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Should central government take control of planning in our cities?

Colm McCarthy

The National Transport Authority last week released revised plans for the Bus Connects project



INVESTMENT: Anne Graham of the NTA at the Bus Connects announcement last week
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INVESTMENT: Anne Graham of the NTA at the Bus Connects announcement last week

As the discussions about forming a government continue, the financial constraints, invisible during a carefree election campaign, are closing in. There is already evidence of a tourism slowdown due to the coronavirus. It was never guaranteed, anyway, that the next government would be awash with tax revenue and spending options. The incoming team, whatever its composition, will have to make choices, which means that affordable projects will have to take priority over the visionary stuff.

During the election there were promises of extensive rail-based public transport schemes, including light rail in provincial cities, a high-speed link all the way from Belfast to Cork and several underground tram and rail routes for Dublin.

For pure fantastical thinking, nothing quite matches Boris Johnson's bridge (since revised to a tunnel) linking Northern Ireland to Scotland, for which neither a route nor a cost estimate is available. Since no adequate traffic is available either, there will be neither a bridge nor a tunnel, and, anyway, binning this one is the UK Treasury's problem.

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One of the critical choices for the Irish Government will be in Dublin. Last week, the National Transport Authority (NTA) released revised plans for the Bus Connects project and hopes to have a finalised scheme before An Bord Pleanala later this year. This scheme is capable of early implementation and would deliver enhanced service and capacity on 16 key routes around the city, at a cost of about €1bn. It competes for funds and political support with rail-based schemes including a single underground tram line from the city centre to Swords, estimated to cost €3bn on its own and likely to take a decade or more.

Buses are the dominant form of public transport in Dublin and around the country, which is not surprising given the low urban and rural population densities. The bias in public policy and in media coverage against bus transport and in favour of rail is not peculiar to Ireland but it takes extreme form in these parts. Vehicles with steel wheels are seen as modern, worthy of support from progressive politicians, but vehicles with rubber wheels are invisible, not real public transport at all.

During the election, some Green Party people, who should know better, even argued that investment money should be diverted from roads to 'public transport', thereby equating public transport with the steel-wheeled variety.

Most public transport in Ireland comes with rubber wheels, uses the road network and struggles to deliver a high-quality service in congested urban areas. Any practical solution in the real world requires enhanced provision of road space for buses and the Quality Bus Corridors introduced in Dublin in recent decades have been a help. Bus Connects would deliver a further step-change with extensive dedicated bus capacity around the city, faster journey times and a real alternative for car commuters.

Especially in the south city, two features of the initial Bus Connects scheme provoked opposition, the requirement to fell trees and to acquire portions of front gardens for road widening and the provision of cycle lanes. Last year's city council election saw intrepid candidates attaching ribbons to elderly trees thought to be at risk and residents' associations mobilised against the threat to their leafy retreats. Except that they are mostly fully surfaced, off-street car parks, sectioned out to accommodate the 4X4s popular with the environmentally concerned denizens of Dublin 4 and 6. The trees are fully grown monsters in many cases, roots bursting through the pavement and a threat to life and limb. City council officials would like to replace them with more suitable species, not to facilitate Bus Connects but in the interests of public safety.

The NTA, on a first reading of the revised plan, has made numerous concessions to the Nimby campaigners in the inner suburbs, compromising some of the potential gains to bus users. The revised plan reduces by 42pc the number of properties adversely affected, all of them on the south side, and lists the streets on which elderly trees are to be spared, all but one also on the south side. The declared intention is to replace the felled trees where feasible with younger and more appropriate varieties and a net increase in overall tree numbers is explicitly pledged in the NTA press release. The Irish Times, nonetheless, headlined its news report 'Number of trees to be felled under bus route scheme jumps from 1,500 to 2,500'. Journalist Sarah Burns wrote the article and mentioned that new planting would "see more tress replanted than the numbers removed", which is fair enough. But who wrote the headline, and why?

The Nimbys were out earlier last week when Dublin city councillors declined to support a proposal from their planning staff to designate for housing various small pockets of land around the city which currently have industrial zoning. These industrial sites, derelict or obsolescent, are relics of a city which no longer exists, but could have supported the construction of around 3,500 apartments. Apparently there are other, larger sites zoned industrial which have no future in that zoning category, so the ultimate loss of housing (just in the Dublin City Council area, the centre and the inner suburbs) if the councillors persist will be a multiple of the numbers prevented on this occasion.

There are portions of Dublin inside the M50 with agricultural zoning, believe it or not, and equal resistance to any change. It was never the intention of the planning acts to freeze land-use in the capital as Queen Victoria left it, but that has been the outcome. The well-intentioned planning legislation from the 1960s has been perverted by councillors into the Prevention of Housing Act.

These are the same councillors who led (in some cases fomented) the opposition to Bus Connects - councillors of all political parties. There is a pattern here and it is unmistakeable. Voters who could not give a fig about bus transport, or about unaffordable housing, are perceived to be in the majority in large parts of Dublin. The Nimby vote is tempting for all parties, including Labour, Sinn Fein and People Before Profit, the parties which claim to favour the interests of younger voters excluded from affordable housing and those reliant on public transport. They consistently obey Oscar Wilde's dictum: "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it."

Schemes based on underground railways have been under consideration in Dublin since 1971, when the first Dublin Transportation Study was published. They are pie in the sky. While millions have been expended on more and more reports, the city's workforce has been stealthily dispersed to the distant fastnesses of Kildare and Meath, there to be entertained with election promises of railways.

There has been an abuse of power by the Dublin area local authorities, whose members, of all parties, have failed in their duty to promote efficient land use and have declined to support public transport schemes which can deliver in the here and now at affordable cost.

Organs of State, which abuse the powers vested in them, deserve to have those powers taken away. It is time to consider whether central government should take over planning in Dublin.

Sunday Independent

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