The current Planning Bill which is due to be enacted before the Dail breaks for the summer next week has been described in the Irish Times as a ‘Rolls Royce’ of planning legislation. It is heralded as the centrepiece of the planning reform agenda of Minister Gormley’s term of office.

The Bill will have significant implications for planning policy in Ireland and in particular for the relationship between the plans of Local Authorities and the policy of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (DoEHLG). The Bill seeks to ensure consistency between City/County Development Plans, Regional Planning Guidelines and the National Spatial Strategy and provides a more evidence-based approach to planning. In particular the Bill makes provision for future City/County Development Plans to be supported by a statement of ‘core strategy’ which sets out a rationale for the settlement strategy pursued in the plan itself. The Bill has the potential to make it very difficult for councillors to push through zoning proposals which are in conflict with national or regional policy objectives.

The full implications of the Bill have received limited debate, however. I focus on one key aspect here: implications for the relationship between central government, regional and local authorities.

It may be argued that the Bill provides for a more hierarchical and centralised planning system, characterised by increased policy direction from central government. A core principle of the planning system currently is that of subsidiarity: that decision should be made at the lowest level possible. While there may be ample evidence supporting a curtailed role for councillors, it may be argued that it is equally important to ensure that future spatial planning and regional development policy is prepared with due regard for policies articulated by Local and Regional authorities in addition to national objectives and concerns. Regional Planning Guidelines (RPGs) provide a potential framework within which this negotiation or consultation process might take place, provided RPGs are not viewed solely as in implementation mechanism for the National Spatial Strategy (NSS).

The current NSS was prepared at a time of economic growth where it was possible to set out a vision where practically all regions and localities could benefit, based on their individual ‘potentials’. A ‘refresh’ of the NSS is due to be published shortly. This review of a key government policy document has not, however, emerged as the outcome of a transparent consultation process. It is not mentioned for example on either the website of the DoEHLG or that of the NSS itself. It is possible that given the ‘current economic climate’ the NSS refresh or any future review may favour a less ‘balanced’ approach to regional development in Ireland.

Cormac Walsh

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