Late last week, I attended an interesting talk in which the ‘moral compass’ of planners – and local authorities as a whole – was questioned.  During the ensuing discussion, an enthusiastic debate played out as to whether planners are to blame for ‘allowing’ the overbuild that characterises every county in the Republic of Ireland.  As a planner, I agree that, yes, we have to take a certain degree of responsibility for the state of the (blighted) landscape in which we find ourselves living —- I emphasise a ‘certain degree’ given that the role of the planning system as a whole has been little considered or unpacked, as argued by the NIRSA report A Haunted Landscape — but I cannot accept that as a profession, we have lost our moral compass.

At the heart of our planning education lies the concepts of the common good, community, social justice and the accommodation of people in place (not just in terms of housing but also in respect of access to services, mobility, leisure and recreation, to name but a few).  What transpires in practice does not usually live up to the aspirations of planning educators or  graduates – the reality is that local government is too ill-equipped to thoroughly address all aspects of planning and the focus rests on short-termism and politics – two pillars of poor planning.  And, of course, what people are taught and what they then actually do are two different things.  One factor at play in this regard, for example, is where the planner ends up working; the working ethos of a planner in local government will inevitably be different to that of a planner working for a consultancy or developer.  And where a planner first worked for local government and then went to work for a developer – as happened quite frequently during the ‘boom years’ – it would be inevitable that their moral compass becomes recalibrated, possibly even dormant; but not lost.

The problem, as I see it, is that the planning profession has lost not only its voice but also its authority and power in the process of decision-making.  Within the workplace, and I refer specifically to local government here, planners are no longer taken as seriously as they might with their role in the planning and development process relatively diminished; an outcome of the politicalisation of planning.  Planners’ recommendations can be disregarded at the whim of senior officers and/or elected officials.  Too often, I have heard stories from colleagues working in local government of occasions where they have been told to say nothing – by their Directors of Service or County Manager – at either council meetings or discussions with developers on proposed applications.  That the voice of an expert in their field can be so blatantly taken away – instead of encouraged and embraced in the interests of the community to which a proposal may relate and the wider common good of the county and region to which it belongs – is a true failing of the local government system as it is currently structured.

The Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010 finally gives play to the hierarchy of plans that was proposed under the Planning and Development Act 2000 – namely, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS), the Regional Planning Guidelines (RPGs), County and City Development Plans, and finally, Local Area Plans.  But what is the point of having this hierarchy in place if the views and recommendations of the planners who are the drafters of these documents (containing a mixture of policies and maps) – with their multidisciplinary perspectives (geographers, sociologists, environmentalists, conservationists, economists, psychologists) – can be so easily ignored?

The solution?  Greater emphasis needs to be placed on the recommendations of planners when it comes to determining planning applications and preparing development plans.  To this end, it should not be as easy, as is currently the case, for officials – elected or otherwise – to override the recommendations put forward by planners. And yet, while this is part of the democratic mandate of councillors – to speak for the communities they represent – the resulting practices are unreflective of democratic principles.  It is clear that change is required to the current status quo in decision-making – but, in the case of the reserved function role of elected officials, there appears to be little appetite for reform.  But were that appetite in place, changes that should be considered, so as to strengthen the democratic principles of planning, include:

  • Elected officials should have to undertake an accredited course in understanding the planning system prior to being able to engage in any debate on a planning-related topic (whether planning application or development plan); and with any change in the legislation, all councillors should have to attend an ‘expert’ seminar on the implications of the new law;
  • Where elected officials work as estate agents, auctioneers or in other fields related to the planning field, they should be prevented from contributing to debates on planning applications or zonings to avoid clear conflicts of interest;
  • Directors of Service with responsibility for planning should have a background in the planning system; in this way, they would then better understand the decisions of planners and the reasonings behind these standings / recommendations (and while the brief of Directors of Service increasingly tend to extend beyond planning only – also covering for example, community and enterprise, or infrastructure, for example – the multidisciplinary nature of planning ensures that a director with a planning background could equally, and fairly, administer these other functions).  You wouldn’t after all have a nurse head up an accountancy firm or an engineer run a hospital ward?

There are many faults with the local government structure as it currently stands; but care needs to be exercised when confusing these short-falls (even failings) with a loss of morality among the local authority planning profession.  The planning system is complex and planners are often the foot soldiers not the generals.

Caroline Creamer