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A vision, with buy-in

Michael Smith interviews John Moran, Finance Man, who's now applying himself to Limerick and National planning

History and economics

John Moran is former Secretary General at the Department of Finance. I meet him for brunch in a Mexican restaurant on bank holiday Monday. He is bright and open, and brings along his ebullient mother (but that is another story).
Before elevation to the most senior position in the Department of Finance Moran worked as head of the banking unit at the Department, which he joined after a stint at the Central Bank. Before that he worked as a senior banker and corporate lawyer mostly outside Ireland. He did a law degree and a Master’s in the US, and followed up with a degree in maths.
I ask him what he’s up to now.

“Basically since I left the Department I’ve set up a company, RHH, which is designed to do social entrepreneurship and strategic leadership. We do a number of roles with different charities like the Hunt Museum”, of which he is chair.
It also lobbies for the likes of Nomura and Uber. As a social entrepreneur Moran supports a number of not-for-profit organisations drawn from interconnected spheres including education, and regional and urban development.  He has helped established and serves as chair of Narrative 4 Europe, based in Limerick, a not-for-profit organisation promoting social change through storytelling co-founded by Irish novelist Colum McCann, and is an active member of the Limerick Economic Forum, since November known as Limerick Twenty Thirty which is charged with developing key strategic sites in Limerick City and County that will act as anchors for enterprise and investment development across Limerick”. It has generated a national buzz about Limerick and sites like the Opera Site and Hanging Gardens.

Moran was appointed a board member of the European Investment Bank (EIB), and is a ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Merit’, or ‘Knight’ of France’s second highest national order of merit. A Francophile, he’s involved in the restoration of La Maison Carrie-Boyer, a 13th Century medieval home in Cordes-sur-Ciel near Albi in the South-West of France. The building is classified as a national monument. He is no longer involved in the juice bar he once ran in France. He lives mostly in Islandbridge in Dublin but is also restoring a Georgian house on Pery Square in the centre of historic Limerick.

He looks back on his time in the Department with favour and in particular considers he was influential in effecting a change towards collection of data and a more evidence-based approach, one which perhaps surprisingly had been lacking until then. I probe him on whether he thinks the Department made mistakes during his time there but he certainly doesn’t think so. He defends Nama for selling property early as that was its remit. If it had not done so it is probable there would not have been the return to vibrancy in the property market that we are now benefitting from. He doesn’t agree the vulture (and he disagrees with the term) funds were indulged.

He won’t be drawn on whether Nama could have expected to retrieve closer to the original, par values of loans instead of the discounted prices it paid and he certainly won’t be drawn to criticism of the way Project Eagle was handled. He believes it was right to exit Northern Ireland. He met Oak Tree and Lone Star in the immediate run-up to their putting in, successful, bids for Project Sands but does not recall engaging with Cerberus about Project Eagle, though Michael Noonan did, the day before bids were due. He and Noonan made their diaries available to the Public Accounts Committee. And of course Nama and the Department are far from conterminous.

He accepts that the Anglo €34bn is gone but believes the State will recoup the rest of the €64bn advanced in the bank bailout from the bailees. In terms of his political philosophy he is unforthcoming but he’s passionately in favour of equality of opportunity.


It’s in that context that he’s got involved in promoting the development of Limerick (he grew up in Patrickswell and there are hints of the accent through the mid-Atlantic and Merrion St). He feels at the moment too much development is going to the Greater Dublin Area. The people of cities outside Dublin are simply not benefitting from equality of opportunity.
His vision for spatial strategy is of a spreading of the benefits of economic development around the country. He’s actively engaging with the government’s draft National Planning Framework.

He’s a big believer in quality of life so I ask him if they ever looked at linking tax incentives to quality of life indicators in the Department when he was there. In fairness after failures with the likes of the Upper Shannon blanket tax incentives the Department of Finance had, by the time of his tenure, become hostile to property-based tax incentives but he says they had not looked at such linkages. He’s a little defensive.

He notes accurately that the Department’s strategic plan “didn’t look just at GDP, but at quality of life too” and I ask him if that had been enough. He insists it was an “evolving agenda” to look at quality of life too. His vision seems ad hoc rather than comprehensivist. Though he doesn’t agree with tax incentivisation, if they are introduced they should be for the public realm, for the outside of people’s houses, not the inside. That benefits everyone. More generally, he thinks good planning should facilitate quality of life through; “Public realm: I think the first thing you have to do is invest properly in terms of public realm and public transport”.

As to what this might mean for Limerick, he notes it “has a huge amount of green space downtown and in terms of reaching out and into the county and along the river. I think they should draw a red line around those areas and keep them. But grow the city in terms of density using the rest of the spaces”.

For the historic city: “You have to come up with a vision. If you imagine a Limerick which has a Medieval island which should become the most desirable place, within walking distance of downtown. There is fascinating history all around you and proximity to the river and water space. It has been neglected and it needs a plan – as indeed does the Georgian area”.
He considers the State should invest in the public realm, transportation and in world-class educational facilities in cities outside Dublin. He sees education as a catalyst.

“The Living Cities Initiative didn’t really apply that well for Limerick because of the size limitations but I also think the best way to really reinvigorate an historic area like that is to make it the most desirable place to live and that includes having some of the best schools there, having some of the best parks. You have to put money into them. It’s about investment”. He’d love to see Limerick aiming to have the best education in the world, and drawing investment on the back of it.

He won’t give a population projection but if we continue with economic growth we may add the population of Dublin – 1.5 to 2 million people by 2050/60. “The population of Limerick – and other cities outside Dublin – should aspire to rise from 80,000 to 300,000 to 400, 000. They won’t get there by 2050 of course. Limerick should be aiming for this. Providing a service in Limerick – if there’s a decent road system to Galway and Waterford and Cork – would then put it within an hour of over two million people who no longer have to travel to Dublin as it would be available to those other cities too. We’re looking at a reimagining of how the country works, for Dublin and elsewhere”.

National Planning and Spatial Strategy

He notes the former spatial strategy was “probably not as bad as people said it was. It was never followed up at a political level and it was followed by decentralisation which was not focused on the gateway towns. I’d like to think there’s growing recognition at a political level that people’s lives are no longer pleasant and we need a different approach”.
I ask him how as a lawyer he thinks we can improve enforcement of plans especially to ensure the new National Planning Framework will actually be implemented, but he thinks it is “less of a legal issue than a general point. An awful lot of plans are developed in ways that the people for whom those plans apply don’t really have any buy-in”.

He considers “the plans aren’t socialised well enough. So you can have a plan that outlaws one-off housing. In theory you could have an enforcement mechanism that would actually enforce that plan but the problem is if the people who live in that neighbourhood or that county for whom this is the plan don’t buy into it. So in fact the people who are looking for enforcement are viewed by some as interfering with the democratic process”.

He believes in a vision but also in buy-in.

As to how to get elusive public engagement he believes in “Socialising the ideas. I think social media provides an opportunity to really have conversations about stuff. You have to find a way to make a decision and that’s what ultimately politicians elected around the Council chamber or in government cabinets should be required to do”.

He’s involved in Limerick Twenty Thirty. It’s a Strategic Development DAC(Designated Activity Company) – “the first, local authority wholly-owned special purpose vehicle created in Ireland to deliver a city and countywide programme of investment”. Chaired by Denis Brosnan, “the company is tasked, in the first instance, with delivering over €500m worth of transformational investment infrastructure across Limerick, focusing on strategic sites capable of record inward investment and jobs”.
I ask him if its membership is what it needs to be. It seems to be quite far from a roundtable representing all the stakeholders, particularly the local Community. He notes that in addition to business people it comprises councillors and council officials.

He thinks Limerick, and other cities like Waterford, Cork and Galway, “have an opportunity now to be developed if there’s a good enough vision in the National Planning Framework as a city of the twenty-first century. It has had in some respects the advantage of not being developed before the boom so you’re starting with a much cleaner canvas allowing concepts such as sustainable living and a better public realm, but in a kind of historical context, rather than just going in like Milton Keyes to a green field and building an entire city you can start with a city that has already got a long heritage and history so people can buy into that history but yet provide a twentieth-first-century quality public realm, and education”.

Does he think that Limerick should be first in the hierarchy after Dublin or should it merely have the same status as Cork, Waterford or Galway?

“I think in a world of infinite resources there is no reason why you would necessarily pick one city over others. I jokingly suggested Limerick in the process mainly because I knew it would upset the people from Cork who would create the debate. What’s been so great about the last year is that the debate has occurred about which should be the alternative pole to Dublin and of course we don’t necessarily need just one, we can have lots. The advantage of picking one before the others is that you can divert and dedicate enough resources to it to really reinvent it. It takes time to show just how much more enjoyable lifestyles in urban spaces can be compared to one-off housing and suburbia that we’ve seen so much of in Ireland. And if we continue to divert resources somewhat equally there’s a risk we don’t actually change any one of them enough to convert people”.
There are some obstacles. Limerick has had its problems including bad management.

“I think there have been some really important improvements. The merger of the City Council with the County Council has meant that decisions can now be taken that work both for the city and for the county and that has been incredibly important in terms of helping to reverse the fact that Limerick has probably the most ridiculous doughnut form that exists for a city of its size of 80,000 people. Decisions were made by the County Council to generate commercial rates for them but that hollowed out the city which was run by the separate City Council. Ironically in a city of 300,000 or 400,000 people you can build on what would be a mistake for a city of 100,000 people because rather than having a very concentrated group of services in the city centre which becomes unaffordable as a result for everybody and creates commuting problems Limerick could now develop a little series of sustainable satellite neighbourhoods of interesting urban spaces all connected to each other”.

I want to know specifically what role he sees for towns and villages outside Leinster.

“Individual housing all over the place that can ruin the countryside we all want. We have to find a different model for rural Ireland. At the moment our only real city is Dublin which is a long way away from West Clare or Kerry. You want to have towns that are places that people to want to live and that are communities”.
For example: “Instead of Thurles being somewhere you live and get a train to Dublin, you live in Thurles because it’s close to a city that’s developing. Thurles starts to look like a Newbridge or a Naas does currently. It thrives because it’s close to a city”. There’s no danger of sprawl with such a vision, he insists. “You stop the danger of five-bedroom houses on a strip coming out of those towns where the speed limits are because that creates a problem for the next generation who’re living beyond that and that can no longer walk to the city centre. You have to build towns centring on public transport afford. You have so people can live there without having cars”.

So does this threaten rural villages? “Most of Ireland is currently rural so hard to say what a rural village is. Rural villages have different functions – for example in Wicklow and West Limerick – we need to look to their strengths, Ballyhoura in West Limerick or Westport in Mayo can focus on tourism and have completely different models from a village in the Golden Vale that can do agricultural cottage interests.

I thinks decline in some villages is inevitable and you’ll see more of this if the country moves East. But if you distribute the growth more evenly they have more chance”.

I wonder how you get around the problem say of people who in their own heads assigned the fields to their kids for one-off housing. How do you persuade them that there’s a greater public interest that should be allowed to prevail over that?
Moran considers, “it is important to define the public interest and to address the question of equality of opportunity. Why should a kid have the benefit of a site provided by his parents on what could otherwise be agricultural land serving the common interest, whereas for a kid whose parents moved to a city or town that opportunity doesn’t exist? I think there has to be a better way of explaining this to people so that they realise that self-interest is not necessarily in the common good”.
I wonder if he’s concerned about the reduced apartment minimum-size standards brought in by Alan Kelly.

He thinks one of the problems with reduced apartment sizes is that we’ve not looked at the breadth of people now looking for apartments. Families for example, “Having a one-size fits all set of regulations means they don’t actually suit anybody. again we’re focusing on square metres without reference to what’s available in the public realm nearby. As we mature and get used to apartments our standards need to mature. Previously we focused on our house, our own garden and what we need for our own home rather on shared space. Sustainable living including in apartments is about sharing space – a park, a crèche – for efficiency. You don’t need storage space in your apartment if it’s downstairs. You don’t need to have a playground in your own apartment if there’s a really exciting one below where kids can mix with other children from the neighbourhood”.

Finally, what has he learnt from his time abroad: “If I was choosing where to live I’d focus less on tax rates and money in your pocket and a lot more on quality of life. With economic growth we’ve lost a lot of the quality of life that we had in the 1970s not by planning but in effect by accident. With economic growth commuting times have increased, hospital waiting lists have grown. When you live abroad you realise these are the things that contribute to feeling contented in life”.