IGB site: New housing development likely to exclude most locals

The original Irish Glass Bottle factory, circa 1900. (Copyright unknown. Published by UCD Digital Archives.)

By Peter McNamara

The Irish Glass Bottle Site has a long history in Ringsend. For over a hundred years it was a place of work and prosperity, where three generations of a family might find themselves gainfully employed.

After the closure of the Irish Glass Bottle Company in 2002, and the demolition of its factory, the empty land that emerged became the subject of greed and of grand promises made and broken.

More recently, real progress seemed to have been made to finally put this undeveloped site to use, in a manner somewhat consistent with the needs and wants of the local community. The Poolbeg Special Development Zone (SDZ) deal of May 2017 may yet be the latest casualty of this benighted wasteland. Negotiations to save the site are ongoing, but their likely outcome is far from clear.

When taken together, the recent history of the “Glass Bottle Site” encapsulates much of the recent history of Dublin, and Ireland as a whole. From boom to bust, from the Troika to the vulture funds, and on to the current housing crisis, the forces that have influenced the fate of this undeveloped site are the same ones that have shaped the Ireland we find today.

What’s clear is that the future of the Poolbeg SDZ is revealing of the direction that this city and this republic is headed.

Ringsend: A bottle-making powerhouse

It was once said that “a Ringsender may travel the length and breadth of Ireland, be it west, east, north or south, be it in a guesthouse, hotel, public house, church or meeting hall, and he or she will always get a reminder of their beloved town of Ringsend that’s there in the presence of a glass container.”

Glass bottles were made in Ringsend for over 200 years. The first bottle company was set up on Charlotte Quay in 1787 by an English firm, to cater to the French market.

Other glass factories located in Ringsend included Fitzwilliam Street, Fitzwilliam Quay, and Scotch Alley. By 1870 there were five glass works in Ringsend. One specialised in supplying bottles to Guinness, for their stout. 

Ringsend was a good location for making glass. Glass manufacturers needed a lot of sand, of which the area had plenty. They also needed huge amounts of coal to melt the sand, so it was advantageous to be near the port.

The Hibernian Bottle Factory depended on Sandymount Strand for their sand, which they stockpiled at the back of the Star of the Sea church. In this day and age such sand would not be suitable – Waterford Crystal imports their sand from Holland and Belgium.

During the Great Depression business waned, and the final two bottle-making companies in Ringsend closed their doors and quenched their fires. In 1930 the Ringsend Bottle Company and the Irish Glass Bottle Company became subsumed into the Irish Glass Bottle Co. Ltd, under the ownership of Joseph McGrath and Joseph Griffin. 

The Irish Glass Bottle Co. Ltd. 

Moving with the times, this renewed Irish Glass Bottle Company switched to a one-furnace system, and single-head, semi-automatic bottle making equipment. By the 1960s the company was operating four glass furnaces, as well as a variety of glass-forming machines. 

In the 1970s the Irish Glass Bottle Company, with its subsidiary Waterford Glass, had a combined payroll of almost 5,000 – making it one of the largest companies in the state. In Ringsend up to 1,200 people were employed. The company gave a large amount of long-term employment and stability to the community around the area. 

The company’s employee clubs were a large part of the local social fabric. One club was located at Roebuck Lodge, Goatstown. Another stood on Irishtown Road, and was known as the Bottlemakers Hall or Dolphin House. Erected in 1915, this club had a large hall, six billiard tables, as well as facilities for bingo, dancing and socialising. The hall was placed on the Dublin City Council’s protected structure list in December 1980, for its architectural, historical, and social importance. 

In 1989 the Irish Glass Bottle Co. Ltd. was taken over by Ardagh Glass, a Luxembourg-based producer of glass and metal products. From then on the company became Ardagh PLC.

After years of waning employment and output, in 2002 Ardagh Glass announced the closure of the plant, with a loss of 375 jobs. They blamed the closure on the workforce, claiming it had failed to implement changes to work practices.

Trade union representatives disputed this and said they’d been in talks with the company until the very end. At the time, Mick Duffy of the Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union identified a lack of investment and inability to have meaningful negotiations as the main reasons for the company’s failure. The closure brought mass unemployment and hardship to the Ringsend area.

Since Ardagh PLC decided to close the Glass Bottle plant, it has continued to expand abroad. As of this year, it operates 89 facilities in 21 countries, employs approximately 19,000 people, and sees more than €4.7 billion in annual revenue.

From boom to bust and back again

When the Irish Glass Bottle Company closed in 2002, the factory was soon torn down. The vacant site which emerged went on to embody the rise and fall (and rise again) of Ireland’s property-driven economy. 

In 2006, the Dublin Port Company sold the site for €412 million to Becbay Ltd., a consortium led by Bernard McNamara, Derek Quinlan, and the State-owned Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA).

Anglo-Irish Bank lent €288 million for the deal. Its chairman, Séan Fitzpatrick, sat on the board of the DDDA, and DDDA chairman Lar Bradshaw served as a director of Anglo. At the time, the value of Dublin 4 land seemed infinite. In fact, it had reached its peak.  

In 2009, the DDDA valued the Glass Bottle site at just €50 million. In 2012 Becbay bought it for €30 million – which represented just over 7% of its peak price. That same year NAMA would appoint receivers to Becbay, and the Environment Minister Phil Hogan would announce the DDDA’s abolition; its assets and remit were finally transferred to Dublin City Council in 2016.

The adjoining 11-acre site, once owned by Fabrizia Developments, was grouped with the former IGB site, and in May 2016 Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan secured a Strategic Development Zone (SDZ) designation from then Minister Alan Kelly. The SDZ included not only the Glass Bottle and Fabrizia sites, but also areas to the north and east controlled by Dublin Port. 

It’s also of note that when the site was sold to Becbay in 2012 Dublin City Council only received a one-third share of the sale price of that land which it owned, due to a legal loophole. With that in mind, the IGB site is a remarkable showcase for the greed, the recklessness, and the seemingly collusive regulation that drove the boom and caused the recession.

Communities and corporations: The SDZ today

As of March 2019, the SDZ is a scene of renewed controversy. On Saturday March 3rd over a hundred members of the Irish Glass Bottle Housing Action Group (IGBHAG) demonstrated outside the site. Last summer the future of the “Glass Bottle Site” was clear. Now, locals are fighting to save what was, even then, a compromise deal.

It’s a curious thing: having already seen both the proud roar and the final death rattle of the Celtic Tiger, the Poolbeg Special Development Zone has once again come to typify the state of Ireland today.

There are many competing parties interested in the site. NAMA, the site’s receiver Deloitte, the government, Dublin City Council, Dublin Port, and the Glass Bottle Action Group each have a vision for the best use of the land. And, given the housing crisis we find ourselves in, and the social and moral questions it raises, each differing vision for the SDZ can be said to be a differing vision for Dublin and Ireland itself. 

Moreover, the closeness of the SDZ to Grand Canal Dock, with its global technology giants, throws into sharp relief the inequality between the often-overlooked Ringsend/Irishtown areas and those affluent global powerhouses, with their incomprehensible (and largely untaxed) annual turnover. Small businesses stand in the shadow of ever-rising skyscrapers. Ordinary hard-working people watch the available land remaining in these areas fill with hotel and apartment complexes, priced at boom-time levels. 

This is part of the reason why the Irish Glass Bottle Housing Action Group formed. The group first met in 2016, soon after the SDZ was declared. When it came to deciding what was to be done with the housing allocation of Minister Kelly’s SDZ, the Action Group wanted to make local needs and concerns felt. 

Their vision for the site is an inspiring one. In their policy document, they say they’re fighting not only for the future of the community but for a legacy to leave for future generations. They talk about a “New Concept in Urban Living”, a more balanced approach to development planning, which has already seen great results in the German cities of Hamburg and Munich.

This concept is designed to be of benefit for many, whether they are on the social housing list, are in need of assisted living accommodation, or are young families/single people looking to buy an affordable home with a reasonable mortgage, in order to settle in a community and put down roots. 

When they were first negotiating the now-endangered 2017 SDZ Deal, the Action Group argued for a mixture of 25% market-led housing, 25% social housing, 25% housing association dwellings and 25% affordable/co-housing schemes. Unfortunately, this approach was not to be followed. 

Mocking democracy and ghettoising Dublin

The SDZ deal eventually settled upon and approved by An Bord Pleanála comprises 900 social/affordable units out of 3,500, which represents just over 25% of the total. At the time, it was seen as a fair compromise. Last April, the receiver Deloitte launched an appeal with An Bord Pleanála against that compromise social/affordable allocation. It’s a clear act of bad faith. 

The receiver’s own 3,500 unit total was raised by Councillors from the initially mandated 2,500 on the understanding that 900 social units would be delivered. Deloitte is acting with complete disregard for those democratically elected officials, and the people they represent.

It’s the kind of arrogant behaviour you’d expect from a developer or banker back before the crash. If Deloitte’s appeal is granted, and they are allowed take advantage from their dishonesty, you’d have to wonder whether we’ve learned enough from the painful mistakes of the recent past, and if we’re headed for trouble again.

In fact, the decision that comes from the An Bord Pleanála appeal, and the parallel City Council negotiations, could be telling not only of the future of social housing in Ringsend, but the fate of Dublin’s entire social housing model. 

Recent comments by Dublin City Council’s Head of Housing, Brendan Kenny, should cause concern. Kenny said there “appeared to be a misconception that affordable housing would be available in sites throughout central Dublin, as in the previous affordable housing scheme that was discontinued in 2011.” He went on to add that any housing built under the new affordable purchase scheme in the coming years would be concentrated in the already largely social housing suburbs of Ballymun, Darndale and Cherry Orchard.

What’s more, given the situation at Capital Dock – where the mandated social housing allocation at that luxury apartment development was outsourced to sites in far-flung Rialto – future developments might become anti-socially exclusive.

The long-standing policy of mixed housing developments in Dublin is something to be proud of. It’s hard to find a middle-class neighbourhood that isn’t closely located to one based on social housing, and vice versa. There are of course exceptions to this, but for the most part, Dublin has avoided going the way of Paris or London, and prevented the concentration of less well-off people and families in peripheral areas. 

Kevin Humphries, the Labour councillor and former TD, who has been fighting since 1999 for a fair deal for the Glass Bottle site, takes a grim view of this kind of ghettoisation. “You see what’s been happening in other European capitals. By pushing disadvantaged people out to the fringes of a city, you break down social integration. Mixed developments are good for everyone. They make for a rounded community.” 

Given the rise of populism and fascist racial ideas, this kind of inter-mingling might be more important than ever. It’s hard to dehumanise a person for their background or ethnicity when they live only a few streets away. 

A prism for the past, and future

The Glass Bottle site has a long history in Ringsend. What was once a place of prosperity has since turned into a scene of loss. And now, given the dishonesty and disregard shown by the receiver over the SDZ deal, the site is now turning into a place of insult.

From its wild over-valuation, to its rock-bottom sale, the Glass Bottle Site has come to represent much of what is wrong with modern Ireland. And the future of the site may be telling of the future of this city and this country. 

It remains to be seen whether the government will favour its wealthier citizens and multinational corporations over the ordinary Ringsend tax payer. Ringsend and Irishtown are home to proud communities, each with a rich history. Due to the demand for housing in these areas – which is greatly aggravated by the arrival of the high tech industry in neighbouring Grand Canal Dock – the price of housing is double that of the Dublin City average, and 3.5 times the national average.

Locals are being priced out of the neighbourhoods they grew up in, and are now being seemingly cheated out of a development deal that was a compromise on their part in the first place.

Building works will bring a 10-year imposition of noise and traffic – and that’s before a surging population puts pressure on already stretched amenities. 

There is an alternative. If Deloitte’s dishonest planning appeal causes the SDZ development deal to collapse, and if the government, the developers, and Dublin City Council are unwilling to build social housing on the site, there are many voluntary bodies that would be glad to step into the breach.

The Irish Glass Bottle Housing Action Group has previously been in contact with the Iveagh Trust, Tuath, Nabco and Cluid. Voluntary bodies have done great work across the country to deliver high-quality affordable housing – a development of 57 such houses was built in Poolbeg in 2005. 

The wrangling around the Glass Bottle Site is revealing of the priorities of the government, and the moral standards set for businesses and developers alike. At a time when we need stronger local government, more in tune with the needs of ordinary people, councillors are being openly flaunted.

If a policy of ghettoisation is allowed to get underway, and if Dublin becomes a city in which only the rich can afford to live, one has to wonder what will become of the discourse and culture in our nation’s capital. This fair city will be anything but.