Tighter focus means National Planning Framework more likely to deliver

Only by understanding the preferences of people and business can public policy influence development

The National Planning Framework sets out a strategy for Ireland's development up to 2040. When looking so far into the future it cannot be too prescriptive, but it sets out a framework aimed at ensuring balanced growth across the State. In aiming to make Ireland a more attractive and sustainable place to live, it offers guidelines for future development.

Since 1996 both population and employment in the Border-midlands-west (BMW) region have grown at almost the same rate as in the rest of the State. The reality has been that the growth of Dublin and the other main cities has been good for the State as a whole.

However, international experience suggests that larger urban centres have tended to have higher growth rates than smaller centres. For the US, the 53 largest metro areas, with one million of population or more, have generated 95 per cent of population growth and 73 per cent of GDP growth between 2010 and 2016.

If this US experience were replicated in Ireland the bulk of future growth would come in the greater Dublin area. Such an outcome would be problematic for Dublin, generating major congestion. And such unbalanced growth would not be good for the rest of the State.


Ireland’s urban structure is weak: Dublin’s population equates to that of the next 40 cities and towns combined. However, if we are to achieve balanced regional growth in the future we need a strategy that will take into account the preferences of companies and individuals living in Ireland.

No democratic government can direct people or companies where they should reside. It is only by understanding the needs and preferences of those involved that public policy can influence development.

Skilled employment

Major employers like to locate in big centres where they can avail of a pool of potential staff, and find replacement employees when they need them. A population that is highly educated seeks skilled employment, and this tends to be concentrated in urban areas, particularly for more specialised roles.

An important factor in the choice couples make as to where they live is whether they can both get suitable jobs. It can be difficult to find the necessary variety of employment in rural areas to meet individuals’ preferences. A couple where one is a biochemist or an aeronautical engineer is unlikely to find two suitable jobs outside major urban areas.

The National Planning Framework sets out a strategy to relieve pressures on Dublin by making other cities an attractive home for business and individuals. Recognising the numbers who will enter the labour market over the coming 20 years, the framework proposes focusing development on Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway to complement Dublin’s attractions.

Experience from the 1970s shows that a strategy of much more dispersed development, without other centres building up critical mass, just results in Dublin getting most of the growth. The framework recognises that the last such plan, the National Spatial Strategy, was damaged by the scatter-gun approach of the decentralisation project.

While strengthening urban centres is crucial, recent experience shows that rural Ireland will benefit from growth in nearby urban areas, thus spreading the benefits of progress across the State. However, the malignant effects of Brexit could hamper this ripple effect in Border areas, especially in Donegal, so these areas may need special measures.

A real difference

A big problem in developing the strategy is that the northwest has no city of any scale other than Derry. If Derry grew rapidly it would be large enough to make a real difference, especially to Donegal. However, the Government cannot influence such an outcome. Brexit is also likely to prove especially negative for Derry.

In the absence of a suitable strong centre in the northwest, the framework targets Sligo for special attention. However, because Sligo is small even if it trebles in size over the next 20 years it will not make a big difference to the growth of the BMW region.

The framework recognises that the commuting pattern from rural areas that characterised the Celtic Tiger years was an unsustainable model, bad for the environment, and a source of increasing traffic congestion. Instead, the housing of the future will need to be closer to people’s workplaces.

The plan’s target is for at least 40 per cent of all new housing to be delivered within the existing built-up areas of cities, towns and villages on infill or “brownfield” sites.

The tighter focus of this framework is likely to be more successful than the “one for everyone in the audience” approach to spatial planning.