An Bord Pleanala have just released their 2009 Annual Report.  In the accompanying press release they argue that ‘the present hiatus in development activity gives us a chance to review the way our planning system works so that it will be fit for purpose when development is restored to a sustainable level in the future’.  However, the second paragraph argues that the planning systen did not contribute to the present crisis of excess supply and ghost estates:

Under the legislation it is not the role of the planning system to control the overall level of development or to restrict competition, rather to ensure that whatever level of development the market demanded takes place in an orderly manner in accordance with good planning principles and practice. Thus, while bad local decision making in planning contributed to some of the current problems, such as ghost estates in certain areas, the overall provision of excess capacity over a wide range of property types cannot be put down to a failure on the part of the planning system.”

This seems to me to be a very narrow and limited definition of the role of planning in the state.  Planning and planners take an active role in the visioning, production and implementation of local and county development plans, their role is not simply confined to making decisions on applications and undertaking enforcement.  A number of principles and guidelines relate to sustainable development in line with demographics and environmental considerations and so on (indeed, later in the press release it is stated: ‘The planning system will have a crucial role in this by directing where development should be located and the kind of development that is sustainable’).  If planning was to oversee ‘whatever level of development the market demanded’ then clearly there is a major issue, because way more housing units, retail units, offices and hotels were produced than there was demand for.  How can planning have ‘a crucial role in this by directing where development should be located’ but then have no responsibility for the location or level of poor sustainability of development?  And planning is meant to restrict competition around issues such as zoning of land.  Plus the main statement is somewhat contradictory.  If ‘bad local decision making in planning contributed to some of the current problems, such as ghost estates’ it is difficult to see how these ‘cannot be put down to a failure on the part of the planning system’.  The second half of the sentence does not logically follow the first part.   ‘Bad local decision making in planning’ – so it was bad planning then (perhaps not by planners, but certainly within the planning system).

If the planning system was not part of the problem then why have the government just introduced a new Planning and Development (Amendment) Act, that explicitly recognised that planning played a significant role in producing unsustainable development, even if it was mainly those parts of planning most influenced by politicians and politics, and a lack of coordination across boundaries and scales?  And if the planning system was not part of the problem why do An Bord Pleanala think that ‘The bursting of the property bubble raises questions about the role of the planning system in the property market.’  That we need to ‘learn very important lessons from recent experience’ including:

  • ‘planning for each area must adhere to national policies and must be governed by the relevant regional and local context;
  • all zoning must be very carefully considered on the basis of well established good planning principles;
  • development must be strongly directed to locations where infrastructure – especially, transport, water services, education – exists or is proposed under the public capital programme’
  • in planning the public good must be given greater priority over private interests;
  • statutory development plans, when duly made, need to be respected across the board by all interests, and indeed by local authorities themselves, rather than being seen as something that can be changed or circumvented if enough pressure is applied?’

What the statement seems to be trying to argue is that the planning system as it was devised did not fail as it worked within its parameters.  The argument seems to run: the system might not have been fit for purpose, but we ran that system as it was designed; therefore planning did not fail, because we followed and upheld all of that system’s principles and guidelines. If that’s the case, then it’s somewhat of a specious argument.  All it is that means is that we had a poor and failing planning system, that was implemented as it should, thus leading to poor, but procedurally correct, planning decisions.  The system was nevertheless a failing system.

Planners clearly had a very difficult role during the boom.  They were under fierce pressure from politicians, developers, businesses and residents.  There was a presumption for development operating and the system did not always help them.  They were accused of blocking or slowing development and being a general hindrance and nuisance.  The vast majority were trying to do a good job, often trying to work back against the system, with the odds stacked against them.  I’m not then arguing that planners or organisations such as An Bord Pleanala were the problem.  Indeed, they did a sterling and valuable job of trying to counter some of the worst and inappropriate excesses.  The overall planning system in terms of planning for, and overseeing, development did however contribute to the problems we now face.  If that was because the system did not give planners a strong enough role or position or powers, then that is nonetheless a failure of the system as it was (though not necessarily of planners).

In my view, planners need to move from being defensive about both their role and the system. Rather than saying, ‘it wasn’t us or the system,’ they should be using the crisis – as noted by An Bord Pleanala – as an opportunity to point out the weak parts of, and flaws in, the system, highlighting what aspects of the way the system was configured contributed to levels of oversupply and ghost estates, and how it should be altered and their position strengthened.  Trying to argue that the planning system did not contribute to the problem, at the same time as calling for very important lessons to be learnt and the system to be altered is simply not credible – especially when what is being asked for relates to changes in how planning is performed and implementation.  If there were no failings within the system, then everything can surely be left alone?

The overall thrust of An Bord Pleanala’s statement is correct – the present crisis presents the best opportunity in generation for planners and their organisations such as the Irish Planning Institute and An Bord Pleanala to push for change in planning in Ireland at all scales.   However, rather than be reactive and defensive, now is the time to be proactive.  Now is the time to seize that opportunity.

Rob Kitchin