Bungalow blitz and brown envelopes: Frank McDonald’s ‘environmental journalism’

For more than three decades Frank McDonald has soldiered for the environment in the pages of The Irish Times. As Environment Correspondent and latterly Environment Editor (a post from which he retired recently) he has presented a provocative and radical critique of Irish society’s ambivalent relationship with our urban and rural landscapes, as well as society’s more global impact through climate change.  He was a guest speaker several times in Maynooth during the eighties and nineties.

A student at UCD during the upheavals of 1969, he was involved in student politics and student journalism before embarking on a full-time career in journalism. The late sixties and early seventies in Dublin were marked by rampant despoliation of the heritage of the built environment. Large swathes of Georgian Dublin were being obliterated by a combination of developer-led greed and inadequate planning legislation, a mania for ‘modern’ buildings and traffic-friendly wide streets and dualways, and an post-colonial rejection of our architectural and landscape heritage which was often characterised as a legacy of imperialism: Neil Blaney, Minister for Local Government in the mid-1960s famously dismissed campaigns for preservation of Dublin’s Georgian inheritance (by the Irish Georgian Society and An Taisce) as the work of ‘belted earls’ and ‘aesthetic bullies’.  Dublin’s quays and large tracts elsewhere in the city were pock-marked with cleared sites occupied by surface carparks (awaiting development opportunities) which sucked in more and more cars, precipitating pressure for wider roads and streets. In 1988 road engineers had ambitious plans for dual carriageways criss-crossing the city centre which would have obliterated innumerable streets and buildings.

Auction House and Antiques Dealers on Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin, 1991.

Auction House and Antiques Dealers on Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin, 1991.

Duffy2This was the context for McDonald’s early interest in what was happening to Dublin’s streetscapes and Dublin’s heritage buildings. He wrote about them passionately in the pages of The Irish Times in the 1980s and finally in a pioneering book The destruction of Dublin published by Gill and Macmillan in 1985. He pointed out that the city centre population had been halved in the previous twenty-five years with more than 160 acres lying derelict. He noted that the Georgian heritage ‘wasn’t really seen as Irish despite the fact that it was all built in Ireland by Irish workmen.’ McDonald became aware of much of the corruption at the heart of developments in Dublin though he was prevented for legal reasons from naming names in his book: he uncovered a ‘rogue’s gallery of developers, speculators, architects and roads engineers’.[1]  His interest in his native city continued in regular columns in The Irish Times and in several subsequent books – Saving the City: how to halt the destruction of Dublin (Tomar, 1989); The construction of Dublin (Gandon editions 2000), and with Kathy Sheridan, The Builders (Penguin 2008).  In 1998 he edited an international collection of essays, The ecological footprint of cities (International Institute for the Urban Environment).

Throughout the 1980s and nineties he reported on the rezoning mania which gripped local authorities in Dublin and the country more generally.  Landuse planning policy was inadequate to cope with re-zonings from agricultural to commercial or residential uses proposed by local councillors that overnight massively increased land values, and enriched landowners, developers (and co-operative politicians).  The most dramatic reportage, which had to be circumspect to avoid litigation, focused on a blatant abuse of their authority by many Dublin city councillors.  In pubs adjacent to the council chamber, McDonald watched ‘brown envelopes’ and drinks being discretely passed to politicians to encourage them to support motions for re-rezoning.  Some of the more notorious developments resulted in huge monetary windfalls for politicians and landowners in north county Dublin, and frequently poorly planned tracts of housing estates.  Probably the greatest example of sleaze and corruption in planning was the 1991 council vote to relocate the Neilstown-Clondalkin Town Centre to Quarryvale (->Liffey Valley) on the M50 which was never envisaged by planners to be located so close to the carefully planned Blanchardstown Centre.  Fianna Fáil politicians like Liam Lawlor, Ray Burke and others were deeply involved in questionable dealings with developers on a range of projects. The infamous £50,000 donation to Fianna Fáil which found its way into Environment Minister P Flynn’s account in 1989 was designed to obtain government support for the Quarryvale scheme.  More than twenty councillors were subsequently paid £500,000 by Frank Dunlop working for the Quarryvale developer to have it rezoned.  As a result of Frank McDonald’s work, and others, the now infamous Planning Tribunals were established which ran for years, cost a fortune, and are now it seems for technical legal reasons reversing some of the findings of corruption against a range of individuals.

Dublin planning scandals were mirrored by similar shenanigans throughout the country. Frank McDonald reported on re-zonings of extensive tracts of land around provincial towns and villages. By the turn of the century as a result of pressure on local politicians by landowners and developers, land acreages were being re-zoned that were way in excess of what was needed for population growth and normal commercial requirements.[2] The results are clear to see today in totally inappropriate and unnecessary ‘ghost’ estates – large housing estates tacked onto small villages where nobody wants to live, or retail developments in unsuitable locations on the outskirts of country towns. McDonald’s Chaos at the crossroads (with James Nix) was published by Gandon Books in 2005 and illustrated how the country at large was being destroyed – ‘wrecked’ – by toothless planning policies resulting in urban sprawl, expansion of Dublin’s commuter zone up to 200km from the capital, and the proliferation of one-off rural housing.

Urban-generated bungalows in the countryside of south Meath, a few kms from Maynooth

Urban-generated bungalows in the countryside of south Meath, a few kms from Maynooth

One-off housing was one of McDonald’s bugbears from the 1980s. He introduced the term ‘bungalow blitz’ in a series of articles in September 1987 to describe what was happening to the Irish countryside. The term was a rejoinder to architect Jack Fitzsimons’ book Bungalow Bliss reprinted ten times since 1971. This was a self-help ‘house-pattern’ book on how to go about getting planning permission and building a bungalow, and contained a range of house plans and designs which could be (and were) mixed and matched by builders and local residents as a do-it-yourself guide. Roadstone published a similar planbook. McDonald saw this rash of bungalows as a serious deterioration in design standards, with many of them often incorporating features more appropriate to Mediterranean or Mexican landscapes.   But more than this, McDonald highlighted the random and haphazard manner in which rural housing was allowed to develop in linear ribbons along rural roads. In a great many cases these one-off developments took place in contravention of the aims of county plans but were pushed through under special motions by county councillors in favour of local constituents. A planning conference in 2001 noted that over one-third of new dwellings built in Ireland in the previous year were one-off houses.   This trend continued throughout the recession: of 11,604 houses granted planning permission in 2010, almost half (48%) were one-off. There has been a deterioration in local landscapes in places like west Donegal or Achill – one recent visitor observing that ‘houses splattered all over the place have made Bunbeg look less than lovely’.

Rural housing in Bunbeg, Co Donegal

Rural housing in Bunbeg, Co Donegal

McDonald talked about the ‘blight of bungalows’ in 1987 spreading like a rash. Many of the house designs have been unsympathetic to the local landscapes: in the nineties he characterised one development in Achill as ‘Toblerone houses’. Today he speaks of large Celtic Tiger ‘McMansions’ in the countryside – the meaning is clear – large two-storey houses in the words of Tim Robinson in Connemara in 2011, ‘twice as big and twice as numerous as those McDonald had deplored.’ [3]

The ‘Toblerone’ houses in Achill

The ‘Toblerone’ houses in Achill

Ireland’s 1937 constitution enshrined the fundamental rights of private ownership of property and this has had significant repercussions for planning legislation from the 1960s. It has shaped attitudes to land, landscape protection and settlement planning among rural communities, developers and politicians ever since. The result has been a reluctance and failure of central and local authorities to implement policies to control and manage landscape in line with other parts of Europe in face of resistance by landowners and a highly clientalist local political system.[4]   McDonald, together with An Taisce and many professional planners, has regularly highlighted the future costs associated with a car-dependent population of less than five million in a land area that is the same order of magnitude as England – which has more than ten times the population. Many of the problems of rural service provision are exacerbated by scattered one-off housing. Although all householders pay the same price for a postal service, rural deliveries are four times more expensive than urban services. As David McWilliams has said, ‘if we have one-off housing, we cannot have a functioning public transport system, public health service, public education system or postal system, never mind universal access to broadband or cable. …So who pays? The worker who has abided by the laws, who has bought a place in a town or a village and who is not lucky enough to inherit land.”[5]

While many people would instinctively empathise with Frank McDonald’s shock at the bungalow blight evident in a drive through south Connemara in the nineteen eighties, – ‘a ruined landscape, bristling with telegraph poles and banjaxed by bungalows’ – Tim Robinson, who has lived and walked through the area, has taken a more positive view of these developments, as being part of a disorderly communal vitality that is not perceptible from the window of a car: ‘… lots of houses and lots of hydrangeas … higgledy-piggledy, assembled as if by successive throws of dice rather than according to a plan … It is only as contradictory and untidy as life’. [6]

In recent years, as Environmantal Editor, Frank McDonald has reported extensively on global climate change and intergovernmental attempts to come to agreements on political responses.[7]  In December 2009 with a grant from Comhar, the former Sustainable Development Council in Ireland, McDonald visited the Maldives, one of the places in the world most vulnerable to climate change.[8] According to its President, climate change represents “a clear and present danger to our survival”.  On some of its islands, agriculture is no longer possible because of salt-water contamination of fresh water supplies.  The more exposed southern and western flanks of Malé, the capital island, are now protected by a breakwater of precast “tetrapods”, three metres high, constructed over a period of 12 years. McDonald has presented an apocalyptic vision of the future for many of the earth’s most fragile environments.

Patrick Duffy

Notes

[1] See his ‘Reflections on Dublin’, The Irish Times Magazine, Jan 31, 2015 and interviews http://www.irishenvironment.com/podcasts/interview-with-frank-mcdonald-environment-editor-the-irish-times-part-1-3/

[2] See Frank McDonald in The Irish Times: ‘A spree of rezoning: Meath County Council didn’t pay enough heed to planning guidelines’, Apr 2003. ‘Where small can be lucrative; even tiny villages are being targeted by housing scheme developers’ May 2003. ‘Spreading stain of suburbia; north Wicklow is becoming a sprawling commuter belt’ May 2003.

[1] See his ‘Reflections on Dublin’, The Irish Times Magazine, Jan 31, 2015 and interviews http://www.irishenvironment.com/podcasts/interview-with-frank-mcdonald-environment-editor-the-irish-times-part-1-3/

[2] See Frank McDonald in The Irish Times: ‘A spree of rezoning: Meath County Council didn’t pay enough heed to planning guidelines’, Apr 2003. ‘Where small can be lucrative; even tiny villages are being targeted by housing scheme developers’ May 2003. ‘Spreading stain of suburbia; north Wicklow is becoming a sprawling commuter belt’ May 2003.

[3] Tim Robinson, Connemara. A little Gaelic kingdom (Penguin Ireland, 2011), 311

[4] see Brendan McGrath, Landscape and society in contemporary Ireland (Cork University Press, 2013).

[5] David McWilliams, ‘One-off housing is simply a response to pester power’ The Sunday Business Post, 17th March, 2005

[6] Robinson, Gaelic kingdom, 297, 311.

[7] McDonald contributes a chapter in Joe Smith (ed), The Daily Globe: environmental change, the public and the media (Earthscan, 2000).   See also       http://www.thinkorswim.ie/index.php/as-cancun-begins-deep-pessimism-abounds/

The Irish Times (lead front page article): ‘Human influence on climate change a ‘clarion call’ to global community’ by Frank McDonald. 28 Sept 2013. http://www.irishtimes.com/news/environment/human-influence-on-climate-change-a-clarion-call-to-global-community-1.1543077

Feb 2015 http://www.irishtimes.com/search/search-7.1213540?article=true&tag_person=Frank%2BMcdonald

Irish Times, Dec 2009. ‘Paradise in a perilous state’, reported in an ICARUS blog http://icarus.nuim.ie/news-events/paradise-perilous-state

[8] Irish Times, Dec 2009. ‘Paradise in a perilous state’, reported in an ICARUS blog http://icarus.nuim.ie/news-events/paradise-perilous-state

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