Frances Ruane: Planning framework must be founded on courage

Political commitment must underpin rational and holistic approach to spatial development

Traffic on Dublin’s M50. Without proper regional planning, congestion in Dublin will get steadily worse Photograph: Alan Betson

Traffic on Dublin’s M50. Without proper regional planning, congestion in Dublin will get steadily worse Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The publication of the National Planning Framework is imminent and should be a landmark event for the country. It will be published on Friday alongside the Government’s capital spending plan for the next decade. How this pans out will depend crucially on political will and leadership, and on whether the long consultation process behind the planning framework has generated a wide understanding of how good planning can ensure more regionally balanced growth.

It is now 60 years since our population started to grow, following a century of decline. Despite that, we have not succeeded in the intervening period in planning for population growth and sustainable living patterns in our cities, towns and rural areas.

The Buchanan report, published in 1968, was the first attempt at spatial planning. It recommended a set of counter-poles to Dublin in different regions across the country – urban centres where development would be concentrated. The idea was that each region would feed into and benefit from the growth of its central pole.

Parochialism

However, at that time political leadership was lacking and the report was roundly rejected. Any centre not named was seen to be a loser and parochialism ensured its failure.

When the economy went into relative decline in the 1980s, the focus on regional job targets was rapidly dropped from industrial policy 

Buchanan was followed in 1972 by the IDA regional industrial plans. These constrained spatial planning to setting job targets for clusters of towns across the country. The approach made it possible to avoid facing up to the challenges of local politics – this was the towns equivalent of “one for everyone in the audience”.

To make matters worse, the concept of spatial planning was limited by making regional policy merely an arm of industrial policy. There were no policies to address the key issues of land use, transport and housing.

The approach of growing employment by essentially setting targets for clusters was broadly unsuccessful. This was largely due to the absence of supporting infrastructure and inadequate scale of population to generate local labour markets. And all the while, Dublin continued to grow disproportionately and spill over into its neighbouring counties.

When the economy went into relative decline in the 1980s, the focus on regional job targets was rapidly dropped from industrial policy and shifted back to prioritising total jobs and aggregate growth rates. And in the absence of other urban and regional policies, little was done to support regional balance in a systematic way.

Thanks to the European Union funds in the 1990s – which provided much of the funding for successive national investment programmes – some key infrastructural deficits were addressed with particular improvements in our transport network. But with no real spatial policy to support the growing population and the emerging patterns of economic growth, capital expenditure on roads was often excessively Dublin-centric, with little done to improve roads between major urban centres such as Cork to Limerick to Galway, or to improve transport within these cities.

Another attempt at spatial planning was made in 2002 in the National Spatial Strategy. The attempt was half-hearted and poorly linked to the emerging pattern of economic growth. Furthermore, there was little alignment with the capital programme – the State’s investment plan – of the same period.

A planning framework, based on solid concepts and empirical evidence, is exactly what is needed – and what is to be found in most EU countries

And to top it all the government’s decentralisation strategy announced in 2003 ran counter to the spatial strategy, following to an even greater extent than the spatial strategy itself the 1970s failed approach to regional industrial policy of “one for everyone in the audience”.

Congestion

Now we seem to be on the verge of looking rationally and holistically at our spatial development, with the publication of the National Planning Framework and the investment plan. This is timely as we anticipate the population growing by a further million people by 2040. Analysis and projections by the ESRI show that if we don’t plan spatially, the greater Dublin area will continue to grow disproportionately and the problems of congestion in the capital will get steadily worse.

A planning framework, based on solid concepts and empirical evidence, is exactly what is needed – and what is to be found in most EU countries. It is timely also that we should finally have a government department with “planning” in its title.

The 10-year capital programme, to be launched alongside the planning framework, provides an opportunity to demonstrate that this time we are serious about spatial planning and that we understand that it is not a zero-sum game. Better planning will benefit all areas.

Could this move to rational planning echo our experience of bringing in rational economic policies following the publication of Economic Development, the visionary plan written by TK Whitaker, 60 years ago? The programme approach adopted then was supported by Irish politicians across all parties who faced up to the challenges required for Ireland to prosper.

So let’s hope that in the weeks and months ahead we see the type of courage that ensured the success of the Whitaker report in 1958 and not a repeat of the weakness shown in response to Buchanan in 1968.

Frances Ruane is former director of the Economic and Social Research Institute. In 1971-1972 she worked on the preparation of the IDA regional industrial plans

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