Legacy of bad planning

 

IN 2002, WHEN the Government published Ireland’s first National Spatial Strategy (NSS), there was some incredulity that so many “gateways” and “hubs” had been designated for growth – nine in each category; it was as if our political leaders had adopted Gay Byrne’s oft-repeated Late Late Show line about how there was “something for everyone in the audience”. They could not bring themselves to make the really hard choices that would have limited growth to a more select number of centres outside Dublin, such as Cork and Limerick/Shannon, over the period to 2020.

Eight years later, a review, update and outlook for the NSS has been published by Minister of State for Planning Ciarán Cuffe. Although written in bureaucratic style, it includes some facts and figures that add up to an admission of failure. Far from consolidating and strengthening Ireland’s cities, these show that the core populations of Cork and Limerick actually fell during the period while almost half of the total urban growth took place in and around towns with a population of 10,000 or less that were neither “gateways” nor “hubs”. A free-for-all was allowed to develop that turned many of these places into outposts of commuterland.

As Prof Brendan Gleeson pointed out in this newspaper yesterday, much of this can be attributed to “an unusual level of malfunction in Ireland’s system of development control, sourced mainly in political venality” by councillors over-zoning land for residential development, pandering to landowners with a “get rich quick” mentality. What we are left with, as he wrote, is “a dispersed landscape of defunct estates, massive infrastructure deficits, countless households and firms caught with toxic fiscal obligations and incalculable damage to what is, arguably, Ireland’s greatest and most enduring asset, its uniquely beautiful environment”.

The legacy of laissez-faire planning goes further. As Dr Edgar Morgenroth told the annual conference of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland yesterday, Ireland’s weak urban structure – with only one sizeable city – and its relatively dispersed settlement pattern was actually “reinforced during the boom” by permitting housing to be built far from where jobs were concentrated. As a result, transport costs here “will always be higher than other places”. And those costs are borne daily by a legion of commuters driving long distances to work, on motorways provided at enormous exchequer expense.

The real problem with the NSS, as Dr Morgenroth said, was that it was largely aspirational. Indeed, the only real fiscal impetus – a €300 million “Gateway Innovation Fund” – was withdrawn not long after being established, due to the rapidly deteriorating public finances. According to the latest review, the Ministers for Finance and the Environment are to “consider the timing” of a revised package of aid for innovative projects in the nine “gateways”. But with unprecedented cuts in public expenditure being considered, this pledge is unlikely to be honoured in the short term and the NSS will be left to limp on as the aspirational set of objectives it was from the beginning, with no real policies to back it up.