As an architect, I am dumbfounded by the vagaries of Ireland’s planning system

From the late 1920s to the 1950s, the State was able to deliver housing and infrastructure for the common good

plan·ning | \ ˈpla-niŋ \

Definition of planning: the act or process of making or carrying out plans; specifically: the establishment of goals, policies, and procedures so they are successful and/or happen on time

A simple ask, but unfortunately, for some time, our planning system has shown itself to be incapable of achieving this task. As an architect, at this point I am dumbfounded by the vagaries of the planning system in Ireland. Exasperation is the word that comes to mind, to be totally honest.

It’s difficult to explain to a client why they have been refused planning permission having gone through a rigorous planning process, receiving the initial thumbs-up from the council, before ending up before An Bord Pleanála. A glowing report might then follow from the board’s planning inspector, which is then rejected by the board itself for some reason 12 or 14 months later.


The period from the late 1920s through to the 1950s demonstrated the State’s ability to fund, plan and deliver large infrastructural projects, be they housing, hospitals, power, water, roads etc. Today, however, the Irish planning system is crippled by its short-term and local perspective. The origin of this dysfunction in my view is actually spelled out in the title of the 1963 planning act: The Local Government (Planning and Development) Act. Local by name and local by nature. I suspect it was devised in this form to keep local councillors happy. But in so doing, with their own skin and political ambitions at the forefront of their minds, and a strategic horizon of a mere five years, it has, in my opinion, led to a not-in-my-back-yard attitude. This position has compounded the failure of the planning system.

The nub of the issue here is that there is no single, integrated planning authority. While successive governments publish their various strategic plans such as Project Ireland 2040, they all share one major failing in that they do not provide for a single, integrated planning entity capable of delivering their respective visions. This results in a repeated failure to identify national priorities and assets for protection and enhancement, such as power, water, transport, national parks, forests and the urban environment.

Strategic planning at both national and regional level has been a failure. We have witnessed the effective abandonment of social housing for the past 40 years. And while the Government is now endeavouring to address the shortage of housing supply with the introduction of a plethora of acts, initiatives, grants and supports, there is little hope that we can make up the ground lost over the last four decades.

Having said this, there is no denying that each of the Government’s initiatives are well-intentioned and positive, but there is significant crossover between them. There is confusion, particularly in the relationship between county councils, the Land Development Agency, developers and the various housing bodies. Who is responsible for the initiative in question? Who is actually going to deliver on its objectives? Strategically and tactically, how will the various parties work towards the obvious and common goal of increasing the supply of homes for our population?

We had the National Spatial Strategy. We now have the National Planning Framework. But do we get results? We seem to be really good at coming up with “big” plans but have no entity to deliver on these plans at a national level.

Planning in Ireland has been caught with its proverbial pants down in response to our indigenous population growth, and the additional growth that has come from returning emigrants, from incoming foreign employees attracted by the wonderful lifestyle Ireland offers, from international third-level students and from refugees fleeing war-ravaged countries. The failure to provide timely upgrades to the provision of public transport, and the supply of power and water, has blown a further hole in our collective international reputation.

The recent warning from the French embassy about Ireland’s flailing infrastructure is an embarrassment. It’s also yet another wake-up call, if one were needed, that national strategic planning and delivery should be advanced as a matter of urgency. Tinkering with our existing planning system is a waste of time.

We must now realise that An Bord Pleanála is not a vehicle to be used to plan and provide for our required strategic outcomes. While it was established to remove politics from the planning application and decision-making process, it has now been saddled with responsibility for matters relating to strategic infrastructure, strategic housing development projects and even marine-area planning. All of this has taken place without any consideration being given to the board’s reform and in the absence of sufficient, additional resourcing for these tasks. As a result, its systems have simply buckled under the weight of the demands being placed on them.

So, what’s the answer?

Firstly, we need to limit local planning to locally relevant issues.

We then need to reform An Bord Pleanála to allow it to deal solely and effectively with its original remit.

And finally, we need to establish a National Strategic Planning Executive. This body would be given the long-term responsibility and authority to deliver present and future government planning policy at a national level. The proposed NSPE body would have clear goals, policies and procedures to ensure the successful delivery of the nation’s infrastructure for the common good, and free from the pressures so frequently brought to bear by local interests.

I’d like to thank Simon Clear of Simon Clear & Associates for his invaluable input into this article

Hugh Wallace

Hugh Wallace

Hugh Wallace, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founding partner of the Douglas Wallace architectural practice and presenter of The Great House Revival on RTÉ