At the recent AESOP/ACSP conference in University College Dublin, which brought together 1,200 planning academics and scholars from all over the world, Minister Jan O’Sullivan announced her intention to shortly bring forward a new planning policy statement setting out a new vision for the Irish planning system.

After the past few years of fire fighting, whereby the Government was desperately attempting to reign in the excesses of the Celtic tiger era and impose some control on the often reckless conduct of planning authorities, there is no doubt that such a vision is now sorely needed so that we can begin to effectively plan for the future. 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.

According to Minister O’Sullivan “…if the public doesn’t understand how the planning system works, why certain things are permitted and certain other things aren’t, then your planning system isn’t doing its job.” It is true to say that other than a vague comprehension of the legacy costs of ‘bad planning’, the public appreciation of what purpose planning serves in society has hit rock bottom, mired as it is in a perception of corruption, cronyism and ineptitude. This has not been helped by the complete failure of both the professional institutes and academia to effectively communicate a cogent mission and rationale for planning.

Planning is, at least in the public mind, typically reduced to development control i.e. planning applications. This is demonstrated by each and every time surveys are published showing a drop in the number of planning applications, which are inevitably accompanied by a chorus of calls for a reduction in public planners. This narrow technocratic interpretation (such as that conveyed in the BBC documentary ‘The Planners’) is something to which many public planners have grown both resigned and accustomed to. To be fair, this state of affairs has also been created in no small part by a deep cultural antipathy to planning in Ireland and an unfettered attitude to private property rights.

In a famous 1973 critique of planning, Aaron Wildavsky mused “if planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing” and there is more than a modicum of truth in this observation. In recent years the planning system has been lumbered with an ever more complex range of regulatory functions. Planners have had to come to grips with a whole host of new skills as well as grappling with the novel challenges brought about by the recession, most of which they plainly have no training for. A review of any county or city development plan will quickly show that planning is now the vanguard for an ever growing and diverse range of complex agendas such as housing policy, nature protection, flood risk management, vacant housing, renewable energy production, water quality protection, retail impact assessment, town centre management, economic development, climate change mitigation, landscape protection, heritage, infrastructure delivery etc.

Planning has now become so large and complex that the public planner cannot encompass its dimensions. As a result, county and city development plans are largely obscure and voluminous documents extending to hundreds of pages with vague policies often wrapped up in impenetrable jargon and mutually exclusive policy goals. Planners now find themselves at the nexus of so many contentious and contested policy debates and it is little wonder that the profession has retreated to the high moral ground of blaming politicians and sought cover in the banality of development control. I do not argue that mediating competing economic, social and environmental agendas should not be a core function of planning into the future. However, we must be aware that extending planning to cover so much merely serves to obfuscate what it is precisely that planning is attempting to achieve. A cynical critique would indeed conclude that maybe that is indeed nothing.

Of course, collapsing the purpose of planning down to a core agenda is a process fraught with danger. This was well demonstrated by the England’s recently published National Planning Framework (NPF). The function of the new NPF is ostensibly to simplify the planning code. However, the real rationale is clearly the perennial Tory neoliberal agenda of planning retrenchment and foreclosing all but a narrow debate around the economic growth agenda and boosting housing supply.

If there is one thing that any new planning vision for Ireland should definitely not be about is economic growth. This may appear a rather taboo notion in an environment where the consensus demands that every public policy is compelled to fully justify itself on the basis of the economy. However, it is readily obvious with even a cursory analysis that it is not within the gift of planning to grow the economy. Including growth as a core goal of planning tends towards overproduction (e.g. housing, zoning etc.); heightens competitive pressures between regions favouring larger urban centres; and systematically excludes qualitative social and ecological considerations which must be at the heart of planning thinking. Indeed the origins of planning were in mitigating the crisis conditions brought about by rapid economic growth.

In order to avoid mission creep and reassert the relevance of planning for the daunting challenges of the coming 21st Century we must therefore firmly place the horse back at the front of the cart. Rebuilding public trust in the battered image of the planning system compels us to create a new mission for planning which is realistic, relevant and serves to build a shared public understanding of its value. This must first start with an explicit recognition that planning involves making choices – planning is politics.

Any future vision for Irish planning must therefore return to the welfare state origins upon which modern planning was founded, rooted in concepts of social and spatial justice. This requires an explicit move away from the depoliticised, entrepreneurial growth agenda aimed at boosting supply side activities such as housing and infrastructure provision. A new vision for planning must be centred upon the public goods and services for which the spatial distribution is within the remit of the State to achieve. The delivery of public services requires certain infrastructure networks including, for example, transport, waste, energy and communications infrastructure as well as facilities and services related to health, education, culture and recreation – all of which require an integrated approach to settlement planning. A simple mission for this new planning vision could be: “To ensure that a certain socially agreed and necessary base level of services that people need are provided when and where that need occurs”.

In many ways the disconnect between public service delivery on the one hand and the spatial distribution of population on the other sums up the failures of the Irish planning system over the past few decades. This was laid starkly evident with, for example, the debacle in west Dublin where little consideration was given to the fact that a rapid increase in new housing would soon yield a requirement for new schools. Equally, in many rural areas, the collapse of the Celtic tiger artifice and the accompanying severe programme of public service retrenchment has left many communities without necessary services. In many cases these are areas where a massive ad hoc proliferation of scattered housing was permitted necessitating many people to travel large distances to access services and employment opportunities, or to live without.

In Germany, for example, the overarching aim in the development of the spatial structure of the national territory is to establish equivalent living conditions in all parts of the country. The Iceland 2020 strategy, which was forged after the economic collapse of the state, similarly puts the welfare and quality of life of its citizens at the centre of its national planning policy. In effect, a policy of equivalent living conditions would primarily benefit peripheral regions, since there are usually greater structural weaknesses and imbalances in these regions. Equivalency, however, does not mean that all regions must have identical infrastructure or that the income of all people must be the same everywhere, which is neither practicable nor reasonable. Regional equivalence of living conditions means that as many citizens as possible are able to participate equally in development of society. To approach equality of opportunity it is necessary to ensure certain minimum standards with respect to access to and the availability of services of public interest, to options for earning a living, to infrastructure and environmental qualities.

Placing social security and the equality of citizens to the fore of the agenda for a new planning vision would require a fundamental rethink of how we plan and provide a compelling rationale for promoting public acceptance as to why we plan. Upholding this principle at a time when public resources are limited could help inform a, heretofore absent, rational national dialogue on settlement planning. Importantly, it could also help close the gaping lacuna which has been the achilles heel of the Irish planning system for decades – the dichotomy between planning policy decisions made by local authorities and the opportunity costs to society associated with those decisions. The model underpinning the Local Property Tax, for example, comprises numerous spatially derived variables including relative distance to services and amenities. Therefore, in theory, the more households with good accessibility to local services, the greater the return to the local authority to maintain those services, thus creating a virtuous circle.

Such a vision should not be alien to Jan O’Sullivan who is after all a Labour Party minister. However, in an era of consensus-seeking where planning has become a depoliticised, stage-managed process which attempts to please everyone through ‘win-win-win’ policy solutions, I have no doubt that when published the new vision will be the usual fuzzy policy muddle of irreconcilable policy goals which superficially offers something to everyone but achieves very little.

Gavin Daly