All of this activity has created a labour famine and a reversal of the centuries-long Irish diaspora – about 30,000 immigrants arrive in the republic each year. It is also self-perpetuating, since the government has identified a need for 250,000 homes in the next five years to house all these new people. In addition, prime minister Bertie Ahern seems to aspire to leave a Mitterrand-style legacy of Grands Projets, including a proposed £440m national stadium and sports complex, to be developed as a public–private partnership (Bertie Bowl, page 43).
In theory, this is manna from heaven for construction professionals. Says Jim Barratt, the Dublin Corporation's city architect: "These are hugely exciting times. The pace and the tension is unbelievable." But architects and urban designers are among those most concerned about a lack of regulation and strategic planning, which has precipitated a boomtown scenario of haphazard, unbridled development. A planning tribunal has revealed high-level corruption, with planners and politicians taking kickbacks from developers to rezone Dublin land for development. "We are going through a self-cleansing exercise at the moment," says a source at the Dublin Corporation. "There is McCarthyism, with people being suspended from their jobs. The aim is to stop wild rezoning. There'll be a register of politicians' interests from now on." Elsewhere in the country, local authorities, under pressure from government to meet quotas for new housing, have also succumbed to pressure from opportunistic developers to rezone land for housing. A recent row centred on Ballymore Eustace, a picturesque village of 173 houses on the Co Kildare/Co Wicklow border, where local councillors, reportedly under duress, overturned a zoning decision to allow planning permission for 450 houses (the scheme was later refused planning permission). E E This galloping pace of development is also causing shockwaves in the planning system, whose resources are stretched to breaking point. "There is an unprecedented number of planning applications. We are short of 300-400 planners," says Arthur Hickey, president of the Royal Institution of Architects in Ireland.
Dublin is under the greatest pressure. A rash of planning applications for tall buildings has prompted the Dublin Corporation to commission a study on them from UK consultant DEGW, which was completed last September. This will help the corporation to reach a conclusion on a 98 m tapered office tower by OMS Architects, proposed for a former gasworks at St John Rogerson's Quay and a 23-storey residential tower at Smithfield by Brian O'Halloran and Associates.
Following a row over the proposed 400,000 m2 redevelopment of Spencer Dock, which was refused planning permission on the grounds that its "scale, bulk, mass and campus-style layout" was inappropriate for the city (Dublin's docklands, page 39), the corporation has also engaged consultants to tell them where to locate high-density development. "We need to study intensification in the City. Where do we put our Broadgates?" asks Barratt.
We are going through a self-cleansing exercise. The aim is to stop wild rezoning
Dublin Corporation source
Adding to the pressure of planning applications, the 2000 Planning Bill requires developers to seek planning permission to change the interiors as well as the exterior of protected structures, including most of the Georgian building stock. This has created a huge amount of work. "There is a lot of catch-up to be done. Development of protected structures is being delayed because we can't get planning decisions," says RIAI president Hickey. Similarly, An Bord Pleanala, the state planning appeals board, is so understaffed that it is subcontracting planning decisions to town planning and architectural practices.
The corporation's Barratt thinks the planning system is under such strain that it could stall the national development plan itself: "Getting and keeping staff is very difficult … There will be serious downturns, due to inflationary pressures and salary increases." A more general skills crisis in Irish construction was highlighted last month when 200 members of the Bricklayers and Allied Trades Union went on strike to demand a minimum wage of £1000 a week. All John Sisk and PJ Hegarty sites in Dublin were hit by the unofficial strike, including the £20m redevelopment of Gaelic football stadium Croke Park, the £80m LUAS light rail system and the Pavilion shopping centre in Swords, north Dublin. An agreement between BATU and the Construction Industry Federation is being brokered by the National Implementation Body, which was set up last December to restore industrial peace.
"We need to recruit 8000 workers from abroad this year," says Sean Downey, manpower services executive at the federation. "A lot are coming from the UK and the European Union." Skills shortages will become even more acute when the big PPP infrastructure projects start on site. These include a £3.68bn roadbuilding programme and environmental infrastructure projects worth £3.6bn. The biggest roads projects are the £282m Dublin Port Tunnel, which is due to be started this month by a Nishimatsu/ Mowlem Irishenco joint venture; Kinnegad bypass and E E Waterford bypass/bridge. Eleven consortiums are bidding for Kinnegad and 12 for the Waterford job. The environmental infrastructure programme includes a £80m wastewater project in Dublin and a similar scheme in Cork, worth £72m.
The shortage of properly qualified professionals has also highlighted the need for stringent registration schemes to safeguard standards. The RIAI has agreed a framework for registration of architects that will be put to parliament later this year. Meanwhile, the Construction Industry Federation has set up a committee to revise its registration criteria because, says Peter McCabe, director of the business development unit, "it is too easy to become a contractor in Ireland".
Development is delayed because we can’t get planning decisions
Arthur Hickey, president, Royal Institution of Architects in Ireland
All construction sectors are now expanding their capacity for training at home – University College Dublin will double its intake to the town planning course to 50 places this year.
Downey says the CIF is expanding Ireland's training capacity to make up for the shortage of bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers, plumbers and electricians. "In 1996, 5000 people were admitted to a four-year modular apprenticeship programme run by FAS [the national training and employment authority] and the CIF. In 2001 we admitted 6000." The skills shortage is also creating markets for construction methods from abroad. The need to build a lot of housing fast is persuading developers particularly to move away from traditional wet construction methods to more energy-efficient and flexible systems. "Housebuilding has been dominated by brick-and-block. But that is too slow and held to ransom by bricklayers' pay demands. We need to bring in tunnelform, steel frame, timber frame," says Barratt.
The government hopes to develop a spatial development policy that will address these issues by the end of 2002. The RIAI is leading calls for more strategic planning guidance, including a Greater Dublin development plan. "Too much planning is being done by developers, not just big developers but everyone who builds houses. In every village, town and city, people have decided to buy an extra acre and build on it. We need to contain that," says the RIAI's Hickey.