Yesterday saw the publication of the first in a series of reports by An Taisce on planning and environmental policy in Ireland.  State of the Nation: A Review of Ireland’s Planning System 2000 – 2011 provides an overview and critique of the operation of the planning system in Ireland during the period of the worst excesses of Celtic Tiger bubble. It is fair to say that An Taisce is not a neutral voice with respect to planning or environmental or heritage issues, nonetheless their data is compelling, and as they state themselves their purpose “is not blinkered opposition to development, but opposition to blinkered development”.  And we’ve certainly had a lot of the latter in the past two decades along with localism and cronyism and at times corruption.

As part of the report, An Taisce graded each local authority with respect to 8 criteria.

1  Overzoning Amount of zoned land as a percentage of population in 2011.
2  Decisions reversed by An Bord Pleanala 2005 – 2010
3  Decisions confirmed by An Bord Pleanala 2005 – 2010
4  Percentage of vacant housing stock 2006 – 2011
5  Change in vacant housing housing stock 2006 2011
6  Water quality. Urban areas with secondary treatment failing to meet EPS standards 2011
7  Percentage of one-off houses permitted as a percentage of all residential planning permissions 2001 – 2011
8  Legal proceedings commenced following non-compliance with enforcement notice 2005 – 2010

This seems like a fairly robust set of measures to assess planning performance, concerning overzoning, planning appeals, oversupply, water quality, enforcements.  The one variable that would have been good to add for oversupply, but for which their is no data, is vacant commerical property.  Some data on the ratio of serviced and unserviced zoned land and permissions on flood plains, etc would have been useful as well, but would have probably done little to the overall result.  It is perhaps worth noting that variables 4, 5 and 7 would tend to work in favour of urban authorities (though 7 is tempered by 6) – re. criteria 4 and 5 planning might not have been any better in urban areas than rural areas, but very strong population growth meant what was built was occupied.  Regardless, oversupply is a significant issue in many rural counties and should not have been allowed to happen. It should also be pointed out that other government policy, beyond planning policy, was driving development in all counties, but disproportionately in rural counties, namely tax incentives.  Again, how these tax incentive developments were implemented could have been better handled, but there was certainly political pressure to facilitate them.

The results from these variables provided grades for each local authority (see map below).

Using their 8 criteria, nine local authorities score bottom marks: ‘F-‘ is awared to Donegal, Roscommon, Leitrim and Kerry; ‘F’ to Mayo, Galway County, Cavan, Carlow and Waterford County.  All other counties score D’s or E’s except for South Dublin, DLR, Fingal and Galway City who score C’s.  Everywhere it seems was poor, with some counties worse than others.

Why does this all matter?  Planning decisions are economic and social decisions – they set out patterns of development, service costs, travel costs, etc and generally shape the space economy.  Making good planning decisions leads to social dividends and economic growth, poor decisions leads to weak or negative growth, additional costs and losses – and these have long term consequences.   Changes to the landscape such as new buildings or roads or quarries, etc are generally very long-term alterations; they are lived with by not just this generation but many generations to come.  And when it all goes wrong, like it has in Ireland, the taxpayer is left to pick up the costs of excessive development loans (think bank bailouts, NAMA, the troika, austerity, etc) and the social consequences (think unfinished estates, houses flooding, bottled water or water from tankers, etc).

In my view the report should be read by any person interested in sustainable development and communities in Ireland and be compulsorary reading for anyone involved in planning at all scales in the country, particularly councillors, national politicians and local authorities.  As this report and the Mahon Report make clear we need changes to how planning is viewed and understood and how it is implemented.  Planning should be utilitarian and for the social good; some of it in Ireland works that way, much does not.  An Taisce’s report provides much food for thought useful for conceiving what kind of planning system we want.

Rob Kitchin