The following article is a response to a blog post by Anne Sheridan. In her blog, Anne argues that developers have perhaps been unfairly maligned for much of the problems of Limerick City and that a policy which promotes retail development in the city centre above all else is somewhat misguided.
Good Developers, Bad Developers
Certainly the Riverpoint and Mariott Hotel developments were quite positive and Michael Daly and Fordmount should be given credit for those high quality and ambitious projects, which they carried off successfully. There is also the Carlton Apartments development by Aidan Brooks which stands out as a better example of what could be done with a city centre space. Unfortunately, these high-quality developments were the exception rather than the norm in this city. For every genuinely good development, there are many others that are depressingly ordinary, and some that are downright poor, which we will be stuck with for a long time to come.
[And before we get too carried away about Fordmount, they themselves got caught up in at least one ill-thought-out project that could have had disastrous consequences for the city. Thankfully, their Limerick Boat Club development didn’t happen, but imagine if it had!? If construction had started when Mr. Daly had wanted it to we would now be looking at a half-built concrete and steel monolith, somewhat akin to the Parkway Valley development, except that it would be in the most prominent location in the city centre (i.e. in the middle of the Shannon River!) and far more damaging to the city (even if it did get completed). For all the talk of turning Limerick to face the river, we have to be very careful how we do it, because, frankly, the river is Limerick’s greatest material asset, the other great assets being its heritage and its people.]
Who is really responsible?
While the reality is that much of the development in Limerick has been developer-led, it would be remiss to blame them for the poor quality projects that sprang up during the boom years (or indeed the ones that have stalled). For the most part the developers will build what they can get away with, and unfortunately quality isn’t always their top priority (however much they claim it is!). They are in business to make money, and that is their right. The responsibility for the mistakes that are made and for not having a clear plan or vision that the developers can build towards falls squarely on the local authority. Time and again, it (both elected representatives and unelected officials) has not proved up to the task. [To use the example of the Limerick Boat Club development (but there are many more), it was waved through the planning process in city hall. At both executive and political level, hardly anybody shouted ‘stop’. Only two councillors voted against the decision to re-zone the space and de-list the buildings (some councillors enthusiastically cheered the project on), and the planning department itself paid no heed to the objections and observations raised, and duly granted permission. It was left to an outside body, An Bord Pleanála, to save Limerick from itself, so to speak, and the project was knocked on the head.]
A bigger problem
If we stand back and take a broader view though, can we really even blame the City Council (either elected or unelected members)? They are a product of a local government system in Ireland that is archaic, grossly inefficient, poorly led and deeply flawed. While the system exists in every region of the country, it is the Mid-West’s misfortune that it’s urban and economic centre happens to be located on the cusp of three counties, and this has meant that the effect of the flawed local government system is felt more acutely here than elsewhere in Ireland. So, aside from general inefficiency and poor leadership which is the nature of all the councils, it has been that bit more difficult to get a single coherent plan for the management and development of the Midwest in place than it has been in other parts of Ireland.
Opportunity Cost – The unrealised potential of the Mid-West
The problem is most obvious when you look at the haphazard development and poor management of Limerick and its environs but Counties Clare, Limerick and North Tipperary are suffering from the flawed structure and poor planning just as much as Limerick city is. For the wider region, the consequence is that it hasn’t developed as it should have. Standing back and taking a broad view (again!), is there any good reason why the Mid-West cannot be the economic counter-balance to the Dublin metro region that Ireland so clearly needs? The Mid-West is situated far enough away from Dublin, yet accessible to the south and west of Ireland, and has a natural and built infrastructure that make it ideally suited to be that counter-balance, instead of being a peripheral, poorly populated region where most educated and highly skilled people leave in order to gain employment. If we got over the parochial bickering and adopted a single, focussed regional strategy and vision, the Mid-West could develop greatly in the next 20 – 30 years, perhaps far greater than most of us can imagine.
The effect on Limerick City
Aside from the opportunity cost for the region outlined above, the flawed structure of local and regional governance, and the mis-management that goes with that, has left us with many lasting problems. Some of these are obvious, and others while less obvious are equally real and often more serious. Take, for example, the development of the city since the 1970’s. If there had been one regional authority with a coherent plan throughout the Mid-West’s modern history, would we have built large suburbs on the outskirts of Limerick City as we did from that decade onwards? If sensible planning was our motive I don’t think we would have. We’ve spread out a fairly small population thinly over a large area such that we need far more infrastructure to service it than we would need if we took the existing urban space and worked with it. In fact, in Limerick, we’ve developed two cities – one within the original city boundary, and the other just outside it in the form of the suburbs of Raheen, Dooradoyle, Castletroy and Annacotty. The former now contains roughly 55% of the total population of the Limerick urban area, while the latter contains the other 45%. We’ve made it difficult for ourselves to get around the place and the population is so scattered and of such low density that the possibilities for having an efficient and inexpensive public transport system are now remote. [That doesn’t augur well for the future when the levels of private car ownership are likely to decline significantly.] This ‘screw-up’ happened because there were two authorities each with different plans, each vying to make the most of their area and there was very little joined-up thinking or true leadership. More tragically, it has brought about the decay of a once-great city. As the city spread out, it brought with it the retailers, many of whom now no longer see the city centre as the best place to do business. Over time, as fewer and fewer people live in and do business in the city centre, rental and property prices have dropped and a cycle of disadvantage and decay has set in. Indeed, this all began a long time ago but the cycle persists with all its related problems.
In the public consciousness, the planning and development of the region is probably low on the list of things to be concerned about. It’s not immediately obvious just how important it is in our everyday lives. Health, employment, education and crime would all probably feature higher up that list, and understandably so, but the fact is that all of those serious concerns are greatly influenced by planning and development. It is fair to say that if you get the regional planning and development right, you stand a far greater chance of addressing those concerns than you do if you don’t give priority to it. We haven’t given it priority for more than a few decades and we are not in a good position as a result.
So, in essence, a very big part of the problem that the Mid-West and Limerick City has is the structure of local governance. Fix this and a lot of good will follow. The decision to amalgamate Limerick city and county councils may seem like a step in the right direction, but it could just as easily turn out to be a botch job and be more than a step backwards. Amalgamating the councils is all well and good to improve efficiencies and have a coherent plan for both city and county (and could actually result in a bit of joined up thinking when it comes to planning and important decision-making), but it really hasn’t gone nearly far enough. Why not move to the regional model and include County Clare in the amalgamation too? There’s no good reason why North Tipperary shouldn’t also be included. Such a change in the structure of governance in the Mid-West would have great benefits to the region and its people, simply by the fact that there would be a single, focussed plan for its development. We may even see the region become the counter-balance to the Dublin metro region mentioned earlier.
Political reality and what can be done …
Assuming that a switch to a true regional governance is not on the cards right now for political reasons, what can be done to improve Limerick City? For starters, there must be a recognition that cities are as much for living in as they are for shopping and doing business in, and Limerick is no different. If we make the city centre a genuinely attractive place to live, then a lot of other positive developments will naturally follow from that, and we would stand a good chance of breaking the cycle of disadvantage and decay that has set in in recent decades. So, how do we make Limerick City centre and attractive place to live? A few simple measures could be undertaken that could set the ball rolling.
- Greater investment in city centre family-friendly amenities such as parks and playgrounds.
- Adopt measures to transform the city centre into a pedestrian and cyclist-friendlly city. Some good work has been done, but we need to go a lot further. This means reducing and slowing down vehicular traffic, providing incentives to people to walk and cycle (how about a Limerick Bikes scheme?).
- Provide grants for renovating our Georgian buildings for residential purposes. We have the most impressive Georgian heritage in the world, let’s make use of it rather than letting it decay. If we are to make the city centre an attractive place to live in, the houses and apartments that we provide must be attractive too.
- Incentivise businesses, such as cafés, shops, cultural venues and community-related enterprises to remain open after 5pm. We must change the night-time focus of the city centre to something far healthier and appealing than it currently is. A night-time city centre environment dominated by pubs and fast-food restaurants and the resulting drunkeness, boisterousness and violence is not going to be an attractive place to live.
- The city centre must simply be made more visually attractive. One of the aspects of the city which greatly detracts from its visual appearance is the over-proliferation of street signage and clutter. There appears to be no set standards or rules, too much duplication, and by far and away the greatest culprits are the city council. Another big step would be to make property owners responsible for the condition of their buildings. For example, Dunnes Stores have done a poor job of maintaining the area around their store on Henry Street. Simple maintenance of buildings would go a long way to making the city more visually attractive.
In summary, the structure of local and regional governance must be fixed. This is the responsibility of the Minister for Environment and the government of the day. Then, a clear, focussed long-term plan and vision for the wider region as well as the city must be adopted. It should be devised by the new authority in conjunction with the stakeholders of the region, who for the most part are the citizens. Finally, the developers must build towards that plan and vision. It is not their role to set it.