Regional planning: Can we get it right this time?
National Planning Framework’s success is key to tackling housing and climate targets
There is no shortage of zoned land in Ireland, but when it comes to the larger urban centres there is a lack of zoned land that has key services such as water and sewerage connections. Photograph: Getty Images
The history of national spatial plans in Ireland is one of failed opportunities – plans that were undermined by local political interests and policy incoherence.
Now, as the National Planning Framework (NPF) is about to be published, various interest groups are again lobbying for their share of the public investment pie and changes in prioritisation. They will continue to do so after it is published.
Much of this lobbying ignores the key challenges that the NPF seeks to address, the analysis that underpins the draft NPF, and the fact that public resources are limited.
Difficult choices need to be made.
When it came to finalising the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) back in 2002, additional gateways and hubs – cities and towns targeted for development – were added at the last minute, which undermined the effectiveness of the strategy.
The so-called “decentralisation” of civil/public service jobs announced in 2003 then ignored the NSS, highlighting the incoherence of different government policies.
Importantly, the NSS lacked concrete measures to achieve the stated aims.
The NPF is about more than just regional development. With significant population and employment growth projected, the plan will also be crucial in dealing with the housing crisis, and will determine if key national climate-change targets can be met.
Achieving all the objectives requires alignment with the NPF across a range of Government policies and public investment decisions.
Research shows that without an effective new strategy Dublin and the east will see continued above-average growth that will increase congestion, generate even more unsustainable transport patterns and exacerbate the housing crises.
At the same time other parts of Ireland that could more easily accommodate extra development would see below-average growth.
Continuing with current policies would be a poor choice.
The NPF aims to change current trends by scaling up urban centres outside Dublin so that they become the driver of growth for their wider region.
This is based on research that shows that the scale of urban centres is a key driver of regional development.
Larger centres perform a wider range of functions, tend to be more productive than smaller ones, generate more start-ups and attract more foreign direct investment.
Furthermore, many key infrastructures and services such as advanced medical services are only viable in larger centres.
By ensuring these key infrastructures and services are available locally, rather than in Dublin, larger dynamic urban centres provide an important stimulus to their wider hinterland.
Investment is also required to ensure that Dublin can fulfil its role as the national capital and largest city on the island of Ireland.
However, Irish urban centres apart from Dublin are relatively small. The focus of policy measures needs to be on increasing the scale of the second tier cities such as Cork, Limerick and Galway, but also smaller towns, which can only be achieved by investing in these places and by avoiding further sprawl.
The key to solving the housing crisis, which predominantly affects the larger urban centres, is to significantly increase the supply of housing.
There is no shortage of zoned land in Ireland, but when it comes to the larger urban centres there is a lack of zoned land that has key services such as water and sewerage connections.
This is constraining housing supply.
Investing in servicing of land would help scale up the cities while simultaneously addressing the housing crisis.
Climate change is rarely given enough attention when it comes to spatial planning and infrastructure spending, but Ireland is struggling to meet key targets particularly with respect to transport emissions.
To reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport requires a significant modal shift away from the car to public transport, especially as a larger population and bigger workforce imply significantly increased transport demand.
Yet providing a quality public transport network is only economically viable with sufficient population density. Again the only way to achieve the target is to pursue a strategy that focuses on the scale of urban areas (large and small) and that minimises or reduces sprawl.
The NPF can achieve all three objectives but this is not going to be easy as the current ingrained trends are difficult to change.
The NPF will only be successful if it is supported by the alignment of public investment and other government strategies, and it also requires significant changes in planning practice.
The latter is necessary to reduce new one-off housing and to encourage brownfield development – the development of previously used land not currently in use. It might even be necessary to introduce additional incentives in favour of brownfield development, which tends to be more expensive than development on greenfield sites. Without this alignment the current trends will continue.
The fact that the NPF will be accompanied by a public investment plan is a very positive step. With limited resources available, the prioritisation of public investment needs to focus on the key objectives.
When it comes to supporting the NPF, investment projects should be assessed on whether they support the development of scale in urban centres, whether they help address the housing crisis, and whether they help meet climate-change targets.