Another Cork is Possible

” The City deserves more than to be an addendum to the whims of transnational capital”

Conor McCabe: On 26 July 2021 Cork City Council called on ‘residents, workers, the business sector, community, sporting and voluntary groups in the city and beyond to have their say’ on the proposed 2022-28 Development Plan, with submissions open until 4 October. This was extremely nice of them, but it is also clear that as far as the Council is concerned all the major investment and planning decisions have already been made.

It has left a mere 12-week window from 4 October until 31 December to make any adjustments based on the ideas of the public. The decisions around transport, housing, the docklands, and other so-called regeneration projects are years in the making and have already been signed off on at local and national level.

This is not to say that the exercise is completely futile on the part of the public and their representatives, despite the blatantly cynical and dismissive approach of the extremely powerful and extremely unelected city officials. The one area where change is possible in such a short time is in the terms and conditions of the plan itself.

“… it is important to look at the plan and more importantly the ideas and ideology that underpin it …”

This is something to discuss later on, but for now it is important to look at the plan and more importantly the ideas and ideology that underpin it – for it is in its intent and execution that the public may have some room for manoeuvre.

The Plan runs to a superficially-impressive 556 pages, the substance of which has been culled from other documents. At a recent public event the Director of Strategic & Economic Development at the council, Fearghal Reidy, acknowledged this and said that one of the difficulties of drawing up the Plan was the fact that so much of it was sourced from objectives already in motion. The challenge, he said, was to try to give it an overall coherence.

“… in terms of its conceptual framework and underlying ideology [the Plan] is remarkably focused and consistent”.

Reading the Plan it is clear that Reidy is being too hard on the council as in terms of its conceptual framework and underlying ideology it is remarkably focused and consistent.

Two figures are frequently mentioned throughout the document: €3.5bn for the Cork Metropolitan Area Transport Strategy, and €1.8bn for the National Transport Authority’s five-year plan for cycling and walking infrastructure in Ireland.

The funds for transport have already been allocated, with €1.39bn for roads, €1bn for light rail, €545m for the bus network, €274m for suburban rail, and €230m for cycling.

The €1.8bn mentioned is a national figure for cycling and walking, announced as part of the 2020 Programme for Government. It is unclear how much of this will go to Cork. However, in the first round of funding, of the €240m issued only €3m went to Cork county. Nothing was announced for Cork city. More than €119m of it – just under 50% – went to Dublin.

Cork City Council in its initial press release for the Plan said that it had secured ‘up to €1.8 billion in ringfenced central government funding’, but the details of this are not discussed anywhere in the document itself. Instead there is a reference to a different €1.8bn, one that refers to a national fund, of which Cork City has to date received nothing.

“… the only references to funding relate to schemes that have already been allocated spending …”

So, in all of its hundreds of pages, the only references to funding relate to schemes that have already been allocated spending, or which are national in scope and not Cork-specific.

The lack of any funds for additional measures – i.e. measures that have not been already allocated funding and which are in situ – means that the City Council, in order to pay for anything new, will probably have to fall back on its own assets. And in terms of the city that means land and vacant buildings. It is here that we see ideology at play.

We get a sense of how the Council will approach this option on page 543 of the Plan. It is worth quoting in full:

‘Cork City Council will work with the private sector to unlock investment in the city in a sustainable way. Cork City Council will support the preparation of Framework Plans for areas identified in this Plan developers, utilities, service providers and landowners to deliver specific development objectives for particular areas throughout the City. In particular, this will focus on development and improvement of the City Centre, addressing the vacancy, underutilisation and dereliction and supporting the development of Neighbourhood Development Sites, which are designed to unlock the potential for areas throughout the City. Cork City Council will also work with local communities to prepare and implement regeneration plans for particular areas of the City.’ (Cork City Council. Cork City Draft Development Plan 2022–2028. Volume 1: Written Statement. Cork: Cork City Council, 2021: 543)

“… in reality it will be the developers and not the people of Cork who will get final say on the use of the land and property …”

Here, in its own particular language, Cork City Council sets out how it is going to fund a significant segment of the regeneration of the city. It will use the land and vacant buildings it has under its control as leverage for funding from developers.

While this seems like a win-win situation, in reality it will be the developers and not the people of Cork who will get final say on the use of the land and property as any funds they invest will come with their own particular terms and conditions. If the choice is between an artist studio or a Starbucks it is the one that will pay the most rent that will win through.

“It is not possible to have the type of community-based development that is needed under such a plan.”

It is not possible to have the type of community-based development that is needed under such a plan. It has never happened anywhere in Ireland before and the Cork Development Plan is not designed to break that mould.

This can be seen in the housing section of the Plan, which itself is taken from a previous document, the Cork Joint Housing Strategy and Housing Need Demand Assessment, which was published the same day as the Development Plan. ‘This Housing Strategy has been prepared by KPMG Future Analytics and Lisney on the behalf of Cork County Council and Cork City Council’ it says in its introduction, adding that it ‘will inform the policies and objectives of the next City and County Development Plans, playing a key role in translating national and regional housing policies to the local level’. So already, a document drawn up by KPMG and Lisney will have more influence over the future housing development of Cork than the citizens themselves.

“It doesn’t have to be this way”

It doesn’t have to be this way. It is entirely possible for the future of Cork to be formed by community-led objectives. The city does not have to be a tired re-run of Dublin’s docklands and the city environs, where almost all forms of non-rent extractive social activity have been effectively banned or at best pushed to the margins.

It is entirely possible for community ownership clauses to be put within the plan, especially around public space.

It is entirely possible for social clauses to be put within all procurement and publicly-funded development. This includes workers’ rights, living wages, and trade union recognition.

It is entirely possible to frame the underlying logic of the Development Plan so that a Just Transition is at the heart of the redevelopment of Cork.

And it is entirely possible to put public and social housing at the heart of the plan, instead of the corporate needs of global accountancy firms and local estate agents.

“The City deserves more than to be an addendum to the whims of transnational capital”

These are needed to put a block on the fundamental ideology which runs through the Plan, which is to enable in every way possible an extractive, rentier model of urban development to take hold on the streets and in the parks and the very bricks and mortar of Cork.

The City deserves more than to be an addendum to the whims of transnational capital – in the words of councillor Fiona Ryan, a city of ‘glass offices, empty retail spaces & no affordable housing’.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Another world – and another Cork – is possible.

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