New guidance in recent years should improve planning process
There are reasons to be optimistic that planning will be better in the future
An Taisce heritage officer Ian Lumley: “Our legislation has hugely improved. But good planning requires leadership at city and county level.” Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
During the property bubble years the planning system, among so many other areas of public life, proved dysfunctional.
A trip through the Border counties, where half-built one-off houses and one-off estates litter the fields, is an illustration of how badly the system let the country down.
According to a number of people with expertise in the area, however, there are reasons to be optimistic that when Ireland’s construction sector resumes building, the planning system will perform better than it did in the noughties.
According to Ian Lumley, heritage officer with An Taisce, there has been a raft of new guidance issued over recent years by the Departments of the Environment and Transport that should make for improved planning once building resumes.
The 2010 Planning Act has also done much to improve matters, he says.
The objective is to have “orderly and sequential planning” and to restrain developer-led practices such as ribbon development and housing estates beyond the boundaries of cities and towns that are such a feature of the Irish landscape.
Bad planning is inefficient as it requires the construction of new infrastructure such as roads and sewers and water services, and makes for a more car-dependent population with all the expense and quality of life downsides with which that is associated.
“Our legislation has hugely improved,” says Lumley. “But good planning requires leadership at city and county level.”
The 2010 Act aims to create an “evidence-based” planning regime where local authority development plans have to be consistent with projections for population growth in the relevant region.
This is a return to the national special strategy-type thinking that the government turned its back on in 2003 when the then finance minister Charlie McCreevy announced decentralisation plans that flew in the face of the strategy.
Likewise, the as-yet-uncommenced section 140 of the 2014 Local Government Reform Act will end the practice whereby councillors can direct their council management to grant or refuse planning permission for certain developments.
The Government is looking at the creation of an independent planning authority which would have a role in issuing directions to local authorities deemed to have made decisions not in keeping with the new evidence-based planning regime.
“There has never been so much guidance,” says Sean O’Leary of the Irish Planning Institute.
Likewise, Berna Grist, of the UCD school of geography, planning and environmental policy believes progress has been made.
“I think a lot has been done to strengthen the planning acts.
“However, it is disappointing that the Minister [for the Environment] had to issue directions to a number of planning authorities since 2012.”
This was done on the grounds that the content of their development plans failed to comply with the legislation, in most cases because of inappropriate zoning.
It confirms, she says, as stated in the planning tribunal’s report, that the gaps in transparency and accountability at local level have been reduced but not eliminated.
“We saw from the Celtic Tiger legacy of unfinished and remotely-located housing estates that bad planning is not victimless, and further legislative provisions for supervision may well be necessary,” she says.
Lumley warns that there are still a lot of extant planning permissions from “the bad old days”, and that efforts to build on distant greenfield sites persist despite the existence of large and myriad brownfield sites, the development of which would be more in keeping with stated policy.
Dr Brendan Williams, of the Urban Institute Ireland at UCD, says there are approximately 300 derelict sites in city centre Dublin, half or more of which remained derelict right through the boom.
Many of these make no financial contribution to the city as they are free from residential property tax and rates.
Lumley is supportive of a levy that would push the owners of these properties to make use of them or sell them rather than leaving them derelict, to the detriment of the rest of the city. But he cautions that “there seems to be strong opposition to the idea”.
So have we changed our spots? We shall see.