The closure of Superquinn supermarket in Naas is a suitably grim start to the year. As it happens, the underlying reasons for the closure are apparently commercial: the calamity that has befallen the town generally raises far more worrying questions about local government in Ireland.
I know Naas well. It has undergone a unique disaster, because much of the ruin that has been visited on it was not so much economic, as political. The town has a traditional Irish main street of Georgian origin.
All traffic heading for the south-west used to pass through it, but even when it was by-passed, Naas remained prosperous -- until a series of bizarre planning decisions by Kildare County Council changed it forever.
Firstly, permission was given to build not just one, but TWO retail parks, one on either side of the town, each anchored by a huge DIY store: Atlantic Homecare in one and Woodies the other. This was naturally damaging to the DIY businesses in Naas. One, Mattimoes, which had been in business for a over century, closed. The other, Gouldings, has kept its business by offering a personal and highly specialised service that the large chains cannot match. But it is hard, hard going.
Next, the council planners gave permission for yet a third retail park just outside the town with the largest supermarket in Ireland. In one day, it drew 5,500 customers and achieved sales of nearly €3m.
Meanwhile, Naas high street has been hit by a chainsaw massacre, as shop after shop has folded beneath the unsustainable pressures created by insane planning.
Yet the icing on the still unbaked cake was that the planning authorities also gave permission for a new shopping centre in the heart of Naas, as if this part of Kildare were Manhattan, able to sustain an almost indefinite amount of retail activity. Needless to say, work on the town centre shopping mall has now halted, as shoppers are drawn to the three retail parks a short car ride away.
However, it is not just a question of despair in Naas. The largest office block in the town is a glittering palace of architectural modernity, with lakes, fountains and sloping glass walls. No, it is not the Irish home of Microsoft, or Google, or Intel: it is the home of Kildare County Council, which is to a large extent sustained by the rates generated from the retail parks outside the town.
It's not just Kildare which has set some terrifying examples of such ludicrous planning. Eight miles from Naas, the west Wicklow town of Blessington is struggling to survive the imposition of a hideous concrete 'town centre' alongside the existing Georgian streetscape. Yet the new 'town centre' -- what a truly fatuous title -- is just about dead, save for its anchor clients, Dunnes Stores. Virtually all the other units are empty. And this folly is not solely a victim of the economic collapse: Blessington could never have sustained the number of retail outlets for which Wicklow planners gave permission. Even for the 'town centre' to have prospered in the tiger years would have required rival shops on the old main street to have folded.
Another local government planning folly appeared before the High Court last month. Mr Justice Peter Charleton heard how Galway County Council gave planning permission for the construction of a housing estate outside Kinvara on a blind bend in a road on which the speed limit was 100kmh. Moreover, the planning permission extended the town "in an unplanned manner", through an important tourist area. It was difficult to see why the court should be required to authorise such a public danger, the judge declared -- a public danger which had been initially authorised by Galway County Council.
You will all know of other ludicrous and unsustainable planning decisions -- the many new 'town centres', which are nothing of the kind, or entire housing estates on flood plains, as famously in Sallins, or villages raped by mass suburbanisation. This idiocy is not just of recent vintage: 30 years ago, north county Dublin had thousands of thatched cottages, making the region a magnet for tourists. Planners oversaw the destruction of the lot.
So, can local decision-making in Ireland ever really be trusted, regardless of whether we live in tiger-land, or just the doldrums, or, as at the moment, having stepped off a cliff? A vast infrastructure of local government, now occupying the most extravagant buildings in our towns, appears to be incapable of making consistently rational planning decisions. Self-interest and stupidity seem to be at least as influential as applied intelligence and formal policy.
Yet what happens whenever planning-making is left to central government?
The go-ahead to build a Tallaght (without any shops, naturally) was a government decision in 1968. Today, a comparable process sees motorways without service stations, and Metro North, and Dublin Airport's empty €1.2bn terminal.
So, does this failure result merely from a malfunctioning political system? In which case, it can be fixed.
But if it is a true reflection on the national psyche, beyond all reform or improvement then we are, as Aristotle put it in his famous essay, 'Reflections on the Inner-Soul, and Governance of a Democratic City-State', "well and truly ."