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Planning the future of Ireland

18 March 2015

Joseph Kilroy

Last month I spoke at the first annual University College Cork planning society conference on the planning practices Ireland has witnessed in the recent past and the need for a more effective – and particularly more strategic – approach to planning in the future. What then are the challenges and opportunities for stronger strategic planning in Ireland going forward?

As an institution in which the planning school grew out of the social sciences, UCC was the ideal setting to consider planning’s wider contribution to society and the key role it can play in shaping Ireland’s future. Ireland’s damaging era of speculative building is hopefully over, but as the country begins to see light at the end of the economic tunnel, planners in Ireland are not satisfied merely with ensuring that the mistakes of the past aren’t repeated. Rather, the ambition is to create a better society by making decisions about the kind of country we want to live in (I use ‘we’ here since I hail from the Republic myself). This collective mood provided the ideal opportunity to promote some of the RTPI’s thinking to Ireland, and consider the role planning has to play in a more judicious era of growth and development.

Although there are still big challenges to overcome, there’s no doubt that Ireland is in the midst of an economic recovery, with figures showing a big fall in unemployment and central bank growth forecasts being revised upwards. While overall figures are encouraging, the recovery appears to be regionally imbalanced. If Ireland is to see a more equitable and sustainable recovery, then ‘regional rebalancing’ needs to be considered.

Widening regional economic disparities have become a live debate in the UK as well of course. New Urban Economists tend to claim that regional spatial disparities are a fact of life, that place-based interventions tend to fail, and policymakers should therefore concentrate on person-based interventions, which is to say increasing social mobility so that people can move to successful places and abandon ‘failing’ places.

Given the seemingly skewed nature of its recovery, Ireland arguably provides the ideal context for plan-led, place-based interventions. ...Planners, with their ability to add certainty and create communities people and businesses want to locate, have a key role to play in this context.

Naturally, this argument is anathema to most spatial planners, with their focus on place and their responsibility to make place-based interventions successful. Spatial planning can make place-based initiatives aimed at regional rebalancing more effective, by helping policymakers to make better judgements about how individual policy proposals interact with and affect the development of places as a whole. (Indeed, one of the reasons some policies have failed in the past – decentralisation in Ireland for example – is because they have been devised in a way that appears to assume nations are uniform, without taking account of the way places differ and the impact this has on the effectiveness of initiatives.)

Given the seemingly skewed nature of its recovery, Ireland arguably provides the ideal context for plan-led, place-based interventions. The country has traditionally suffered from regional spatial disparities and the nature of the recovery thus far suggests that this will continue to be the case unless we much more consciously make decisions about how and where we want growth to take place. Planners, with their ability to add certainty and create communities people and businesses want to locate, have a key role to play in this context.

This debate also needs to recognise the changing policy context for planning. For one, following the Local Government Reform Act 2014 there has been a reduction in the number of planning authorities from 114 to 31, and eight regional authorities reconfigured to form three new large regions led by Regional Assemblies. The Act also replaces Regional Planning Guidelines (RPGs) with Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies (RSES), with the former remaining in place until the latter have been prepared and adopted. In our recent Strategic Planning policy paper, we expressed concerns over the timing of the creation of RSESS with respect to other forthcoming legislation, notably that changes to the regional government system are premature in advance of the publication of a new National Spatial Strategy (NSS). The timely publication of a new NSS is critical if the strategic planning framework of the country is to follow the objectives of the Act and ensure that the NSS does effectively lead, influence and guide the preparation of the RSES.

Further, principles for good governance we set out in our Planning Horizons paper on decision-making for places emphasised the importance of aligning governance structures with real functional economic areas (FEAs), and of making decisions at the appropriate scale in order to facilitate the effective implementation of policies. Policy-making on the basis of FEAs allows for more straightforward comparisons across areas on measures of social and economic performance, and avoids arbitrary differences created by traditional boundaries, including unintended consequences for neighbouring areas.

If the new era of local government in Ireland is to lead to effective local policy-making and planning, it is crucial that regional structures reflect a set of governable functional geographies. However, there have been concerns raised about whether the new regional structures reflect functional areas. The South East region makes sense as it includes Metropolitan Dublin and its commuter area, but the Border Midlands West region is arguably too large and doesn’t resemble an FEA. Too often in the past, governance structures were devised without any clearly stated measure by which they could be evaluated. A stronger articulation of the logic behind the new regional structures would then be welcome.

However, devolving power is only one part of the process. If local authorities are to be effective recipients of devolved power it is crucial that local, regional and city leaders are skilled and resourced so that they can assess local priorities and undertake effective regional planning. Recent history suggests the need to educate and train local authorities and councillors for their role in local and regional planning. In order to ensure the implementation of decisions at the most appropriate level, national government should focus on how it can better equip local and regional leaders so that regions can be shaped and managed to achieve more productive, liveable and sustainable outcomes. Encouragingly, the recent announcement of a huge recruitment drive for local authorities indicates that a devolved model of governance is a priority of the Irish Government.

Perhaps the fundamental challenge for planners however is for us to be more vocal about the contribution planning can make to confronting the social, economic, and environmental challenges facing Ireland, so that there is public recognition of its importance in creating the kind of country we want to live in. The lack of decision-making about what form growth and development should take was arguably the essential factor in the speculative development that marked the so-called Celtic Tiger years. If we are to avoid the mistakes of the recent past, it seems obvious that planning needs to be front and centre of the Republic’s future development.

Joe Kilroy is Policy Officer at the RTPI and author of Making Better Decisions for Places