Spatial strategies

There’s a feeling afoot that the post-Covid world will be as different from the world we knew only fifteen months ago as from the lockdown world we’re about to leave behind us. For a start, we’ll be able to remember what day it is without looking at our phones.

Some things, unfortunately, won’t have changed. Some problems will be waiting for us when we emerge from the coronafog. The homelessness and housing crises, masked (sorry) by the day-to-day, wall-to-wall coverage of Covid-19, haven’t gone away and are becoming horrifically visible again as the fog clears.

The unemployment rate has been and will be for some time distorted by Covid-related unemployment, partial unemployment, or temporary unemployment. The Covid-adjusted unemployment rate for January 2021, including those in receipt of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, was a scary 25 percent overall (Central Statistics Office).

Not surprisingly, the lowest-paid workers have been disproportionately affected.

But hope springs eternal and there’s a sense in the air that change will have happened, that we will have learned something when we emerge blinking into the reopened world.

And lo, the Government came through with their five-year decentralisation plan. They’ve taken a liking to remote working and are encouraging us to do even more of it post-pandemic. In fact, if we move to somewhere in rural Ireland to do it, the Government will shower us with promises of rewards: highspeed Broadband, office ‘hubs’ with hot desks, and even a whispered possibility of cash incentives.

Short on details, the big announcement was pretty underwhelming. The following day’s promise of a legal haircut in May got more hearts beating. But we need more than that to get us through to the summer . . . or autumn . . . with a little hope left. This is precisely the moment to try out a little creative, maybe even radical, thinking about what the future could look like. It’s time to go big. Encouraging people to work remotely in the countryside and then waiting to see what happens isn’t enough. As Catherine Murphy said, ‘We have to stop hoping for the best and move to an approach where we actively drive housing delivery to create vibrant, diverse, and inclusive communities’. The important concept here is building communities, not housing estates. Communities need planning and planning needs coordination between the various stakeholders from both the Government (local and national) and the community.

And, in the spirit of hopeful new beginnings, let’s aim to build sustainable, integrated communities that will provide houses and jobs and, importantly, neighbourhoods where individuals and families can live together, work together, and grow together. It just takes a lot of joined-up thinking.

For instance, having the location of the communities decided by the planning offices of the county or city councils would ensure that the development is in line with local planning regulations. It would see to it that services are available on-site and that the local infrastructure won’t be overwhelmed. It would speed up the process of obtaining planning permission.

Using the many tools already available to us (tax incentives, training and mentoring schemes, and grant-aid, for instance), we could make those new communities attractive to small businesses, start-up enterprises, self-employed entrepreneurs, and so on, both for living and working. We could make them just as attractive to motivated job seekers by having available jobs, apprenticeships, community employment, or back-to-work schemes. And then, with a little bit of cooperation and coordination, the community can supply and fulfil at least some of its own employment needs.

A not-for-profit community banking system with an operating principle that local deposits finance local projects will provide financial services to support young enterprises. Community banking will support community development.

Sounds a bit Brigadoonish? None of the suggestions above is unfamiliar. It’s not revolutionary to suggest that we build houses to suit the various spatial plans governments occasionally put out there. There’s nothing outlandish in suggesting that we attract employers to locate there and motivated workers to live there. There’s nothing new in banks offering financial products to support capital investment in infrastructure.

What is new is the scale and the joined-up thinking. We’re not talking here about multi-national conglomerates promising hundreds of jobs and paying zero tax, or banks handing over multimillion-euro loans to developers fresh out of NAMA to build multi-storey blocks of luxury apartments that the majority of the population can’t afford to live in. We’re talking about financing the carpenter who wants to open a shop selling hand-made furniture and to hire a couple of apprentices on CE schemes. We want to support the organic gardener turning a hobby into a small business selling fruit and veg at farmers’ markets. Small scale is the new big thinking.

Are we in Brigadoon yet?

While it might sound strange to some of us, there’s nothing new about community banking. Seventy percent of all Banks in Germany are small and locally controlled, lending mostly to productive SMEs. Private commercial banks make up only 12.5 percent of the total number.

The German Public Savings Banks (Sparkassen or Treasure Chests) are at the heart of the successful German economic performance, with 42 per cent of the overall market and 42.7 per cent of all finance to German businesses; they have 75 per cent of the SME start-up market, 30 per cent of the farm lending market, and 50 million customers (publicbankingalliance.ie).

Big thinking is the new small scale.

Creating communities: three pillars

Continuing with the linked-up thinking, a national housing agency, a national employment agency, and a National Savings Bank could support community cooperatives during the early years, not least with the provision of funding, training, and mentoring.

A national housing agency, responsible for coordinating housing needs and provision across the country, would deal with both national and local realities. A national employment agency working with Enterprise Ireland could develop community enterprises as the houses are being built. A National Savings Bank, managed by community stakeholders and a professional bank management team, would provide the financial support needed.

National Housing Agency

Depending on who does the counting, there are about 70,000 to 100,000 households on waiting lists for public housing across the country. A national community development initiative will allow those waiting on the list not only to move to a new house but to become part of a new community, perhaps to work in a local community-owned enterprise or pursue self-employment.

For those who want to move to these developing areas but are already tenants or prospective tenants of a different county or city council, a national housing agency could facilitate the transfer of the tenancy.

Those with a troubled mortgage could be given an opportunity to ‘house swap’, moving to public housing in the new community and leaving the original house—and the responsibility for renegotiation of the mortgage repayment—to the government. Any accrued equity would go with the original householder and the swapped property would be added to the local Council’s housing stock.

National Employment Agency

The task of a national employment agency would be to encourage the self-employed, small businesses, and cooperatives to locate in new communities, using a variety of strategies including but not limited to

  • making training and mentoring resources available to the self-employed, start-ups, and all local enterprises
  • introducing new apprenticeship programmes based on local need;
  • making tax credits available for small enterprises to cover start-up costs
  • introducing new apprenticeship programmes and training resources based on local need.
  • matching the skill sets of the local unemployed with the skill sets required by local enterprises to create socially strong and economically resilient communities.

The employment agency could also liaise with local government to ensure that local authority contracts are specifically earmarked for local enterprises and for the local self-employed.

National State Bank

Richard Werner is a German economist, author of Can banks individually create money out of nothing? and founding chair of Local First, a community-interest company establishing not-for-profit community banks in the UK. He argues that the safest bet in money creation is to ensure that ‘the awesome power to create money is returned directly to those to whom it belongs: ordinary people, not technocrats’. A national savings bank, made up of a combined network of post offices, credit unions, local authorities, and community representatives as stakeholders, would fulfil that purpose by

  • maximising sustainable lending on the principle that local deposits finance local projects;
  • operating on the principle of ‘Local deposits into local loans’;
  • maximising the competitiveness of the region;
  • keeping surpluses with the bank and within the region to be used to increase equity and for non-profit social purposes;
  • prohibiting any financial institution within the community banking system from engaging in financial speculation or securitisation;
  • ensuring that the community banking system is controlled by community stakeholders and will never be sold to private or commercial interests.
    (Adapted from publicbankingalliance.ie).

With around 1100 post offices and nearly 400 Credit Unions, such a banking system would already have an established presence in towns and villages across the country.

Rebuilding Ireland for the people

A project like this would reduce housing waiting lists and improve access to jobs and financial services locally—all vital for a continuing national recovery and future development. It would require massive investment but would provide returns both economic and social for many years to come.

We need a Government that doesn’t pour money into the pockets of already super-rich developers and landlords but gets back into the business of building its own houses. We need a Government that encourages the strength and resourcefulness of our communities because feeding and nurturing multinationals isn’t the only way to grow the Irish economy. We need a Government that would democratise our political system by decentralising power—devolving authority and responsibility to local government and through them to the people they represent. We need a Government that recognises access to secure employment paying at least a living wage and secure, decent, affordable housing are rights, not privileges.

[i] This is a reworking of an article originally published in leftbucket.com in 2019 with Owen Connolly.