027.

While the new investment plan does promise the electrification of existing lines, to Drogheda, Maynooth and Celbridge, it does not hold a short or even medium-term panacea for the increasingly busy services from suburbs and satellite towns already earmarked for huge short and medium-term population growth.

Electrification may replace diesel trains with electric Darts for these stations but, rail experts have argued, that does nothing to alleviate the rail bottleneck around Connolly Station that the proposed Dart Underground tunnel would solve. Indeed, an expansion of services from the newly electrified commuter stations will quickly worsen the problem and any Dart expansion programme without the tunnel faces serious curtailment.

There are other examples too that suggest some aspirational thinking when it comes to transport in the city. Like earlier plans, park & ride facilities are envisaged. But what is long forgotten, even by the motorists who queue for miles far back beyond Maynooth on the M4 each morning, is the saga of the major park & ride facility that was proposed next to that motorway for 1,000 cars and which could have acted as a local public transport hub. The local authority's own planning inspector recommended giving the facility planning permission but the planners disagreed and the plan died. It remains to be seen how the new Government plan will fare when placed against the realities of Irish planning.

AA Ireland director of consumer affairs, and long-time commentator on transport issues Conor Faughnan says such short-sightedness has long been the root cause of Dublin's transport difficulties. He recalls moving to Knocklyon on the city's southern edge when it was still full of open space. At the time, local residents campaigned for a Luas line and pleaded with planners to at least retain space in the area, roughly equidistant between the two existing southside Luas lines, for such a service should it become a possibility in the future.

"No planning was done," he says. "Every individual landowner got land rezoned and sold it and every developer maximised their return so that the whole area was filled with development leaving no space for Luas and no proper planning for transport. Now, if you wanted to put a Luas into an area of the city that is still mushrooming, you would have to put it in underground at 10 times the price."

It also remains to be seen how the aspirations of the plan help to tackle the acute housing issue the city faces. The new plan sets out to try to halt the sprawl of Dublin into greenfield areas by building 50pc of new development in the city on brownfield sites and also building upwards.

But height has long been a matter of great and unresolved debate in the city with taller buildings restricted to certain areas. Even in those areas, tall buildings have been rejected or shackled and it remains to be seen if a new national level plan can result in a taller city over time.

"The further east we go, the more we should tolerate going up," said Faughnan. "Traditionally Dublin is a low-rise city. But it's a bit like neutrality - people are nearly taking that inherited position and turning it into an article of faith. In Dublin we didn't set out to say that every other city in the world is going up and we choose to be different - we just ended up here and we have made a virtue of it to the point that some people make a religion of it."

That low-level development has meant a huge commuting population dispersed halfway across Leinster. A central tenet of the new plan is indeed the ambition to tackle this but it remains to be seen how successful this will be. The continuing conservative approach of planners to high-rise combined with the renewed and steady stream of planning permissions for housing developments around Louth, Meath and Kildare suggests that there is much work to do in this regard.

A port in a storm

The history of the planning debate around the port illustrates much about the forces and fanciful notions that have too often driven debate about how the city should develop.

Back in 2008, as the economy was already crashing around their ears, Dublin-based Progressive Democrats pushed for the idea of a new vision for Dublin Port. The party organised a conference and produced a brochure with an impressive new vision of Dublin from the sea - full of skyscrapers reaching up from the bay.

Separately, developer Liam Carroll ran up a big stake in Irish Ferries with much speculation at the time that his real target was the ferry company's valuable land bank in the port.

The whole plan was predicated on the fact that the aesthetically displeasing functions of Dublin Port would move to a site just north of Balbriggan called Bremore.

A new port was indeed being planned for Bremore but what the backers of the campaign ignored was that the Bremore plan was in reality a proposed relocation for the much smaller Drogheda port as part of a joint venture with a Treasury Holdings company.

The Bremore plan was never a substitute that was going to be able handle more than a percentage of the huge amount of goods and freight that passed through Dublin.

There were other massive issues with the plan too. A massive farm of oil tanks and pipelines, which supply much of the State's needs, would take a mammoth effort to move, not least because it would be so difficult to find an alternative location to house them.

None of those issues has gone away. The port continues to grow, plan and invest hundreds of millions of euro in its current location, but the fantasy of Dublin's Manhattan-on-Sea persists.

"All the land we have right now we need for port activity," said Dublin Port chief executive Eamonn O'Reilly.

"The big challenge that Dublin Port faces is one of supplying capacity for growth. We have had three record years in a row and 2018 is almost definitely another record year."

The master plan for the port envisages this type of growth right out to 2040. It's a long planning horizon with room for any number of black swans and white elephants but the prediction for ever-increasing growth in trade through the port is based on something concrete: the prediction in the National Planning Framework for huge population growth.

"With continued growth in people in the economy, as night follows day, port volumes will rise. Our master plan up to 2040 sees us building infrastructure to cope with that rise but at that point the port will have maxed out in terms of expansion," said O'Reilly.

Between this year and last year the port will have spent over €200m on infrastructure development. On top of that, the port plans spending a further €1bn in the next 10 years, with a further €600m needed to complete its 2040 master plan.

O'Reilly says that if a decision were made today to move the port it would take 20 years to do that. During that time the port would have to continue to expand just to cope with growth.

"So the new port that would be required in 2040 would have to be twice the size of what we have here today. It would be huge.

"The expense would be enormous and it would be incredibly difficult to get planning for something like that. I don't think you would have a snowball's chance of moving what we have here today to a greenfield site."

But O'Reilly believes that the new planning and investment frameworks will have a very positive impact on the development of both the port and the city.

"We have 17 years of non-stop construction ahead of us and the big thing is to ensure that finance is available when there is an inevitable downturn in the economy during that period so we can keep building during the cycles. That's why long-term planning frameworks are so important for the type of projects that we do."

He acknowledges that a major complaint about the planning system is that it is so slow when it comes to big infrastructure projects.

"But that's not a surprise. We know that. So start early. And it's much easier to start early when you have a master plan like the National Planning Framework.

"For me the framework is starting to put the sort of long-term structure you need to bring a big infrastructure project through the planning system. If I wake up in the morning and dream up a plan for a big infrastructure project with a big environmental impact, the chances of getting it through planning - unless it fits in with national policy at some level - are very very low. And that is as it should be. We should be planning this stuff properly."

Ultimately, the success of the new plan will be partly judged on how the capital city manages that delicate balance between employment generators such as the port, its ever-growing housing needs and its overstretched transport system.

It remains to be seen whether a national plan, with one eye firmly fixed on sometimes competing issues in other regions, can provide the multiple fixes that the city needs.

Key transport projects for city

  • A €3bn revamped and extended version of the previous Metro North that will also encompass much of the current Luas Green line.
  • A €2bn upgrade to the existing Dart system will see the commuter lines to Drogheda, Dunboyne, Maynooth and Celbridge electrified but does not yet include the interconnector tunnel between Spencer Dock and Heuston Station.
  • Planning will begin for Luas line extensions to Bray, Finglas, Lucan and Poolbeg but they will not be delivered before 2027.
  • The €2bn Dublin BusConnects plan aims to deliver a “transformational redesign” of the bus system in Dublin.
  • Strategic park-and-ride sites plus investment in parking facilities at rail, Luas and bus locations.

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