Serving the national interest

Planning, development and a new National Spatial Strategy

 

Condemning Fianna Fáil for undermining the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) and failing to deliver on regional planning is old hat. But putting an effective alternative in place is a real challenge and, so far, the Government has shown no appetite for risk-taking. Key announcements are being deferred until after the election.

Former minister for the environment Phil Hogan scrapped the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) in 2013 and spoke of replacing it within a year. It didn’t happen. The current Minister, Alan Kelly, is now talking about a National Planning Framework that will replace the NSS and guide future development and investment decisions. Intentions regarding specific growth centres are opaque. In the meantime, a report on how the NSS was undermined by Charlie McCreevy’s decentralisation proposals will be published.

The NSS, designed to guide regional planning from 2002 to 2020, was flawed from the outset. Attempting to satisfy as many voters as possible, 18 developmental ‘gateways’ and subsidiary ‘hubs’ were nominated. This scatter-gun approach to development outside of the Greater Dublin Area seriously diminished its intended impact. Following objections from those towns and districts that were not included, however, a decentralisation plan designed to relocate some 10,000 public servants across the State was announced. Apart from its involvement in transport planning and rural development, the NSS – starved of resources – was effectively dead.

A new National Planning Framework will, according to Mr Kelly, operate on a statutory basis. It will advise on development and investment and coordinate regional and local development plans. No indication has been given that a list of qualifying cities and towns will be identified. Instead, its work may take place within a framework of on-going local authority reform. If that happens, Cork, Limerick, Wexford, Galway, Waterford and Tipperary could qualify. For his part, the Minister talks vaguely of “regenerating” parts of our biggest cities and building on “the vibrancy of towns” that are tourism and investment hot spots.

Forty-five years ago, the Buchanon report advocated the nomination of “poles of growth” outside of Dublin that would help to spread economic development. Successive governments have paid lip-service to the idea. At the same time, an absence of rigorous planning and uncontrolled, developer-led activities brought damaging consequences. Spending on strategic infrastructure will require difficult decisions and prioritisation. The absence of clear, long-term planning leaves society vulnerable. Listing a range of towns and cities for development, as happened with the NSS, would be a recipe for political controversy. Maintaining focus and funding on a handful of cities, while addressing issues of flooding and rural housing, would best serve the national interest.

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