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7 October 2004 Edition

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Where did community partnership go?

Community worker Phil Keane and Rita Fagan, director of the Family Resource Centre at St Michael's Mansions, where a community-led regeneration plan has been rejected in favour of a private scheme under a public-private 'partnership' scheme

Community worker Phil Keane and Rita Fagan, director of the Family Resource Centre at St Michael's Mansions, where a community-led regeneration plan has been rejected in favour of a private scheme under a public-private 'partnership' scheme

ROISIN DE ROSA examines two contrasting experiences of Private Public Partnerships in public housing redevelopment in Dublin City

Have we seen the end of an era? The 1990s were heady days, when the government in Dublin gave full recognition of the need to involve the communities in decisions that affected them. Nothing else could or would work in the context of the appaling neglect that was the root cause of social problems in the poorer areas of the cities.

They were the days of the National Anti-Poverty Strategy, the days of inclusion of the community pillar in the National Strategic Planning, the days of the drugs task forces, of area partnerships, of EU structural funding which imposed partnerships structures, the days of Agenda 21 — the agenda of participation set in Brazil for this century.

Housing, especially in Dublin City estates, was a key area in which this contest was to be fought out. The battle was joined for community participation in regeneration of housing estates and the long-term planning of redevelopment of these estates to ensure that housing was no longer seen as just the provision of bricks and mortar but as just one part of a strategy for addressing the multifaceted problems resulting from social exclusion.

It wasn't just a matter of rebuilding housing. The neglect of the estates had caused too many interlinked and mutually reinforcing problems, of health, unemployment, low incomes, low educational attainment, drugs, petty crime and anti-social behaviour. All these problems were interlinked and interdependent; they could not be solved in isolation one from another. And they could not be solved at all in the absence of participation of communities in the solution.

Communities in the flat complexes began, usually with the help of hard won funding, to organise regeneration within their community, often helped by community partnerships.

New directions - PPPs

On 2 August 2001, the Department of the Environment sent a circular to local authorities inviting proposals with the aim of 'advancing a small number of suitable pilot Public Private Partnerships projects in the housing area'.

The arguments for pursuing a PPP approach included that it would increase the supply of housing, provide housing more speedily, give better value from the money invested and ensure high quality housing.

There's really little to support this view. PPPs incur additional costs, they introduce a whole profit stream where none should be, and a cost stream in terms of transaction costs, including legal, financial, management and other advisor and consultant fees.

But still more important, PPPs erode democratic accountability, and exclude the key stakeholder — the community. The private partner is accountable to shareholders and directors, not to the community. Community needs and involvement cease to be overriding considerations.

From a few anachronistically called 'pilot projects' for PPP, such schemes have set the tone for housing development. In fact, housing development across the city is increasingly modelled on PPP projects.

Does this mean now that the lessons of the last decade are to be once more forgotten? Is community partnership, which Housing and Social services appeared to have learnt was a precondition for regeneration of housing, all to be learned again?

Is Dublin City, through its housing policy, back to the old days of deciding that the drugs epidemic was simply the result of foolish, or greedy young people with little excitement in their lives? Time will tell.

Two crucial examples, both PPP projects, with utterly conflicting results, show outcomes of this new strategy - St Michael's Mansions and Fatima Mansions. Different as they may be, both together cast light on community participation, but also a clear perspective on the debate about Public Private Partnerships.

Fatima Mansions

An extraordinary example of a PPP development is Fatima Mansions in Dublin's Liberties area.

At the end of the '90s, Dublin Corporation produced a plan for the regeneration of this area. After a number of meetings a community, ravaged as it was by common problems, rejected the plan, and didn't want any longer to be told by the Corporation how they should deal with 'their' problems.

They rejected the Corporation and its plans and began what was to become a five-year long process, which is not finished yet, to develop their own plan for the regeneration of the 11-acre site. The plan, called '11 acres, 10 steps', was endorsed by the Corporation and the Taoiseach's office.

It is an astounding achievement. The plan evolved from a needs analysis of the existing community, carried out by the community itself, building step by step community participation, to arrive at a PPP project, based on legal contract which ensures an elected Regeneration Board retains control of decisions and the continuing implementation and development.

It's a plan for the provision of 150 units of social housing, which includes tenancies for single people, for local residents (where Dublin City Council will continue to act as landlord). There is provision for 70 affordable dwellings, to be offered at 'super affordable' prices, with tenants having the option to purchase. There are to be 369 private apartments, concentrated in higher rise development.

But key to the plan is the community services, which are to implement the ten steps drawn up by the community at the start of their discussion, setting the objectives of the regeneration, which include facilitating the community to participate , maximising employment, developing the local and social economy, combating educational disadvantage and early school leaving, tacking the high rates of ill health, creating a safe and secure neighbourhood, and improving the quality of life for the whole neighbourhood.

The Plan includes a large Neighbourhood Centre, to provide accommodation for existing services and recreation: a leisure centre, with a 20-metre swimming pool, gym and aerobic studio, with affordable access to local residents; retail units; and a feasibility study, currently underway, for the development of social economy projects, including those already running in the flats. An initial sum of €3 million will be provided for the implementation of a Social Regeneration Plan with a commitment to funding the balance as is required.

Built into the contract is provision for 75 jobs to local people, and a training project is already underway in building skills for young people from the community.

Undoubtedly, Fatima is a flagship PPP development. How was it possible?

Undoubtedly it was important that Brendan Kenny, City Housing Manager, took a personal involvement through membership of the Board, and that the Board had an independent chairperson, Finbarr Flood. But without a shadow of doubt the driving force was the involvement of the community itself, which found it possible, amidst all the hard circumstances of day to day life, to join together to contest their conditions of life.

What made the endless negotiations and consultations successful, such that a legally binding contract was secured, was the tireless community development work — through the arts programme, the festivals, sports programmes, the existing social economy projects, the homework clubs, the community creche facilities, and all the other myriad of community projects and work by volunteers in the flats themselves, projects which brought people together.

It is an amazing project, an example of what can be done. Or can it still be done?

St Michael's Estate

The development in St Michael's Estate tells a very different story to that of Fatima Mansions. St Michael's Estate is another huge site of 14 acres, in prime development land in Inchicore, which has 346 units of local authority accommodation.

Following the deterioration of living conditions in the flats in the '80s and '90s and the failure of a 'Remedial Works Scheme' of £1 million, which failed to materialise, a task force was finally set up in 1997, composed of individuals from Michael Estate Blocks Committee, the Family Resource Centre Community development project on the estate, Dublin City Corporation, the Southwest Area Health Board, the Gardaí and the Local Partnership company. The group's task was to commission a consultation programme with the people in the flats to establish what their needs and views on redevelopment were.

By December 2000, a meeting convened by Dublin City Council established a three-phase development. By June 2001, the Council publicly launched a vision document and over the following years of intense negotiation between council and the community, came up with the final master plan, agreed in August 2002. Negotiations concluded in February 2003. The tenants believed that all was going ahead.

Meanwhile, work started on Phase I of the plan, rehousing people from three blocks set for demolition. This phase was completed by April 2003, leaving quite a reduced number of tenants in St Michael's, and a plan to retain most of the land for social housing, and regenerate the community with civic, community and Health facilities, a Family Resource centre, Creche and after schools facilities. Of the 320 accommodation units, only 70 were earmarked for private accommodation.

In September 2003, the Department of Environment and Dublin City Corporation rejected this master plan, on grounds that it was too expensive. This meant that the second and third stages of the development were cancelled, without consultation or discussion with those who had drawn up the plan. A campaign started at the beginning of this year to call on the Department and Council to reinstate the original plan.

Instead, a new plan was drawn up with a private developer, without consultation, for the provision of 850 apartments, 550 of which were to be private, the remainder, social and affordable, in blocks up to seven storeys high, along with shops, sports and some community facilities.

Dublin councillors in September voted unanimously to reject this latest plan. The people, after the long and hard struggle to engage their local communities in the planning of regeneration, are now, it seems, out of the loop of consultation. The council intends to go ahead and sell this prime development land, from which already several blocks have been demolished. It is a deliberate adjustment of the balance in the development away from social and affordable housing in favour of private tenancies, and a considerable reduction in facilities required to enable regeneration of community.

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