The National Spatial Strategy Update and Outlook, published on Tuesday, identifies the NSS as a ‘critical instrument for prioritisation and coordination of scarce resources ‘.  Integration between strategic spatial planning and capital investment prioritisation is further identified as a key means of delivering the objectives of the National Spatial Strategy. Indeed academic and policy advocates of European spatial planning have long argued that strategic spatial planning is a means of saving money, through its focus on coordination across policy sectors. The NSS itself is recognised as internationally as a leading example of national scale spatial planning in large part due to the formal links between spatial policy and capital investment allocation advanced through the 2007-2013 National Development Plan. See here for further details – ICLRD Briefing Paper 2.

The Update and Outlook seeks to strengthen the capacity of the NSS to act as a vehicle for the spatial coordination of sectoral policies through the re-establishment of a high level inter-departmental ‘NSS Coordination Team’. The focus of this team will be on ‘capital investment prioritisation’ which may be interpreted as Orwellian for spending cuts. Sitting high level representatives of the main spending departments ‘around the table’ in the context of spatial coordination is laudable but one must wonder where the momentum was lost following the initial launch of the NSS in 2002. It is also of concern however, that a new White Paper on Rural Development is under preparation in the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs with apparently no direct input to date from the Planning Section of the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government (who are responsible for the NSS).

At the regional level the Update and Outlook stresses the role of Regional Authorities (RAs) and the new Regional Planning Guidelines (published this year) as a framework for ‘monitoring the integration of national, regional and local planning’ and strengthening arrangements for policy coordination between government departments, public sector agencies and local authorities. Indeed the Regional Reports published by each RA in the late 1990s set out a strong agenda for joined-up governance at the regional level. The reports, however also point to significant obstacles, many of which remain equally relevant today. These include an incompatibility of regional boundaries used by different agencies, a culture of competition among agencies and a lack of incentives for coordination and collaboration. In order for the cross-sectoral policy coordination potential of RAs and regional planning strategies is to be realised significant changes in governance cultures will be necessary as well as substantial changes in funding structures and related resource allocation mechanisms.

The diagrams below contrast two distinct models of regional governance relationships which I term ‘traditional hierarchical’ and ‘multi-level network structures’ (see NIRSA Working Paper 61 for further details):

(Click on images to view full size)

As Regional Authorities in their current form must be seen as relatively minor actors, it may be argued that current governance arrangements resemble the traditional hierarchical model presented here. Relations between government departments, public agencies and local authorities are characterised by a mix of strong and weak hierarchical links with limited horizontal or networked linkages at national, regional or local levels. The multi-level network model in contrast is characterised by a multiplicity of network links. The model draws on the international literature on multi-level and network governance and indicates the potential for regional governance bodies to play a critical role in ‘organising connectivities’ across diverse policy sectors and institutional arenas. A multi-level governance framework takes the principal of subsidiary seriously in recognising the autonomy of regional and local government but sets this within the context of policy influences from both national and European Union levels. It also raises the prospect of a non-hierarchical relationship between regional authorities and central government. The German ‘counter-current’ principle (Gegenstromprinzip) may be instructive in this regard. In this case a balance between strategic direction and regional and local autonomy is achieved through an institutionalised process of negotiation across the different levels of government. Significantly the international literature suggests that this coordination role for regional authorities is not dependent on significant resources or implementation capacities attached to the regional body itself. Indeed a regional authority, supported by a relatively small number of core staff may perform better in this regard than a large bureaucratic structure.

The National Spatial Strategy is as much about joined-up governance and policy coordination across the public service as it is about planning policy per se. The importance of getting this right should not be underestimated in context of the current recession and assocciated pressures for ‘capital investment prioritisation’.

Cormac Walsh