If you want to sell a car in the European Union, your offering has to meet quite a lot of very specific standards. For example, Commission Regulation 1008/2010, a six-thousand-word epic:
“… concerning type-approval requirements for windscreen wiper and washer systems of certain motor vehicles and implementing Regulation (EC) No 661/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning type-approval requirements for the general safety of motor vehicles, their trailers and systems, components and separate technical units intended therefor…”
– in which it is specified, among other things, that “The windscreen wiper system shall be capable of operating for two minutes on a dry windscreen in an ambient temperature of – 18 °C, without degradation of performance.”
As we’d expect of a machine with the destructive potential of a car, everything is regulated; brakes, wheels, seatbelts, seats, windows, the angle of the bonnet compared to the ground, crash tests, and that’s not even getting into the engine and exhaust.
Volkswagen, however, does not have to submit every new design to a government committee for final approval. There is no group of great intellectuals (backed by men with guns and badges, let’s not forget) declaring that the shape of the headlights on a new Tiguan doesn’t fit with their vision for motor vehicle aesthetics in the early 21st century. Škoda can mess with the shape of the front grille as much as they like.
If the vehicle meets the regulations, the rest is up to the public. You can tell whether the design is any good by whether people want to buy it.
Consider the Volkswagen Scirocco. It’s a faster-looking Golf but doesn’t actually go any faster than a Golf. It looks nice, but all you’re really getting is a Golf with less space. So people bought Golfs instead and Volkswagen had to give up and stop making the Scirocco. All figured out in the space of a few years.
Meanwhile, for the last four decades, Crumlin Shopping Centre has sat there wrecking a considerable chunk of Dublin 12. It is unwanted. It is unused. It is objectively hideous.
Yet there it squats, taking up valuable space while nobody can afford an apartment.
We think this is normal. It isn’t.
Consider just about anything else you can buy. Compare yourself to your parents when they were your age. In terms of consumer goods, technology, convenience, even food, you live in a magical dream world that they would have had a hard time imagining.
You have access to the sum total of human knowledge in your pocket and it costs about as much as two pints a week. You can bop around Europe whenever you like, for the kind of money you’d save by not drinking for a weekend or two. A new Ford Fiesta is a better car than an old Rolls-Royce in nearly every way that matters.
However, when we count the magical wonders of the late 2010s, we find a massive glaring absence. You’re not about to buy a little palace that makes your old family home look like a hovel.
Places to live aren’t smartphones. It takes longer to make and dispose of a building than a machine. There’s only so much land within commuting distance of Dublin. That said, we have no idea how efficiently the space could be used. The supply half of the market is strangled by government interference.
Imagine how ridiculous it would be to have Chieftain Leo up in the Dáil telling everyone how many hamburgers are going to be made in Ireland this year and what the government is doing to make sure there’s an adequate supply of chicken nuggets. Would you expect a load of TDs to know anything about chicken nuggets?
Would you expect them to know anything about property development?
Would it not make more sense to have an expert list of conditions, standards, regulations and all the rest of it and let Charles Darwin sort out the property market?
The technical regulations would be far, far simpler than the kinds of regulations we already have on vehicles. More could be added as necessary. Hard and fast rules. You don’t get to demolish a Georgian street, no matter how councillors you lobby. No. Not happening. Go away.
Of course the current planning process is there to preserve places and things of great archaeological value – which is why there’s a concrete abomination sitting on top of the first Viking settlement in Dublin.
The current process protects areas of particular beauty – which is why the longest row of Georgian houses in existence was hacked in half by state-sponsored vandals.
The current process ensures vacant spaces are put to their best possible use quickly and efficiently, which is why there’s been a gaping hole in O’Connell Street for about as long as I can remember.
We could consider taking property development out of the hands of local councils and putting it in the hands of the people who actually might want to buy the buildings (by which I mean you).
An added benefit: given a choice between an ugly block and a beautiful block, buyers might tend towards the beautiful.
You never know, after thirty years of beautiful buildings commanding a premium, the modern schools of architecture could even learn something.