It will come as little surprise to some IAN readers that I’ve been a long-term supporter of the National Spatial Strategy and what it seeks to achieve.  The NSS took a holistic, strategic and coordinated approach to large-scale, long-term planning of development, key infrastructure, resources, etc., across scales in Ireland.  When it was formulated, it explicitly recognised that policy relating to a whole series of sectors needed to be joined-up across departments and agencies, and across scales and places, and the kinds of growth that Ireland was experiencing had to take regard of the spatial structure of society and economy, rather than occurring serendipitously and with little regard for other initiatives or places, if we were to create sustainable and manageable patterns of growth (population, work, transport, services, etc needed to be coordinated and harmonised for efficiencies and effectiveness).  It should have formed the core guiding logic to the National Development Plans 2000-2006 and 2007-2013, and formed a contextual frame for just about all policy formulation that had a spatial dimension (which is just about everything).  Interestingly, it was heralded in Europe as the model to follow, and it has certainly been a key plank in building North-South cooperation around shared infrastructure and resources.

In its first eight years, however, whilst the NSS did make some progress, it was seriously hampered and undermined by a number of factors including:

  • central government largely ignoring it when formulating other policies (and even now, the NSS is not mentioned once in the Trading and Investing in a Smart Economy policy to create 300,000 new jobs)
  • decentralisation and other policies ran counter to it and actively undermined it, setting precedents for all other parties
  • funding from central government for large-scale, strategic investment for the public good was not tied explicitly to following its principles (addressed through the new Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010 – see today’s Irish Times)
  • local authorities were only required to have regard to it, rather than comply with it (again addressed through the Planning Act) and pushed ahead with unrealistic and overambitious localised growth strategies;
  • it came too late to be the guiding basis for NDP 2000-2006, and although it formed a core design rationale of NDP 2007-2013 the economic downturn has led to many core components being curtailed or cut

This has led to a number of problems, as noted by DEHLG itself, such as:

  • Population growth in some Gateways and Hub towns underperforming, whilst smaller settlements and rural areas within commuter belts have grown significantly;
  • Excessive and inappropriately located zonings and development worked against NSS implementation and undermined efficient exchequer investment in infrastructure and services;
  • Development-driven planning and commuter settlement patterns have created demand for uneconomic and inefficient infrastructure and service provision, while infrastructure and services in towns has become under-utilised;
  • Development has become more dispersed and fragmented geographically, with greater distances between where people live and work, leading to unsustainable oil dependency and reduced quality of life;
  • Dispersed land use trends are undermining the integrity of Ireland’s key habitats and ecosystem networks and placing pressure on the quality of our water resources.

The DEHLG has today published the NSS refresh, having undertaken a review of the NSS to date and its role in the future, especially given the economic downturn and the need for mid-to-long term strategic spatial planning to provide a coordinating framework for managing scarce resources and stimulating economic growth, recognising “that a well-rounded strategy for economic recovery cannot ignore the spatial structure of the economy”.  We had a boom that largely tried to ignore the space economy, especially in the construction sector, and look where that’s got us.

The danger with the refresh is that it will be once again largely ignored by departments beyond Environment and Transport, especially by Finance, rather than performing an important guiding role.  In my view that would be a major folly.  The NSS provides a holistic means to join up thinking across a range of sectors, so that we don’t fritter away what resources we still have in a piecemeal fashion.  We need a much more coordinated and strategic approach to managing inward investment, job creation, demographics, transport, services, etc. that matches up need and planning. This also means moving beyond a zero-sum game of development, and targeting investment into selected locations such as the gateways and hubs – which is where the rub will be for many people.  We can either go the route of spreading evenly and thinly, which will lead to everywhere being under-resourced and struggling, or we can concentrate and take advantage of agglomeration, critical mass and sustained growth.  The latter has to be the path we need to follow.

There are plenty of critics who will argue that the NSS has achieved very little over the past eight years and it’s an attempt at ‘Big Government’.  As noted above, it was never given the chance to perform the role it was designed for, and now more than ever we need a decent policy instrument to provide citizens and private business with a strategic plan and road map of state investment.  Now is the right time for it to be rolled out comprehensively and utilised.  That means it has to inform and guide policy thinking across departments and agencies.  If that fails to happen then it’ll simply limp along, and in my view, we’ll have lost an opportunity to help get the economy back on its feet.  And perhaps this makes me sound like a government spokesperson, but on the rare occasions where I think government policy makes sense then I think it’s worth saying so.

Rob Kitchin