If there is one trait which should perhaps be the unique feature of planning and serve to distinguish it from all other disciplines, is its normative future-orientated agenda. In fact, planning has been singled out by futurists as a discipline where foresight and analysis of the future is most required – as nowhere in society are peoples futures mortgaged so far ahead as when local and national authorities make planning decisions, zone land and develop infrastructure. No matter how present focussed are current planning debates, the actual intent of decisions will unfold over decades. Decision-making in planning therefore cannot avoid addressing the future, and future generations. In this sense, we are all living our daily lives today with the locked-in, path dependent and largely irreversible consequences of past land use planning policy decisions.

While this may seem patently obvious, when I look around planning practice in Ireland today I see no evidence whatsoever of any foresight or analysis of the future. While local authority planning departments typically have a section which is nominally labelled ‘Forward Planning’, planning’s responsibility to be a source of thought, or even inspiration, about what might be, and ought to be, has been largely abandoned in favour of a conformist, reactionary and entrepreneurial approach. Paradoxically, one of the unintended consequences of the recent ‘turn’ to more evidenced-informed planning is that the overload of new spatial data from a proliferation of different sources appears to be simply adding to the general confusion about ‘what to do’. Rather than fostering a culture of initiative taking and adaptability, more evidence is creating a risk-adverse planning culture and dimming policy-makers horizons – and is certainly not leading to better decision making or even different decisions!

Good evidence is of course essential in making informed policy and planning decisions. However, as we are so often told these days, past-performance is also no guarantee of future performance. The problem is that the future is unknowable, uncertain and there can be no agreed description of what it will bring. Planners are faced daily with often high-stakes decisions with long-term implications which must be made in the context of immediate and messy short-term socio-economic and political imperatives where facts are uncertain and values in dispute. A useful example of this is the decision last week by An Bord Pleanála to grant planning permission for a large peat burning electricity power station in Co. Offaly. This is in spite of a 2011 report prepared by over forty scientists for the Environmental Protection Agency which concluded that continued peat extraction and burning for electricity is the most climate-polluting source of energy and that “continued carbon emissions from peat burning are contrary to the national interest”. Climate change and energy descent are perhaps the two greatest ‘known unknowns’ of the forthcoming century. Yet, despite the transformative implications of these phenomena for how we use our land, to date they have not been considered germane to planning policy or decisions. In the context of this manifold uncertainty what is required are creative new methodologies, analogous to the greater use of evidence, which seek to make our ignorance of the future useable and help guide complex planning and policy decisions.

In Scotland, a jurisdiction which views planning as a progressive and proactive force for nation building, an entirely different approach has been adopted with the publication in 2011 of a new land-use strategy for Scotland – the first of its kind anywhere in Europe. Interestingly, the strategy arose not out of planning and development legislation, but as a requirement of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009. The strategy, which sets out a long term vision towards 2050, explicitly recognises that land is Scotland’s fundamental and finite base asset and that decisions about how to make the best use of it are becoming increasingly contentious, complex and challenging in the circumstances of changing consumption patterns and a growing acceptance that we need to urgently adapt our lives and the way we use resources. As part of the public consultation process for the strategy, scenarios for the future were developed not to predict the future but to stimulate thought about what might be the logical outcomes and consequences of current trends and policies, and hence how policies might be altered to achieve a more desirable future. In Ireland, the use of futures methods and scenario-planning techniques in developing official planning policy has been completely absent with officialdom favouring instead a singular interpretation of the future – business-as-usual (An exception in academia was the publication in 2008 by the DIT Futures Academy of Twice the size?: Imagineering the future of Irish gateways).

In the UK, however, futures research is well established with the establishment in 1994 of the Foresight Programme which aims to assist the UK Government to think systematically about the future and to ensure today’s decisions are robust to future uncertainties. Foresight projects are in-depth studies looking at major issues 20-80 years in the future including, for example, tackling obesity, future flooding, demographics and wellbeing. A major piece of work currently underway by the Foresight Programme is Land-Use Futures: Making the Most of Land in the 21St Century which is taking a broad and overarching look at the future of UK land use over the next 50 years. It demonstrates that there is a strong case to develop a much more strategic approach to guide incremental land use change, incentivise sustainable behaviours, and to unlock value from land. The ESPON funded ET2050 – Territorial Scenarios and Visions for Europe is similarly involved in developing future scenarios on a pan-European scale aimed at policymakers in the field of territorial development.

Scenario 1: Economy to the fore Looking outwards, to enhance our economic position and competitiveness with respect to the rest of the world.A focus on major cities and larger towns as key drivers of economic activity and public services

Maximising agricultural output focussing on high-value dairy and beef primarily for export markets

Maximising renewable energy generation capacity, including export of renewables.

Increasing contribution of outdoor recreation and tourism to the economy

Scenario 2: Keep it localProgressive transfer of governance to local level.Self-sufficiency driving agricultural practice and community cultivation playing a bigger role in agriculture

Local food – protection of market towns and rural services

Transport considerations – focus on developing existing small settlements and villages as hubs and reducing dispersal

Small scale renewables with more dispersed supply networks

Maintaining cultural landscapes and distinctiveness

Scenario 3: Climate change exemplarOptimising use of land for renewable energy, including biomass, biofuels, wind energy and hydro powerMinimising need for travel, including minimising food miles.

Preservation of peat-rich soils and expansion of forestry for carbon sequestration.

Avoiding development on land liable to flood

Landscape ecology approach to biodiversity (creating green infrastructure networks and avoiding fragmentation of habitats)

Scenario 4: Ireland – a great place to liveProtecting existing designated biodiversity and enhance biodiversity through linking ecological networksSupport for rural services and new dispersed development in the countryside

Protecting iconic landscapes , recognising their role in tourism

Limiting onshore renewable energy and grid infrastructure

Conserving heritage and archaeology

Promoting high quality of life in communities.

Potential Land Use Futures for Ireland? – Adapted from the Scottish Land Use Strategy

In the context of the forthcoming review of the National Spatial Strategy and the new Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies in Ireland, rather than passive adoption of the status-quo, the use of futures methods offers the potential to cast planning as a proactive, confident and dynamic ‘intervener’ in a fast changing and increasingly complex world.  Key questions which need to be asked in developing scenarios for the future are: What land use challenges could we face over the next 50 years? Will existing structures and mechanisms help us to meet those challenges? What opportunities are there to use and manage land differently now so that society continues to enjoy a good quality of life in the future? Developing scenarios for the future may assist in anticipating potential surprises – a good example of this is the current proposal to blanket the Midlands with large wind turbines for energy export which is not referenced anywhere in any national or regional planning policy.

Importantly, futures techniques also offers the potential to shine a light on alternative perspectives that are currently marginalised in mainstream planning policy debate and which can significantly contribute to questioning current hegemonic groupthink and the cosy post-political consensus i.e. that the sine qua non of a happy and affluent society is the neoliberal growth model. Moreover, as a consultation tool, sketching potential futures may help smoke-out entrenched positions and the usual zero-sum ‘winners-losers’ stalemate which accompanies public and political discourse on all matters related to spatial policy, to make our policy choices explicit and, dare I say, maybe a more mature debate and deeper political reflection on Ireland’s future? We live in hope.

Gavin Daly

Dublin City Council is hosting Business as Usual – What next for Planning?’ on Thursday the 5th of December 2013. Details of the event and how to book a place are available here: