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Measuring Planning Outcomes – what does it mean?

By Eunan Quinn, senior planner, Donegal County Council

The RTPI’s ‘Measuring What Matters: Planning Outcomes Research’ has the potential to help influence the focus of policymakers away from a statistical numbers game when measuring the impact of planning (how many applications; how much floor space; what investments were made), towards decision-making based more on long term indicators that measure outcomes such as health, well-being, climate, people and the economy.

The use of a planning outcomes tool at a local level could have significant value in informing local policy discussions and planning for higher value places. It could also give national authorities a snapshot of local performance.

To give a local example, the combination of influences that shape the scope of measurable outcomes for Donegal and the wider North West is different to other parts of Ireland. The influences and potential indicators for the Greater Dublin area (GDA) are different from those applied to County Donegal’s community and environment or to those of the North West City Region.  The old tourism adage of “up here it is different” is grounded in truth and speaks of a very different set of challenges and opportunities to those that exist elsewhere on the island or Ireland.

Any tool that can provide a shared space (centred on the quadruple helix framework of government-academia-industry-civil society) to consider what we want for County Donegal and the North West is where I see the real benefits to achieving scale, choice and variety  - not least in helping to tackle the inequalities that exist in environmental, social, geographic and economic contexts.

Unashamedly adopting Eirling Fossen’s equation for the regeneration of Oslo, the equation for the North West may, for example, focus on cross-border vitality, natural beauty, demographic profiles, affordability, education opportunities, culture, heritage, diaspora, and strong regional leadership; all of which shape a highly valued place that has the capacity to provide a meaningful north-western contribution to regional, national and all-island growth.

But adopting such a tool across local and national governments will require a significant culture shift in terms of how planners use the information generated to improve the impact of planning on communities and places.  Focusing on outcomes and utilising this information in a way that provides a baseline on future needs or the investment required within a ‘place’ (local, regional, national, community, economic, environment, etc) has up until now been missing. At the core of this lies the value of planning in creating prosperity and wellbeing in our places. If the focus is on only one of the parameters, or if those parameters focus solely on measuring turn-around times or percentages, then the results will not meet wider expectations and the measurement of outcomes risks becoming meaningless. 

The toolkit must be useful at a number of levels.  The value nationally of having a defined set of common outcomes is clear. For place-making to be effective the toolkit must allow local and regional authorities to first identify the current strategic context before deciding on specific outcomes.

The modelling of a toolkit for planning outcomes to reframe the discussion around planning and the function it plays in creating value is an opportunity that local authorities should not let pass.  The alternative is for local authorities to continue to react to circumstances with a distinctly singular, short term and centrally focused viewpoint – and from my perspective, this is not an option.  Where this process is welcome is in its contribution to the value of investing in planning as a local and regional activity. 

Developing strategies, making decisions and assessing outcomes are the three core underpinnings to using a toolkit such as this, and I believe that if its use is not locally focused in the first instance then the public discourse will continue to be negative and dominated by short term development goals and voting cycles.

Eunan Quinn

Eunan Quinn is senior planner at Donegal County Council having graduated from Queen’s University Belfast’s School of the Built Environment in 1990.  Eunan is an active member of the Irish Planning Institute, having previously served on its national executive, and has a MSC in Innovation Management in the Public Service (jointly conferred by Ulster University & Letterkenny Institute of Technology). 

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