Strategic Planning is more vital than ever

John Moran, CEO, RHH International, former Secretary-General, Dept of Finance, Director, European Investment Bank (EIB)


Between a week of travel on the way here, between Copenhagen, Luxembourg, Paris, Toulouse and Dublin and a host of other small towns in between and reading a book by Helen Russell The Year of Living Danishly, I have been given lots of food for thought for this afternoon’s speech.

What’s the main message? It is that ever increasing individualism, particularly just increasing individual household wealth, is not the secret to sustainable national happiness. Rather we must strive to live in a country with high levels of trust between citizens themselves, and between citizens and their government. With that trust comes the all-important sense of safety and community that genuinely creates a real lasting sense of happiness.

What the Danes and other such leading European countries have realised is that well designed public infrastructure and services can make society more inclusive, caring and affordable for all, and develop a greater sense of trust. Nowhere is perfect but it takes a lot of careful planning to be on the right side of average and even more to do it well.

It is not enough to leave it all to market forces. It must be done with proper national-level holistic vision, planning, guidance and regulation to make it fair for all. Not only will that guide private investment but it will also encourage it by giving sense of direction and explaining where the longer range opportunities will lie.

Rome was not built in a day but it at least helps if you know how and where Rome is going to be built when you are thinking about investing in a hotel or apartment complex there. For this forward planning to work, the property and other rights of the individual (property owner, developer, car owner, whatever) must be subordinated to the common good more than we have done in the past. If not, we will continue to build new inequalities and new divisions between our citizens.

People in general do not object to paying higher taxes when they trust their government to spend it well and fairly on their behalf in creating the society in which they want to live. But to build that trust governments and public administrations must make the right choices fairly and implement well. They also cannot continue in a world of limited resources to try to give one for everyone in the crowd, or facilitate selfish individual lifestyle choices of those who shout loudest.

After the last election our politicians heralded the new politics! Promising a new world of better debate and better decision-making. Instead, a particularly unproductive parliament has struggled despite Brexit and other geopolitical threats and major shortages in key areas like housing and health, causing immeasurable suffering to tens if not hundreds of thousands on the island. What is missing in our new politics is a clear articulated vision of what Ireland will be in 40 or 50 years and how we will get there.

Yesterday’s climate action plan was another example of missing that. There was very little new. It did not even seriously and concretely talk about replacing one-off housing or replacing car use with public transport options out beyond 2021 but waxed lyrically about how to make our existing car fleet electric. So what’s the vision now for our growing new population out over the time frame of the plan to 2050?

It seems to be a continuation of the existing state of play but with expensively retro-fitted near-zero energy homes and offices and all of us shuttling back and forward between them in zero emissions cars. There were fleeting references to better land use plans to come in the National Planning Framework and more density, but nothing more than that. This is an unacceptable level of forward planning for a modern state. This is our plan for the next 33 years. The NPF should have been agreed beforehand and taken into account specifically. We each have to make home purchase decisions which may be valid for the rest of our lives. Why can our system not deliver better forward-looking thoughts to us too? We, the citizens, and those living on the island should be demanding more!

There are some very tough decisions if we are to do better than we have done in the first 100 years since independence. We got a hint of them in yesterday’s climate action plan, but only very gentle hints compared to what might have been said about the carbon footprint destruction being done by having the highest percentage of people living in rural areas in the EU, not to mention the public health damage too from congestion, commuting, lack of exercise and loneliness caused by such car dependency. The future could be bright. But we must face up to those truths and choose wisely to create an attractive version of a much more liveable Ireland. And liveability is the key! But the level of our ambition must be higher! On even this most recent trip across Europe I’ve seen some great public infrastructure, I’ve travelled on great public transport, hung out on great public realm. I got back to Ireland and I am asking myself why is there so very little of it in Ireland.

We are once again reaping the bad harvests of terrible planning decisions or lack of intervention in terms of spiralling accommodation costs, congestion, loneliness, long commutes, unhealthy life choices, unsustainable costs of public services. I could go on. There must be better ways to deliver more sustainable and affordable lifestyle choices for all of our growing population. But how can we change and why are we here?

In 100 years since freedom, we grumble a bit about these things but we, as a people, too often accept that ”good enough” and ”sure it’s grand” is what our island was worth. What we are worth?

As a nation, we have allowed ourselves to be bought off at the electoral polling booth by short term gains serving our own special interests. It is not good enough to simply blame our politicians without asking too what is lacking in the electorate who voted them in at each election without demanding a far greater ambition and vision, and measuring them in how they deliver that.

Think about it. What was the last really great transformative public space or project that we as a nation have planned and built, along the lines of Cobh Harbour, Stephen’s Green or the Phoenix Park? Is the Dun Laoghaire Library or the Dublin Convention Centre the best we can do in terms of public buildings? How much of our infrastructure or finest public buildings was conceived or built before 1916! The Port Tunnel, Tuam-Limerick Motorway or the Dublin Cross City Luas are hardly up there with the world’s great infrastructure projects when even little old Luxembourg city is connected to Paris with a double decker TGV in 2 hours and 5 mins – a distance of 4 hours and 10 mins by car.  Reflect on that – that would mean we could get from Limerick or Galway to Dublin in less than one hour.

Last night as I flew over Donegal in the evening sunlight you could see just what a beautiful county this is. But as we got closer to ground, you could see how it had been destroyed by selfish one off housing – what one person referred to after my tweet as architectural acne on our countryside. Little wonder that unsustainable development like that has led to a decline of rural Ireland and its services all over the country. But when will we be honest enough to call it out rather than just clamour for more unsustainable and unaffordable services and subsidies for that type of living?

And before I get shot down, I am not saying what I was misquoted as saying before that we cannot afford to support rural Ireland or that we should not live outside Dublin, Cork, Limerick and the like. Quite the opposite. I am just saying that we cannot afford to continue to support the dispersed rural Ireland we have developed in this way rather than sustainably growing our rural towns and even villages.

When you travel on a train across rural France or rural Denmark, you realise it does not have to be like this. We know living in a close-knit community is both safer and more fun and more likely to be economically sustainable. Why then do Irish people love their neighbours and their hitherto unspoilt countryside so much that they insist on living in detached houses with a walled or fenced acre or ¾ acre plot around their houses with cut lawns and foreign plants? What’s wrong with living together in a community town sharing public spaces for enjoyment rather than having one’s own personal cinema room or playroom for the kid or kids to play in splendid isolation? Even in towns and cities, Irish people want a detached house with its own walled garden rather than the mixed generational and well-serviced multi-family living cherished in other cities.

There is a better way when selfishness is subordinated to the common good and good planning is adopted. Because we know if we put our mind to it, there’s nothing we Irish can’t achieve. Nothing. We are a great nation and a great people. We Irish built cities, tunnels and infrastructure all over the world. We built the largest airline in Europe. We built America goddamnit – what may be the ”greatest nation” on earth! Why should we settle for anything less than the greatest nation on earth at home as well? We Irish are the best people – we should have the best cities, towns and rural countryside to match! We, fellow Irish men and women, are a bunch of absolute legends – as long as we are fighting for issues that are not our own – asking for more – for others, but not ourselves.

Just one illustration: this week at the European Investment Bank we approved an injection of several millions of European equity into an Irish company seeded by our own Department of Foreign Affairs, transforming the way in which money and aid is transferred electronically to people surviving in the poorest and most remote regions in Ethiopia. But back here at home, we’re a long way away from the electronic health database the Danes have had for years.

This same month at the EIB, we approved financing of a 15th line of the Paris metro but also a 10km tramway project for the city of Liege in Belgium, a city of less than 200,000 people. In Aarhus, Denmark’s second city with some 250,000 people, the EIB has also helped finance a 110km 51 station light rail project which was first discussed in 2006. But here back in our Irish reality – for equally sized Cork those ideas are far away dreams still.

In Dublin, it still takes over 45 mins to travel 13.4km in a premium bus from the main airport to Heuston Street, the main train station to the three next largest of our cities. That is twice as long as by car. Any wonder people are frustrated. Those wealthy enough to afford the carbon unfriendly taxi fare are grand and most of our decision makers probably can afford those. But if you can only afford or want by choice to rely on public transport, you’re not catered for properly.

When I got back to the airport this week, there were signs up all over the place “We’re catering for the future” they said. How was that? By building more car parking spots opposite Terminal 2 while just beside that spot we still have buses lining up to pick up passengers standing waiting unprotected from the rain. These are the priorities. What a welcome to our visitors! What a way to treat people not able to afford a car or expensive airport parking! So why then, when it comes to what we expect from our lives, our cities, our spaces, we assume a strange apathy – sure it’s grand. It makes no sense!

Robert Watt spoke this week about there not being a tooth fairy to fund infrastructure. He is absolutely right! As ever, it is refreshing to hear Robert call it out. But there is money. It is a matter of choices! We are no longer a poor country. European structural funds will no longer finance our capital costs. We must now manage to pay for these ourselves.

We say we cannot afford it but we do not even pay for many of the costs others do for matters like defence and national security, living under the protection afforded by our larger neighbours. We blame the bankers but the bank rescue will have cost us less than €30 billion – a huge amount but small compared to the €200 billion of debt we have taken on to pay for other choices.

In reality, we have harder choices to make than we have been able to make in the past – firstly to live in less selfish ways that make the delivery of public services more affordable and secondly to pay more into the system or take less individually from the system so that the greater good can be better planned for and delivered.   And as Robert knows only too well, that includes decisions about the annual public and private sector pension bill, especially for those who vested in their rights before the crisis of 2008.

Do we want to spend more on infrastructure and less on salaries and pensions? For example, reducing the cost of public transport is likely to disproportionately help the less wealthy members of our society or those willing to be less selfish in their commuting choices. Why not tax car usage or employer provided parking heavily, especially if it is in areas where public transport options exist? It should be a target to make travel by public transport faster than by car and why not make it twice as fast as in other countries.

It should be a binding government KPI for Robert and his colleagues, and for Leo Varadkar and his colleagues, to have a growing percentage of our housing stock fully liveable and affordable without the need to be able to afford an expensive car or two.

Let’s be honest, people who make selfish living style decisions should simply be required to pay more than those picking choices in the greater common good. Because the current path we are on is not sustainable, from neither a public health or equality and therefore social stability point of view. We put up with commute times to reach jobs in Dublin which we should never have, consoling ourselves that it would be worse if we lived in New York or London. But Dublin is no New York, London or even Frankfurt (as the wake-up call we are getting post-Brexit is reinforcing). Why is it that we cannot demand the type of lifestyle available in other more enlightened countries instead? Why do we not demand more of our leaders than fixing our local pothole or reopening a garda station? What happens we Irish here at home? Look by contrast at the world full of Irish people leading the way, demanding nothing but the best – working like lunatics – building things, companies, friendships. So many leaders in the world are Irish/Irish grown. Indeed, we are a nation of builders and dreamers! Why then is it not better here at home?

We all seemed to believe when we last had money that the priority for infrastructure deficits was to build more motorways and roads and a new Terminal 2 in Dublin airport. I remained astonished hearing, when I came back to the country to work in the public sector in 2010, that people across all sectors of society seemed not so concerned that we were cutting back on infrastructure spending because our roads were not full, Terminal 2 was operating at under-capacity and even the buses in Dublin had loads of empty seats.

Well, Sherlock, we were in the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis so it was no surprise there was some capacity there. But just having motorways and airport terminals waiting to clog up when economic growth comes is not my definition of 21st Century infrastructure (or even 20th Century infrastructure for some of the more forward thinking countries).

Where were the public playgrounds? Good health facilities? Pre-fabless schools? Cycle paths? Public transport? And all of these in other non-Dublin locations too? Even though some commentators seemed not to believe it, as I said myself here in Glenties, of the three years, it was clear that we were going to come out of the crisis, sooner than we thought. That meant it was obvious we were going to need more housing, more hospitals, more transport, more facilities, more sustainable living choices, especially for a fast growing and aging population.

Now that those cracks have appeared we seem to want to just simply keep doing more of the same. Continuing to rely on a rather flawed laissez-faire model of development where quality of design, the provision of social housing and indeed public realm seem to be outsourced to developers. Even decisions on public transport seem not to be integrated with decisions at local authority levels.

With the congestion crisis in Dublin, panic bells are starting to ring there. Little surprise that no one is pouring the resources into one or more of our other cities to show what mobility in a city of the 21st century really could look like. Allocating only €100m for smarter travel across the country when Guards get a pay rise costing half that much is frankly a bad joke (and I have nothing against the Guards). It is just that priority setting cannot be based on those who shout loudest! This is what happens when you do not plan a couple of decades out. Too often we use the UK or the US where public infrastructure investment has been at scandalously low levels as our benchmark and think we’re not doing badly.

Travel around continental Europe and you see better comparisons. I had to visit Copenhagen for the first time a couple of months ago. I have to confess I was apprehensive. After hearing so many great things for years, I was terrified I would go there and my dream would be shattered. Well, the reality – it was much better than I could ever have hoped. With weather probably less favourable than our own, I was surrounded by great public realm, people travelling all around on bikes safely on bike lanes, really interesting looking mixed development housing being built at public transport nodes, trains with carriages for bikes – hell even the steps to get up to the metro had a special slot for allowing you to wheel your bike up the stairs. And most of all, I noticed how many young children were cycling around without adults minding them and how many fathers and mothers were cycling around with even smaller kids in special bike trailers or fittings.

It is now time to dream here in Ireland of ”golden” streets with attractive affordable housing that our experts keep saying for years cannot be built, dream of kids playing safely once again in our streets, dream of fast trains connecting our cities that seem impossible, dream of hosting one of Europe’s best health systems with our medical records readily available in the cloud like all of our Facebook holiday snaps, dream of creating water from the air and energy from the sun hitting our roofs, dream of other places on our island eclipsing Dublin by 2040 as the place to live. Then we must demand all we can dream of our leaders!

But most importantly, to do this we will have to plan! We will have to plan for how we want to live into the future, how we want to grow up and grow old into the future. We will have to plan not just to build more housing, especially one off housing wherever you want to live my friend! We will have to plan for how we continue to welcome new-comers to our island to keep the engine firing in our economy as we living here today grow older.

And we must plan in that way so that our country, which could be the best in the world not just for doing business but the best in which to live, achieves that ambition! Demand everything we can dream of – and let us become Europe’s new coolest place to live with Europe’s coolest metropoles.

And success will come when we ensure that the Ireland we deliver scores among the best countries in the world on four scores – (a) competitiveness, in terms of affordable and attractive liveability not just cost of wages (b) stability, (c) fairness and, perhaps most importantly of all (d) happiness.

The good news is that messages that some of us have been shouting about for a couple of years are now finally hitting home in Dublin, and there is a recognition that Ireland is facing into this future with considerable infrastructure deficits. There are global changes to be taken into account, which make the choices a little harder. These include advances in technology, eCommerce, transformation of car industry, climate change, growth of urbanisation, ageing populations, shifting populations and growth of cities, all of which will profoundly change how we live our lives into the future (but the not too distant future).

As part of the NPF consultations, the then Minister and officials were talking about the need to step away from Business as Usual. But what does that mean in practice? Are we ready at a political level to make the correct choices to deal with urbanisation trends and changing transport patterns?

I have already explained so I won’t go into it again today how with a new spatial strategy there is a new opportunity to rebalance the lopsided growth of the country, while at the same time dramatically improving Dublin’s own urban fabric. There is room for one or more new urban growth areas but let’s not just pick the location because of its proximity by car to Dublin. Let’s speed up the public transport and open up new options all down the west coast with existing cities with existing heritage and tradition and urban fabric rather than shoot for some new form of Milton Keynes or Tallaght just outside Dublin.

By reducing reliance on a car dependent suburbia model we can move attractive housing close to work and amenities like good education for their kids or health facilities.   We can reinvent the living accommodation for an aging population, giving a new independent living alternative between family housing and nursing homes.

By improving connectivity, especially public transport options, between our regional cities and Dublin and themselves, we can create exciting attractive alternative urban glocal spaces for our kids and the world’s talented kids.

In this way from Dublin across to the Western Atlantic Corridor we can create a cluster of interconnected glocal cities of a scale and size to compete on an international stage, but yet each spill economic wealth into their own more rural hinterlands.

Putting this in place will however require a complete mindset change so that we reward (not penalise) those willing to chuck the idea of two cars and a garden outside the front door to live the compromise of density rather than choose individualism as their preferred model of living. Those willing to share their lives with others in denser urban areas for the common good should not have their lives put on hold by traffic jams or their services under-performing to cater for others choosing to live outside those more sustainable zones.

We must create affordable homes centrally in those cities so everyone can choose to live there, not just the rich or those already in place. This we can do by ditching overly restrictive regulations for example on height, regulations designed to protect vested interests or unreasonable requirements for unnecessary parking or excessive minimum size apartments.

But perhaps the biggest issue we face is the difference in treatment for those vested in our status quo and those who are the “just about managing status-quo non-vested” sector. Think of the difference between someone who bought, or was given by the state, a three bedroom house, garden and parking spot close to Dublin city centre 30 years ago compared to their three kids, or a new immigrant now trying to find a home close to work in Dublin’s city centre.

There are many other examples:

  • People who have always had a car and who expect to be able to drive to town to work, even if their action creates congestion and pollution for others who would be willing to ride together in a carbon friendly bus or train.
  • People who have a driveway with their house or even a private garden near the centre of a city expect to have the right to retain this expensive city real estate with low real estate taxes even though they may no longer even drive a car or have kids who want to play in that garden while others get pushed further and further out from the centre.
  • People who built a house beside their parents some decades ago and think it only reasonable that their own children should be able to do likewise on another site removing previously zoned agricultural land from productive use and giving their children an advantage of a site, now zoned residential, on which to build a house – an advantage not likely to be shared by the children of other parents in our Ireland.
  • People who own their own house in trendy areas and who can see windfall increases in value drop out of the tax net altogether, a major income subsidy to those able to afford to own their own home and lucky enough to have been in a neighbourhood now becoming more affluent perhaps because of taxpayer-provided infrastructure.

The way in which we have treated land and home ownership to protect these privileges is likely no longer fit for purpose for a growing population like we now have. This is a very serious question that needs mature debate and influences all of the choices before us. This is especially so to define what life we can offer the 2-3 million status quo have-nots.

How long more will the “status quo have-nots”, a rapidly expanding group continue to accept rules and regulations and subsidies which tend towards the protection of the haves? That could be the genesis of social unrest like this state has never known.

And even if we muddle along, failure to act quickly means we will continue to lose ground to those other European cities that are successfully redirecting their growth and more efficiently delivering public services in these ways. We can and must do better than we are doing. The new millennial generation more than any other generation before them have had, thanks to Ryanair, the opportunity to see better in action. It is time for them to stand up and say, enough is enough! We want better too for our children and our grandchildren.

We do not give this island to those grandkids as some form of inheritance. Rather it is they who are loaning it to us – the current generation of leadership of the country. We cannot continue to screw it up for them by ignoring what we are doing to their environment and what we are doing to create new divisions and inequalities on their island.

And we can do much better. Because you know what? If the Irish who can create miracles abroad, cannot do it at home – then it really can’t be done.




Get Notified for 2024