Earlier posts on this blog pointed to the current period of crisis as an opportunity for rethinking accepted ideas, policies and practices in relation to future planning and development in Ireland (for example here and here). The introduction of a new Government with a fresh mandate and (potentially) fresh ideas (see here for a critical perspective!) provides a further opportunity to critically reflect on the role of spatial development policy and practice in the current context.
Understood in its broad sense, spatial planning refers to a state-led interventionist activity that seeks to pursue particular objectives for society through a focus on the diversity and specific qualities of individual places and social and economic relations across space. In contrast to traditional forms of land-use planning, strategic spatial planning claims to provide a focus for the coordination of the spatial impacts of other sectoral policies and public sector investment decision-making processes. In this way the National Spatial Strategy and Regional Planning Guidelines should be expected to inform the proposed new National Development Plan (2012 – 2019) and the decision to progress a new technical university for the Southeast in agreed Programme for Government.

The ‘governance capacity’ of spatial planning strategies is however critically dependent on their capacity to steer the geographical distribution of development and provide a reliable indication of the intensity, quantity and type of development anticipated occurring over the period of the plan. If this capacity is absent then higher level objectives in terms of providing a spatial dimension to sectoral policies will remain aspirational. Unfortunately the record of the past decade indicates that the governance capacity of spatial plans in Ireland, at national, regional and local levels has been rather weak indicating a need to fundamentally rethink some of the basic premises of planning and development thinking in Ireland.

The pointers outlined below are intended as an initial contribution to progressing the debate rethinking planning and development in the current context:

1.    Future planning and development policy and practice needs to make a clear distinction between development in its socioeconomic sense and spatial development. Potential economic benefits in terms of employment generation or commercial rates revenue cannot be the overriding factors in decision-making on spatial development, i.e. the future development of the built and natural environment.

2.    Spatial planning needs to be founded on realistic assessments of projected future growth (or decline) in population, numbers of households, numbers in the labour force and of the economy more generally. Spatial planning decision-making should therefore be needs-based and forward looking, thus reducing the risks of both undersupply and oversupply as we have witnessed recent years.

3.    Spatial planning policy and practice needs to be founded on acceptance that significant areas of the country most likely will not witness significant levels of development or employment creation and may need to plan for continued decline and population loss due to emigration. In this respect, Ireland has much learn from other parts of Europe and in particular parts of eastern Germany, where post-reunification expectations of rapid development have gradually given way to an acceptance of a need to plan for declining population, ‘shrinking cities’ and reduced economic circumstances.

4.    Spatial policy needs to balance normative vision with a pragmatic orientation. The NSS and Regional Planning Guidelines have provided a valuable frame of reference in terms of outlining desirable future spatial development objectives and patterns. The laudable policy goals of balanced regional development and ‘physical consolidation’ of the Dublin metropolitan area need to balanced with an explicit recognition and readjustment of future spatial development prospects in light of the experience of recent development trends. These development trends are well documented and include extensive peri-urban development, ghost estates and a markedly variable performance of Gateway cities.

5.    Spatial strategies should attempt to create a space for shared understanding and agreement among key stakeholders, including political representatives planning professionals, community development and environmental interests. Whether the proposed ‘democratically decided Regional or City Plan’ (Programme for Government, p. 27) with a significantly reduced role for City/County Managers is the best approach to this is of course another question.

Cormac Walsh