Last Friday, John O’Connor, the Chairperson of An Bord Pleanala,  gave the closing address at the Irish Planning Institute’s conference in Galway.  The speech received some coverage in the Irish media over the weekend (see Irish Times, RTE), although it was trumped by Morgan Kelly’s latest proclamation setting out why Ireland is heading for further woes.

The full speech is available on the An Bord Pleanala’s website, along with the powerpoint slides.  As noted in the media reports, the speech was a frank assessment of the work of An Bord Pleanala and the planning system during his tenure.  Here are some highlights.

Laissez-faire approach to planning

There is a theory that there is an element of chaos in the Irish character that makes us sceptical of regulation or planning.  “Rules are there to be broken if you can get away with it”.  This may account for some of our very serious failings over the past decade.  It may also explain why the Irish body politic has been reluctant to embrace fully real spatial or land-use planning.  This would mean drawing up and agreeing visions for physical development at the national, regional and local levels, involving difficult choices based on objective criteria for the public good and then insisting on adherence to these plans.  Unlike other countries, even when statutory planning documents are adopted a laisser-faire approach often prevails and many vested interests – landowners and developers – see plans as something that can be got round or changed.

On local authority decision making

For the future, it would greatly increase the public credibility of the planning system if local authorities were seen to vindicate their own development plans in their decisions on planning applications.  Far too often, the Board find itself refusing permission for developments permitted locally on grounds of contravention of the development plan.  In some cases, one can see the pressure being brought on local decision makers to grant permission even if it conflicts with the development plan.  But these decisions breed scepticism and frustration on the part of the general public.  After all, the courts have pronounced the development plan to be a contract with the community and the local authority itself – not An Bord Pleanála – should be seen as its strongest defender.

On one-off housing

“Over the years, the issue of rural housing has always figured prominently in my discourses with successive Oireachtas Committees on the Environment.  While only a small proportion of one-off housing applications come before the Board on appeal, it became clear to me, early on, that there was a need for national planning guidance because of the widely varying and often internally inconsistent, not to say lax, approaches being taken by county councils around the country.  I publicly called for National Guidelines and these were introduced in draft form in 2004.  While the Guidelines have brought more consistency and objectivity to the issue, the proportion of local authority decisions reversed by the Board on rural house appeals is higher than the general run of appeals.  It is evident from the Board’s perspective that councils are taking widely different approaches in interpreting and applying the Guidelines.  One can observe cases of undue pressure being brought on planners to recommend permissions.  There is often a lack of transparency in decision making that can lead to huge frustration on the part of third parties and other applicants who are refused permission.”

Land zoning

The greatest failures in Irish planning and the issue that has brought the system most into disrepute revolve around the zoning of land.  The zoning of land for appropriate and sustainable uses is at the heart of planning and if this departs from proper principles the whole system is in difficulty and this extends to the property and land market and the construction industry.  At the publication of the Board’s 2008 Annual Report, I said that the excessive and unsustainable zoning of land had been a contributor to the property bubble and its aftermath and that if we were to return to realistic development planning some of this zoning would have to be reversed.  For this reason I welcomed the provisions set out in the 2010 Act which introduce the idea of a core strategy for the development of each development plan area that respects the national and regional contexts.  A more sustainable, coherent, evidence-based and objective approach to zoning will avoid a repeat of the disorderly sprawl of inefficient and wasteful development and restore credibility to the planning system as a whole.  It will also lead to less lobbying by vested interests, better planning decisions and probably less need for appeals to the Board.  We also need to avoid a repeat of the situation where perfectly good established business and community uses were displaced by more “profitable” new development.

Developers and Banks

I find it extraordinary that huge decisions about land purchase were made by developers without any apparent input from planners and, even worse, vast sums of money were lent by banks to facilitate development projects without any apparent planning advice.

Landscape

Landscape is a case in point and I do not believe that the planning system has done enough to protect the unique Irish landscape, which is a cultural, environmental and economic asset of inestimable value: once destroyed, it cannot be restored.  Can we continue to build one-off houses all over the landscape in the quantity and of the type we’ve seen over recent years?  In our drive for renewable energy are we striking the right balance between wind farms and the landscape?  We have noted how the scatter of houses throughout the countryside has forced essential infrastructure, such as power-lines, into more sensitive landscapes.

Regrets

While we did refuse permission for many developments we regarded as unacceptable, my greatest regret is that the Board did not take a stronger stand against residential developments that were based on bad zoning, remotely located and of poor design quality.  I did realise at the time that some of the developments coming before the Board, particularly residential schemes, were questionable and indeed at publication of various annual reports I referred to concerns about the poor standard of some of the developments in tax incentive areas, the appropriateness of the suburban type schemes being attached to towns and villages around the country and to the sustainability of the zoning policies of many local authorities.  However, the Board often found itself in a difficult position because in our planning system if the land is properly zoned in the development plan and serviced there is a presumption in principle that development will be permitted and to refuse could mean local authorities being faced with claims for compensation by landowners.  While it is a fact that the Board did refuse many schemes that fell short of adequate planning or design standards, often in the teeth of local and media criticism, it did permit some which with hindsight it might have refused.  Here I’m referring to schemes that although fully zoned and serviced were too large for the town or too remote from services and to poorly located and designed apartment developments.  Perhaps a few shopping developments that were too large or too remote from town/city centres got through.  In the early days of wind farm developments in bogs I think the Board may have underestimated the risks of peat-slides but in latter times assessment of these risks has become much more rigorous.

Economic recovery

Economic recovery will require us all to become more efficient in the use of resources in order to increase competitiveness and get a greater return from the severely diminished level of resources we have.  Planning has a vital part to play in ensuring the most efficient use of existing infrastructure and that new infrastructure is provided in the most effective and efficient manner possible.  This will require that development be directed to places where infrastructure already exists or can be efficiently expanded.  This principle should apply whether the infrastructure is provided by public bodies or private companies.  The future operational costs of infrastructure e.g. the long term costs of pumping water services should also be factored in.  The need to maximise the return from public investment in infrastructure must be factored into the current debate in relation to densities and in particular residential densities.  Current difficulties should not dictate a return to an unsustainable spread of low density development.

Property tax

I would also like to think that, in the future, planning would be better integrated with other policy areas.  Taxation and fiscal policies should support the kind of good planning I’ve been talking about.  This is why I’ve been advocating a land value tax for some time.  The Celtic Tiger era clearly indicated that the demand for property and in particular residential property was determined more by financial considerations than by population projections or demographics.  The land use planning system cannot determine or control that demand in a free market economy.  It is essential if we are to avoid a recurrence of the boom/bust cycle that demand is not artificially inflated by financial incentives and considerations.

Housing policy

Commonsense alone would dictate that local authority Housing Strategies should be fairly radically revised to take account of the utterly changed housing market and socio-economic conditions.

Reform of Planning Authorities

In An Bord Pleanála we have a good overview of the operation of the planning system across all of the 88 local planning authorities.  In the context of public sector reform, it has become clear to me that, while acknowledging the need to retain their local democratic character, many of these authorities have administrative areas that are much too small and fractured to constitute meaningful planning units in terms, for example, of efficient infrastructure provision, the strategic location of future development or the management of water catchments.  Equally, they cannot be expected to have at their ready disposal the full range of skills and experience demanded by a modern planning service which must operate under an increasingly complex body of planning and environmental legislation.  For these reasons I welcomed the recent report of the Local Government Efficiency Review Group in relation to the structures and management of local planning administration in Ireland.  They provide the opportunity for a more rationally structured and better skilled and managed planning service which would be able to offer the best planning advice and provide the analysis and assessments of projects that are required of a modern planning service governed by increasingly complex and extensive legislation.

On planners

While the planning system in this country has had its problems, I think that, overall, the planning profession has served the country well.  Many of the development plans and local area plans are written to a very high standard and good work by planners has resulted in excellent outcomes in terms of urban renewal, urban design, streetscape improvements, high quality industrial parks and the more integrated approach to development of new areas as typified by the SDZs.  However, I still think the influence of the planning profession within local authorities has been less than it should have been.  For example, why did so few planners secure the key Director of Services positions in the Better Local Government reforms?  On the face of it, planners should be well grounded by their training to aspire to policy development and management positions (e.g. to take the wider longer term view, to synthesise different elements, to focus on outcomes, etc.).  I think that the IPI should give some thought to this issue because it is by entering some of the more senior positions that planners will achieve the level of influence that they should have in local government as a whole and consequently on the quality of development.  Generally speaking, although there have been some notable exceptions, the planning profession has been less assertive in responding to situations where the principles of sustainable development need to be defended or promoted, than other professions have been when their core values are under threat.

The choice of location for major projects – whether public or private sector – should have a much stronger planning input.  Planners should be part of the site selection process – and not seen as people to be brought in to make the planning application afterwards.

There is plenty there for the IPI, planners, and local and national government to reflect on and respond to.

Rob Kitchin

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