Rectifying our planning errors

 

THE LULL in construction activity after the frenzied years of building, which has left Ireland with ghost housing estates and inappropriately located developments throughout the State, must be used as an opportunity to plan for a more environmentally sustainable future. That is the central message of a series of thoughtful papers in a special issue of the Journal of Irish Urban Studies, published today.

The result of a four-year research project led by UCD, in collaboration with NUI Maynooth and Trinity College, it makes the point that so many of the “flawed” decisions by planners during the boom years were made in a vacuum, with no hard evidence of development trends, prices and patterns available to them. Against that backdrop of official ignorance at every level, with the banks dishing out loans to developers and housebuyers, it is no wonder that we ended up with a mammoth burden of debt.

The 2010 Planning and Development (Amendment) Act, guillotined through the Oireachtas before its summer recess, does attempt to fill this vacuum by introducing a requirement for “evidence-based” planning by local authorities, consistent with regional development guidelines and the National Spatial Strategy, however imperfect that may be. But researchers such as Dr Brendan Williams, director of the Urban Environment Project at UCD, want the Government to go further by introducing “immediate and unambiguous” legislation dealing with conflicts of interest. These conflicts not only relate to councillors wearing another hat as auctioneers and estate agents, but also between often overlapping layers of central and local government.

For example, after decades with no co-ordination between a plethora of agencies dealing with elements of transport in Dublin, the Government pledged to set up a transport authority for the city and its region, to be chaired by the proposed directly elected Dublin mayor. Instead, without any rational explanation, the Dublin Transportation Office was subsumed into the new National Transport Authority, which has a remit extending far beyond the capital. The authority, apparently, is working on a new transport plan for the Dublin region – but the expectation is that it will simply regurgitate existing plans, including such Rolls Royce projects as Metro North. Less costly schemes, such as the “Blue Line” linking Sydney Parade Dart station and Sandyford business estate, are not being included.

The critical link between land use and transport – where people live and work, and how they get around – was forgotten during the boom. That’s one of the main reasons why we saw a “dramatic surge” in edge-city office developments that are not easily served by public transport; there was also a shameless rush by outlying local authorities to aggrandise their commercial rates base by encouraging such developments.

The “pause” in construction gives us time to reflect on what has been done and, although we will long be living with the consequences of poor planning in the past, we cannot be complacent about the challenge of planning more sensibly for the future.