national planning

Last month saw the publication of the latest government effort at an action plan for rural development.  Realising Our Rural Potential takes the now familiar glossy format of recent government action plans replete with 276 actions, slickly produced with accompanying promo video and, for sake of appearances, an official launch in the suitably rural location of Ballymahon’s (soon to be staffless) public library.


The plan places a welcome, and long overdue, emphasis on rejuvenating rural towns and villages which are recognised as essential lynchpins to sustain and improve the living and working environment of rural dwellers.  It is acknowledged that, as the populations of rural settlement centres have diminished, so too has the demand for and provisioning of essential services, hindering their capacity to compete for investment and employment opportunities. A new town and village renewal scheme is therefore proposed (a rehash of a scheme launched last August), at a cost of €12 million per annum, to encourage increased residential occupancy in over 600 town and village centres (€20,000 each!).

In these so-called ‘post-factual’ times, it is without any sense of irony, however, that the plan completely glosses over the inconvenient reality that it was the assiduous political commitment over successive decades for policies favouring unfettered suburban one-off housing sprawl that has done most to undermine and depopulate rural towns and villages. Between 2001 and 2011, 104,058 one-off dwellings were constructed in rural areas, 85% within 5km of a town or village. Since 2011, a further 18,500 have been permitted. The level of cognitive dissonance on this issue is all the more striking when you consider that the final report of the Commission for Economic Development in Rural Areas (CEDRA), upon which the action plan is largely based, also makes the same glaring omission. The reality is that, nationally, over 70% of dwellings in defined rural areas are built outside settlement centres, and higher still in some counties. This hemorrhaging of population is not deterministic but as a direct result of a sustained and deliberate policy intervention. As one insightful letter writer to The Irish Times noted, what is killing rural towns and villages is not population decline, but their irrelevance, as rural areas become progressively (r)urbanised and assimilated into the functional reaches of larger cities. No amount of fiscal incentives will reverse this trend in the absence of corresponding firm policy measures to restrict and reverse dispersed suburban housing in the countryside. Of course, such an idea would be an anathema in Ireland against a backdrop of political short-termism and patronage. So instead, the action plan includes a rather insipid reference to increase delivery of small housing schemes in towns and villages as an alternative to one-off housing.

Aside from the umpteenth re-launch of the national broadband strategy, one of the more eye-catching objectives of the action plan is the highly misleading target to create 135,000 new jobs and increase by 40% Foreign Direct Investment in ‘rural Ireland’ by 2020.  Ensconced behind the attention-grabbing target is the actuality that the action plan opportunistically conflates ‘rural development’ with ‘regional development’ for the sake of appearances. What is, in fact, targeted is the creation of 135,000 jobs outside Dublin i.e. primarily in cities outside Dublin. This sleight of hand epitomises the policy churning over successive decades on rural development issues in an effort to give the impression of doing something. As I have argued before, in a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem, in order to defer and displace the political strife that accompanies an implicitly urban-led national growth strategy, we have instead sanctioned the widespread (r)urbanisation of the countryside. Vague, populist and anachronistic concepts like ‘Rural Ireland’ and ‘Action Plans for Rural Development’ simply serve as a symbolic gesture to paper over and silence a more fundamental political discussion on the nature of urbanisation in Ireland – which is off-course the great taboo in Irish political discourse. Our lack of collective memory is all the more alarming when you consider that almost twenty years ago the White Paper on Rural Development (still available on DAFF’s website) was published which contained all of the symbolic rhetoric of the current action plan (including, as today, a commitment to create a twenty-year spatial strategy to promote balanced regional development – sound familiar?). Unfortunately, this latest action plan is simply yet another episode of opportunism over strategy where we are failing to accurately conceive the true nature of the problem. No doubt twenty years hence we will be back having the same discussion again.

Gavin Daly


Rule #1 of the neoliberal playbook – when faced with a construction crisis, attack the planning system! It has been ever so since Michael Heseltine, Thatcher’s environment secretary in the 1980s, launched his broadside against the “jobs locked up in the dusty filing cabinets of planning departments”. Of course, it matters little whether there is any evidence that the planning system is indeed stifling construction – the ideology demands that planning regulation remains firmly in the crosshairs. As Michael Gunder puts it – planning is “the chief remaining scapegoat of neoliberal governance”, a convenient patsy for contemporary policy failures.

Simon Coveney’s glossy production ‘Rebuilding Ireland – An Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness’ launched last month to much fanfare promises a ‘root and branch’ review of the planning system. A headline element of the strategy is to speed-up the planning process – an ever-present feature of neoliberal planning reforms – by allowing large housing applications of a hundred units or more to be made directly to An Bord Pleanála. This is proposed as a temporary measure for four years to incentivise large-scale housing production in a manner similar to strategic infrastructure applications. The apparent rationale for this fast-tracked planning consent system is that: “with almost all planning approvals of larger housing developments for 100 new homes or more being appealed to An Bord Pleanála, this has meant that there is in effect a two-stage planning application process which can take 18 to 24 months to secure ultimate approval to go on site and start to build.” (Pg 62)Of course, no evidence is presented to support this assertion. Indeed, An Bord Pleanála’s own annual report, published earlier this month, states that: “The number of appeal cases for housing developments received over the past two years has remained low, 35 cases of 30+ units in 2014 versus the peak of 568 in 2007. While the number of 30+ housing appeals received has increased slightly (60 to the end of 2015), the number of such cases remains low.” (Pg 35). All of these appeals, according to An Bord Pleanála, have been disposed of within the statutory compliance time of eighteen weeks. Furthermore, there is also no evidence whatsoever that the strategic infrastructure process actually speeds-up the planning system, with just half of such applications over the past ten years decided upon within eighteen weeks and, only then, after lengthy pre-application consultations.

The reality is that, despite the assiduous commitment by influential commentators over the past few years to successfully paint a picture of planning as the chief villain and bugbear in impeding housing supply, permission is currently in place for 27,000 shovel ready homes in Dublin alone. According to the strategy, just 4,809 or 18% of these potential units are currently under active construction i.e. 82% of potential homes with planning permission are not commenced at all. The planning system is clearly not the impediment here. The strategy even includes a proposal that the lifetime of these extant planning permissions be extended further. This would mean that often poor quality and poorly located Celtic Tiger era housing could still be constructed as far out as 2021. Furthermore, according to the Residential Land Availability Survey, as I have written previously, nationwide, there is enough zoned land to provide for 16 years of new housing supply based on an annual projected requirement of 25,000 units.

In order to maximise the efficiency of the process under the new system, the strategy proposes that An Bord Pleanála will be required to make a decision within eighteen weeks and will only be able to seek requests for further information or to hold oral hearings in “exceptional circumstances”. For local authority own development under Part VIII (social housing, roads, community facilities etc.), the whole process is to be streamlined to a maximum of twenty weeks. Proposals for major housing developments and other infrastructure are complex undertakings which are irreversible and shape places and communities for generations. The idea that adequate consideration could be given to such proposals, while fulfilling all requirements pursuant to EU and national law, within these compressed timeframes and without recourse to seeking further environmental or technical information or giving adequate consideration to local concerns or right of appeal, is a recipe for yet another great planning disaster. While the need to intensify use of vacant space in town centres is paramount, the proposal in the strategy to exempt from planning permission residential development over shops and commercial units also seems neither sensible nor workable.

Of course, if the history of strategies in Ireland is any yardstick, we should not get too carried away about Rebuilding Ireland actually ever being implemented and it will most likely remain just a paper strategy. All of the targets in it seem hopelessly optimistic and the funding proposals tenuous. It is interesting, however, that its publication was uncritically welcomed by pretty much everyone from the Construction Industry Federation to the Peter McVerry Trust – for in the teeth of a ‘crisis’ who could be against a housing strategy? This is the trump card of lobby groups such as the CIF – to position their vested interests as an illusory societal interest. The Irish Planning Institute, not an organisation given to mounting robust defences against planning scapegoating, were among the few to release an insipid statement expressing “concern”. However, there are very good reasons to be vigilant about the prevailing anti-planning rhetoric and the ‘root and branch’ review of planning proposed by Coveney. Over the past five years, the government has shown scant interest in implementing the crucial regulatory reforms recommended by the Mahon Tribunal and have consistently shown de-regulatory tendencies. Completely absent from this strategy are any measures to provide a pro-active role for planning in delivering housing and other infrastructure – like ensuring local authorities are staffed with the requisite range of planners and other expertise? The only reference to local authority resources is the introduction of new on-line planning services, again in the name of efficiency.

It is perhaps the greatest indictment of the impotence of the state that, in a Circular Letter issued by Coveney subsequent to the publication of the strategy, the so called ‘active land management’ measures involve politely asking developers to sell their lands to housing providers and, if not, local authorities should identify alternative lands elsewhere. Absent is the one measure, as recommended by pretty much everyone, that could actually release hoarded zoned and serviced land into productive use, re-invigorate under-utilised town centre properties and simultaneously contribute to the finances of broke local authorities – a site value tax. Instead, the state has once again capitulated to the development lobby and opted to subsidise developers through a new infrastructure fund, abolition of windfall taxes on sale of zoned lands, reduced development contribution levies, much weakened Part V social housing requirements and lowered apartment standards.

Gavin Daly

Housing LandOne of the great innovations of the past few years has been the increasing availability of spatial data. User-friendly and freely accessible online interactive tools such as Myplan and AIRO provide easy access to a wide-range of mapped datasets and other resources to help inform policymaking, research and those commenting on matters of public interest. However, despite this, the problem of what Carol Weiss refers to as the ‘problem of little effect’ remains i.e. that a great deal of this evidence tends to sit on the shelf (or on the web) completely unnoticed and has, in fact, very limited impact on policy debates.

This is certainly true of Colm McCarthy’s most recent commentary on housing supply in Dublin. McCarthy’s long-standing thesis has been that the planning system (zoning) caused an artificial scarcity in the supply of development land for housing in and around Dublin throughout the Celtic Tiger, inflating a massive property bubble and simultaneously scattering new residential development to the four winds and far-flung corners of the Midlands and beyond. He further maintains that it is these same restrictive practices, with local authority planners and politicians unwilling to confront vested interests and local communities to zone more land, which is the root cause of the current lack of housing supply in Dublin. Instead, McCarthy argues, that the power to zone underutilised land should be removed from local authorities and centralised. (On this last point, he overlooks that zoning powers were de facto centralised with the introduction of the 2010 Planning Act.)

While this simple supply/demand thesis may, at first glance, appear convincing, it is undermined by one basic flaw. Throughout the Celtic Tiger period there was in fact an enormous surfeit of zoned residential land within Dublin and its environs. An audit carried out by the DoECLG in 2010 found that a total of 3,302 hectares of undeveloped residential zoned land existed within the four Dublin local authorities. Even with conservative residential densities of 35 units per hectare, this was sufficient for at least 115,000 new homes. Within the adjoining Greater Dublin Area (GDA) counties of Kildare, Meath and Wicklow there was a further 4,120 hectares. Most, if not all, of this land was initially zoned in the late 1990s and early 2000s and remained undeveloped throughout the Celtic Tiger period. For example, the 220 hectare Adamstown site in South Dublin was originally zoned in 2001 and was intended to provide 9,950 homes via a ‘fast-track’ planning scheme approved in 2003. Similarly, large greenfield tracts of land at Carrickmines, Clongriffin, Pelletstown, Phoenix Park Racecourse and Hansfield were all zoned well over a decade ago and remain undeveloped or only partially complete. The figures above are exclusive of the abundant supply of brownfield development land, infill sites and mixed-use zonings readily available throughout Dublin and which could potentially have provided for tens of thousands of additional new homes.

It is evident, therefore, that a deficiency in the availability of zoned land was not the cause of the extreme property price inflation in Dublin throughout the Celtic Tiger. Nor is it the cause of new housing undersupply today. The most recent 2014 residential land availability survey by the DoECLG shows that there are currently 2,654 hectares of ‘Stage 2’ zoned land available in Dublin i.e. lands which have been prioritised as potentially available for immediate development, much of it already benefiting from significant public investment in capital infrastructure and services. This is reported to be sufficient to provide approximately 117,000 new dwellings at modest densities i.e. an increase in the total number of dwellings in Dublin by one-quarter. In addition to being zoned and serviced, many of these sites currently also have extant planning permissions. In the remainder of the GDA there is enough land zoned for a further 95,000 dwellings, while zoned residential land nationally could currently accommodate approximately 415,000 units (The DoECLG have even gone to the trouble of mapping the precise location of each of these zoned land parcels). Despite the vast array of evidence to the contrary, it is therefore remarkable how the notion persists, particularly amongst leading economists, that an obstructive planning system is hindering the operation of the housing market and was, and remains, a chief cause of the undersupply of new dwellings to meet demand. For example, earlier this week in his evidence to the Banking Inquiry the former chief economist of the Central Bank, Tom O’Connell, submitted that: “the demand mania for property took off against the background of restrictive zoning which limited the supply of housing, the inevitable result was huge property price inflation”.

Zoned Land

The extent of zoned land currently available in the Dublin metropolitan area for new housing

What this analysis also plainly overlooks is that the simple act of zoning land (colouring in a map) does not ipso facto result in an increased housing supply. Urban development is a complex and heavily capital intensive enterprise on both the supply-side (buildings, roads, sewers, schools etc) and on the demand-side (mortgages) and requires a functioning credit system, state intervention through public planning and a means to bring zoned land into production (i.e. to prevent speculative hoarding). While it may seem counter-intuitive to economists , it was in fact a massive oversupply of zoned land (Ireland had c.44,000 hectares of undeveloped zoned residential land at the end of the Celtic Tiger) that caused the rapid price inflation and poor spatial outcomes of the property bubble. Within Dublin, planning typically operated with a certain modicum of probity (albeit not without serious deficiencies), requiring that development on zoned land took place somewhat in tandem with physical and social infrastructure delivery. Outside Dublin local authorities generally had no such compunction, zoning land and permitting massive developments willy-nilly, including regularly on land with no zoning whatsoever. Facilitated by the shiny new radial motorway network and cheap credit, developers simply leapfrogged the suburbs and extensive hinterlands were turned into fields of gold leaving a disastrous economic, social, environmental and spatial legacy. Amongst the Dublin developer cartel, there were few complaints at the slow pace of real development as paper asset prices continued to soar. Ironically, had restrictive zoning measures actually been put in place and enforced in accordance with the National Spatial Strategy, it would have precipitated the early confrontation of the supply/demand/location problem – and history would have perhaps taken a different trajectory. Such problems  were of course foreseen by the Kenny Report as far back as 1974.

Rail Focussed

Strategic rail focussed housing land-banks available in Dublin  

The solutions to today’s housing supply issues are not to be found in simplistic calls for more zoning.  One of the curious outcomes of the relatively slower pace of development in Dublin during the Celtic Tiger is that we now have more than sufficient suitably zoned and serviced land available to meet current demand. The National Transport Authority, for example, has identified strategic locations where thousands of new homes could be sustainably delivered focussed along rail and light-rail corridors. In a number of cases rail stations have already been constructed in anticipation of future development. What is needed is a means of prioritisation and to bring this land into production. Earlier this year, the Department of Finance launched a public consultation on precisely this question. The current Housing and Urban Regeneration Bill 2015 proposes the introduction of a vacant site levy to disincentivise the underutilisation of brownfield land. What is now also urgently required is the introduction of a similar Site Value Tax (SVT) as a recurring annual charge on all undeveloped zoned land as recommended by the Commission of Taxation in 2009 and by the ‘Thornhill Report’ in 2012. The numerous compelling arguments commending the merits of a progressive SVT have been well rehearsed elsewhere and McCarthy, of-course, will be well familiar with same, having previously written the preface for a notable book on the subject. We need smart future-orientated solutions to make best-use of available resources to solve Dublin’s housing supply issues and not a return to failed past thinking and the exclusively supply-side logic of the Celtic Tiger.

Gavin Daly

It is always useful to get a response to ideas and theories, and Prionnsias Breathnach’s reponse to our recent publications on rural Ireland will assist in furthering the debate on Ireland’s replacement spatial strategy.

Our fundamental point is that any Irish Planning Region without a city is going to struggle, as exemplified with the two-tier performance of the recent severe economic downturn, 2008-to-date. With the State’s fragile spatial mass and absence of significant population centres, a future strategy for balance must recognise the need for ‘lumpiness’: not to control or stultify the GDA but in having the imperative and urgent need to grow the provincial cities to a size that substantially reduces the 2011 71% deficiency in its Zipf Rank Order Gini-coefficient deficit, wherein if Dublin = 100, Cork = just 17.5, Limerick’s 8, etc. As I have shown, this aggregate city population-shortfall is over one million.

Successful implementation of EU Balanced Regional Development (BRD) is based on the underlying, necessary, assumption that there already exists a second tier of cities. Unfortunately, in Ireland’s (Republic) case and using George Zipf’s Rank Size Order Rule as the test, there is a conspicuous absence – a set of missing teeth – in not having in 2015, a range of 200,000 to 600,000 populated cities. Had Buchanan been implemented in 1969, by now both Cork and Limerick would have achieved these parameters.

Bluntly, the absence of intermediate-sized cities makes the task of implementing BRD outside of the GDA as being unattainable; at least until such time as this pre-requisite exists.

Accordingly, Lorcan Sirr and I are advocating that there is a pressing need for the replacement (new) spatial strategy to focus on developing at least one city or large urban centre in every Planning Region, which is capable of urban agglomerating. Alonso’s paper of 1970, (vide Balchin, 1995: 49) at Fig. 2.12, suggested an X-axis minimum city size of 100,000, with subsequent growth to its inflection points ‘C’, ‘D’ and with in-migration, to ‘E’. How much more so does the minimum threshold population of a modern Irish city need to be in this post-industrial ‘knowledge’ era, so as to reach a size, where it can capture the benefits of urban agglomeration growth, with its attendant clustering effects? It is encouraging to see the benefits of perhaps three specific ‘types’ of clustering in Galway City but this is altogether too few – Dublin has twenty-five or so types. Hence, Galway’s population can still be comfortably accommodated in the 82,500 capacity of Croke Park!

As a country with limited capital resources, there is little prospect of Ireland attaining such results unless our spatial and economic strategies are to be aligned and focused towards that end. In practice, this means a severe spatial planning implementation approach to:

  • controlling one-off housing,
  • reversing the proliferation trend of over 200 hundreds new villages and small towns since 1996,
  • providing affordable housing in our cities in locations close to employment,
  • reducing the traffic congestion of long-distant commuting resulting from enforced population deflection,
  • the re-use of hundreds of hectares of languishing brown-field sites and thereby utilising existing infrastructure and schools, of improved urban design with double-duplex family housing units which have ground-level and roof-level gardens, and
  • anticipating in advance the emergence and recognition of new cities…e.g. the emergence of a sixth city with the impending agglomeration of Drogheda and Laytown-Bettystown-Mornington with a current, closing, gap of just 800 metres (Colp West to Donacarney): not 59 km, the distance between Athlone and Mullingar, a la the NSS ‘linkage’.

The extended economic downturn for nearly the last decade has shown rural Ireland’s severe unemployment and enforced emigration vulnerability and the resultant two-speed economic penalty for regions without cities. Unfortunately, this is likely to be repeated during future cyclical downturns. Thus an all-island approach is needed to ‘lever’ the north-west to the City of Derry, to maximising the potential of the Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor; to focusing growth on proven centres such as Portlaoise, where the land-use/ transportation interface is evident. Its 2006-2011, its population growth was equivalent to the aggregate of the NSS Midland Gateway of Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar. Why select Monaghan, Tuam, Mallow, etc. ahead of Portlaoise?

The ‘test’ for city-size thresholds would include locations that would be deemed suitable for ‘institutional-grade’ property investment locations acceptable to financial instruments such as Pension Funds, REITS, etc. Cities are a pre-requisite to economic ‘spillovers’.

Recent Regional Studies literature has focused on the prospects for New Economic Geography and New Urban Economic research combining to provide urban modelling. Our wish is for their scientific advancement, to include evidence-based empirical modelling. With empirical tools which could incorporate demographics, thereby advancing the earlier ’industrial era’ approach to city threshold size. Such modelling would be of particular value to smaller countries including Ireland – states that exhibit strong major city ‘primacy’.

One would wish for the new spatial and economic plan which is free of the harmful political ‘paw marks’ that bedevilled the 2002-2020 NSS, having perhaps fifteen or so nominated growth centres, limited to centres of 20,000 or more, with strong Daytime Working Population counts. Attempts to ‘twin’ or ‘treble’ linkages should be limited to locations that are already demonstrating urban agglomeration.

The World Bank (2008) correctly advocated ‘lumpiness’ and centripetal agglomeration as the way forward, for developing countries, to build their cities, nurture the nature and change of ‘work’ and thereby benefit from the ‘knowledge’ economy world that now is. Spatial planning-wise, Ireland is a ‘developing, country, so get cracking!

Dr Brian Hughes, urban and regional economist

Dr Lorcan Sirr, lecturer in DIT and visiting professor or housing at the Universitat Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona, Spain

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


After four years of little tangible progress in respect of planning policy agendas, the government recently published a new Planning Policy Statement (PPS) to reaffirm its strong belief in the value of a forward-looking, visionary and dynamic planning process” together with the heads of two new planning bills. The first introduces a new vacant site levy and revised provisions in relation to social and affordable housing. The second presents proposals for the long-awaited planning regulator, following the recommendations of the Mahon Tribunal. It also sets out the legislative context for the successor to the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) – the National Planning Framework (NPF).

Both bills have also not been without their criticisms from, for example, the Irish Planning Institute and An Taisce. The proposed vacant sites levy mechanism appears so cumbersome so as to be unworkable in practice and exposes the strategic error in opting for a property tax over a more progressive Site Value Tax. I have previously blogged on the criticisms surrounding the independence of the planning regulator. Regulating planning is not like regulating the taxi industry. Planning is spatial politics – making choices on the use of land which are irreversible and will have profound intergenerational impacts. While I acknowledge that the track record of most former ministers inspires little confidence, the idea of handing such power over to a technocratic regulator outside of democratic oversight would be fraught with danger. It cannot be simply assumed that the regulator would be a benign or progressive force.

The high-level political commitment in the PPS is, of course, welcome – basic ‘Planning 101’ type stuff. The new mantra for the planning system is to ensure that “the right development takes place in the right locations and at the right time”. However, what is actually happening in the micro-politics of everyday practice, and which will no doubt continue, is more like ‘any development, in any location and at any time’. For example, in the majority of local authorities, ad hoc ‘one-off’ housing currently accounts for well over 70% of all new residential units granted planning permission and in many cases it is over 90% i.e. diametrically contrary to the lofty principles of the PPS.

The broader point here, and relevant to the preparation of the new NPF, is Niklas Luhmann’s famous assertion that planning is possible if people are used to being planned. Irish people clearly are not. The political class is equally apathetic, even ideologically hostile, to long-term policy planning. The reason the NSS failed was due to thousands of individual acts of resistance – death by a thousand cuts – which cumulatively undermined the whole foundations of the strategy. This was aided and abetted by the vague nature of NSS policies and objectives which simultaneously offered something to everyone and nobody at the same time. Text could always be pulled out of the NSS to justify almost any manner of development proposal regardless of location, the upshot being a complete loss of steering capacity.

While there will always be broad acceptance of notional long-term planning strategies and feel-good intentions as advocated by the PPS, short-term considerations will always win out in concrete practice. Such outcomes are often tied to emotional pleadings around children of landowners and the promise of local jobs which are impossible to resist. We are already seeing a return of the ‘development-at-all-costs’ culture which gripped the Celtic Tiger, where those questioning development proposals on the grounds of national policy are being pilloried by national and local politicians. Surely, it must be a concern that in almost 50% of planning cases where a decision of a planning authority is sent for an independent review to An Bord Pleanála, that decision is reversed?

In short, we must be realistic about the prospects for the NPF. There is growing academic evidence of the widening gap between the theory and practice of spatial planning, and Ireland is obviously a clear case in point. In fact, it is difficult to point to any instances where national spatial planning has actually worked. Simply, persisting with all of the borrowed buzzwords of the late 1990s (e.g. balanced development, gateways, hubs, networks etc) for continuity’s sake would be foolish in the extreme. So would be to try to ignore the contentious spatial politics at national level by shirking responsibility to the new ‘super regions’.

The fact of the matter is that Ireland is not a blank page onto which we can sketch abstract spatial policies. This has been amplified by the legacy of the Celtic Tiger which has accreted a complex economic, social and political geography which creates manifold path dependencies which cannot now be unpicked. These geographies are adversarial to national planning and present as countervailing headwinds to any strategy aimed at focusing development and infrastructure into a limited number of growth centres. Our widely dispersed settlement patterns make both the politics and technicalities of such explicit choices impossible. In fact, it is hard to conceive of a more unfavourable environment for conducting national spatial planning. Concentrating resources in one location inevitably means withdrawing them from others. Spreading them too thinly automatically undermines a strategy aimed at spatial concentration. The recent HIQA report on the under-performance of regional ambulance services, and the subsequent political outcry, is instructive here.

So in the end the NPF, like its predecessor, will fudge it. Within the fog, all development regardless of location will be justifiable. This depoliticised consensus will of-course suit the wider elite political project of maintaining the primacy of Dublin and Ireland’s competitiveness at the global scale. The NPF and the illusion of balanced development implies a form of spatial Keynesianism whereby resources are redistributed territorially. However, imposing artificial constraints on the growth of Dublin will inevitably be presented as counter-productive. FDI will simply not move to peripheral regions, but overseas. Figures released by the DJEI show that almost half of all FDI jobs created in 2013 were in Dublin with Cork, Galway and Limerick accounting for the majority of the balance. Demographic analysis by the Western Development Commission also shows that population is projected to become more regionally concentrated, particularly in Dublin and the Mid-East regions.

We have previously marshaled great effort and expense to produce a NSS which ultimately proved pointless. Before we embark on another fool’s errand we should first be asking ourselves the simple question – unless we are willing to confront the spatial politics that such a strategy implies, is there any point? Our experience  is clearly that a spatial strategy based on a bland depoliticised consensus is equal to no strategy at all.

Gavin Daly