Regional Planning

Make no little plans, once wrote American modernist architect and planner Daniel Burnham, as “they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Twas ever thus. National planning has always been the political terrain of narrating a grand hegemonic fantasy of an ideology that is never clearly expressed. With the publication of ‘Project Ireland 2040’, jointly comprising the National Planning Framework (NPF) and the National Development Plan (NDP), Ireland’s recrudescence as a neoliberal vassal state is reaching towards its apotheosis. No longer a ‘society’, we are now a ‘project’ and there is no doubt as to what the project is about – growth! In fact, a stupendous 1.1 million additional people, 660,000 new jobs and 500,000 additional homes in the next twenty-two years.

It is perhaps testament to how normalised growthism has become in colonising the national consciousness that these quixotic projections were near-universally greeted as a deterministic fait accompli. Their provenance, or desirability, has caused not even a ripple of debate or discussion amongst the national commenteriat, planners or academics. On the contrary, with remarkable consensus they have been largely hubristically hailed as a self-congratulatory and entirely logical consequence of Ireland’s post-recession economic renaissance and prospects, and even, by business lobby groups, as far too conservative.

It is true, of course, that, if the past was a reliable guide to future events, demographic change actually exceeded the growth scenario selected in the NPF’s predecessor, the National Spatial Strategy, rising by 844,662 between 2002 and 2016. This primarily occurred during the rapid pell-mell expansion of the Celtic Tiger era and driven chiefly by natural increase.  This time, according to the ESRI population and economic projections which underpin the NPF, population growth will be principally propelled by sustained in-migration as a consequence of “a relatively benign scenario which would see Irish GDP grow by 3 per cent or more each year until 2040.” (p.5). In other words, the NPF projections are fundamentally tied to the immigration patterns that would arise from this very optimistic economic trajectory, which, it is accepted, exceeds that anticipated for most international economies.

This magical growth rate of 3 per cent has become something of a fetishised article of faith amongst economists in recent years and fits with the conventional wisdom that it is the minimum acceptable level for ‘sustainable’ economic growth. In fact, the current mid-range ESRI econometric model runs only to 2030, so the last ten years in the projection horizon were simply linearly extrapolated forward to 2040. It is worth mentioning that a compound growth rate of 3 per cent per annum to 2040 would see an approximate cumulative doubling of total Irish GDP over this period.

Despite repeated caveats in the ESRI report which heavily emphasises that “the projections should not be taken as a forecast, but as a scenario that might arise given a set of assumptions and unchanged modelling parameters” and “subject to significant uncertainties” (p.15), these population ‘projections’ have now been unproblematically transcribed into ‘targets’ for an additional 1.1 million people (25% greater that the ESRI baseline) which the NPF, at a minimum, shall aim to achieve. A number of alternative sub-national ‘macro-spatial’ options were evaluated in order to allocate the regional distribution of this growth, albeit the headline national population target was considered a non-negotiable point of departure i.e. consideration of alternatives was permissible so long as they remained fully circumscribed within the clearly defined parameters of what was open for discussion. Notably, in a separate study, quoted extensively in the analysis underpinning the NPF, three hypothetical population scenarios were examined, whereby the difference between the ‘Low’ and ‘High’ scenario was over 800,000 by 2030. Regardless, and without much justification, the NPF discounted such options and selected a high growth scenario, apparently on account of [t]he lack of fully worked alternative scenarios at the national level that might encompass higher and lower growth than the baseline” (p.4).

Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 12.23.04Alternative Population Projections in Wren et al. (2017)

The inadmissibility of genuine alternatives and the pensée unique of a ‘growth first’ approach to spatial development has, of course, long been recognised as a core feature of planning. In this view, ‘Project Ireland 2040’ is simply the latest attempt of an unquenchable political desire to capture and reorientate planning, and its associated geoinstitutional architecture, to provide for a new ‘spatial fix’ of collective consumption and to re-establish the self-fulfilling conditions for sustained capital accumulation. In order to displace political tensions, the resurgence of the inveterate growth agenda has now being wrapped in the soothing banner of a renewed national imaginary of harmonious balanced growth and parity, despite the sustained evidence (even, most recently, from the World Bank) that acute socio-spatial disparities are increasing globally, and will continue to increase, despite all territorial policies to the contrary.

The inherent contradiction of this ideological commitment is laid bare in the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Statement accompanying the NPF, belatedly published over a month after its launch. Climate Change is touted as one of the central pillars of ‘Project Ireland 2040’ with an aggregate reduction in emissions of at least 80% targeted by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels) in line with binding international obligations. Due to its exalted status, agriculture has been effectively exempted, with all the burden of reduction efforts now to come from the electricity generation, built environment and transport (the so called ‘EGBET’ sectors). Greenhouse gas emissions in these sectors is currently running at 31.8 Mt CO2eq (c. 6.6 t CO2eq per capita) and, if population targets were to be achieved, by 2040 emissions would need to decrease to 11.8 Mt CO2eq i.e. a wholly implausible 2 t CO2eq per capita. By 2050, per capita emissions in the EGBET sectors would need to be further reduced to less than 1 t CO2eq per capita, assuming there is no further population growth targeted beyond 2040 (For reference, this is the approximate emissions per capita of most ‘developing’ countries e.g. Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola etc). To date only economic recession and mass emigration (c.2008 – 2013) have been proven to be effective in achieving the scale of emissions reductions required to meet our 2050 trajectory.

This abstraction from reality is further underscored by the very latest EPA projections, published last week, which show that, following a brief downward interregnum during the recession, Ireland’s emissions have rebounded lockstep with the economic growth and, at best, an abject 1% reduction of emissions will be achieved by 2020 compared to a target of 20%. As it turns out, economic growth and emissions reductions are, as long predicted, inimical goals and, despite the mantra of ecological modernisation and ‘sustainable growth’, economic growth does not result in absolute higher returns to resource efficiency (See Jackson (2009) for a useful exposition on this). The EPA also projects that emissions will continue to grow in tandem with a growing economy and, with all existing and currently planned measures, a further meagre decrease of emissions of 1% is projected by 2030 compared to a target of 30%.

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 21.35.15

Latest EPA Projections for the EGBET Sectors (2018)

It should be noted that the current EPA projections are based on a future population in 2035 of 5.2 million, 650,000 less than the NPF 2040 targets, and do not take into account any of the policy measures included in ‘Project Ireland 2040’. However, for Ireland to achieve its 2050 emissions reduction target alongside 2040 growth targets, only the mobilisation of revolutionary policies and investment measures together with a massive technological shift on an historically unprecedented scale and scope would suffice, so as to deliver a decoupling of carbon intensity to outrun scale. Notwithstanding its superficial commitment to progressive climate measures, ‘Project Ireland 2040’ is certainly not that, and with its duplicitous promise of new business-as-usual fossil fuel dependent motorways, airport expansion, agricultural productivism and exponential economic and population growth, does not provide us, in any way, a pathway out of this dilemma.

It is often said that what is ecologically necessary is not politically feasible, which raises the spectre that our (un)sustainability conundrum is one of those problems that is simply not solvable. The subterfuge of power, politics and economism generally trump evidence-based analysis and long-term collective interest, resulting in cognitive lock-in and an aggressive shutdown of alternative perspectives. If we are to have any possibility of meeting the biophysical realities of the 21st Century planetary climate crisis, what is desperately needed is a new planning pedagogy and practice that decolonises the future, repoliticies the realm of possibilities and negates the governing fundaments of growth-orientated planning. Of-course, I realise this call to arms is haplessly naïve against the backdrop of planning profession and society that angelizes the imperative of growth as an inviolable normative goal – but from conformity to complicity is but a short step.

Gavin Daly


Proinnsias Breathnach


The Irish government is currently preparing a National Planning Framework (NPF), which is to replace the National Spatial Strategy (NSS), originally launched in 2002 and officially abandoned as a failure by then Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan in 2013.  The preparation of the new plan was originally announced in July of that year, but significant progress only became apparent this year culminating in the publication, in September, of a 151-page draft of the proposed NPF which is due to be finalised at year-end following a phase of public consultation.

This paper will initially provide a brief review of the NSS and why it failed.  It will then outline the main features of the draft NPF which, in essence, are quite similar to the NSS.  The paper will then focus on governance issues which contributed substantially to the failure of the NSS and which remain largely unaddressed in the draft NPF.  The failure to address these governance issues will, it is argued, inevitably lead to the NPF going the same way as the NSS.


The NSS was an ambitious strategy which sought to address two major, and related, issues which had come to the fore at the turn of the present century.  The first of these was the need for a new planning framework to manage the very rapid changes occurring in the Irish economy and Irish society as a result of the very rapid growth associated with the Celtic Tiger phenomenon which had emerged in the early 1990s.  The second issue was the fact that the economic and population growth associated with the Celtic Tiger was disproportionately concentrated in the Greater Dublin region.

The basic aim of the NSS, therefore, was to put in place a planning system which would slow down this concentration process by directing a larger share of development to other parts of the country.  The essential strategy was derived from the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP), a well-thought-out approach to promoting balanced regional development (a concept which has been widely misinterpeted in public discourse on regional planning in Ireland) adopted by the EU member states in 1999 (Committee on Spatial Development, 1999).

The main thrust of the ESDP was to facilitate the capacity of the EU’s regional cities, working in conjunction with their surrounding hinterlands, to compete independently in international markets, thereby achieving more balanced – and sustainable – spatial development across the EU.  This approach, it was envisaged, would counter the established tendency for national economies across to EU to be increasingly dominated by their respective metropolitan regions.

The NSS, therefore, sought to create specialised export bases in the regions outside Dublin focused on the main regional cities which, following the ESDP terminology, were called “gateway” cities.  This was designed to reflect the idea that these cities would act as the centres through which each region’s links with the outside world would be channelled.  It was not envisaged that these cities would monopolise investment and growth within their regions, but that they would act as drivers of growth throughout their respective regions.  This was an aspect of the NSS which was never properly articulated to the public at large, and to politicians in particular.

Why the NSS failed

Given that the NPF is presented as a replacement for the NSS, and that the basic approach of the NPF draft strategy is similar to that of the NSS in its emphasis on the regional cities as the drivers of growth and development within their respective regions, one would expect that the process of preparing the NPF would have included a detailed examination of the NSS experience designed to identify the range of factors which contributed to its failure and appropriate measures to ensure that these factors would not have a similar impact on the NPF.

The government did, in fact, appoint an Expert Group to review the NSS and make recommendations designed to produce a more effective successor.  The report of this Expert Group was submitted to the government in January 2014 but was not published until over two years later (Review of the National Spatial Strategy, 2014).  This report amounts to just nine pages of printed text, only two of which are devoted explicitly to a critique of the NSS.  The report does identify, in very broad outline, some of the problems which beset the NSS, but fails to touch on many other seriously problematical issues which are likely to recur with the NPF (Breathnach, 2014).  Three of these are highlighted here as being of particular importance.

The first of these is that the NSS devoted not just insufficient attention, but hardly any attention at all, to the processes and mechanisms required to create the specialised regional industrial structures which were to underpin the strategy.  Instead, it focused on the physical planning needs associated with growth in the regions relating to such issues as housing, transport, other forms of infrastructure and the provision of social services such as hospitals and educational facilities.  This preoccupation with physical planning issues is repeated in the Export Group’s report, reflecting the Group’s composition.

The NSS basically saw industrial development as a matter to be left to the enterprise promotion agencies, especially the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, and proposed no structures for mobilising these agencies in support of the NSS objectives.  This, no doubt, reflects the fact that preparation of the NSS was allocated to the Department of Environment and Local Government, whose primary concern in the planning sphere lies with physical rather than economic planning.  This problem has been reproduced in the preparation of the NPF.

The other two main factors contributing to the failure of the NSS can both be considered to be factors relating to governance.  The first of these refers to the lack of buy-in to the NSS on the part of the state apparatus and the second refers to the failure to put in place the kind of subnational administrative structures which successful implementation of the NSS required.  As the indications are that these governance issues will be equally problematical for the NPF, they are addressed in some detail in the next four sections.

Absence of state apparatus buy-in

The NSS was treated with, at best, indifference and, at worst, outright hostility by the Irish state apparatus, including both the elected representatives in the Oireachtas and the state bureaucracy, the latter including both the central civil service and key state agencies.  In his introductory message in the NSS document, the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern gave a commitment that the Government would ensure that its policies would be implemented in a manner that was consistent with the NSS.  In fact, the opposite happened.  Instead, several major government initiatives launched after 2002 basically ignored the NSS.

The most notorious instance of this was the programme for relocation of government offices launched by then Finance Minister Charlie McCreevey in 2004, which was almost entirely at odds with the aspirations of the NSS.  This programme planned to relocate 11,000 civil service jobs to 59 different locations scattered around the country; only 14% of the jobs were allocated to gateway centres.  Of nine departmental headquarters to be relocated, only one was earmarked for location in a gateway centre.  This despite an express commitment in the NSS that “The Government will take full account of the NSS in moving forward the progressive decentralisation of Government offices and agencies” (NSS, p.120).

In relation to capital investment, the NSS stated:

“Implementation of the NSS will be an important factor in the prioritisation by Government of capital investment, and in allocations by Ministers of the sectoral levels of investment decided on by the Government” (p.124).

At the time the NSS was launched, the main medium for channelling funding for capital investment was the National Development Plan 2000-2006.  While this was well under way when the NSS was launched in 2002, it did contain a strong commitment to promoting balanced regional development which was identified as one of the four main objectives of the plan: “…from the outset of the NDP, investment within and between the Regions will take full account of regional development policy” (NDP, p.46).  This was also anticipated in the NSS which stated that  “Implementation of the current National Development Plan will be a key step towards balanced regional development” (p.123).

However, the mid-term review of the NDP, conducted by the ESRI, found that “Regional development was not a criterion in the allocation of funding for projects under the plan” (Fitzgerald et al., 2003, p. 210).  While the mid-term review stressed that “all aspects of the NDP must adhere to the strategy set out in the NSS” (p. 210) and that it was necessary for the NDP to prioritise investments in accordance with the Regional Planning Guidelines then being prepared by the Regional Authorities, it is an indication of the Government’s continued disregard for the NSS that the final review of the NDP, produced by Department of Finance, did not address the issue of regional development at all.

Further examples of how the NSS was disregarded by the state bureaucracy include a major government-commissioned report on Ireland’s enterprise strategy published in 2004 (Enterprise Strategy Group, 2004), which devoted a single, token, paragraph to the NSS; the launch, in November 2005, of a government programme to invest €34.4bn in developing Ireland’s transport infrastructure which made no reference to the NSS; and Enterprise Ireland’s strategy document for 2008-2010 which also made no reference to the NSS.

Explaining hostility/indifference to the NSS

It is easy enough to identify why the political establishment would have been hostile to the objectives of the NSS.  The populism, localism and short-termism which characterise Ireland’s political system are inherently inimical to a strategy such as the NSS which was long-term in orientation and, more importantly, advocated a spatially selective approach to state investment which favoured some locations over others.

Explaining the lack of cooperation of the state bureaucracy with the NSS is a somewhat more complex matter.  One key problem in this respect is the culture of non-cooperation between government departments which prevails in Ireland’s central civil service.  A review of the Irish public service published by the OECD in 2008 identified this as the single greatest problem constraining the service’s performance (OECD, 2008).   Irish government departments are infused with an inward-looking “silo mentality” whereby each department jealously defends its functional autonomy vis-à-vis other departments.  This had clear and negative connotations for a programme such as the NSS which required interdepartmental cooperation and coordination for successful delivery.

The NSS identified three particular measures which were intended to ensure that the policies and programmes of individual government departments and agencies would be consistent with the objectives of the NSS.  Firstly, the Department of the Environment and Local Government was to establish a committee representing all relevant departments to support implementation of the NSS.  Secondly, the same department was to establish a Monitoring Committee representative of government departments and state agencies, the social partners, the private sector, and regional and local authorities to oversee implementation of the NSS.  Thirdly, the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Housing, Infrastructure and Public/Private Partnerships was to take on the task of monitoring implementation of the NSS.  It is clear that none of these mechanisms, if they ever functioned at all, did not do so to any effect.  Thus, the “Comprehensive public [agency] support” which the ESDP regarded as “a necessary prerequisite for the effective application of the spatial development policy” which it advocated was not forthcoming in the case of the NSS (ESDP, 1999, 37).

Sub-national governance issues

In Ireland, because of the extremely high level of centralisation of public service functions and powers compared with other EU countries, the lack of support from central government departments was fatal to the NSS.  While the NSS expected Ireland’s subnational governance structures to carry much of the load for implementing the strategy, the fact is that these structures were simply too feeble to carry the strategy forward without this support.

Unlike other European countries, Ireland has no meaningful regional level of subnational government.  A set of entities known as Regional Authorities was in place when the NSS was launched, and these were envisaged by the NSS as having a key role to play in its implementation.  However, perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the so-called Regional Authorities was their lack of authority of any kind.  They were therefore not in a position to perform the coordination and mobilisation roles which they were expected to carry out by the NSS.

Meanwhile, at local level the county councils have very few functions and little influence over the activities of central government departments and agencies within their territories (OECD, 2008).  This lack of functional capacity also greatly constrained their ability to mobilise private and third-sector actors within their territories.  Thus, while in most regions county and city councils did manage to come together to create collaborative gateway implementation groups, their ability to act effectively was severely constrained by their inability to leverage action at local level.

These governance issues were identified as early as 2006 in a report on implementation of the NSS commissioned by Forfás (the now-defunct government advisory board for enterprise, trade, science, technology and innovation policy), which had become concerned by the NSS’s slow pace of progress (Forfás, 2006). Among the issues in question were problems of inter-county co-operation and of co-operation between councils and government departments and agencies; centralisation and compartmentalisation of government; and lack of leadership at the regional level.

These concerns were echoed in an assessment of the NSS in a 2008 report by the National Econonic and Social Council (which advises the Irish government on strategic economic development issues):

“The development of governance frameworks that will allow key actors in the gateways to take co-ordinated and effective action together is, probably, the greatest and most urgent challenge facing the implementation of the NSS” (NESC, 2008, xix).

In order to achieve this, the NESC pointed to the need for better collaboration between local authorities, and between local/regional authorities and central government departments and agencies; the need to recast regional structures; and the need for more effective vision/leadership at local and regional levels

The following year, in a report on the role of cities in national competitiveness, the National Competitiveness Council identified governance as ‘‘the key issue for managing urban growth and implementing policy actions to achieve competitiveness objectives’’ (NCC, 2009, 35) and highlighted the importance of a co-ordinated approach to tackling issues at the level of the city-region.

Forfás returned to the issue of governance structures in a 2010 report on regional competitiveness (Forfás, 2010), arguing that resources, energy and commitment could be more effectively harnessed at a regional level, that existing structures did not facilitate a strategic and coherent approach to the development of the regions, and that there was a need for governance and leadership structures at the regional level that are efficient, flexible and open to cross-regional collaboration.

New regionalism

These issues are widely recognised in the international literature on regional development.  Over the last 20 years a major body of literature has emerged around the concept of a “new regionalism” referring, in broad outline, to a widespread movement towards the acquisition by subnational regions of greater responsibility for their own affairs (Keating, 1998).  There are many dimensions to this phenomenon, but one which is of particular relevance in relation the topic of this paper is a general acceptance that traditional, top-down, regional development policies have been largely unsustainable and ineffective.

Accordingly, there has been a shift in thinking towards cultivating more locally-based, bottom-up, endogenous approaches to promoting economic development.  These are seen as being preferable for a number of reasons, including their capacity for putting in place more co-ordinated and comprehensive development programmes tailored to local needs and resources, for developing local linkages with suppliers and service providers, and for facilitating innovation via local information sharing (Pike et al., 2006).

In the “new regionalism” model, local and regional tiers of government are envisaged as playing a major role in fostering endogenous economic development at the regional level.  A 2010 OECD report identified three main roles which local government can play in promoting locally-based development (Clark et al., 2010):

  • Provision of leadership in building development coalitions and collaborative networks;
  • Coordination of support for the development effort on the part of all public sector agencies; and
  • Provision of high-quality services and infrastructure.

However, in order to perform this role, local and regional tiers of government must have effective control of public services delivered within their territories and must possess sufficient publicly-perceived status to allow them to perform the leadership and regulatory roles envisaged by the OECD.  This, in turn, requires the devolution to the regional and local levels of an appropriate range of functions and powers, where such devolution has not already occurred (see, for example, Cooke and Morgan, 1998; Danson et al., 1997; Martin and Minns, 1995).  In the case of Italy, for example, Governa and Salone (2005) have noted how the transfer of powers to regional government has contributed to the increased efficiency of regional and local government and improved urban/regional competitiveness, especially through the promotion of new forms of regional partnership between private and public sector actors.

A major sub-theme of the “new regionalism” literature refers to the territorial organisation of economic development at the regional level.  The key concept here is the “city-region”, comprising a focal regional city and its adjacent functional hinterland.  City-regions comprise territories in which multiple (and frequently interlinked) spatial systems are simultaneously articulated, embracing such activities as commuting, supply of consumer and public services, transport, communication, contact networks and production chain linkages.

City-regions therefore, it is argued, constitute the most appropriate spatial units for integrated socioeconomic and environmental planning.  This is a view very strongly advanced by the ESDP, which devotes considerable attention to the simultaneous and integrated development of regional cities and their hinterlands as complementary units.

The NPF Draft Strategy

This, then, brings us to the recently-published NPF draft strategy (Ireland 2040 Our Plan, 2017).  The main broad objective of the NPF is that total population and employment growth in the North & West and South Regional Assembly areas combined will be equal to that in the East & Midland Regional Assembly area in the period up to 2040.  The main vehicle for achieving this is concentrated development of the four main regional cities, whose combined growth would match that of the Dublin region over the period.  This would mean that these cities would have to grow at twice the rate actually achieved in the 25-year period up to 2016, while Dublin’s share of national population growth, at 25%, would be considerably less than its existing share of the national population (c40%).  Overall, some 50% of total population and employment growth would occur in Dublin and the four main regional cities. These targets, it should be noted, are aspirational – no specific mechanisms are set out in the draft strategy for achieving these targets.

The NPF is similar in approach to the NSS in its focus on focusing development in the main urban centres.  Indeed, in confining its focus to the four main regional centres it is more concentrated than the NSS which provided for seven gateway centres outside Dublin.

The NPF strategy identifies four particular measures which are designed to make it more effective than the NSS.

  1. The NPF will be given a statutory legislative basis which the NSS lacked.
  2. An Office of the National Planning Regulator will be established, one of whose functions will be to oversee implementation of the strategy.
  3. Each of the three Regional Assembly areas will produce and implement a Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy (RSES) which will also be aligned to the objectives of the NPF.
  4. A National Investment Strategy will run in parallel with the NPF and will be aligned to the objectives of the NPF.

The first three of these can be considered governance issues, and are considered in the section to follow.  As regards the fourth, it will be remembered that the objectives of the National Development Plan 2000-2006 (which was, in effect, of a national investment strategy and which ran in parallel with the NSS) were similarly supposed to be aligned to the NSS, with strong statements in both the NDP and the NSS to this effect.  Nonetheless, the NDP essentially ignored the NSS, so one can have little confidence in similar pledges of alignment between the proposed National Investment Strategy and the NPF.

Governance Issues

In its chapter on implementation, the NPF draft strategy has a separate section entitled Governance, which displays some awareness of the governance problems that beset the NSS.  The three governance measures identified in the previous section – putting the NPF on a statutory basis, the creation of the Office of National Planning Regulator and the production of regional strategies by the Regional Assemblies – are presented in the draft strategy as responses to these problems.

However, these measures go nowhere near addressing the governance issues which undermined the NSS.  Putting the NPF on a statutory basis in itself achieves nothing.  Ireland has a long history of passing legislation which subsequently remained poorly implemented.

The impetus for setting up the Office of the National Planning Regulator came from the Mahon Tribunal and is primarily designed to combat corruption in the planning process.  The Regulator’s main concern therefore will be to ensure that rules are adhered to.  Adding on the function of monitoring overall performance of the NPF, therefore, means diluting a function which should be central to effective NPF implementation.  Furthermore, there is no mention in the draft strategy of how the Planning Regulator will be able to act to ensure compliance with the NPF.

What the NSS lacked, and the NPF will also lack, is a powerful national office capable of knocking heads together in the central civil service to ensure coordinated support of the NPF, capable of forcing recalcitrant ministers to act in accordance with the NPF, and capable of resisting the political interference which will inevitably impact on the NPF implementation process.  It is impossible, given Ireland’s politico-institutional configuration, to envisage such an office ever being established, never mind acting effectively.

At the subnational level, the NPF attaches major importance to the role of the Regional Assemblies in drawing up and implementing regional strategies.  However, the Regional Assemblies have no powers to enforce compliance with these strategies on the part of actors within their territories, nor are any such powers proposed in the NPF draft strategy.  This is similar to the situation with the NSS where the old Regional Authorities drew up Regional Planning Guidelines in compliance with the NSS but where there were no mechanisms for enforcing these Guidelines, a weakness which was identified by Forfás in its 2010 report on regional competitiveness (Forfás, 2010).

On top of that, the Regional Assemblies comprise very unwieldy territories which bear no relationship to the spatial structure of the economy, which is mainly organised in the form of regional fields or hinterlands around the main regional centres.  The Regional Assemblies were created by cobbling together the earlier Regional Authorities, with their boundaries largely determined by the need to provide a degree of continuity with the existing arrangements for monitoring EU structural funding which today is of, at best, only marginal relevance to regional planning in Ireland and is not mentioned at all in the NPF strategy document.  The Regional Assemblies therefore represent governance units with few functions, no powers, and little relevance to the city-focused planning which is the main component of the NPF.

The draft strategy does recognise this problem and proposes the preparation, for each of the four regional cities, of Metropolitan Area Strategic Plans (MASPs), designed to address the problem of the regional cities being spread over multiple local authority territories.  However, there is no information on what governance structures will oversee these strategic plans and what powers, if any, they will have to secure active cooperation from relevant central government departments and organisations and participation of local authorities and private sector actors.

It would obviously make a lot more sense to create regional structures which align with the hinterlands of the main cities.  However, the NPF draft strategy accepts the clearly dysfunctional Regional Assemblies without question.  It borders on the absurd to base a regional strategy on such clearly inappropriate regional entities.

As noted above, research and experience elsewhere has shown that, ultimately, effective regional and local development requires devolution to the regional and local levels of the wide range of powers and functions involved in the development process.  Despite the fact that the first chapter of the Action Programme for Effective Local Government published by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (2012) presented a strong case for such devolution, this possibility has not even been hinted at in the NPF strategy document.

The NSS was fatally hobbled by the lack of support from central government departments and state agencies, and there are already signs of a similar fate being in store for the NPF.  According to the Local Government Reform Act 2014:

“Each public body shall consult with the regional assemblies, as appropriate, when preparing its own strategies, plans and programmes so as to ensure that they are consistent, as far as practicable, with national and regional objectives set out in the National Spatial Strategy and regional spatial and economic strategies.”

Yet, when the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (DJEI) launched its Framework for the Development of Regional Enterprise Strategies in February 2015, it made no reference at all to the Regional Assemblies which came into existence the previous month.  Furthermore, the DJEI proceeded the following year to prepare Regional Action Plans for eight regions (equivalent to the old Regional Authorites), whose boundaries do not coincide with those of the Regional Assemblies.


The NPF draft strategy comprises an outline strategy which identifies broad objectives and measures for achieving these objectives.  It may be that, at the implementation stage, more detailed sets of objectives and action mechanisms will be forthcoming, although no procedures along these lines are identified in the strategy.

Nevertheless, even at the broad level, there is no appreciation in the draft strategy of the nature of the governance challenges which will face the NPF.  Accordingly, there is very unlikely to be any movement in the foreseeable future towards devolving significant functions or powers to the subnational level or towards recasting the territorial structure of local government in Ireland – measures deemed crucial elsewhere to the achievement of balanced regional development.  Meanwhile, the NPF draft strategy clearly has no grasp of the powerful opposition the NSS met from the central organs of the state, and there is no reason to expect that the NPF will not meet a similar fate. In the absence of profound reform in these areas, it is difficult to see any prospect of the NPF being implemented successfully.


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Governa, F. and Salone, C. (2005) Italy and European spatial policies: Polycentrism, urban networks and local innovation practices. European Planning Studies 13.2, 265-283.

Ireland 2040 Our Plan: Draft National Planning Framework.  Dublin: Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.

Keating, M. (1998) The New Regionalism in Western Europe. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Martin, R. and Minns, R. (1995) Undermining the financial basis of regions: the spatial structure and implications of the UK pension fund system. Regional Studies, 29.2, 125-144.

NCC (National Competitiveness Council) (2009) Our cities: drivers of national competitiveness. Dublin: Forfás.

NDP (National Development Plan) (1999) Ireland: National Development Plan 2000–2006.  Dublin: The Stationery Office.

NESC (National Economic & Social Council) (2008) The Irish economy in the early 21st century. Dublin: NESC.

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

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) (2008) Ireland: Towards an integrated public service. Paris: OECD.

Pike, A., Rodríguez-Pose, A. and Tomaney, J. (2006) Local and regional development.  Abingdon: Routledge.

Review of the National Spatial Strategy: Views of Expert Group (2014).  No publication details included in document.


Proinnsias Breathnach, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

This paper was originally presented at the Political Studies Association of Ireland Annual Conference, Dublin City University All Hallows Campus, October 15, 2017

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

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 IrelandCatchment

             The ‘Real’ Urban Ireland 2011 & 2016 (Source CSO 2012, Pg. 25 & CSO, 2017)

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

Updated 27 December 2017

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

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