Extended precis (PDF of full paper)

The publication of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government’s ‘non-statutory’ Planning Policy Statement (PPS) in January 2015, heralds the prospect of the replacement of the National Spatial Strategy (2002-2020) with a National Planning Framework (NPF). The PPS emphasises that future Planning Strategy should be both evidence-based and plan-led.

As a contribution to these developments, this paper presents a demographic approach applied to the spatial planning context for current housing needs and points to compelling reasons for developing Ireland’s cities whilst curtailing the ongoing proliferation of villages, small towns and one-off housing, and for services provision, infrastructural priorities and related policy issues.

The paper’s first consideration is that of Ireland’s imperative for its emerging housing strategy: to improve its economic competitiveness which is compromised by its small-scale urban content. The State’s modest-sized settlements, with their inevitable diseconomies of scale, present economic handicaps to the provision of both public and private sector services. Unsurprisingly, they are the subject of current services-rationalisation, often of a controversial nature.

The outgoing spatial NSS planning policy is based on the definition of Balanced Regional Development (BRD) which is self-contradictory. In a modern economy, the optimal performance of the State is critically dependent on that of its primary contributors and of their large settlements’ ability to generate urban agglomerative spill-over: not on the BRD definitional illusion of achieving the full potential of each area. BRD is the opposite to achieving settlements of ‘Concentrated Lumpiness’, which would be characterised as centripetal agglomeration: of dense, efficient centres of population and their associated clusters of employment.

The outcome from the 2002-2020 National Spatial Strategy is that its BRD policy has encouraged excessive village and small-town proliferation. Over a fifteen year period to the last census, there has been a 30.6% growth in the proliferation of settlements of less than 5,000 since 1996, but especially so in for smaller town and village categories. Thus future spatial planning should place emphasis on the selective locations for new housing so as to complement and promote urban agglomeration. New house types are likely to introduce double-duplex and other innovative features of urban design, reducing the need for car ownership whilst encouraging more sustainable forms of transportation, suitable for short commutes.

The paper also differentiates between the requirements of the two principal areas of State: the Greater Dublin Area (GDA) and the Rest of State (RoS) areas. It finds that in 2011 there are many striking contrasts between the two areas. Dublin has nearly eleven times the average population size of the four RoS cities. The overall average settlement size for each of the seven categories of towns and villages is also greater in the GDA.

GDA house vacancy rates in 2011 were between just one-third and one half of those of the RoS areas, a contrast that has increased since then. This places an increasing need for focused housing supply-demand research. The wastefulness and inefficiencies of higher levels of current housing vacancy, directly corresponds to the remoteness of a county from its nearest city and particularly so in its further distance from Dublin.

Given the fragile sizes of Irish urban settlements, the emerging spatial planning and development imperative should especially facilitate the growth of larger, selected, populated towns and some cities, so as to counteract the extent of small-settlement proliferation in the RoS villages and Non-Nucleated populations. The housing crisis and affordability issue is also linked to the unsustainability of long and medium-distance commuting, given the census evidence and the geography of daytime working population and to Ireland’s economic competitiveness.

The research notes that from the most recent indications of prospective developments in Ireland’s spatial planning strategy, there is still little evidence that the authorities recognise or appreciate the need for an urban agglomeration ‘top-down’ approach, where the alternative focus continues to be dominated by rural generated ‘bottom-up’ strategies, making the task of achieving urban agglomeration difficult. Thus there have been few opportunities in the RoS area to exploit and take advantage of urban agglomeration forces.

Unfortunately, Ireland has always had a spatial record of eschewing its cities. In 1969 the first ‘modern’ spatial strategy, the Buchanan Plan’s objective of achieving an accelerated growth of fifteen or so of the provincial cities and larger towns was politically rejected. Subsequent ‘politically dominated’ planning strategies have sought to ‘give a little to everyone in the audience’ instead of implementing a policy of concentrating the State’s limited capital resources to a few chosen locations which have the potential to grow at a much faster rate than the norm and thereby ‘capture’ the benefits of scale, of critical mass and of urban agglomeration.

The irony is that if today’s Ireland had such ‘concentrated lumpiness’, this policy direction would have considerably mitigated the depth of the recession that has visited so many of its small towns, villages and open countryside. Agglomerative ‘spillovers’ from larger Regional cities and large towns remains the only certain way to counteract rural decline. Ireland has yet to learn that painful urban economic lesson.

Because of the bias favouring town growth, exacerbated by the population deflection from unaffordable housing in the cities, especially for Dublin, their aggregate growth has been much lower than might otherwise have been expected. During 1996-2011 the State population increased by 26.53% whereas the cities grew by just 16.42%, – i.e. even less than the 17.72% for the non-nucleated rural areas and towns/ villages of 5,000 and under.

This paper concludes that the capacity to generate ‘spill-overs’ are currently constrained, limited perhaps to Dublin and to the CASP area surrounding Cork City. Thus, it should come as no surprise that due to the defects of past strategic spatial planning policies, rural emigration is rife and economic downturn is magnified for regions which do not have large towns but especially cities.

Full paper

Dr Brian Hughes, DIT