Yesterday Minister Phil Hogan announced that the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) is to be scrapped and replaced by a new policy in about a year’s time. He said that said the present ‘strategy had failed’ because ‘the gateway and hub cities and towns never received the resources to ensure their development and “nothing has happened” in the ten years since they were designated.’ Continuing that ‘there was no point in having a designation without the resources.’
It is certainly the case that the NSS did not live up to its expectations, despite its promise and intent. The initiative failed for a number of reasons, of which resourcing is just one.
First, there were flaws in its initial design with respect to the designation of too many hubs and gateways and there were accusations of stroke politics in location selection.
Second, because it was introduced in 2002 it missed its logical initial resourcing stream, the National Development Plan (NDP) 2000-06. It did underpin the NDP 2007-13, but then the crisis hit and the NDP got quitely dropped and funding for NSS initiatives, such as the gateways fund, was one of the first things the DECLG dropped from its programme.
Third, there was weak political buy-in across the board, especially within government. This was made abundantely clear by the decentralisation programme introduced by Charlie McCreevy in 2003 that sought to move government departments and state agencies to just about every location except gateways and hubs. Decentralisation seriously undermined the rationale and impetus of the NSS.
Fourth, the NSS was not put on a statutory basis and up until 2010 planning authorities only had to give ‘due regard’ to it, rather than complying with it. In a period of developer-led, laissez faire, localist planning this was a license to largely ignore it.
What this meant was a very partial implementation, though the NSS did have some effects on other policy (e.g. NDP, Transport 21, Rural Ireland 2020, etc) and was significantly boosted by the introduction of regional planning guidelines and the Planning and Development Act (2010) and the introduction of core strategies (in which planning decisions have to demonstrate they fit local, county, regional and national policy objectives).
So what happens now? Is this the end of spatial planning in Ireland?
Well one would hope not. If Ireland ever needed a strategic plan to make the most of limited resources in order to facilitate inward investment, stimulate and support indigenous growth, produce sustainable development and create of better places, it is now.
The logic of spatial planning is to align and coordinate sectoral initiatives (such as transport, energy, jobs, property, utilities, communications, public services, etc) across territory in order to leverage complementarities, reduce redundancy and duplication, increase competitiveness, and create multiplier effects (where the sum is greater than the simple addition of parts). It does this by selectively prioritising areas for different kinds of activities in line with its demographics and local resources and distributing funds suitable to enable targetted investment and coordinating development across sectors.
Rather than abandoning spatial planning and the NSS, we need to do a fundamental rethink and produce a new NSS that is suitable to the present context. Localism and ad-hocism is not the solution to the economic and social crisis and will not create a sustainable, competitive country into the long term.
The challenge over the next year is to produce a new NSS based on a robust evidence base, learning from international best practice, and involving detailed stakeholder consultation, that is strategic and is prepared to make difficult decisions given limited resources. Once agreed upon, the new NSS needs to be put on a statutory basis, as advocated in the Mahon Report, and it needs to be implemented through a series of interlocking programmes and initiatives.
My hope is that we can rise to this challenge and produce a spatial planning framework that will serve us well.
For a good introduction to the present NSS, see the recent special edition of Administration 60(3), The National Spatial Strategy: Ten Years On, guest edited by David Meredith and Chris van Egeraat.
Revisiting the National Spatial Strategy ten years on – David Meredith & Chris van Egeraat
The National Spatial Strategy: Rationale, process, performance and prospects – James A. Walsh
Economics – The missing link in the National Spatial Strategy – Edgar Morgenroth
Perspectives on Ireland’s economic geography: An evaluation of spatial structures – David Meredith, Jim Walsh & Ronan Foley
Gateways, hubs and regional specialisation in the National Spatial Strategy – Chris van Egeraat, Proinnsias Breathnach & Declan Curran
Urban specialisation, complementarity and spatial development strategies on the island of Ireland – Des McCafferty, Chris van Egeraat, Justin Gleeson & Brendan Bartley
Governance and the National Spatial Strategy – Placing spatial policy at the heart of the diagonal public service – Séan O’Riordáin
Shrink smarter? Planning for spatial selectivity in population growth in Ireland – Gavin Daly & Rob Kitchin