Just in case you may have overlooked it, today marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the planning system in Ireland! On the 1st of October 1964 the first planning act came into being. Since that time planning has soldiered valiantly, and despite the general apathy of the public and no little hostility from the political class, somehow remains standing, even if battered and bruised. If truth be told it is only in the past ten years that planning has actually existed in any meaningful form. Prior to that we had mostly men with t-squares largely concerned with pipe diameters, soak pits and sight-lines. Today’s planners toil through an unnerving jumble of complexity and tortuous process spoken in a strange-tongued language of technical jargon that nobody really understands. They have become handy targets, mudguards, used and abused and persistently caught in the crossfire of short-term expediency, long-term strategising and the conflicting expectations of the public, politicians and business. I doubt I am alone in hoping the question of ‘what do you do for a living?’ doesn’t come up in the pub!
As Irish planning muddles through middle age maybe it’s time to ask some uncomfortable mid-life crisis questions – the elephants in the room – what are we doing, where are we going, whose needs do we serve and does what we do actually work? If we take the simple measure of being able to control the future by current acts, which is what planning essentially is, then it must be concluded from the evidence that it doesn’t work at all, or at least not very well. I mean, while the counterfactual can never be fully known, would Ireland look any different today if we hadn’t mobilised great effort to produce spatial strategies and visions? Maybe at the margins, but not much, I suspect. While we wax lyrical about communities and sustainability, who has benefited most from planning – landowners? developers? banks? The influx of more ‘evidence’ into the process does not seem to be producing better results, although it is probably too early to tell. What we are very good at are attempts to plan, we produce nice glossy plans like the National Spatial Strategy. But just as a desire to be wise is not wisdom, planning can only be evaluated on whether or not the desired goals have been achieved. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. On pretty much every measure, it must be conceded that we haven’t achieved much. Even our glittering flagship planning visions, such as the Dublin Docklands or Adamstown, remain undelivered and hardly do much to justify our existence.
To be fair, planning is a messy business beholden to private capital and it has failed pretty much everywhere it has been tried. Achieving a desired end state is also not necessarily a good yardstick to measure success as the world is always in flux. Things change. But as I have argued before neither should the profession lapse into banal process and incrementalism as it is as present. We planners always tend to think of ourselves as victims, put-upon and marginalised by an unholy alliance of developers, politicians and county managers. If people had only listened to our recommendations and followed the plan, things would have been so different. I don’t buy this. Things wouldn’t have been much different. This is because our plans persistently seek legitimisation by appealing to consensus, superficially offering something to everyone and no one. The net result is that the short-term competitiveness and growth agenda wins out. As a profession, these are now our de facto values. I think most planner’s would think the ‘Common Good’ should mean more than that. A recent paper on this subject revealed that most planners have no idea what the ‘Common Good’ actually is (Murphy & Fox-Rogers 2014) . Planning education has a lot to answer for here. The intellectual horizons of the profession has shrunk so much that we are incapable offering any alternatives or critical perspectives to puncture the status quo. We must drop the instinctive notion that we are pursuing a progressive agenda. The opposite is often the reality. There was a call a few years ago by the then Irish Planning Institute president for a ‘Planner’s Charter’ setting out the broad values of the profession. That idea never saw the light of day. I suspect because of lack of consensus. But on the occasion of our 50th birthday, this should be the time for at least a debate.