The lack of investment in our infrastructure has come into sharp focus in Cork in the past few months. People are affected by grinding traffic congestion, floods in untypical areas and a basic lack of available residential housing.
A number of factors are creating this strain on our public infrastructure, including population growth and increasing economic activity.
In the 15-year period from 1996 to 2011 (the last census), the population of Cork increased by 100,000, which alone is more than the population of some other Irish cities.
It is likely that by the next census, later on this year, Cork’s population will be 560,000. Most of this growth is in the suburbs and outlying urban areas of Cork City.
We need to begin planning for a Cork City and county that have a combined population of one million.
Outside of Dublin, we have a unique economic mix, with companies from the pharmaceutical, bio-tech, med-tech, ICT, financial services, marine, energy, agri-food, and construction and engineering sectors.
As a percentage of GNP, our investment in infrastructure is below European norms.
It is glaringly obvious that we have to construct more roads, public transport infrastructure, schools, hospitals, houses, apartments, hotels and a vast range of other infrastructure necessary for a functioning society and economy.
It is not acceptable anymore that people are stuck for hours in traffic gridlock, that we cannot get the right public-policy mix for our residential construction sector, that people cannot find homes, that lands zoned for housing do not have the necessary infrastructure, that Cork’s Docklands are not developing, that we are not planning for a light-rail system in Cork, that our cities and towns are vulnerable to delays in flood-protection measures.
The list goes on.
The construction sector is the ultimate service-led industry, relying on initiatives and funding from clients to provide the infrastructure the country requires.
If the right funding models and systems are in place, the construction industry will create a better Cork.
With its growing population, the significant contribution Cork’s economy has made to Ireland’s export-led recovery, its varied economic base and capacity to act as a counter-pole to an over-congested east coast (which threatens our national competitiveness), Cork should attract more public-sector infrastructural investment.
That is why the recent Public Capital Programme, and other investments in cultural and sporting infrastructure supported by the Government, were welcomed wholeheartedly by many commentators.
However, we now need certainty that the funding is in place, and that the start dates and timescales for these projects are announced.
When will the Dunkettle interchange start?
When will the N22 Macroom bypass start?
When will the N28 Cork to Ringaskiddy road start?
When will the Cork City flood protection scheme start?
These questions must be answered, so that industry can plan.
These are the most strategically important, public infrastructure projects for Cork and they facilitate development on a scale never seen before.
The Port of Cork can relocate, lands in the lower harbour and East Cork can be freed up for industrial and residential development, and Cork’s Docklands can be freed up for development.
It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Cork to move up in scale and in general development.
Recent developments around Cork illustrate perfectly that old sheds can be converted into fantastic, modern work spaces and that ‘development’ is a positive word.
Other necessary projects are not contained in the Public Capital Programme, such as the Northern Ring Road, the Docklands Bridges and, of course, the M20.
All of these are necessary to facilitate the development of the Docklands, the northside of Cork City and the Atlantic corridor.
These projects are vital and planning needs to commence for their construction.
It is very positive for the city that our sporting and cultural infrastructure will improve dramatically within the next few years.
We need a modern sports stadium that has the capacity to host a range of events, in addition to an eventscentre.
The erection of tower cranes at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, in recent days (pic, above), is a real sign of progress, and it is good to see that work on the reconstruction is well underway.
Modern cities have to be places where sporting, cultural and conference-type events take place.
Cork is the only city outside of Dublin that has the population, and associated infrastructure, to make these types of facilities viable.
A city without these facilities, without a variety of sporting and cultural events, will not attract people to live and work there.
Our young will emigrate to ‘brighter lights’, inward investors will not want to locate here, and stagnation will take hold.
These facilities, once constructed, will attract more people to our city to live, and will lead to more business for hotels, for restaurants, more traffic using our airport, and more jobs and commerce for everyone.
Our population is increasing significantly and this trend is likely to continue, as the economy stabilises after a lengthy recession.
The demand for residential units has returned significantly, with Daft.ie showing a 20% increase in prices in Cork in 2015.
In metropolitan Cork, we need to produce at least 2,500 units annually.
In all of Cork City and County, we only produce (on average, over the last five years) 1,100 units per annum. 65% of these are one-off houses in rural or semi-rural locations.
This is simply unsustainable.
Unfortunately, the housing construction sector is struggling to recommence activity, for many reasons, including a lack of available finance, the cost of finance of at least 10%-15%, VAT at 13.5% on a sales price, Development Contribution Scheme charges and the cost of Part V.
In relation to construction costs, the only variables are taxes and charges, as labour and materials cannot reduce any further.
In Cork, these cost issues are compounded, as there is a lack of serviced and zoned land available to the residential construction sector and in the right location.
Any land that does become available to the market is being snapped up, sometimes by those with little interest in construction.
Some zoned land is tied up in long-term farming leases, some zoned land will always remain as farming land, and some zoned land is tied up in liquidation issues.
Another significant impediment to the delivery of residential units in Cork is the lack of services (infrastructure) for zoned lands.
Put simply, the roads, water and waste-water services are not in place, and will be expensive to provide within the lifetime of the various development plans.
Furthermore, there is no funding for infrastructure, so that these public services can be provided.
It is highly unlikely that the necessary infrastructure will be in place in the lifetime of the various development plans and in the case of a significant portion of the zoned land.
These land-supply constraints, along with various taxes and levies, have an obvious impact that affects the commercial viability of residential developments.
Public policy wants the industry to provide residential units within a certain price range. However, other aspects of public policy limit the viability of developments.
It is an obvious contradiction that has yet to be addressed by policy-makers.
The review being carried out by Cork County Council, of the Local Area Plans, is welcome as a means of addressing constraints in zoned residential lands, but the provision of infrastructure for these lands, and the supply of zoned residential lands in the right locations (around existing urban settlements, where the services are located) for the industry remain a key ingredient for housing supply.
Despite all the impediments to residential construction, there are signs that 2016 will see an increase in activity, as housebuilders and developers begin to find finance and sites to construct residential units.
However, the roadblocks, as detailed above, are difficult for an industry that has gone through seven years of recession, and many obstacles remain.
We need to construct a new Cork, a Cork that can continue to attract the world’s top talent and a Cork that is open to change and development.
This cannot be achieved without a renewed focus on the importance of the construction industry to society and the economy.
Infrastructure is the essential skeleton upon which everything else rests.
Infrastructure is how we get to work, the place where we work, the place we call home and, without infrastructure, without construction, society and the economy stagnate.
We need to invest in infrastructure in Cork.
Conor O’Connell is the new regional director of the Construction industry Federation’s southern region, and has been with the CIF since 2001
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