Below is the text of the talk delivered at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Donegal by Rob Kitchin as part of a panel on the National Spatial Strategy and where next for spatial planning in Ireland.


The National Spatial Strategy was launched in December 2002 by Minister Martin Cullen. In the foreword, An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern TD, states that the NSS was:

“a 20-year strategy designed to enable every place in the country to reach its potential, no matter what its size or location. It recognises that the various regions of the country have different roles. It seeks to organise and co-ordinate these roles in a complementary, win win way. It is about making regions competitive according to their strengths and not against one another; about ensuring a high quality urban environment, as well as vibrant rural areas.

In order to achieve more balanced regional development, a greater share of economic activity must take place outside the Greater Dublin Area. To achieve that the National Spatial Strategy sets out a framework for gateways, hubs and other urban and rural areas to act together. This framework will open up new opportunities in the regions and give people greater choice in relation to where they work and live.

The National Spatial Strategy will enable all sectors of the economy to plan future investment in a better-informed way. This more coherent planning will benefit all of us. The Government will ensure that its own policies are implemented in a manner that is consistent with the National Spatial Strategy.”

I’ve highlighted three phrases as I want to return to them again. In short, the NSS divided up the country into five zones and identified 18 gateways and hubs.

The five zones were:

  • consolidating the Greater Dublin Area
  • strengthening the South, South East, West and North West to complement Dublin
  • revitalising the West and South West
  • reinforcing central parts of Ireland and the South East
  • co-operating in an all-island context.

The 9 Gateways were: Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford, Dundalk, Sligo, Letterkenny/Derry, Athlone/Tullamore/Mullingar. Gateways were to have populations >100,000 providing “critical mass necessary to sustain strong levels of job growth in the regions.”

The 9 Hubs were: Cavan, Ennis, Kilkenny, Mallow, Monaghan, Tuam, Wexford, Ballina/Castlebar and Tralee/Killarney. Hubs were to have populations of 20-40,000 and provide localised critical mass and “link the capabilities of the gateways to other areas.”


The best way to get a sense of the thinking behind the NSS and why it failed to deliver on its promise and potential is to chart the history leading up to it, its rollout and demise, and to note the various agents involved.

A brief history of the National Spatial Strategy

The origins of the NSS can be traced back to 1963 and the start of planning in Ireland, but it is also framed by local government reform and economic development policy.

Phase 1: Foundations

1963: Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 1963. Came into force in 1964. Introduced local development plans and planning permissions. Created 87 planning authorities. No higher-level oversight of plans. (DoE)

1986: Urban Renewal Act 1986 published. Introduced tax-incentive-led development for urban areas. (DoF)

1994: 8 regional authorities established (through Local Government Act 1991), which would evolve to have a regional planning function. (DoE)

1997: Sustainable Development – A Strategy for Ireland published, includes policies on spatial planning, urban development and regeneration. (DoE)

Nov 1997: Initiation of producing a National Development Plan (NDP) 2000-2006 announced. (DoF)

March 1998: Finance Act 1998. Enabled the Rural Renewal Scheme for the Upper Shannon Region. Promoted tax incentive-led development (DoF)

1999: European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP) published. Advocated a strategic spatial planning approach across Europe. DEHLG participated in its development. Strategic Planning Guidelines for the GDA were published.

Nov 1999: National Development Plan (NDP) 2000-2006 published: five operational programmes, two regional programmes, plus peace process programme. Called for balanced regional development and identified 5 gateway cities: Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. (DoF)

2000: Planning and Development Act 2000. Set up the basis for hierarchical spatial planning, with local and county plans having due regard for forthcoming regional planning guidelines. (DEHLG)

Sept 2001: Regional Development Strategy for Northern Ireland 2025 published. (DRD)

Phase 2: Rollout and floundering

Dec 2002: The National Spatial Strategy (NSS) 2002 – 2020 published. (DEHLG)

Dec 2002: Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2002 published. Exempted zoning in local area plans from Ministerial oversight.

Dec 2003: government Decentralization Programme announced. Move 48 government depts and state agencies (>10k public servants) to 58 locations in 25 local authorities. (DoF)

Mid 2004: Regional Planning Guidelines (RPGs) published.  Designed to translate the overall national approach of the NSS into policies at regional and local level and assist planning authorities in framing County, City and Local Area Development Plans. (DEHLG)

2006: National Development Plan (NDP) 2007-2013 launched, aligned with the NSS, with new funding mechanisms such as the Gateways Initiative Fund. (DoF)

2008: Ireland enters crisis. Gateways Initiative Fund first thing cut in DEHLG as a cost saving measure. (DEHLG)

July 2010: Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2010 published, includes ‘core strategy’ requirement that obliges planning authorities to comply with NSS and RPGs rather than have ‘due regard’ (DEHLG)

Oct 2010: NSS Update and Outlook published. Reaffirms aims and approach of NSS. (DEHLG)

Phase 3: Disintegration

Late 2010: NDP 2007-2013 terminated and succeeded by a National Recovery Plan 2011-2014 (DPER)

Nov 2011: Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2012-16 published (DPER)

Feb 2013: NSS 2002-2020 officially scrapped by Minister to be replaced by a new policy in due course. (DEHLG)

Dec 2013: Medium Term Economic Strategy 2014-2020 published. (DoF/DPER)

May 2014: Construction 2020 published, proposes a new National Planning Framework, lots of task forces and reviews re. housing, planning, construction and development (GoI)

May 2014: Local Government Act 1991 (Regional Authorities) (Amendment) Order 2014. Abolishes 8 regional authorities to be replaced with 3 regional assemblies. One of their chief responsibilities is to prepare new ‘Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies’ (DECLG)

June 2014: Local Government Reform Act 2014. Abolishes town and borough councils, merged 3 city/county councils, thus reducing number of planning authorities. (DECLG)

Jan 2015: Planning and Development (No.2) Bill 2014 and the Planning Policy Statement 2015 published. Announces the establishment of the Office for Planning Regulation and a National Planning Framework to replace NSS (DEHLG).

Feb 2015: Framework for the Development of Regional Enterprise Strategies (DJEI) launched.

Why did the NSS fail?

Interestingly, the NSS was initially perceived to be a success. It was the first national spatial strategy in Europe after the publication of the ESDP and was considered best practice by other countries. It sought be inclusive in vision and was underpinned by good intentions and it promoted a planned approach to development. However, it relatively quickly ran into problems that made implementation difficult in practice. In my view there were three core reasons the NSS failed to deliver on its promise and potential.

(1) The strategy was flawed.

(a) It sought to be all things to all people; to create a win-win situation whereby every area was to grow in population and resources.

(b) There were too many gateways and hubs and spread too thinly to provide an effective counterweight to GDA. Plus, there were issues of critical mass: Sligo, Dundalk, Letterkenny had populations substantially less than 100,000, and ATM were quite far apart and had little economic interaction; the hubs chosen were small, with three having a population less than 10,000 (Cavan, Monaghan and Tuam) and none having a population above 21,500.

(c) Political interference in the selection of gateways and hubs.

(d) The linked concept was based on polycentric development that happens around large cities. It was applied to small towns that had little interaction. It should have linked gateways and hubs around a handful of city-regions.

(e) It had some regard but was not fully aligned with RDS in Northern Ireland.

(2) Temporal misalignment

(a) It missed its logical initial resourcing stream, the NDP 2000-06.

(b) It did underpin the NDP 2007-13, but then the crisis hit, the NDP faltered and the resources allocated for NSS initiatives evaporated.

(3) Wilfully undermined and not supported by government, lack of cross-department alignment

(a) Lack of statuary footing for hierarchical planning. In a period of developer-led, laissez faire, localist planning ‘due regard’ was a license to largely ignore the NSS.

(b) Decentralisation programme cut across and ignored the whole NSS policy and seriously undermined its rationale and impetus in implementation. As did other policies such as Upper Shannon Rural Renewal Scheme.

(c) Lack of political support in general for plan-led development, with general culture of clientelist, cronyist, localist planning system and an attitude of ‘any development, in any location and at any time’ by the public and politicians.

(d) DoF and DECLG pursue their own agendas that sometimes have ‘due regard’ to each other, however economists and planners do not share same worldview or approach and the NSS was made to look like joined-up thinking. When the crisis hit economists reverted to type (macro- and sectoral) and spatial planning went out the window.

In combination, what these meant was that the NSS was wounded from the start. It might have recovered through its alignment with NDP 2007-13 and some legislative reforms. However, the crisis was fatal to the NDP, the reforms came too late, and economic, planning and infrastructure policy has fractured into a number of initiatives.

Will the National Planning Framework succeed?

The logic of spatial planning is to align and coordinate sectoral initiatives (such as transport, employment, property, utilities, communications, public services, etc) across territory in order to leverage complementarities, reduce redundancy and duplication, increase competitiveness, and create multiplier effects.  If done well it should facilitate inward investment, stimulate and support indigenous growth, produce sustainable development and create better places. It does this by selectively prioritising areas for different kinds of activities in line with its demographics and local resources, distributing funds suitable to enable targeted investment, and coordinating development across sectors.

At present, local, regional and national development is being driven by five initiatives:

  • 350 County/City and Local development plans, RPGs and legacy of NSS (DECLG)
  • Construction 2020 (DECLG)
  • Medium Term Economic Strategy 2014-2020 (MTES) (DPER)
  • Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2012-16 (DPER)
  • Framework for the Development of Regional Enterprise Strategies (DJEI)

The first will be reconfigured, with the NPF replacing the NSS.

The objective of the National Planning Framework shall be to establish a broad national plan for the Government in relation to the strategic planning of urban and rural areas to secure balanced regional development and overall proper planning and sustainable development and the co-ordination of regional spatial and economic strategies and city and county development plans.”

Whether though the NPF will deliver on its mandate will depend on:

(1) Not trying to be all things to all people and embracing spatial selectivity, including reducing the number of gateways/hubs (with the aim of creating a handful of polycentric city-regions) and planning for population decline in some areas (measure of success in such areas is quality of life and sustainability, not growth).

(2) Recognizing the NPF should be a top-level economic, planning and infrastructure policy that seeks to balance local/regional development with Ireland’s position in the global economy (which requires critical mass and agglomeration – a small town of 6,000 offers neither). This requires alignment of national economic, planning and infrastructure policies (NPF, Con2020, MTES, ICI, RESs), which necessitates joined-up thinking across government departments (i.e. recreating the NDP/NSS conjoining). Also, alignment of other strategies such as housing, health, transport policy with NPF. And an alignment of regional and local policies.

(3) An accompanying implementation plan, with set goals, measures of success, and resourcing mechanisms. Also means proper resourcing of planning in DECLG, local authorities and regional assemblies.

(4) Government not to undermine its own policy either through contra-policies or politicians exercising localism or stroke politics.

(5) Local authorities, regional assemblies, and local politicians rolling with rather than pushing against the NPF and planning in general.

A NPF will almost certainly be aided by further consolidation of local authorities to gain efficiencies in service delivery, a wider cadre of skilled staff within each authority, and a wider terrain of development that will reduce back-to-back planning, and some form of devolution of powers to regional assemblies. Local authority sizes in Ireland vary from DCC catering for over 500K people to Leitrim catering for 31K.


The NSS and changes to the planning and development legislation have started to change the culture and thinking of planning authorities away from ‘development at all costs’ to more strategic, hierarchical planning. In the desire to restore Ireland’s economy it is easy, however, to envisage the old mentality reasserting itself. This, I think, would be to the long-term detriment of the country. In other jurisdictions, developers like long-term spatial planning as it provides certainty over where to invest and build and reduces risk; businesses like it because it ensures proper infrastructure and services for them and their workers.

In Ireland, the Celtic Tiger happened without the benefits of strategic spatial planning and it collapsed in part for the same reason, leaving a legacy of overdevelopment in many places. Poor planning was thus seen as one of the causes of the crisis and it has not been promoted as one of the solutions. The National Planning Framework, however, if done properly will help grow the economy, create sustainable development, and improve peoples’ quality of life. And it will provide a brighter, less cyclical future than developer-led, laissez-faire, localist and dispersed planning. The challenge, however, are presently two-fold. First, conjoining existing national policies into a coherent top-level strategy (inter-dept alignment) and reversing the trend to rollout lower-level policy ahead of top-level policy (temporal alignment). Second, for the Government to believe in their own rhetoric and to formulate a coherent NPF with teeth and to implement it.

Rob Kitchin