Irish planners urged to move away from ‘tick-box’ focus

Need for radical thinking , says department’s senior planner


Ireland’s planners need to move away from a “tick-box focus” on complying with a raft of statutory requirements towards a more pro-active role in facilitating sustainable development, according to the Department of the Environment’s most senior planner.

Niall Cussen, who is a former president of the Irish Planning Institute, said local authority planners “should be thinking much more radically about their places and how they could be developed”, in line with Minister Phil Hogan’s programme on local government reform.

Speaking in advance of the institute’s annual conference in Belfast, he said planners were “almost wholly focussed on dealing with the fallout from the boom, rather than generating the type of activity – not necessarily even development – that the country needs now”.

Mr Cussen likened the current preoccupation with reviewing and learning from the mistakes of the past to “driving with your eyes fixed firmly on the rear-view mirror”. Planners needed to evoke the “sense of optimism” of the Lemass-Whitaker years in the 1960s.

“Yes, of course it’s very important to learn from the mistakes that were made more recently, but we also need to move on and make it clear that planning is about enabling things to happen and not just about a process of regulation and ‘mission statements’ that can mean nothing.”

He added: “Unless we get a grip on ourselves we’re in danger of planning by numbers.

“Our planning debates are in the High Court, involving fine detail about the interpretation of law, rather than in the high streets of cities and towns and how they can be made better places.”

Residential development
However, Mr Cussen said there were “strong signs” that the 2010 Planning Act was having a “very profound” impact, with the significantly excessive amount of land zoned for residential development cut by almost half from a total of 44,000 hectares in 2010.

There was “more realism in council chambers now that progress doesn’t depend on big housing schemes” and that IDA Ireland “isn’t some sort of fairy godmother than can sprinkle factories all over the place”. Instead they were looking at “the potential that lies within”.