Public good must not be trumped by local interests if national plan is to deliver

A properly resourced point of authority with political and legislative backing is needed

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking after the launch of Project Ireland 2040 in February. Photograph: Michelle Devane/PA Wire

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking after the launch of Project Ireland 2040 in February. Photograph: Michelle Devane/PA Wire

 

It is frustrating that “how” the National Planning Framework was announced has undermined public understanding of its importance and value. Legislators need to refocus and act quickly so the value and opportunity available from aligning spatial planning and capital investment are not lost before it starts.

Planning in Ireland is a complex process that combines the technical and the political. The new national framework has been forged in that context and faces a conundrum as it seeks to navigate between the particular interests of citizens and communities on one hand and a more technical assessment of the common good on the other.

Responsibility for plan-making is reserved for elected representatives whose tenure relies ultimately on public favour. To be effective however it needs to be informed by dispassionate evidence-based analysis deployed in the public interest.

For a national planning framework to be effective, there must be a properly resourced point of authority with political and legislative backing that has the power to set, control and monitor planning activity and to hold firm for the common good on the balance of evidence.

The proposed Office for Planning Regulation can shape consistency in the forward management of plan-making. It will be guided by evidence and by an objective balance of economic and social need.

One need only look at some of the key tenets of Project Ireland 2040 to see the inherent risks to successful implementation without such an authority

  • In the first instance it is a framework, not a plan – a big picture document requiring detailed follow through at regional and local level. The next step is Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies to be developed by the Regional Assemblies, and thereafter in county and city development plans. Regional Assemblies however have limited technical planning resources.
  • The merit in aligning capital investment with the framework is inarguable. But as it is only the first step of a process to come, the recent parallel investment announcements are not necessarily directed by evidence-centred planning but will fundamentally shape what is possible in the future
  • The framework’s objectives are to “guide public and private investment . . . to create opportunities” and to “manage growth”. Spatial planning – for land use and transportation – can contribute to those objectives but only in part and not without alignment with a range of other areas of economic and social policy management.
  • The framework embraces key tenets of good planning – compact growth, enhanced regional accessibility and sustainable mobility – but nominates nine urban areas outside Dublin as growth centres. The basis of evidence underpinning that diffusion of resources and the prospect of an effective return is unclear.
  • There is a conflict between the concept of enabling regions and but then requiring them to compete against each other for a share of central funds not sufficient in scale to enable all create critical mass.
  • In an evidence-based schema, one cannot just label a town, community or centre of economic activity as a “gateway”, “hub” or any other description. Nonetheless, political reality brings pressure on elected representatives to secure status for their town or region.

These challenges can be managed, but not without a further commitment to oversight. The framework as published won’t effect change just because it is there.

As planners, we want a sustainable national framework grounded in a sound basis of evidence. There is a base of evidence under this framework – thousands of public submissions, detailed data analysis as well as expert input from other government departments, State agencies and academia.

In Ireland the intent of people will, rightly, always be part of planning. This too has been in evidence through the creation of this framework. There has been extensive public consultation and engagement and more than nine hours of Oireachtas debate.

The danger now is that the next steps pass on to a politically driven structure that is ill-equipped, technically, to maintain the balance needed in our planning system.

From a technical planning perspective, previous attempts at national level planning – the Buchanan plan of the late 1960s and the National Spatial Strategy of 2002 – were good plans. The challenge they met was a deficit in political will to align resources with the plans.

The reality of that tension between the interest-based and the evidence-based demands an explicit and an accelerated commitment to implementation. It requires political support for administrative structures supported by legislations and resources – human and financial. That is not just a line department point for action. It is a charge for the whole of Government.

Time is of the essence because, as Thomas Edison was once noted as saying, “vision without execution is hallucination”.

Joe Corr is President of the Irish Planning Institute

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