Decentralisation derailed national spatial strategy, says report

Strategy would have prevented ‘excessive’ planning decisions had it been honoured

The decentralisation plan piloted by the then minister for finance Charlie McCreevy (above) in 2003, significantly undermined the National Spatial Strategy  that had been drawn up by the same administration, a Department of Environment report said. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

The decentralisation plan piloted by the then minister for finance Charlie McCreevy (above) in 2003, significantly undermined the National Spatial Strategy that had been drawn up by the same administration, a Department of Environment report said. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

Decisions made by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats to move tens of thousands of public servants out of Dublin derailed national planning rules, a highly critical Department of Environment report has ruled.

The decentralisation plan, piloted by the then minister for finance Charlie McCreevy in 2003, significantly undermined the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) that had been drawn up by the same administration, the report said.

Under the plan, which formed the centrepiece of Mr McCreevy’s 2003 budget, 10,300 civil and public servants were to be moved from Dublin to 53 locations in 25 counties.

Some government departments and State agencies were to have been moved to major cities and towns that had been designated as “gateways” and “hubs” under the NSS, but others were ordered to move to much smaller locations.

“The logic of the decentralisation programme reached its nadir with the proposed relocation of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to a greenfield site at Knock Airport,” said the Environment report.

Proposal quashed

The Knock proposal, which had been welcomed by local politicians and others, was finally quashed after it was refused planning permission following a third party appeal to An Bord Pleanála in 2007.

Though the NSS was “too theoretical” and lacked clarity on many occasions, it would have prevented “excessive and inappropriate” planning decisions had it been honoured, it went on.

The NSS, which was to have run for 20 years and led to the growth of 18 locations across the State, was finally abandoned by the then minister for the environment Phil Hogan in 2013, who insisted it had not worked.

The report, seen by The Irish Times, reviews why it failed and examines what should be achieved by the new planning framework, announced by Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly late last year.

“In general the compromises on locations and the associated diffusion, indeed loss of focus, meant that many of the hoped-for outcomes have not been as positive as envisaged.”

The report says there is a need for a new NSS and for it to be put on a legal footing as was requested by the Mahon tribunal report. Mr Kelly has committed to this.

‘Boldness and conviction’

The report calls for the focus to be on gateways and rural housing and admitted the challenges facing Ireland in planning require “leadership, boldness and conviction”.

“There will be difficult choices involved, particularly around spending on strategic infrastructure (both hard and soft), but these dilemmas are endemic to government and while many of the policy and investment choices will require a sharp focus on priorities, it is Ireland as a whole that should be the beneficiary.”

The report was written by independent experts and is due to be published over the coming weeks.

It says the new planning framework must not make the same mistakes of the abandoned NSS.

The experts say the framework cannot be so prescriptive that it cannot react to or accommodate new opportunities or changed circumstances.

“Equally, it cannot be so generalised or so flexible that it does not provide the direction and stability to guide key investment and policy decisions,” it adds.

“The aim should be to have a short statement, very much on the ‘less is more’ principle, rather than a treatise on spatial development.

“We are absolutely clear about the need for the NSS to focus on spatial development issues and choices which are genuinely national in scope and scale.”