The Ireland 2040 National Planning Framework (NPF) currently under preparation, is tasked with providing a ‘framework for future development and investment in Ireland’ (Issues and Choices Consultation Paper). The consultation document makes clear that the NPF is intended to provide a high-level strategic policy document, working to coordinate the spatial aspects of a wide range of sectoral policies concerned with ‘housing, jobs, transport, education, health, environment, energy and communications’. The potential of strategic spatial policy to be provide a frame for the coordination of broad-scale policy objectives such as quality of life, prosperity and environmental sustainability and the development of place-based policy is explicitly addressed. It is evident that the NPF is intended to provide more than a reformulation of the politically-sensitive issue of balanced or effective regional development. It is also evident that it is not to be understood as ‘national plan’, prescribing where development should take place, as discussed previously on this blog here). Whereas the NPF will hopefully provide a central guiding framework for planning authorities, informing their decision-making and placing their work in a wider strategic context, this should not be understood as its primary function.

The NPF is asking to be taken seriously as cross-sectoral overarching framework for investment, rather than treated as a national plan to be ‘implemented’ by local authorities. These strategic cross-sectoral policy coordination policy coordination objectives are to be welcomed. The current context of Brexit-induced uncertainty calls for open dialogue, cross-sectoral communication and strategic stakeholder engagement, as Ireland-UK and by default, Ireland-EU and North-South relations are simultaneously re-ordered and re-worked. Indeed, this period of uncertainty calls for spatial public diplomacy. The NPF can play an important function in this context providing in particular a framework for working out island-of-Ireland perspectives and reaffirming existing commitments to cooperation in matters of spatial planning and regional development on a North-South basis.

The experiences of Wales and Scotland with strategic spatial planning furthermore demonstrate the potential of spatial strategies with strong cross-sectoral ambitions. The Scottish National Planning Frameworks build on a strong Scottish tradition of strategic planning and have played an important role as part of a broader ‘national conversation’ post-devolution. More importantly, they have served to focus policy attention on key projects of national importance and ‘spatial priorities for change’. The Wales Spatial Plan similarly was designed from the outset as an over-arching cross-sectoral framework, placing the work of the then newly established Welsh Assembly in a strategic spatial context and supporting joined-up thinking at a sub-regional level.

In order to be taken seriously and to have relevance as a framework at a strategic policy level outside of the Department of Housing, Planning Community and Local Government, however, the NPF needs to be explicitly linked to public sector investment decision-making. The National Spatial Strategy was of course, designed to give spatial expression to the National Development Plan with the Gateway Investment Fund as the bridge linking spatial and capital investment planning. Unfortunately, the GIF was one of the first items to go when budgets were cut and the decentralisation fiasco characteristically served to make the worst out of a bad situation. We should nevertheless expect and demand that the NPF contain explicit commitments regarding major infrastructure projects of national and regional importance, aligning the spatial framework with national transportation policy and other key sectoral policies. Debate on the NPF should focus on concrete substantive issues of strategic spatial significance such as outstanding commitments under Transport 21, sustainable energy and climate adaptation policy and the future of the border region in a time of uncertainty. NPF scenarios could focus on the spatial development implications of infrastructure investments and policy choices, providing informed insights into possible regional development dynamics in Ireland 2040. This of course is based on the perhaps naive assumption that the Irish Government is prepared to commit public funds to strategic investment projects rather than relying on private sector investment.

The NPF might also be expected to make funding commitments to support innovative regional development initiatives emerging from the bottom-up. It is possible to envisage a scenario where local authorities, business and community stakeholders could apply for capacity-building or small-scale investment funding on a competitive basis from funds administered by the three regional assemblies. Projects would be required to support the objectives of the NPF and to cross local authority boundaries, working with ‘functional territories’ in order to ensure strategic regional importance. Lessons can be learnt from urban-rural partnership programmes organised on a similar basis in Germany which have challenged metropolitan and rural districts to identify potential synergies and means of working together. Closer to home, the experiences of three Border Area Networks and work of ICLRD in developing common projects and strategies on a cross-border basis demonstrate the potential of this approach in the Irish context.

It is time for a mature debate on the substantive issues the NPF can and should address on a cross-sectoral basis, and time for the Government to commit to public investment aligned with national spatial policy.

Reminder: Submissions on the NPF consultation can be made until this Thursday 16th March (12 noon).

Cormac Walsh

To make a submission about the proposed NPF go to the website and follow the instructions provided; or email npf@housing.gov.ie; or write to:

NPF Submissions, Forward Planning Section, Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Custom House, Dublin, D01 W6X0