Ireland's construction boom is bringing pressures that threaten to undermine it: skills shortages, lack of regulation and overstretched planning departments. What's more, where are all these buildings supposed to go?
It is more than a year since the Irish government unveiled plans to invest £32bn in infrastructure and development between 2000 and 2006. The staggeringly ambitious national development plan, which includes £5.6bn of public–private partnerships, has made the Republic of Ireland the construction boom centre of Europe, employing 230,000 people and accounting for 20% of gross national product. A further 20,000 construction jobs are expected to be created this year, and overall growth is expected to reach 7%, exceeding the predicted growth of 6%.

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.

Dublin’s £1.6bn Docklands

The Dublin Docklands Development Authority was last year given section 25 planning powers by the government, allowing it to grant fast-track planning approval for any scheme that fits into the planning framework, now being drawn up. The authority was set up in 1997 with a brief to regenerate 520 ha by 2012 and build 11,000 homes. Part of this area is the 32 ha North Docks district. A draft planning strategy for the docks is currently out for public consultation and in April will be submitted to the environment minister for approval. The £1.6bn strategy includes apartment blocks to house 3000 people, 370,000 m2 of offices, marinas, cafes, a landmark cultural building at Grand Canal Dock, and a 100 m tower at Point Dock. The authority plans to hold an international architectural competition for the cultural building. Also proposed are two new road bridges across the River Liffey, including one by Spanish superstar Santiago Calatrava. At Spencer Dock, architect Scott Tallon Walker has produced a £1bn, 400,000 m2 scheme that will replace a design by Canadian practice Roche Dinkeloo that was refused planning permission in July. Scott Tallon Walker’s scheme for developer Treasury Holdings includes a 1 ha public plaza, 3000 flats and offices.

The story of the Bertie Bowl

Ireland’s international sporting aspirations soared when swimmer Michelle Smith won four gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. After the euphoria came much hand-wringing over the fact that she had to train abroad because of a lack of world-class facilities in Ireland. No matter that Smith later tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, the wheels were already set in motion for the development of a series of Olympic training facilities and venues – including a 50 m pool and sports science faculty at the University of Limerick and now Campus Stadium Ireland, a £440m development on a 200 ha site at Abbotstown, also near Dublin. Ireland’s poor performance in the Sydney games last year roused public support for the huge complex, which is the brainchild of prime minister Bertie Ahern. Ahern has championed the “Bertie Bowl”above all other schemes, including an £109m stadium project already being developed by the Football Association of Ireland at Eircom Park, west of Dublin. For the past months, a tug-of-war not unlike that over Wembley and Picketts Lock was played out. But last week, the FAI was expected to abandon Eircom Park and become anchor tenant of Stadium Ireland, after the government offered to underwrite advance sales of corporate boxes and 10-year. Despite doubts over the sustainability of such a massive development on a greenfield site outside the city, the project is continuing full steam ahead. The government has pledged £280m to the scheme, which will be developed in public–private partnership packages. German practice Behnisch, Behnisch and Partner, architect of the 1972 Munich Olympics facilities, was appointed last month to masterplan the complex. It will include the 80,000-seat stadium, a 20,000-seat multipurpose indoor arena, an aquatic and leisure centre with a 50 m pool, sports science and medical facilities, a velodrome, a golf academy, a tennis centre, not to mention offices and 40 ha of parkland. The government is also proposing to build a metro link from Dublin airport and city centre to the complex and improve existing rail infrastructure, bus links and road access to the site.

How Ireland can build 55,000 homes a year

In view of Ireland’s need to build 55,000 houses a year until 2005, including 17,000 in Greater Dublin, environment minister Noel Dempsey has called on developers to look beyond the Irish vernacular of one- and two-storey houses and achieve higher densities and a mix of uses. A skills shortage in the wet trades needed for brick-and-block construction is also forcing developers to investigate prefabrication. A contingent of Scottish timber-frame specialists visited Dublin last month at the invitation of the British embassy, to explore opportunities. In line with this strategy, the Dublin Corporation is offering parcels of land to housing developers that propose an innovative building system and high-quality, high-density design. The corporation will sell the land at a capped rate to the developer and share the profit on sale of the homes. The first of these is a design-and-build competition for 1000 units on a 15.4 ha site at Cherry Orchard, to the west of Dublin. The corporation has shortlisted schemes by O’Malley Pike for Park Developments, Maccreanor Lavington and Colin Payne for Christopher Bennett and Sons Construction, Wyckham Van Eyck and BKD Architects for Pierce Contracting, and Urban Projects for contractor Michael McNamara. A winner will be picked this month. The government is also pressing ahead with an ambitious programme to regenerate council housing, including the second phase of the public–private redevelopment of the Ballymun Estate, the biggest in Europe and the £80m revamp of the 4.45 ha Fatima Mansions Estate, involving demolition of the existing flats and construction of 300 flats and 300 houses. Rocketing house prices in Dublin have created an need for affordable housing – an unprecedented phenomenon. Under the Planning Bill 2000, developers have to provide 20% affordable housing in all new developments.