Nimbyism, the vocal opposition of established residents to development in the local area, emerged first in this country about 50 years ago in the south Dublin suburbs.
The gatekeeper role in land use changes was conferred on local councils by the 1963 Planning and Development Act, and the fashion for local objections to housing development spread quickly around Dublin with the rise of residents’ associations and the decline of active membership in local branches of political parties.
TDs and councillors became captive to the residents’ groups and now compete to lead the objectors, not just in Dublin, but throughout the country.
One result has been the failure to expand housing supply in line with rising population and the resulting affordability crisis.
Every political party (no less than 10 have representation in the Oireachtas) sides with the objectors, and none champion the development of derelict land in existing residential areas, even close to existing public transport capacity.
They all deplore the shortage of housing, unaffordable rents and the unrealisable ambition for home ownership, while stifling the expansion of supply.
Nimbyism is a transmissible virus and when it first emerged as a potent force in rural Ireland, it took the form of local opposition to wind turbines and the pylons needed for grid connections rather than housing supply.
But even small provincial towns now resist residential development too, and the popular location for wind turbines is the Atlantic Ocean – despite the technical challenges and extra costs of this. Nobody has yet suggested an Atlantic location for the missing housing supply.
The power conferred on local authorities to appease Nimbyism was always likely to be abused, since the economic and social costs are national – a housing crisis, inadequate investment in renewables or a poor grid and the risk of electricity blackouts – while the perceived benefits accrue locally to successful objectors.
The decision-making power over issues of national significance was localised with the best of intentions back in 1963, but the subsequent dysfunction in the planning system has come to a head.
Last week, Stephen Robb from the Irish Farmers Journal reported a significant change in policy, regarding solar energy development.
Unlike onshore wind farms, there has been decent progress with solar farms and there is a solid pipeline of projects.
No more than wind, solar cannot provide a predictable power supply, and will need to be backed up with always-on technologies including gas and nuclear.
A system delivering very high annual percentages of renewable power generation (the Irish target has been raised to 80%) may prove unattainable in countries without unexploited hydro resources, but a worthwhile increase in Ireland is certainly feasible.
More of this could be solar. All the evidence is that solar and onshore wind will be more affordable than the politically convenient Atlantic option.
A recent independent report from the Irish Academy of Engineering expresses profound scepticism that offshore wind can be developed at scale without extravagant extra costs for platforms and for transmission.
They furthermore doubt the commercial viability of converting renewable wind into hydrogen, taken for granted without detailed analysis in official reports – and in relentless lobbying for subsidies from would-be developers.
According to Matt Collins of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, a new strategy is under development that will assign targets to local authorities for the identification of sites suitable for solar and onshore wind development, thus centralising what has hitherto been a local Government function.
This is a welcome development since local opposition has inhibited desirable and commercially viable projects, especially onshore wind, for several years now, to the point where some onshore wind developers are losing interest.
Official optimism about offshore wind is not shared by the major developers in the UK, who have been cancelling projects in recent months.
Defenders of the current Irish planning system, including the prerogatives of residents’ associations and environmental lobby groups, equate the right to object at local authority level and on to An Bord Pleanála and to the Irish and European courts with local democracy.
Where the issues at stake are national, this has resulted in central Government inability to deliver on national objectives (renewable power at reasonable cost, affordable housing) because of non-cooperation from local councils and the planning system.
Decision-making power over issues of national significance was localised with the best of intentions back in 1963, but the subsequent dysfunction in the planning system has come to a head
The defenders of the current dysfunction are confusing local democracy with the arbitrary distribution of veto powers, which are being abused.
It was never the intention back in 1963 to empower local groups of residents to intimidate politicians into, for example, the prevention in Dublin and the provincial cities of building residential accommodation on derelict sites in areas zoned residential.
Nor does it make sense to inhibit onshore renewables investment or to impose excess cost, such as under-grounding, on the strengthening of the transmission system. Locals object, but the community at large pays the costs.