Regional 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


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

Proinnsias Breathnach, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

The term “Balanced Regional Development” has come under attack in a recent post on this forum (“Recent Demographic Growth in Ireland: Implications for future Spatial Planning and Housing Provision” by Brian Hughes, March 10) and in an opinion piece by Brian Hughes and Lorcan Sirr in The Irish Examiner (“Rural Ireland not served well by unfounded claims on ‘balanced regional development’”, March 18). While I am agreement with the general thrust of the argument advanced in these pieces, I take issue with what I believe is the erroneous interpretation of the term “balanced regional development” (BRD) presented therein.

Hughes and Sirr equate BRD with the highly-dispersed pattern of investment and job creation pursued by successive Irish governments going back to the late 1950s, when the policy of attracting inward investment was first introduced. This reached its zenith with the Regional Industrial Plans of the 1970s which sought to locate foreign branch plants in every town of any significant size in the country, mainly through a massive programme of advance factory construction throughout the country. This policy was unsustainable, and very few of the mainly low-skill assembly and packaging plants, with minimal local linkages, which it generated are still in operation today. However, the policy did meet with a high level of initial success, and the subsequent perception that the government and/or the IDA were capable of parachuting factories into selected communities almost at will was to create future hostages to fortune for subsequent governments.

The much higher quality of jobs – frequently in large projects, and increasingly in export services – which became a feature of the surge of inward investment associated with the Celtic Tiger largely ruled out smaller centres as locational options for such investment. Nevertheless, the dispersalist ambitions of politicians, with their short-term and highly-localised focus, retained their hold and were given one more flourish in the form of the absurd and opportunistic programme, launched by then Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy, for relocating 11,000 civil service jobs to 59 different locations spread over all 25 non-Dublin counties.

It is unfortunate that Hughes and Sirr have used the term “balanced regional development” to describe this policy approach, as the same term underpins the approach to spatial development currently being pursued by the European Union (EU) – an approach which differs quite profoundly from that decried (quite properly, in my view) by Hughes and Sirr. I am referring to the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP), adopted by all EU member states in 1999 as their agreed framework for approaching regional development within the Community.
The basic aim of the ESDP document (Committee on Spatial Development, 1999) is encapsulated in the document’s subtitle (“Towards balanced and sustainable development of the territory of the European Union”) and is set out as follows:

““It is therefore important gradually to aim at a spatial balance designed to provide a more even geographical distribution of growth across the territory of the EU” (p.7).

The objective of balanced regional/spatial development in the ESDP is to counter the prevailing tendency for development to become increasingly concentrated in the EU’s main metropolitan regions. It aims to do this by replacing the typically subordinate position of non-central regions vis-à-vis the dominant regions with an alternative stand-alone capacity whereby peripheral (i.e. non-metropolitan) regions are capable of competing effectively in EU and global markets on their own merits. To achieve this, these regions are to be encouraged to build their own distinctive and specialised export bases, to replace the failed policies of an earlier era focused on branch-plant industrialisation where there was intense (and ultimately wasteful) competition to attract much the same type of firms and industrial structures to the regions concerned.

The key mechanism for achieving balanced regional development proposed in the ESDP is to use the main urban centres in the target regions as the linchpins around which coherent regional export bases can be built. However, it is an important concern of the ESDP that development would not be concentrated in these regional centres; rather, they should serve as drivers of development throughout their respective regions. In particular, the ESDP envisages the development of new forms of symbiotic urban/rural interaction which would replace traditional perspectives which regard urban and rural as separate, and sometimes mutually-hostile, entities.  Under the ESDP, therefore, peripheral regions would take the form of internally-coherent city regions focused on the main regional centres which would act as “gateways” (another frequently misunderstood term) facilitating interaction (e.g. exports & imports, communication flows) between their respective regions and the outside world.

The ultimate effect of this policy, then, is to replace a monocentric national space economy, dominated by a single metropolitan region (as in Ireland, Britain, France, Denmark) with a “polycentric” (yet another widely misinterpreted term) system of substantially self-reliant city-regions:

“The concept of polycentric development has to be pursued, to ensure regionally balanced development… Pursuit of this concept will help to avoid further excessive economic and demographic concentration in the core area of the EU. The economic potential of all regions of the EU can only be utilised through the further development of a more polycentric European settlement structure” (p.20).

While the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) is a dog’s dinner of a document, poorly structured, deficient in many respects and very obviously adulterated by short-term political considerations, its essential approach to spatial development is clearly derived from the ESDP, published three years before the NSS’s own publication in 2002 (National Spatial Strategy for Ireland, 2002). This is evident from the following passages from the document:

“To achieve balanced regional development…requires the targeted assembly at strategic locations, at the required scale, of the factors critical for success” (p.19).

“Balanced regional development also…depends on building up a strong urban structure” (p.26).

“Achieving competitiveness at national, regional and local levels…is central to balanced regional development…The availability of a critical mass of labour and skills, underpinned by high quality business infrastructure is central to achieving competitiveness…attempts to create the requisite competitiveness on a widely dispersed basis would undermine Ireland’s capacity to exploit the potential of centres where critical mass exists or can be promoted. Without having this at the heart of the NSS balanced regional development will not succeed” (pp.34-5).

“…the NSS emphasises the importance of capitalising upon the strengths of and investment in Ireland’s existing major urban areas” (p.36).

“Strengthening the critical mass of the existing gateways of Cork, Limerick/Shannon, Galway and Waterford…offers the most immediate prospects of establishing more balanced patterns of development over the next few years” (p.38).

“..strategically placed, national scale urban areas, acting as gateways…will be key elements for delivering a more spatially balanced Ireland and driving development in their own region” (p.39).

“Balanced national growth and development are secured with the support of a small number of nationally significant centres, whose location and scale support the achievement of the type of critical mass necessary to sustain strong levels of job growth in the regions” (p.39).

My essential argument, therefore, is that balanced regional development does not mean the kind of scattergun approach to the dispersal of investment pursued by Irish governments in the past, but the kind of polycentric city-region development favoured by both the ESDP and, I think, Brian Hughes and Lorcan Sirr themselves. Further, the latter approach was also the basic approach proposed by the NSS, despite the overlay of politically-motived “something-for-everyone-in-the-audience” nonsense with which the final NSS document was saddled.

The problem with the NSS is not that it failed, but that it was never implemented. The government has said that it is preparing a new spatial strategy, but we are unlikely to see it before the next election. Even then, it is virtually certain that a strategy in line with the ESDP will never materialise here, given the existing degree of governance centralisation, and the short-termism, localism and lack of intellectual calibre among politicians. The functionally meaningless regional assemblies created by the 2014 Local Government Act and the complete failure of that Act to deliver any kind of functional devolution (despite what was promised by the governing parties before and after the last general election, and despite the powerful arguments for devolution presented in the discussion paper Putting People First which preceded the Act) reflect the poverty of thinking and incapacity for effective action relating to regional development which envelops Ireland’s state apparatus (bureaucracy and legislature).

Committee on Spatial Development (1999) European Spatial Development Perspective: Towards Balanced and Sustainable Development of the Territory of the European Union. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

National Spatial Strategy for Ireland 2002-2020: People, Places and Potential (2002) Dublin: The Stationery Office.

The problematic of rural Ireland and the rapidly emergent conditions of an increasingly urban-focused economic recovery has recently hit the headlines and moved front-and-centre in the concerns of both the media and government. RTE aired the “The Battle for Rural Ireland” documentary featuring the forlorn parents of emigrants and boarded up rural towns followed by the all too familiar, and equally depressing, ‘debate’ on Claire Byrne Live. The column inches of newspapers have similarly carried numerous commentaries on the flatlining rural economy and rural depopulation with the chair of the government’s CEDRA commission, established to champion rural development, decrying the painfully slow progress in implementing its rural job creation strategy.  Dr. Brian Hughes on this blog and in the national media has been to the fore in arguing that the notion of balanced regional development is a fallacy and that “the future is urban” – something which the political class is loath to accept. Meanwhile, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has declared 2015 “the year of rural recovery” where the fruits of economic growth will be spread equally across the land. Minister Simon Coveney was also on message pointing to the resurgence in agriculture and that reports of the demise of rural Ireland had been greatly exaggerated. The IDA has even been mandated to develop new strategies to convince multinationals to invest outside of major cities while the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation proposes to publish new Regional Enterprise Strategies. Ireland’s uneven economic geography – temporarily masked by the property bubble – has re-emerged as a major political battleground for the upcoming general election and the trite urban versus rural ‘Punch ‘n’ Judy’ show, which has disastrously hampered the national territorial planning agenda for decades, appears set to continue in perpetuity. Such is the political uneasiness that, just like in 2002 when the publication of the NSS was delayed by a general election, it is unlikely that the proposed new National Planning Framework (NPF) will be seen any time before 2017. Plus ça change.

It is of course an inescapable reality that for a country where the entire economic foundation is built upon attracting mobile international capital in high-value knowledge economy and export-orientated sectors, such as ICT and financial services, that Ireland’s future is urban. The international experience and literature on why this is so is voluminous, requiring little explanation here. Worldwide, urbanisation is progressing at an unprecedented pace. Unless there is a major shift in national economic philosophy or global conditions, no amount of strategising or rural broadband schemes will permit Ireland to buck that trend. Simply put, capital will locate where it is most profitable and that invariably means in cities. However, rather than continuing to flog the dead horse of a specious urban/rural dichotomy it would be perhaps more productive in the context of developing the new NPF to instead conceive of a new understanding of what urbanisation means in 21st Century Ireland.  We continually persist with outdated notions that ‘up in Dublin’ is some spatially discreet, densely agglomerated and bounded entity roughly delineated by the M50 motorway. Equally, we tend to mawkishly cling to 19th century romantic notions of rural Ireland as sparsely populated verdant and pastoral countryside ‘bright and cosy with homesteads’. Neither exists, and these crude morphological or population-centric typologies are extremely misleading lenses into the recent dynamics of Irish urbanisation. Instead, it would be more instructive to reconceptualise urbanisation as a dynamically evolving process which is taking place at wider spatial scales with ever-increasing reach and extending outwards into broader operational landscapes, including new forms of land-use intensification, counter-urbanisation, logistical chains, commuter hinterlands, core-periphery polarisation and uneven development. Both rural and urban are increasingly interwoven, shapeless, formless making it difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. Distinctions that made sense in the past have become entirely moot.*

The 'Real' Urban Ireland

The Real Urban Ireland (Source CSO 2012, Pg. 25)

Maintaining the contested urban/rural political soapbox serves only as a comfortable façade for a body politic to beat their chests and engage in a disingenuous performance of seriousness towards the welfare of ‘Rural Ireland’ while the inevitable reality unfolds around them. As a consequence, in a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem, we have unwittingly managed to produce the worst of both worlds – places that are neither city nor countryside – and much of the unplanned spatial chaos we have inherited today. Somehow, along the way Irish policymakers seem to have conflated economic spill-overs with sprawling ex-urban zones of high accessibility as a prescription for halting rural depopulation (what Fianna Fáil’s Eamon O’Cuiv approvingly terms the ‘melting ice-cream effect’). Therefore, perhaps the biggest mistake the new NPF could make is to continue with this hackneyed straitjacket of the urban/rural binarism and the notion that Ireland can be analytically carved up into two distinct spatial categories for intervention. The ignored challenge facing ‘Rural Ireland’ is, in fact, that it is in variously advanced stages of becoming urbanised. If we continue to relegate ‘Rural Ireland’ as being outside the urban condition then we will forever misdiagnose the problem. As a result, we will persistently fail to frame the appropriate policy responses to address the implications of these ongoing processes for the future forms and pathways of urbanisation and, more generally, for the organisation of the built environment. Perhaps it’s time to confront an uncomfortable premise – ‘Rural Ireland’ no longer exists.

Gavin Daly

* Neil Brenner, ‘Implosions/Explosions: Towards a study of planetary urbanization (2014)

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


In late January, the Irish Times reported that the Fine Gael Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe was pressing ahead with the privatisation of a number of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann routes. This is a proposal that has been doing the rounds for years. It has been part of at least three government programmes since 2007. Having failed to convince the drivers’ unions of his plan, Donohoe is now putting 23 Dublin Bus routes and 5 Bus Éireann routes out to private tender. From a geographic perspective, this plan is of interest because part of the proposal is that no privatised route will “terminate in the city centre and are primarily orbital routes, or services carrying commuters from rail stations or large shopping centres to suburbs”. Why is this? What is the rationale for doing it this way? It will not take long but this is part of a plan for wholesale privatisation, working inwards from the city’s periphery to the centre.

In this post, we want to briefly examine the geography of the Dublin Bus routes considered for privatisation. We examine the demographics of these ‘orbital’ areas. It is an attempt to understand the politics of this transport policy and to see if there is a relationship between these routes and specific socio-demographic indictors. We use CSO/AIRO maps at small area and electoral division levels to examine what public is served by public transport. These districts are generalised census units which aggregate a large amount of information in a single measure. All of the routes proposed for private tender serve suburban locations, albeit very densely populated ones. In the absence of route-specific passenger load data (a vital part of commoditisation), it can be argued that some of the routes proposed for privatisation have been in decline since the early part of this decade. For example, routes 63 and 75 serve many of south Dublin’s affluent areas where travel by private car is more usual. The map below shows a part of Dublin’s suburbs alongside the percentages of Professional Workers in each area.

map 1The map shows how the routes proposed for private tender travel through areas of relative affluence in terms of social class. A map for private car ownership (a basic proxy for affluence) yields broadly similar results. Routes 63 and 75 travel through this affluent and car dependent part of south Dublin.

Map 2How will private tenders operate in areas of higher car dependency and among those in higher social class groups? If the imperative is to profit and not service, what attracts a private operator to these routes? Looking at Blanchardstown, a western suburb, a number of routes are proposed for privatisation. The map below shows the percentage of an area’s population in the skilled manual social class. Areas that are soon to have privatised bus services have up to 20% of their population in this class, arguably those most in need of mass transport.

Map 3Finally, and in the same area, the areas with many households with access to two cars is relatively higher in the south when compared to the area north of the main road (indicated by routes of the 270 and 17A). Using the All Island Deprivation Index data for the north city area, we can see that the 17A and 220 routes serve areas of high disadvantage but that these are served by other bus routes. In Blanchardstown, the 236 and 200 routes proposed for privatisation serve areas of relatively high disadvantage.

Map 4While the routes proposed are said to be ‘orbital’ they serve tens of thousands of people travelling to and from work, retail and education every day. To whom they are orbital is only a consideration to a network and its planners that makes the city centre the terminus for most routes.

What is being achieved by the proposal of these routes to be sent for private tender? At an initial glance, it seems that there will be differential effects across the city. In the southern suburbs, where two car ownership is higher than other parts of the city, a less frequent privatised bus service will matter relatively little. In areas where the bus is the only form of frequent transport, operating routes on the basis of something other than profit is a social good. It forms part of a social wage. Along with the recent contraction of schedules and the number of vehicles, certain areas of Dublin are now more dependent on this service when compared with others.

A privatised route will have to generate income and to do so can only increase fares and / or lower wages. We have seen this for refuse collection since 2001. Taking the city as a whole, the private tendering of these ‘orbital’ routes is a testing ground for more extensive privatisation on other, more lucrative, routes in the years to come.  A private operator is not going to want to compete on one route but on many across the entire network. If a route is operated by a profit-driven company, the license to service the route will need to stipulate the regularity of the service. A route that runs at peak times only and does not operate outside of this peak defies categorisation as a social good. Ours fears for privatisation is that there will be a focus on running a bus only on that exact slot in the schedule that will be busy. There is little assessment of the route within the system as a whole. Having operated a route for perhaps two years, private operators will be back at the minister’s office door arguing for access to these more lucrative routes.

Eoin O’Mahony, Assistant Lecturer SPD/DCU & Omar Sarhan, GIS and data enthusiast

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

Next Page »