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Will Ireland learn from past planning mistakes?

22 October 2015 Author:

Looking out the window of a plane on the way to London from Dublin this week reminded me of how naïve a recent article calling for some unnamed force to ‘just concrete over’ the greenbelt was. The clear distinction between built up areas and the countryside as the flight descends into England is in stark contrast to the popcorn development you leave behind in Leinster (one of the provinces of Ireland situated in the east of the country), where the slither of housing into the countryside serves as a reminder of the building free for all that took place during the previous decade.

If you’re ever flying the route I recommend securing a window seat, so you can behold the contrast in all its glory. It serves as a tangible reminder that the greenbelt is not just about going for nice walks, it is also about urban containment, which is to say preventing urban sprawl and all the problems it brings such as car dependency, increased emissions, and health problems.

Fortunately, Ireland has enough countryside to absorb a few years of building folly, but recent announcements leave you wondering whether the years of ill thought through development are really over. A couple of policy developments have set alarm bells ringing amongst the planning community; one relating to the exemption of certain types of houses from recently introduced building regulations, another relating to the power over the location of development wielded by Irish Water.


Leinster locator map (credit: NikNaks)

Housing standards

Recent ministerial moves to effectively exempt a whole category of housing – single houses in rural areas – from having to comply with building regulations, with the aim of avoiding allegedly excessive fees charged to builders by architects or structural engineers are worrying.

Quite apart from concerns about the quality of the buildings and the misery that poorly-built housing has brought to so many (the pyrite fiasco comes to mind), the concern for those with an interest in preserving the countryside and ensuring rural towns and villages remain vibrant places is that this exemption will encourage isolated ‘one off’ housing development. Indeed, given last month’s report from the Central Statistics Office which found that almost 30 per cent of the past year’s planning permissions have been for one-off houses, this type of development hardly needs to be further incentivised.

Surely the various ghost estates dotted around the country should stand as monuments to the need to actually think about what we’re building rather than just building at all costs.

Rather than encouraging population growth in existing towns and villages that desperately need it, one-off houses scatter populations, thus sucking the life out of existing settlements. Single housing also results in more car journeys, and rather than making use of existing infrastructure it creates the need for additional capacity. By encouraging more car journeys one off housing also incrementally weakens the case for long term investment in more sustainable transport infrastructure such as railways.

Of course, encouraging development at time of housing shortage is a worthy undertaking, but as the RTPI has previously pointed out the way to solve a housing crisis is not just by myopically building houses. Due consideration needs to be given to delivering the kinds of places we want, and building regulations along with planning laws have a key role to play in achieving this. Surely the various ghost estates dotted around the country should stand as monuments to the need to actually think about what we’re building rather than just building at all costs.

Irish Water

On the subject of plan-less development, the recent establishment of Irish Water means core strategies will now be heavily influenced by the company’s vision for water infrastructure at a national, regional and local level. Quite apart from the furore about the companies lack of a democratic mandate, the introduction of Irish Water raises important strategic planning issues. As things stand, development will be reliant on the location and phasing of infrastructural development, decisions which will be made by Irish Water.

Irish Water is of significant spatial importance as it will have the ability to both facilitate and potentially delay or prevent development from taking place. Irish Water’s investment programme will determine where water infrastructure is provided and ultimately where population growth will occur. Therefore it is important that it is adequately regulated and incorporated into the Irish planning system, and that decisions as to where infrastructure is provided are plan led.

As the RTPI points out in a forthcoming piece of research on the location of development, it is important to understand the impact that changing settlement patterns could have on issues like employment growth, commuting patterns, social integration, climate resilience and the provision of infrastructure. It is therefore vital to make decisions about where development should take place.

The new Planning Bill prepares the way for the development of a National Planning Framework, which will set a context for regional and local development, including strategic investment in transport, housing, water services, communications and other necessary infrastructure. Decisions as to the location of infrastructure and development should be in accordance with the NPF, and not just left at the behest of Irish Water.

As the novelist James Meek puts it: “In the real world, when you strip the state of its duty to make long-term plans, or denigrate the practice, you don’t liberate citizens from planning. You make them subject to the private plans of others.”

Recent planning policy developments in Ireland are encouraging. The introduction of an independent planning regulator and a vacant site levy show progressive thinking and a willingness to learn from the past. But talk is cheap. The potential proliferation of one off housing and ad hoc settlement patterns provide policy makers with the opportunity to wield these new policies and ensure that Ireland is home to plan led rather than unplanned development.