As the lifetime of the current government draws to a close, it is an opportune moment to review progress in planning reforms over the past five years.  Back in 2011 planning was very much front and centre of the national debate around the causes and consequences of the economic crisis. The highpoint of the reforms introduced under the previous government was the Planning & Development (Amendment) Act 2010, a piece of legislation that current planning minister, Paudie Coffey, once described as ‘social engineering’. The appearance of planning, on the very last page of the Programme for Government, almost as an afterthought, was perhaps a portend of what was to come.

It did not get off to the most auspicious start with the first of three ministers to hold the portfolio, Willie Penrose, resigning after just a few months. His only notable act as minister was to terminate the independent investigations into planning irregularities. Even after the publication of the Mahon Tribunal report and its findings of systematic corruption, Penrose’s successor Jan O’Sullivan was unmoved, describing criticisms of a cover-up as a smokescreen. It took a High Court case to force the government into a u-turn. In the aftermath of the recent RTE Investigates documentary it emerged that the independent review had been sitting on Ministers Kelly’s and Coffey’s desks for the past five months. In response, the government sheepishly announced a package of ‘radical’ planning measures which included the belated publication of the independent review, further rehashed details on the proposed Office of the Planning Regulator (the major recommendation of the Mahon Tribunal) and a ‘roadmap’ for the forthcoming National Planning Framework (NPF). The  independent review uncovered considerable evidence of malpractice throughout the planning system and includes 29 recommendations to improve “standards of transparency, consistency and accountability” which the Department has committed to implement. The foot-dragging on this issue has undoubtedly been a major blot on the copybook of a government elected on a mandate to stamp out cronyism and low standards. Despite the introduction of a new planning regulator having being approved by the government back in 2013 and the heads of the bill published almost one year ago, the legislation is yet to appear. Bizarrely, in September Minister Kelly even floated the idea of de-prescribing An Taisce  – the chief complainant in the review and which the report concluded had “raised issues of public interest and as such have served the common good in raising these matters.”

In fact, the only planning body which the government has subjected to an independent review has been An Bord Pleanála –  one of the few organisations to emerge from the Celtic Tiger with a semblance of integrity. More often than not it actually had the temerity to implement national policies in the face of local populism. It is widely reported that the trigger for this review was its handling of wind farm cases, a particular sore point for Minister Kelly. A public consultation on the review of the 2006 wind energy planning guidelines generated widespread expectations that setback distances between wind turbines and dwellings would be significantly increased (ironically an idea first tabled by the aforementioned Willie Penrose following his resignation).  The Minister has been running with the hare and hunting with the hound on this issue, formally intervening on three occasions to overturn restrictive setback policies introduced by local councils, prompting the mayor of Donegal County Council to initiate counter legal proceedings. The revised guidelines are yet to materialise, and the debacle has done little for the credibility of the planning system or government leadership in the face of a critical national policy priority.

One of the few achievements was the publication of a new Planning Policy Statement (PPS) in 2015 replete with the usual lofty principles which litter the history of Irish planning and generally utterly ignored in practice. For example, 40% (over 15,000) of all new dwellings permitted by the planning system during the lifetime of the government were ‘one off’ houses – a spatial pattern which is completely inimical to each and every of the key principles of the PPS. This has not been helped by the Minister Kelly’s move to effectively exempt one-off dwellings from building regulations. The PPS also commits to the publication of the new NPF to succeed the National Spatial Strategy which was unexpectedly and unilaterally ‘scrapped’ in a solo run by former Minister Phil Hogan back in 2013. The roadmap for the new NPF, which is (rather optimistically) due to be completed by early 2017, continues the recent trend for planning discourses to depart from their progressive founding principles, which had social and redistributive justice at their heart, and folded evermore tightly into narrow neoliberal growth and global competitiveness agendas. Interestingly, as part of the preparation of the NPF it is proposed to develop long-term economic and demographic forecasting  through to 2040 (as previously advocated on this blog). Far from being radical, the roadmap sets out a conventional business-as-usual approach with scant reference to the foremost spatial challenge of the coming century – the requirement to completely eliminate fossil fuels from our energy and transport systems (as set out in the recent energy White Paper). There is very little sense that strategic spatial planning in Ireland has yet to get to grips with what this actually means in practice.

It is of course welcome that after years of retrenchment in planning departments at national, regional and local levels that there is a new impetus for spatial planning. Following the protracted reorganisation of the regions, new Regional Spatial & Economic Strategies are also to be developed to replace the Regional Planning Guidelines. The introduction of ‘Core Strategies’ in the 2010 Act has assisted spatial coordination but, as the economy recovers, there are already worrying signs that councillors are once again emboldened and overriding planning advice to zone land, particularly adjacent to motorways in contravention of new guidelines introduced in 2012. This  underscores the huge strategic error in opting for a property tax over a Site Value Tax (SVT) and the government’s abolishing of windfall taxes on zoned land. Just last week the National Competitiveness Council reiterated its call for the introduction of SVT that works in conjunction with the planning system. The ESRI has also called for the introduction of land taxes citing the example of Denmark where such taxes are shown to act as an incentive to sell/use underdeveloped or vacant lands in periods of increased demand.  The planning system now has all of the best-practice guidance it requires but will continue to be a locus for speculation, cronyism and corruption and hamstrung by shoddy practices in the absence of a strong fiscal lever. The new vacant site levy introduced in the Housing & Urban Regeneration Act 2015 is hopelessly limited in both scale and scope and a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem. Regrettably, following a recent public consultation on the issue, the government have once more been kowtowed to the development lobby and decided not to introduce any new tax on zoned and serviced land.

Reducing costs to the developers in order to stimulate market supply has of course been a persistent theme over the past five years. New guidelines on Section 48 levies introduced in 2013 sought to reduce financial contributions from new developments, despite the fact that many councils are in severe fiscal difficulties and owed hundreds of millions in unpaid levies. The Housing & Urban Regeneration Act 2015 also halved to 10% the quantum of Part V social housing required from new private housing developments – a move which was applauded by the Construction Industry Federation. Similarly, despite the well documented failures in building standards, Minister Kelly has fixated on criticising local authorities who impose building regulations which exceed national minimum standards. Rather than using scarce Dáil time to put through the radical reforms promised, the Planning & Development (Amendment) Bill 2015 is instead currently being  rushed through to prevent local authorities defying the Minister in the future. Such measures will obviously make no discernible impact to housing supply. In the context where the minister has just this week issued an unprecedented planning policy directive to address the urgent homelessness and housing crisis and to direct local authorities to do more to provide social housing it is hard to escape the conclusion of fiddling while Rome burns rather than any real radical reform agenda.

Gavin Daly