Motley staff writer Ryan O’Neill speaks to Minister Simon Coveney about his new National Planning Framework proposal and the Fine Gael leadership change
When I arrived in Minister Simon Coveney’s constituency office I am greeted by an amiable secretary, with whom I participate in small talk with in regards to the Minister’s no doubt packed schedule. “Oh, it doesn’t even phase him” she incredulously asserts. “He just takes it all in his stride.” Accordingly, Minister Coveney was the epitome of composure when I meet him. That this is someone whom the political spotlight has burned so bright on these past few weeks you’d never guess. Ostensibly to discuss the particulars of the Minister’s new brainchild, the National Planning Framework, this interview will inevitably progress to the subject of who will replace current Taoiseach Enda Kenny when he steps down as leader of Fine Gael. But not just yet.
“We’re trying to put together a plan for Ireland, and if you want to make that credible then you have to engage with people.”
Indeed, I have no intention of glossing over the main topic, nor does Minister Coveney. From the outset, the emphatic way in which he speaks about his new proposal is testament to a project which is as democratic as it is ambitious. Since announcing the plan, which effectively aims to map out what Ireland will look like in 2040, Minister Coveney has embarked on something of a roadshow across the country, garnering views and opinions from students, planning experts and academics.
“We’re trying to put together a plan for Ireland, and if you want to make that credible then you have to engage with people and find out what their hopes and aspirations are for their country. That might sound a bit high-brow, but the starting point is ‘What can and should Ireland look like by 2040?’, and taking the most positive and ambitious approach to making that happen. Where and how we should live, what our cities should look like, how we manage the environment, how we manage our huge (and underutilised) marine resources in the most sustainable way etc. There’s a host of important areas to look at, whether you’re interested in the arts, culture, music, sport, engineering, road construction, whether you’re a multinational here… We need to be factoring in many concerns, which is why we’re going to have a long preparation process.“
The first consultation on the new framework will take place near St Patrick’s Day, after which Mr Coveney will present a draft plan he hopes will be approved by the government. A second consultation is scheduled for September, at which point the finer details of the framework will be clearer. Coveney is hopeful that, with a proposal endorsed by the Dáil, decisions to be made by future governments in years to come will adhere to the aims of the proposal.
The previous incarnation of the National Planning Framework, the National Spatial Strategy 2002-2020, established 23 cities and towns (“hubs”) marked for exponential growth. Astoundingly, fifteen years on from the plan, none of these 23 locations appear in the top 20 Irish towns with the most growth. So where will the new proposal succeed where its predecessor failed?
“If you look at the growth in towns like Portlaois, Navan, Naas, Maynooth etc in the areas around Dublin, and in areas like Carrigaline and Ballincollig around Cork, it’s clear that when population growth happened in Ireland, city centres didn’t really grow at all. It was more about building acres of housing estates, which made money for the builders, but in terms of community development – public transport infrastructure, sporting facilities etc – towns couldn’t keep up with that. We need to learn from our mistakes this time and target areas which have the potential for significant growth.”
Where exactly these areas will be is yet to be determined at this early stage, but a strong new cities strategy will be key to ensure that Dublin’s dominance doesn’t get stronger. “The prediction is that, out of the one million extra people due to reside in Ireland by 2040, three quarters of them will be concentrated towards the Dublin area.”
One of the central aims of the plan, therefore, is to try and create jobs and houses closer to where people live, so that fewer will have to commute long distances, which in turn will cut time spent travelling away from family and reduce emissions caused by long distance car journeys.
“We’re trying to find a way to create environments for urban communities and economies of scale in areas outside of Dublin. Cities like Waterford, Cork, Limerick and, to a certain extent, Galway, have huge potential for growth. We want our new population to spread through our other cities and towns with potential for growth, like Drogheda for example, and not just to Dublin. “
“But to make that happen is a lot more difficult than simply writing it down. To do that, we will look at more than just housing, to retail strategies and public transport networks as well. I think we will have to invest first in these areas in order to attract, rather than doing it the classic Irish way of building houses and then trying to retro-fit road networks etc. “
Building communities over masses of semi-detached houses year-on-year is something which appears to be integral to Mr Coveney’s vision as Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. This is not a vision shared by all members of Dail Eireann, however ; In October of last year, Minister Coveney was questioned in the Dáil on his plan for increased private social housing by AAA-PBP TD Richard Boyd Barrett, who criticised his decision to outsource housing provision to private landlords. For Coveney though, despite being the antithesis to Barrett’s “politics based on ideology”, the benefits of his approach are clear:
“We’ve had that [solely state-built social housing] before in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The result was no mixed tenure communities and areas of the city which were solely made up of social housing. All the statistics will show that in these situations there is more likely to be high levels of unemployment and lower levels of academic attainment. The state will be adding an extra 47,000 social housing, 26,000 of which will be provided by the state and the rest of which will be purchased and leased out. This will create estates which will have social houses, private houses, affordable houses… so we have different types of people living next door to each other and don’t end up with ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ areas within cities.”
The opinion of many members of Ireland’s left-leaning parties is that building private housing on public land is wrong, something Mr Coveney outwardly rejects. Believing it quicker and more efficient to involve private enterprise, the Minister cites O’Devaney Gardens in Dublin as a prime example of an area he believes will benefit from having a mixture of private and social housing in the years to come. “That way we can create a real community rather than doing it the way of phased social housing. It will lead to less division and less protesting by people who feel they are not benefiting in the same way others are. “
While achieving universal agreement in the Dáil will be difficult given the wide span of views and ideologies, Minister Coveney is hopeful that even some of the members who do not regularly see eye to eye with him or his party will come on board, citing the consensus among rival parties for the new Food Wise 2025 agricultural and food proposal for the development of the agri-food sector. This, Minister Coveney believes, is evidence that common agreement on a set of broad principles can be reached between rival parties in Dáil Eireann: “We need to try and replicate that broad consensus here and leave ideology at the door; We want to hear everyone’s ideas and, if they are good, hopefully take them on board. If we can get a broad consensus, or at least a strong majority, then it will make the plan stronger.”
“That’s why having a plan is so important, so that we are not being pulled and dragged in the direction of whatever the latest fad is, or whatever the newest lobby group is demanding.”
For Minister Coveney, though, ultimately it is the politics which present the biggest challenge to the plan. Giving in to localism will need to be avoided if the plan is to avoid meeting the same fate as its predecessor. “It’s a very Irish issue; politicians here are very close to their local community, which is a good thing. But the challenge here will be to do what is right for the country rather than spreading the resources thinly enough to ensure nobody gets one over on anybody else. We saw that when Charlie McCreevy [former Minister for Finance from 1997-2004] announced decentralisation, which was a purely political announcement trying to give towns goodies right before the election; it ended in disaster. With the Planning Framework, we’ve already seen consensus between counties in the northwest on the view that Sligo may become the town we focus on to create economies of scale in that region. Mayo see that this may be good for them, even though they could just as well be pushing somewhere in their own county, like Castlebar or Westport. They see the benefit in getting behind one area and how it can improve the prosperity of the entire northwest.
For a programme spanning such a lengthy time frame, how will personnel changes affect the efficacy of the proposal? Amid the forthcoming change in Fine Gael leadership, Minister Coveney is unwavering in his dedication to bringing the National Planning Framework to its fruition, whether as party leader or in his current Ministerial role. In his view, the common denominator will have to remain the commitment to community-based decision making rather than accumulating personal wealth, whoever is in government between now and 2040. “You can only make these transitions over time, it can’t be done overnight. It takes time to impact on local development plans, zoning, building, design, infrastructure etc. That’s why having a plan is so important, so that we are not being pulled and dragged in the direction of whatever the latest fad is, or whatever the newest lobby group is demanding.”
“The onus is on us now to manage the change in a way that doesn’t cause instability – and you can be sure there are many who would love to see it all fall apart – but it’s up to be cohesive and professional to ensure that’s not the case.”
On the topic of support for the current government, Minister Coveney speaks with confidence, assuring me that there is no imminent withdrawal of support from Fianna Fáil as a result of the leadership change: “The official line from Fianna Fáil is that the confidence and supply agreement stands as long as there is cohesive government, and is not dependent on Enda Kenny being the party leader. That said, changing leader is a challenge; most of the time it happens it’s when the party is in opposition rather than in government and in the spotlight, as we are currently. Changing leader in this case also means a change in Taoiseach, and perhaps a change of style or of prioritisation in government. The onus is on us now to manage the change in a way that doesn’t cause instability – and you can be sure there are many who would love to see it all fall apart – but it’s up to be cohesive and professional to ensure that’s not the case.”
Recent controversy over the Maurice McCabe scandal has thrown Fine Gael leader Kenny into the spotlight, the Taoiseach saying he will conclusively deal with questions over his leadership after his Patricks’ Day visit to the United States, when he will meet with President Donald Trump. He has already spoke of his intention not to lead the party into the next general election.
Nevertheless, there have been a small number of the party’s TDs calling for his resignation sooner than that. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, in an interview given to this magazine, called for those dissenting party members to themselves resign if they did not have faith in their leader.
Asked to comment on this, Minister Coveney said: “Look, Micheál is going to behave like an opposition leader as well as Fianna Fáil leader a little bit here. But if he looks back at past Fianna Fáil leadership changes, they’ve often been quite divisive, difficult affairs, with TDs coming out and saying things for headlines. Only 3 of 73 TDs have come out [against Kenny], so I think Fine Gael, despite some provocation from the media and others, have held their nerve pretty well over the last few weeks.”
From an international politics perspective, the relationship between the US President and the office of Taoiseach arguably holds a symbolic importance for the 40 million people in the United States who consider themselves Irish in some way. For his part, Coveney believes that despite his tenure coming to an end, Kenny’s visit to Washington on March 17th holds as much significance as if there were no upcoming leadership change.
“Enda Kenny has been Taoiseach for six years now, as well as Fine Gael leader for 15. He’s a substantial character, and other politicians understand that changes happens. I think he’s seen as a very experienced and successful leader, and I think Ireland’s interests will be made very clear to President Trump. The attitude of the new administration understandably raises concerns for us for the undocumented Irish immigrants in the US, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Enda it’s that he is very good at defusing difficult situations and getting things done. On the one hand, he’ll represent the concerns that the Irish people have, but also maintain the relationship we have with the office of the President of the US. No one is pretending we aren’t uncomfortable with some of the decisions that are being made, but to damage relations between ourselves and the US would be counterproductive. When Enda goes over in a few weeks, he’s not just speaking to the new President, he’s speaking to the Irish Americans, who are a mix of Republican and Democrat.”
Once all relevant parties have returned to Ireland following the Patricks’ festivities (Coveney himself will be in Canada to speak at an Irish-Canadian dinner), the Minister expects a prompt changeover process to be set into motion. A political figure in Ireland and in Europe for eighteen years, Coveney is looking forward to the changeover and expects himself to be involved. “Hopefully I’ll be involved in the leadership contest. There isn’t currently any formal race underway, so I feel it would be wrong of me to talk too much about it. It’s been a long time since we had the potential for a Taoiseach from Cork… Of course, we’ve got the possibility with Micheál Martin too. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens.”
I tongue-in-cheek ask him his views on the prospect of being the one face to face with President Trump in a year’s time. Minister Coveney half-laughs modestly: “Well, let’s concentrate on getting through April and May first!”