The National Spatial Strategy (NSS) was back in the news last week with the publication by the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government DOEHLG) of its NSS 2010 Update and Outlook coinciding with the presentation at the annual conference of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) of a number of papers dealing with the NSS.

Almost eight years have passed since the original launch of the NSS, “a twenty year planning framework designed to achieve a better balance of social, economic, physical development and population growth” between the regions of Ireland.  The key element of the NSS was the development of a number of regional “gateway” cities with the idea of creating the level of “critical mass” required in order to achieve self-sustaining growth and act as countermagnets which would slow down the apparently relentless concentration of development in the Greater Dublin Region.

Today, almost halfway through the NSS plan period, it would not be too unfair to suggest that the only visible signs of the strategy’s existence are a number of billboards around the country identifying some urban centre or other as being a gateway.  The now largely-complete motorway system was conceived and installed largely without reference to the NSS and in some ways could be seen as inhibiting the emergence of the polycentric urban system which the NSS sought to create.  Otherwise, the sprawl of housing and other forms of property development which has peppered the landscape over the last decade would, quite understandably, lead any visitor to the country to conclude that no form of planning of any kind operates in this country.

Unfortunately, the DOEHLG’s NSS Update document offers little prospect, not only of the NSS itself ever being implemented, but of any real progress being made towards checking the uncoordinated chaos which characterises most things that happen in this country. One arrives at this conclusion, not from what the document, states explicitly, but from the way in which it reproduces virtually all of the key weaknesses of the original 2002 strategy statement, or fails to address key obstacles to the strategy’s implementation which have remained unchanged since 2002.  Among these are the following:

  • The lack of government commitment to the NSS.
  • Failure to acknowledge – never mind pursue – the level of spatial selectivity in the allocation of public resources required if the gateway centres were ever to achieve their supposed development goals.
  • The absence of concrete implementation measures.
  • Failure to identify the governance structures required for successful NSS achievement.
  • Preoccupation with physical planning considerations and accompanying failure to address the crucial role of enterprise development policy in creating the critical mass required for self-sustaining growth in the gateway centres.

The Ministerial Foreword to the NSS Update contains the almost portentous statement that the document comprises “a re-affirmation of the Government’s commitment to the NSS”.  Given the commitment to the NSS shown thus far by the government, this could be construed as the kiss of death for the NSS.  This, after all, is more or less the same government which, within a year of the publication of the NSS, announced its disastrous decentralisation programme which not merely completely ignored the NSS but actually served to undermine it.  This, despite the explicit commitment in the original NSS document  that “The Government will take full account of the NSS in moving forward the progressive decentralisation of Government offices and agencies” (p. 120).

This is also the government which, in virtually its first move to curtail public expenditure following the onset of the current economic crisis, suspended the €300 million Gateway Innovation Fund which had been included in the 2007 National Development Plan – one of the few concrete measures proposed by the government specifically designed to help the NSS achieve its goals.  This was a fair reflection of where the NSS is located in the government’s list of priorities.

In his paper to the RIAI conference, planning consultant Conor Skehan criticised the NSS for “pretending to offer something for everyone in the audience”.  This was reflected in the designation as gateways of urban centres which had absolutely no hope of reaching the scale of activity and population which the NSS document itself identified as being required of gateways; of the inclusion in the NSS of eleven “hub” towns whose role in the strategy remains a mystery; which identified county and other larger towns as being “critical elements in the structure for realising balanced regional development”; which saw medium-sized towns in each region acting  as “local capitals” providing a range of services and opportunities for employment; and which envisaged smaller towns and villages helping rural areas to draw on “local economic strengths”.

The Update document repeats this (obviously politically-driven)  “something for everyone” approach with passages such as: “a key element of the Strategy is the promotion of a scaled multi-centred settlement strategy comprising a national network of gateways, hubs, county towns, smaller towns and villages with an appropriate critical mass and agglomerations of scale to drive regional and local development”.  Indeed, the use of the terms “critical mass” and “agglomerations of scale” in this context suggests that the authors of the document have no idea was these terms mean.

The logic of the gateway centre concept, as identified in the European Spatial Development Perspective (adopted as a preferred approach to spatial planning by the EU in 1999) is that smaller towns and rural areas cannot compete on their own in today’s globalised market place, and that their long-term interests are best served through the cultivation of regional centres which, through focused development measures, can become internationally competitive in their own right.  These, then, come to act as “gateways” through which investment and innovation are brought into the regions and through which regional exports and communication lines are channelled (interestingly, the derivation of the term “gateway” is never explained in the NSS document).

An important element of the gateway concept is that, while gateway centres, through the creation, for example, of specialist expertise or services, act to attract outside investment, such investment may not necessarily locate in the gateways themselves, but may choose instead to locate in smaller centres in the gateway hinterlands.  The hinterlands may also benefit from the generation of spin-off enterprises from the gateways, from the location in the hinterlands of commuters employed in the gateways, and from recreational travel on the part of gateway residents.

Ultimately, it is argued that regional hinterlands will end up better off through the presence of gateways than without them.  However, at least in the initial stages, this approach requires a concentration of resources in order to get the gateways off the ground.  While this approach has echoes of the unbalanced development strategy advocated by Albert Hirschman for less developed economies in the 1950s, it does possess more logic than the scattergun approach of the NSS.  This is not to say that there is no place for smaller centres, rural areas and local initiative in the spatial planning process.  However, planning at this level is properly a function for regional and local authorities with appropriate powers and funding and has no place in a national-level strategy.

Also speaking at the RIAI conference, Edgar Morgenroth of the ESRI criticised the NSS for being “largely aspirational, with few concrete measures.  What’s really missing is any adequate thought about what we are really trying to achieve and how do we make it happen”.  This is a problem which is repeated in the Update document, which time and again (and regularly echoing the original NSS) tells us what needs to be done but says little or nothing about it will be done.  The document is replete with passages of the following kind:

“Existing arrangements must be improved for investment co-ordination…”

“There is a pressing need to deliver more effective leadership…”

“Strong and successful Gateways need to be able to transcend administrative boundaries…”

“Implementation and review of sub-regional land use and transport strategies (LUTS)

outside Dublin and Cork should be strengthened…”

Remember, these are taken from a document which purports to update a strategy which was first launched eight years ago.

Measures for realising these aspirations are either non-existent or vague, as reflected in the following list of actions to be undertaken (curiously tucked away in an appendix at the end of the document):

  • Develop proposals for more effective co-ordination and implementation of regional plans and strategies.
  • Progress implementation of the Atlantic Gateways Initiative.
  • Publish an analysis of critical infrastructural requirements.
  • Finalise arrangements for the revised Gateway Innovation Fund.
  • Finalise White Paper on Local Government.
  • Assess and monitor local authority development plans for consistency with the NSS.

Again, the absence of concrete measures and commitments is striking.  It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what we have here is a fundamental inability to make firm commitments in order to avoid offending anybody, along the same lines as the inability to be spatially selective in the allocation of public resources.  This is the kind of systems failure which has Irish politics, the Irish economy, and Irish society in the sorry condition in which they find themselves today.

One of the few positive elements of the Update document is its acknowledgement of the failure of the original NSS to address the governance issues posed by the strategy.  It would appear that the NSS simply assumed that neighbouring local authorities, frequently with a long history of mutual competition and rivalry over territory, commercial rates and other resources, and lacking the requisite skills, powers and funding, would voluntarily come together to forge the kind of proactive and visionary planning alliances which gateway formation requires.  It quickly became apparent that this was not going to happen, and the need to address the governance issues posed by the NSS were key foci of the report on the implementation of the NSS published by Forfás in 2006 and in the National Economic & Social Council’s 2008 publication The Irish economy in the early 21st century.

Thus, among the priority action areas identified in the Update document are the following:

“Strong and successful Gateways need to be able to transcend administrative boundaries and have a clear vision of their future development and a strong strategic leadership to deliver that vision aided by effective governance arrangements, embracing not only public sector agencies but also the private sector and leaders in research and innovation”.

“Existing arrangements must be improved for investment co-ordination, sectoral alignment and planned prioritisation between the capital investment activities of Government Departments and agencies, and the planning and development activities of regional and local authorities”.

“There is a pressing need to deliver more effective leadership and vision and better governance structures at regional and local levels to lead and drive development of the gateways and their wider regions”

Again, the Update document is devoid of specific proposals on how these objectives are to be achieved, apart from the Minister’s own favourite hobby horse i.e. a directly elected Mayor of Dublin.  Instead, we are told that these issues will be addressed in the supposedly forthcoming (and long promised) White Paper on Local Government.  Of course, even if the White Paper does set out concrete measures for dealing with the governance issues which currently comprise a fundamental obstacle to NSS implementation, the fate of previous White Papers on local government and administrative reform provides little reassurance that these measures will ever actually see the light of day.

Ultimately, the greatest single weakness of the original NSS document was its failure to address in a meaningful way the fact that successful gateway development requires the cultivation, in each gateway, of a vibrant and self-sustaining enterprise base built around a set of successful exporting firms.  The document mainly focuses on providing the physical and social infrastructure required for the successful functioning of enterprises, and has virtually nothing to say about how these enterprises are to be established in the first place.  It may be that this reflected old-fashioned thinking that if you build the infrastructure, the firms will come, but more likely it reflects the fact that the Spatial Planning Unit which oversaw the preparation of the NSS was located in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government which has lots of physical planning expertise but very little (if any) enterprise development expertise.

The Update document portrays the same weakness, with considerable attention devoted to aspects of physical planning and virtually none to enterprise development.  This is seen as being a matter for the enterprise development agencies, but no particular structures are identified, either in the original NSS or the Update document, to integrate these agencies as key actors into the gateway development planning process.

In principle, the main objectives of the National Spatial Strategy make a lot of sense and probably offer the only feasible long-term path to autonomous self-sustaining development in the Irish regions.  However, major recasting of the state’s governance structures is required if these objectives are to have any chance of being realised.  Governance structures at regional level need very substantial strengthening, and a major devolution of functions and powers to both regional and local level is essential in order to facilitate effective coordinated planning.  In addition, the medieval territorial structure with which local authorities are lumbered needs to be replaced by a new territorial system based on the main urban centres and their hinterlands as combined units (the norm in other European countries).

In the absence of such reforms, the NSS essentially is a waste of time and resources.  The fact that such reforms have a zero chance of being implemented is testimony to the essential dysfunctionality which characterises most aspects of the Irish state.

Proinnsias Breathnach