The overwhelming sense you get when you read the newly published ‘Ireland 2040: Our Plan – The Draft National Planning Framework’ (NPF) is – haven’t I read all this before somewhere? At least as far back as the 1997 Sustainable Development Strategy, Irish officialdom has thoroughly excelled at composing convincing paeans to smart, sustainable planning. The trouble is, nobody has been listening, resulting in a yawning implementation gap between rhetoric and reality.

As we prepare to go once more into the breach, the dominance of Dublin and the steadily accumulated legacy of haphazard development sprawl, does not bode well for the successful implementation of the NPF. Strategic planning never emerges onto a blank slate where new policies can be easily established. Instead, they are unfurled across inherited and deeply contested spaces which create their own path dependencies. For Ireland, it is hard to contemplate a more inauspicious starting point for a fresh attempt at national spatial planning. Sigmund Freud once apparently said that the Irish are impervious to psychoanalysis. Perhaps, as argued by Norwegian planning scholar Tore Sager, it is time to apply his concept of ‘parapraxis’ to understand the planning dysfunction and ultimate consequences which arise from continuously failed communication.

Back in 2002 when the draft NPF’s predecessor, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS), was first published, it was immediately met with a wave of derision from competing political interests. This time round, the draft strategy has studiously sought to avoid such partisan conflict and the bitter spatial politics of winners and losers. The generally muted political and underwhelmed media reaction to its publication is testament to how successful it has been in this task. This depoliticisation has largely been achieved through repeating general truisms on sustainable planning principles (high quality urban placemaking, infill/brownfield regeneration, compact urban growth, integrated communities, promoting sustainable transport modes etc.), which nobody seriously disagrees with, and delegating much of the actual decision-making to the three new regional assemblies via proposed Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies (RSESs).

Gone are the ‘Gateways’ and ‘Hubs’ of the NSS, replaced instead with a general commentary on Ireland’s five main cities and a vague objective of achieving ‘regional parity’ in population growth. Given past experience and the current make-up of the Dáil, obfuscation is perhaps an understandable tactic. Indeed, a noticeable feature of the draft strategy is the almost complete absence of maps – now substituted with the current fashion for infographics.

So after decades of failed attempts at national planning, will this time be different? One important distinction from previous attempts is that the draft NPF is proposed to be placed on a statutory footing and overseen, quasi-independently, by the new Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) – a key recommendation of the Mahon Tribunal. It is also proposed to align the NPF with a new ten-year National Investment Plan (NIP). The absence of a strong coordinated relationship to a long-term capital investment programme for physical infrastructure was one of the major criticisms of the NSS and contributed, in no small part, to its ignoring in practice.

The potential of public lands to support NPF implementation is acknowledged with consideration to be given to the merits of introducing a new ‘National Land Development Agency’ (NAMA?) with enhanced compulsory purchase powers to unlock brownfield urban regeneration sites. The previously mothballed Gateway Innovation Fund will now be replaced with a competitive bid-based ‘National Smart Growth Initiative’ to leverage public and private investment. Funding will be available for both urban and rural areas, which is in clear recognition of the theme that runs throughout the strategy of the need to strengthen rural towns and villages and to counteract the corrosive effects of population haemorrhaging through urban-generated rural housing sprawl.

Interestingly, in a subtle language departure from the 2005 Rural Housing Guidelines, and most likely an implicit recognition of recent councillor agitation over European court rulings in respect of ‘locals only’ housing policies and fears of a free-for-all, the draft NPF floats the concept ‘demonstrable economic need’ as an alternative to ‘local housing need’ as the relevant siting criteria for one-off rural housing. Although no clarity is provided as to what exactly constitutes a ‘demonstrable economic need’, this policy is to be applied, in principle, to the commuter hinterlands (or Functional Urban Areas) of all cities and towns greater than 10,000 population. Again, no maps are provided but the OECD defined Functional Urban Areas (>15% commuting) for each of the five cities is proposed which, given Ireland’s far-flung commuter catchments, could affect very wide geographical areas.

The process of identifying rural housing demand is also to be supported by an officiously titled ‘Housing Needs Demand Assessment’ (HNDA) model, the methodology for which is to be prescribed in future planning guidelines. However, in layman’s terms, it effectively means the better use of standardised data collection and evidenced-informed methods to understand and project local housing policies. This is most likely a clear acknowledgement of the current housing data debacle. In cloaking the politically toxic issue in soothing technocratic jargon, the draft NPF skilfully dodges a bullet, for now. There is no doubt that, if the wider policies espoused in the strategy are to be successful, this nettle must be grasped. The ability of the draft NPF to navigate this hornets’ nest, withstand the inevitable political onslaught, avoid a fudge and bring about radical policy change will be a major litmus test.

In keeping with the 2015 Planning Policy Statement, the draft strategy is replete with time-honoured sustainable planning principles and references to currently in vogue EU policy vernacular, such as the ‘circular bioeconomy’. One innocuous-sounding provision is that accessibility between key urban centres will be enhanced only after regional cities, such as Cork and Limerick, have reached a sufficient population mass, as: “[i]nvestment in connectivity first without urban consolidation measures will likely worsen the current trends towards sprawl.” (p.123). Given the highly ambitious population growth targets (50-60%) for each of the regional cities, which would take significant time and investment to achieve, it will be telling if this policy can outlast the clarion calls for new motorways, such as the M20 recently prioritised by the Taoiseach.

What is interesting about this provision, however, is that it is a recognition that future population growth, rather than being merely an input to planning, is also an outcome and we can choose to effect it through targeted implementation measures. Nevertheless, bending future population growth towards NPF ideals, where the four cities outside Dublin are proposed grow by more than twice as much to 2040 as they did over the past 25 years, would be a monumental feat, requiring rigorous prioritisation stretching beyond short-term political horizons and spelled out in advance through definite targets. It also requires prohibiting growth elsewhere. Such notions are almost completely alien in Irish political culture and would demand, not just radical changes in policies, but an unlikely paradigm shift in perceptions.

Of more fundamental significance are the rationalities disguising the real political aims being pursued in the draft NPF. The strategy is fully reflective of the current economic consensus forged around corporate wellbeing and capturing globally mobile FDI flows as the primary driver of national economic growth, particularly in the knowledge and digital economy, internationally traded services etc. A well-worn path in an attempt to achieve this, is through the reworking of planning and governance spaces and promoting the competitive advantage of urban regions as locational nodes for transnational capital investment in the global marketplace.

Through rescaling Ireland into three new city regions, the draft NPF, for the first time, explicitly translates national industrial policy into a parallel spatial strategy. The ESRI forecasts of future population growth of 1 million people to 2040 (+20%), including 550,000 new homes and 660,000 new jobs, are unproblematically accepted as fact, to which planning and society must accommodate, despite how uncertain and prone to error such projections are. In keeping with the overall neoliberal approach to spatial governance, the assumption is that the benefits of growth will trickle-down to underpin the achievement of broader social, spatial and environmental goals in relatively uncontroversial ways.

Consequently, the draft NPF vision is ineluctably bound up in present perceptions, perspectives and views with an overweening emphasis on growth, devoid of any critical thought about the future. In the case of climate change, for example, we know that absolute reductions in global carbon emissions of 80% is required by 2050 in order to meet the IPCC’s stabilisation target. What type of society and economy does that look like? How can this be achieved and is it compatible with growing the population by one million people? One thing is clear. It’s a completely different kind of economy and society from the one we have at the moment which drives itself forward by emitting more and more carbon.

Instead, the draft NPF seeks to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable through the identification of ‘win-win-win’ approaches which do not foresee any inherent contradictions between policies or the need for trade-offs i.e. nothing really fundamentally has to change. For example, our major airports are to be expanded, inter-urban roads are to be improved with average journey speed of 90kph (i.e. new motorways) and the sacred cow of carbon intensive and polluting agricultural productivism is to be ring-fenced such that all future emission reductions will almost exclusively fall on transport and energy – a jaw-droppingly unrealistic goal. Smarter Travel policy, which targeted aggressive reductions in car commuting, is quietly dropped in favour of the equally far-fetched electrification of ‘transport fleets’. Again, to avoid ceaseless political rancor,  future renewable energy production is to be significantly pushed offshore through the use of expensive and unproven technologies, necessitating major grid investments, while promoting Ireland as a global location for data centres, which are voracious energy consumers.

Realism, not growthism, is the principle which should guide the NPF. If the history of national planning worldwide has thought us one thing, it is that it has failed almost every time it has been tried. This should come as no surprise as, in an uncertain world, there is no such thing as total control of the object of governance. If we accept the likelihood of failure from the outset, then it is necessary to adopt a satisficing approach as an alternative to blind utopianism.  The scientific evidence that 21st Century humanity has entered the increasingly unstable Anthropocene epoch is ever more alarming.  As Brendan Gleeson writes in his recent book ‘The Urban Condition’, the coming century will be marked by a world increasingly in planetary overshoot; population and per capita consumption are increasing; global competition for Earth’s shrinking biocapacity is intensifying and sea level rise, mass migrations, resource shortages, famines, species extinction, energy insecurity and attendant geopolitical tension and economic breakdowns threaten the relationships between cities and their distant hinterlands even as cities become humanity’s major habitat. A resilient, adaptive society – capable of resisting external shocks, maintaining people’s livelihoods and living within our ecological means – is the only goal we should be aiming for.

Gavin Daly