A Haunted Landscape, the recent report on the housing crisis in Ireland published by NIRSA, identifies a ‘catastrophic failure of the planning system’ as a major contributor to the property crash and current housing crisis. While it is evident that governance failure in the planning and property development system contributed to unsustainable development patterns in recent years it is unclear where the actual problems lie. Is it a lack of strategic policy direction, an inconsistency between local, regional and national policies, clientelist and corrupt practices at the local level or the influence of perverse financial incentives or a combination of the above?

Aaron Wildavsky - American Political Scientist (1930-1993)

It may be argued that more fundamental questions need to be asked about our expectations of the planning system and more specifically how planning failure or success is evaluated. The academic literature on evaluation in planning highlights the difficulties in assessing the success or failure of spatial plans. American political scientist Aaron Wildavsky in 1973 famously argued that ‘if planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing’. He cautioned against an instrumentalist view of planning and plan implementation where planning becomes an attempt to control the future and argued that because uncertainty makes control of the future impossible, evaluating the failure or success of planning is an impossible task. More recent studies have argued for a more nuanced view of the application of spatial plans, arguing that strategic plans in particular should be evaluated according to their capacity to inform decision-making in practice. This perspective of course acknowledges that strategic spatial plans (such as the National Spatial Strategy or Regional Planning Guidelines) may not be the only or even the most significant influence on the ‘decision environment’ of planning in practice.

The ‘public interest’ is often cited both in public and academic discourse as the principal rationale for public policy intervention in land and development markets. Planning is conducted to safeguard the interests of the public or the common good and more generally to ensure a balance between public and private interests. It may be argued that it is self-evident that much of the development that has taken place in Ireland in recent times has not been in the public interest. Six hundred ghost estates clearly do not serve the public interest. At the level of individual planning decisions, however, it is more difficult to ascertain where the ‘correct’ balance between public and private interest lies. Critical to this discussion is the question of scale. In the planning context, the concept of the public interest is highly scale-dependent. For city and county councillors the public interest may legitimately be equated with that of the ‘local community’, local electoral constituency or Local Authority area. They are democratically elected to serve and make decisions on behalf of a particular spatially-bounded constituency. For councillors in parts Dun Laoghaire Rathdown for example, the public interest may translate into opposition to further housing development, irrespective of national or regional policies promoting urban consolidation within a designated metropolitan area. Similarly concerns for ‘balanced regional development’ in county Kildare as expressed by elected public representatives within the county are about ensuring an equitable balance between development in the North and South of the county which may in effect run counter to the explicit policy objectives for balanced regional development as expressed in the National Spatial Strategy.

Prof. Louis Albrechts University of Leuven

Spatial planning is in part about a negotiation of values articulated at local, regional and national scales of governance and by a range of sectoral stakeholders and policy coalitions. It is not simply a technical exercise, conducted in accordance with pre-defined universally accepted policy objectives. The final outcomes are therefore unlikely to conform exactly to the policy objectives or aspirations as set out by central government. Professor Louis Albrechts of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium argues that ‘planning is in politics, and cannot escape politics but is not politics’. He contends that the process of spatial planning involves defining the ‘values and images a society wants to achieve’. Any evaluation of the planning system in Ireland must take full account of the scalar and territorial dimensions of decision-making on planning issues and recognise the nature of planning policy and practice as a (legitimately) politically contested activity.

A recognition of the politics of spatial planning, however, does not reduce the need for a systematic investigation of the capacity of the planning system in Ireland to firstly guide the spatial distribution of development in accordance with agreed plans and secondly to provide a basis for coordination and integration with other policy sectors and activities.

Cormac Walsh