Every year for the past 25 years, the National Competitiveness and Productivity Council (NCPC) has made recommendations to government on actions needed to enhance competitiveness and productivity growth in the Irish economy. This year’s Competitiveness Challenge draws attention to one area where Ireland must do much better, namely physical planning.
Why are the council’s recommendations important? Because unless the Irish economy remains competitive, businesses located in Ireland will not be able to retain customers here and overseas, the economy will become less dynamic and productivity growth will be undermined. If that happens, Ireland will see fewer sustainable jobs, slower increases in living standards, and public services will struggle to match the needs of our growing population.
The NCPC is an independent body representative of the social partners. It advises the Taoiseach and Government on actions and policies needed to deliver the competitiveness and productivity gains required to fuel a strong and sustainable economy and continued investment in crucial public services. The NCPC focuses particularly on policies that cut across departments, recognising the demands for co-ordinated leadership where numerous departments and State bodies are involved.
Each year the council’s Competitiveness Challenge report identifies where actions are needed to maintain competitiveness and productivity growth in the economy. The challenges are typically complex and the recommendations often take several years to achieve their goals. The Government commits to responding publicly to the council’s annual recommendations – of which there are 20 this year.
A theme in this year’s Competitiveness Challenge is the costs of failing to deliver what Ireland requires to function effectively and of the delays to implementing agreed policies. The recent major external challenges to our economy and society – including Covid-19, caring for the migrants coming from Ukraine and the energy crisis – have increased awareness of Ireland’s ability or inability to respond quickly and effectively.
In relation to planning, a poorly functioning system results in slow and costly delivery of infrastructure projects, constraining economic activity and delaying social improvements. Coming at a time of serious shortfalls in our infrastructure, in critical areas such as housing, public transport and energy, the long-standing deficiencies in Ireland’s planning system are damaging to the very fabric of society as well as to the economy.
In the context of the Government’s publicly stated commitment to addressing the causes of systemic problems in planning, the council called for the immediate implementation of the recommendations in the Attorney General’s review of the legislative planning code that has been undertaken during the past two years. This review is due to be published in the coming weeks, following Cabinet consideration. It is expected to address the deficiencies in planning legislation that cause delays in decision-making and result in very frequent and costly judicial reviews.
The council also called for the establishment of an appropriately resourced new planning and environmental division of the High Court, with specialist training and support being provided for the judges appointed. In light of the problems Ireland faces, it is vital that leadership is shown to deliver what is required – nothing short of focused action will change the present situation.
To address planning delays comprehensively, the council also called for prioritisation of resources in the planning authorities. This will enable planning authorities to establish clearer principles and standards and to process applications in a more timely way. Indeed, there could be benefit from a formal independent consideration of whether, with all of these changes in place, there are still any other elements remaining that deter the whole planning system from working effectively. Any chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
In its response to the council published on November 29th, the Government welcomed the recommendation in relation to the Attorney General’s review and said that it anticipates the new legislative proposals being brought forward before the end of this year. While this is positive, it is not enough. What is also necessary is the speedy updating of any required secondary legislation and guidance; without those, Ireland’s planning problems are not solved. Real progress requires that the momentum for improvement is maintained.
The news that Cabinet approved the establishment of a new Planning and Environmental Law Court on November 1st shows progress and the new court needs to become operational in early 2023. Without the requisite judicial resources, Ireland’s planning system will continue to be a burden on the economy, causing increased costs and great frustration to those in businesses, households and Government itself.
The Government’s response also notes that Budget 2023 made provision for improved resourcing of planning authorities, An Bord Pleanála and the Office of the Planning Regulator. Again resources should be provided immediately, through recruitment or reallocation, to develop better planning frameworks and to reduce the current delays. We simply cannot afford to be complacent about implementation of agreed decisions, given the economic and social costs of these inefficiencies.
While planning is but one of the 20 areas where the council has made recommendations to Government, it is of huge importance given the impact that decisions made in this sphere have on many other areas. If what is being promised is delivered, Ireland will be in a situation where long-standing issues in planning can finally be addressed systemically, starting as soon as 2023. Without a full realignment of the planning system, we have no chance of meeting our infrastructure, housing or climate objectives, and we will continue to grow the burdens we leave for our children and grandchildren.
Dr Frances Ruane is Chair of the National Competitiveness and Productivity Council (formerly the National Competitiveness Council). The views expressed here are her own and not necessarily those of the NCPC