Yesterday, Minister Jan O’Sullivan appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht to outline her Department’s proposals to legislate for the introduction of a Planning Regulator in 2013. The introduction of an Independent Planning Regulator was a key recommendation of the Mahon Tribunal Report published last year. The Tribunal recommended that the Minister for the Environment’s planning policy enforcement powers be transferred to an Independent Planning Regulator who should also be charged with carrying out investigations into systemic problems in the planning system as well as educational and research functions.

The introduction of an independent Planning Regulator, which the Minister has publicly committed to, does not entail a simple ‘bolt-on’ addition to the planning system. It will profoundly alter and transform the entire way in which planning policy has to-date been implemented in Ireland. It is clear from the text of the Minister’s speech that in framing their policy proposals for the forthcoming legislation, the Department is grappling with the many complexities and difficulties at the heart of the problem – that is, that planning is fundamentally a political activity which does not lend itself neatly to simple bureaucratic regulation. In guiding the discussion at the JOC, the Minister posed a series of questions as follows:

  • Should the Minister’s powers be fully transferred to an independent regulator or should the final forward planning decisions remain political in nature (i.e. to be taken by the Minister / Government / Oireachtas) with a regulator providing an independent advisory / supervisory role?
  • If power is to be fully transferred, how can we ensure accountability by an independent regulator?
  • What would be the limits of the regulator’s powers vis-à-vis the planning process and elected members? Is the regulator’s decision final?
  • Should the role of a regulator be confined only to situations where a dispute arises over a plan?
  • What is the most suitable institutional arrangement for delivery on the recommendation (e.g. new authority or some type of recast of existing framework)?
  • If a new authority is to be established how would it interface with the existing institutional framework (planning authorities, regional authorities, An Bord Pleanála)?
  • If existing structures are to be used, what entity could take on the function and how can the new function be taken on without eroding capacity to discharge existing roles or without being detrimental or damaging to well established and publicly accepted independent role’? For example, if the plan-making regulatory function is to reside in an existing body such as An Bord Pleanála, might that affect the other functions of the board creating an inherent tension between making the Board making decisions on forward planning, development plans and local area plans as well as individual planning cases?
  • Is there not a case for the Regulator to be the person who conducts the fundamental assessment of the performance of the planning system, including an assessment of the effectiveness of the Minister, local authorities and so on rather than becoming a super-non accountable national planning body?

Firstly, it is worth commenting on what the Minister did not say in her speech to the JOC, but which is absolutely critical in framing this debate. It is essential that, as also recommended in the Mahon Tribunal Report, both the National Spatial Strategy and National Development Plan be placed on an explicit statutory footing (as is the case in Scotland, for example). The forthcoming legislation should specify that both the NSS and NDP be reviewed in parallel and be subject to Oireachtas approval. The legislation should place a mandatory obligation on government to jointly review both the NSS and NDP at a minimum each and every eight years; outline precisely what is required to be included in both plans (including delivery and implementation); the procedure by which they are to jointly be reviewed; and provide for transparent public involvement in the process i.e. a staged process similar to that required of local authorities in adopting development plans. The placing of the NSS/NDP on a statutory footing will require both plans to be subject to Strategic Environmental Assessment and Habitats Directive Assessment, – including an analysis of alternative future scenarios – and allow for a public and political debate which is desperately needed.

The placing of the NSS/NDP on a statutory footing will ensure that that national planning policy remains a political activity. However, the regulation and oversight of the system should be independent. There has been considerable reform and improvement of the planning system in recent years with the introduction of multi-level and multi-agency oversight. As a result, the scope for local authorities and/or regional planning authorities to deviate from national policy has been considerably reduced. However, the current system whereby the Department reviews, comments and potentially ‘calls – in’ local authority development plans through Section 31 of the Act needs to be replaced with a system of independent oversight. Planning in Ireland is mired in a public perception of corruption, cronyism and political interference and only an independent regulatory authority will suffice in undoing this perception. In doing this, the Department can get on with the important business of plan-making.

Accountability can be ensured by designing the system so as to be fully transparent through, for example, the full application of the Access to Information on the Environment Directive, requirement for the Planning Regulator to attend at Joint Oireachtas Committees as necessary, an open and transparent appointment process for a fixed term, full publication of all reports within mandatory time limits, and strong legal deterrents against lobbying, etc. The decision of the Planning Regulator should be final. This does not imply that the role of the Planning Regulator is designed so as to be inflexible. As is currently the case between, for example, the Department, the National Transport Authority, the Regional Planning Authorities and local authorities, the regulatory system can be designed so as to allow formal interaction with the Planning Regulator to reach consensual solutions where possible. It is accepted that there could be rare occasions whereby the Planning Regulator fails to act or acts inappropriately and a fail-safe mechanism is required. In such situations the Minister must remain ultimately accountable and the power should rest with the Minister to override the decision of the Regulator. Again, the legislation could be crafted such that, in such rare circumstances, a draft order be required to be laid out before each house of the Oireachtas and could only be proceeded with following a resolution approving of the draft has been passed by each house.

It is not appropriate that the proposed Planning Regulator be merged with An Bord Pleanála. In the same way as the Minister is precluded from commenting on any specific planning application and An Bord Pleanála has no role in the forward planning system, there should be a strict separation of powers. The role of the Planning Regulator should be confined to ensuring that national planning policy is correctly implemented and overseeing complaints against planning authorities. This should include complaints on allegations of corruption, improper procedures or systemic problems and undertaking periodic audits of the planning functions of local authorities – but not extending to a role in reviewing a decision on any specific planning application. For example, the Local Government Ombudsman currently has the powers to examine complaints about how local authority staff carry out their everyday executive and administrative activities in relation to the planning system. These include complaints about delays or failing to take action in relation to, for example, planning enforcement matters. These oversight powers should be transferred to the Planning Regulator.

The introduction of the Planning Regulator does not necessitate the creation of another expensive QUANGO. Throughout the ‘Celtic tiger’ period local authorities employed significant numbers of planners and other professionals to deal with the huge volume of planning applications. With the dramatic fall-off in new development proposals and the proposed reforms of local and regional governance structures, there is considerable scope for suitable professional staff to be seconded from elsewhere in the public service. There is also a plethora of agencies with some responsibilities in oversight, such as the Regional Planning Authorities, the National Transport Authority, the Local Government Ombudsman and the Office of Environmental Enforcement. An innovative and rationalised approach to oversight could yield significant savings and the establishment of a more coherent system. For example, the Planning Regulator could be housed as a sub-unit of the Local Government Ombudsman to ensure administrative synergies are maximised.

Finally, a further important recommendation of the Mahon Tribunal Report, also not referred to in the Minister’s speech, was that the Planning Regulator should be mandated to undertake educational and research functions. There is no doubt that heretofore planning education and public/political awareness of the important role of land-use planning in society has been abjectly lacking in Ireland. The abolition of An Foras Forbartha (similar to the Design Council in the UK) in 1988, the abolition of local rates and political cronyism and ineptitude all contributed to this end. The evidence-base for planning has improved dramatically with the development of tools such as MyPlan and AIRO. However, I am not convinced that a regulatory authority is best positioned to undertake planning education and research. It should be the role of the Department, unburdened by oversight responsibilities and with a new and focused national planning mandate, to lead in this important task drawing on the existing capacities within universities and other private and public bodies. For example, could the Housing Agency be reformulated as the ‘Housing & Planning Agency’ to provide a 21st Century An Foras Forbartha?

2013 has the potential to be a landmark year. In the aftermath of the economic collapse, exactly fifty years after the introduction of the first planning acts in 1963, twenty-five years after the short-sighted abolition of An Foras Forbarhta and ten-years after the publication of the NSS, we have a once in a generation opportunity to reform the planning system, rethink the role of national planning for our long-term prosperity and to foster a new consensus in the public and political consciousness as to the value of planning in building a nation for the common good. We shouldn’t waste it.

Gavin Daly

Minister for Housing and Planning, Jan O’Sullivan, yesterday published the findings and recommendations of the internal review into allegations of serial malpractice by seven local authorities in administering the planning system. The report comes a full two years after an independent review was first announced by former Minister John Gormley.

The Department’s analysis found that the allegations did not amount to systemic corruption in the planning system.  Contrast this to the findings of the independent Mahon Tribunal earlier this year, which found that the Irish planning system was systematically corrupt reaching the highest level of Government, and the complete lack of value of carrying out an internal review becomes blindingly clear. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is the line ministry with responsibility for local authorities in Ireland and it is inconceivable that a review by the Department would make serious findings against their colleagues in local authorities.

The review finds that there was “no basis in the claims against named planning authority personnel, given that such claims were not backed up by the evidence cited” and that there were “concerns regarding the quality, completeness and objectivity of the evidence provided”. While it is apparent that the Department met with senior local authority personnel to discuss each of the complaints made, it is also apparent from the report that the Department did not meet with each of the complainants. As a result, the review cannot be considered impartial. In fact, the choice of language used in the dismissal of some of the complaints borders on the derisory. It is also unclear as to why the report recommends the appointment of independent expert to review the recommendations in the report when clearly this is the remit of the Department.

The fact is that there is really nothing new in this review. According to Minister Gormley, this report was largely complete as far back as November 2009 and informed his decision to proceed with an independent review. While the current government has steadfastly insisted that the review was not shelved or downgraded upon their coming in to office, it is much more likely that the Government was jolted from passivity into action as a result of the furore that followed the publication of the Mahon Tribunal Report. This raises some serious questions as to the political priority attached to planning reform by the current Government.

In defence of the Department the review was never intended as a ‘witch-hunt’ but an evaluation of processes and procedures. It is also unclear as to the actual value of independent reviews given the experience of the Nyberg, Regling & Watson and Honohan reports on financial governance. These reports created considerable media interest, but little tangible action. However, the only independent planning review of a local authority to date, the Quinlivan Report in County Carlow, revealed some very serious instances of malpractice and cronyism and this is very unlikely to be unique to Carlow.

The Department places much greater emphasis on working within the existing structures to prompt incremental reform and, to be fair, major reforms of the planning system have been implemented in the past few years and significant unseen work is on-going. While each of the complaints are roundly rejected, the report concludes that they do they raise serious matters ranging from maladministration to inconsistency in application of planning policy or non-adherence to forward plans such as development plans. It is clear that there is, at the very least, a significant element of truth in each of the complaints as the report sets out twelve actions that are intended to address current deficiencies in the planning system including some important administrative and legislative reforms. Chief amongst these proposed reforms is the banning of the practice of local area plans being prepared by developers and the recommendation that all material contraventions of development plans by local authorities be vetted by An Bord Pleanála, further indicating a significant lack of trust in the decision making powers of local authority members. The report also recommends new procedures for achieving greater consistency between the decisions of local authorities and the independent An Bord Pleanála which, in many high profile cases, have been at considerable odds.

There can be no doubt that the dysfunctional nature of the Irish planning system over the past decade contributed enormously to the current fiscal, social and environmental problems of the State. The true value of this report may be simply to further strengthen in the consciousness of the public and policy makers of the need to maintain momentum for deepened planning reform. However, the key litmus test of the commitment of this Government will be the forthcoming White Paper on Local Government reform, property taxation and their response to the recommendations of the Mahon Tribunal, particularly the establishment of an independent planning regulator.

Gavin Daly

An Bord Pleanala released their decision on the proposed Children’s Hospital on the Mater site this morning.  It refused the planning permission on the grounds that development was out of scale with the site, did not comply with Dublin City Development Plan, and would be contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.  Here’s the full verdict:

The proposed Children’s Hospital of Ireland, by its nature, requires a substantial floor area, in excess of 100,000 square metres, to accommodate the operational needs of the hospital. However, the footprint afforded to the proposed development on the Mater Campus, (circa 2 hectares), has resulted in a proposal for a very significant building in terms of bulk and height, including a 164 metre long ward block, rising to 74 metres above ground. Notwithstanding the general acceptability of the proposal in terms of medical co-location on this inner city hospital site, it is considered that the proposed development, by reason of its height, scale, form and mass, located on this elevated site, would result in a dominant, visually incongruous structure and would have a profound negative impact on the appearance and visual amenity of the city skyline. The proposed development would contravene policy SC18 of the Dublin City Development Plan, 2011-2017, which seeks to protect and enhance the skyline of the inner city and to ensure that all proposals for mid-rise and taller buildings make a positive contribution to the urban character of the city.

Furthermore, the development as proposed, notwithstanding the quality of the design, would be inconsistent with, and adversely affect, the existing scale and character of the historic city and the established character of the local area and would seriously detract from the setting and character of protected structures, streetscapes and areas of conservation value and, in particular, the vistas of O’Connell Street and North Great George’s Street.

Having regard to the site masterplan for the Mater Campus submitted with this application, it is also considered that the proposed development, as configured, would constitute overdevelopment of the site.

The proposed development would, therefore, be contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.

The fair amount of the reaction to a planning decision on twitter and the news media seems to be one of bemusement, horror and disgust.  ‘Banana-Pleanala’ was one statement I’ve read so far.  I imagine there will be all kinds of outcry in the media throughout the day and massive political pressure will be bought to bare on An Bord Pleanala and the planning system for trying to enforce planning policy and law.

One of the primary reasons that the country is in the mess it is in is because the planning system was not allowed to do its job properly.  It seems to me that planners are damned if they do, and damed if they don’t.  If they enforce the regulations they are roundly criticised, and when they don’t enforce them and some disaster of a place is built they are damned for not stopping it.

Before all the critics wade in and roundly criticise the agency for doing its job, perhaps they could reflect on the fact that it is in fact doing the job it has been appointed to do by the state, and maybe the problem lies with the original decision about where to locate the hospital in the first place rather than the planning system.  Moreover, ABP has not said there shouldn’t be a children’s hospital in Dublin, but that if it should proceed on the proposed site and cannot retain its present proposed scale of development.

Ultimately, the bottom line in this decision is that 100,000 square meters of hospital development was going to be put on a two hectare site.  That’s the equivalent of 30 Liberty Halls on a the size of two football pitches.  In a dense urban area that already has traffic and parking issues.  If you think that is an acceptable scale of development, constitutes good planning, would be good for the citizens of Ireland, and want the planning decision overturned, then you’ll get the planning system and hospital service you desire.  Personally, I think we deserve better.

Rob Kitchin

Last Friday, John O’Connor, the Chairperson of An Bord Pleanala,  gave the closing address at the Irish Planning Institute’s conference in Galway.  The speech received some coverage in the Irish media over the weekend (see Irish Times, RTE), although it was trumped by Morgan Kelly’s latest proclamation setting out why Ireland is heading for further woes.

The full speech is available on the An Bord Pleanala’s website, along with the powerpoint slides.  As noted in the media reports, the speech was a frank assessment of the work of An Bord Pleanala and the planning system during his tenure.  Here are some highlights.

Laissez-faire approach to planning

There is a theory that there is an element of chaos in the Irish character that makes us sceptical of regulation or planning.  “Rules are there to be broken if you can get away with it”.  This may account for some of our very serious failings over the past decade.  It may also explain why the Irish body politic has been reluctant to embrace fully real spatial or land-use planning.  This would mean drawing up and agreeing visions for physical development at the national, regional and local levels, involving difficult choices based on objective criteria for the public good and then insisting on adherence to these plans.  Unlike other countries, even when statutory planning documents are adopted a laisser-faire approach often prevails and many vested interests – landowners and developers – see plans as something that can be got round or changed.

On local authority decision making

For the future, it would greatly increase the public credibility of the planning system if local authorities were seen to vindicate their own development plans in their decisions on planning applications.  Far too often, the Board find itself refusing permission for developments permitted locally on grounds of contravention of the development plan.  In some cases, one can see the pressure being brought on local decision makers to grant permission even if it conflicts with the development plan.  But these decisions breed scepticism and frustration on the part of the general public.  After all, the courts have pronounced the development plan to be a contract with the community and the local authority itself – not An Bord Pleanála – should be seen as its strongest defender.

On one-off housing

“Over the years, the issue of rural housing has always figured prominently in my discourses with successive Oireachtas Committees on the Environment.  While only a small proportion of one-off housing applications come before the Board on appeal, it became clear to me, early on, that there was a need for national planning guidance because of the widely varying and often internally inconsistent, not to say lax, approaches being taken by county councils around the country.  I publicly called for National Guidelines and these were introduced in draft form in 2004.  While the Guidelines have brought more consistency and objectivity to the issue, the proportion of local authority decisions reversed by the Board on rural house appeals is higher than the general run of appeals.  It is evident from the Board’s perspective that councils are taking widely different approaches in interpreting and applying the Guidelines.  One can observe cases of undue pressure being brought on planners to recommend permissions.  There is often a lack of transparency in decision making that can lead to huge frustration on the part of third parties and other applicants who are refused permission.”

Land zoning

The greatest failures in Irish planning and the issue that has brought the system most into disrepute revolve around the zoning of land.  The zoning of land for appropriate and sustainable uses is at the heart of planning and if this departs from proper principles the whole system is in difficulty and this extends to the property and land market and the construction industry.  At the publication of the Board’s 2008 Annual Report, I said that the excessive and unsustainable zoning of land had been a contributor to the property bubble and its aftermath and that if we were to return to realistic development planning some of this zoning would have to be reversed.  For this reason I welcomed the provisions set out in the 2010 Act which introduce the idea of a core strategy for the development of each development plan area that respects the national and regional contexts.  A more sustainable, coherent, evidence-based and objective approach to zoning will avoid a repeat of the disorderly sprawl of inefficient and wasteful development and restore credibility to the planning system as a whole.  It will also lead to less lobbying by vested interests, better planning decisions and probably less need for appeals to the Board.  We also need to avoid a repeat of the situation where perfectly good established business and community uses were displaced by more “profitable” new development.

Developers and Banks

I find it extraordinary that huge decisions about land purchase were made by developers without any apparent input from planners and, even worse, vast sums of money were lent by banks to facilitate development projects without any apparent planning advice.

Landscape

Landscape is a case in point and I do not believe that the planning system has done enough to protect the unique Irish landscape, which is a cultural, environmental and economic asset of inestimable value: once destroyed, it cannot be restored.  Can we continue to build one-off houses all over the landscape in the quantity and of the type we’ve seen over recent years?  In our drive for renewable energy are we striking the right balance between wind farms and the landscape?  We have noted how the scatter of houses throughout the countryside has forced essential infrastructure, such as power-lines, into more sensitive landscapes.

Regrets

While we did refuse permission for many developments we regarded as unacceptable, my greatest regret is that the Board did not take a stronger stand against residential developments that were based on bad zoning, remotely located and of poor design quality.  I did realise at the time that some of the developments coming before the Board, particularly residential schemes, were questionable and indeed at publication of various annual reports I referred to concerns about the poor standard of some of the developments in tax incentive areas, the appropriateness of the suburban type schemes being attached to towns and villages around the country and to the sustainability of the zoning policies of many local authorities.  However, the Board often found itself in a difficult position because in our planning system if the land is properly zoned in the development plan and serviced there is a presumption in principle that development will be permitted and to refuse could mean local authorities being faced with claims for compensation by landowners.  While it is a fact that the Board did refuse many schemes that fell short of adequate planning or design standards, often in the teeth of local and media criticism, it did permit some which with hindsight it might have refused.  Here I’m referring to schemes that although fully zoned and serviced were too large for the town or too remote from services and to poorly located and designed apartment developments.  Perhaps a few shopping developments that were too large or too remote from town/city centres got through.  In the early days of wind farm developments in bogs I think the Board may have underestimated the risks of peat-slides but in latter times assessment of these risks has become much more rigorous.

Economic recovery

Economic recovery will require us all to become more efficient in the use of resources in order to increase competitiveness and get a greater return from the severely diminished level of resources we have.  Planning has a vital part to play in ensuring the most efficient use of existing infrastructure and that new infrastructure is provided in the most effective and efficient manner possible.  This will require that development be directed to places where infrastructure already exists or can be efficiently expanded.  This principle should apply whether the infrastructure is provided by public bodies or private companies.  The future operational costs of infrastructure e.g. the long term costs of pumping water services should also be factored in.  The need to maximise the return from public investment in infrastructure must be factored into the current debate in relation to densities and in particular residential densities.  Current difficulties should not dictate a return to an unsustainable spread of low density development.

Property tax

I would also like to think that, in the future, planning would be better integrated with other policy areas.  Taxation and fiscal policies should support the kind of good planning I’ve been talking about.  This is why I’ve been advocating a land value tax for some time.  The Celtic Tiger era clearly indicated that the demand for property and in particular residential property was determined more by financial considerations than by population projections or demographics.  The land use planning system cannot determine or control that demand in a free market economy.  It is essential if we are to avoid a recurrence of the boom/bust cycle that demand is not artificially inflated by financial incentives and considerations.

Housing policy

Commonsense alone would dictate that local authority Housing Strategies should be fairly radically revised to take account of the utterly changed housing market and socio-economic conditions.

Reform of Planning Authorities

In An Bord Pleanála we have a good overview of the operation of the planning system across all of the 88 local planning authorities.  In the context of public sector reform, it has become clear to me that, while acknowledging the need to retain their local democratic character, many of these authorities have administrative areas that are much too small and fractured to constitute meaningful planning units in terms, for example, of efficient infrastructure provision, the strategic location of future development or the management of water catchments.  Equally, they cannot be expected to have at their ready disposal the full range of skills and experience demanded by a modern planning service which must operate under an increasingly complex body of planning and environmental legislation.  For these reasons I welcomed the recent report of the Local Government Efficiency Review Group in relation to the structures and management of local planning administration in Ireland.  They provide the opportunity for a more rationally structured and better skilled and managed planning service which would be able to offer the best planning advice and provide the analysis and assessments of projects that are required of a modern planning service governed by increasingly complex and extensive legislation.

On planners

While the planning system in this country has had its problems, I think that, overall, the planning profession has served the country well.  Many of the development plans and local area plans are written to a very high standard and good work by planners has resulted in excellent outcomes in terms of urban renewal, urban design, streetscape improvements, high quality industrial parks and the more integrated approach to development of new areas as typified by the SDZs.  However, I still think the influence of the planning profession within local authorities has been less than it should have been.  For example, why did so few planners secure the key Director of Services positions in the Better Local Government reforms?  On the face of it, planners should be well grounded by their training to aspire to policy development and management positions (e.g. to take the wider longer term view, to synthesise different elements, to focus on outcomes, etc.).  I think that the IPI should give some thought to this issue because it is by entering some of the more senior positions that planners will achieve the level of influence that they should have in local government as a whole and consequently on the quality of development.  Generally speaking, although there have been some notable exceptions, the planning profession has been less assertive in responding to situations where the principles of sustainable development need to be defended or promoted, than other professions have been when their core values are under threat.

The choice of location for major projects – whether public or private sector – should have a much stronger planning input.  Planners should be part of the site selection process – and not seen as people to be brought in to make the planning application afterwards.

There is plenty there for the IPI, planners, and local and national government to reflect on and respond to.

Rob Kitchin

An Bord Pleanala have just released their 2009 Annual Report.  In the accompanying press release they argue that ‘the present hiatus in development activity gives us a chance to review the way our planning system works so that it will be fit for purpose when development is restored to a sustainable level in the future’.  However, the second paragraph argues that the planning systen did not contribute to the present crisis of excess supply and ghost estates:

Under the legislation it is not the role of the planning system to control the overall level of development or to restrict competition, rather to ensure that whatever level of development the market demanded takes place in an orderly manner in accordance with good planning principles and practice. Thus, while bad local decision making in planning contributed to some of the current problems, such as ghost estates in certain areas, the overall provision of excess capacity over a wide range of property types cannot be put down to a failure on the part of the planning system.”

This seems to me to be a very narrow and limited definition of the role of planning in the state.  Planning and planners take an active role in the visioning, production and implementation of local and county development plans, their role is not simply confined to making decisions on applications and undertaking enforcement.  A number of principles and guidelines relate to sustainable development in line with demographics and environmental considerations and so on (indeed, later in the press release it is stated: ‘The planning system will have a crucial role in this by directing where development should be located and the kind of development that is sustainable’).  If planning was to oversee ‘whatever level of development the market demanded’ then clearly there is a major issue, because way more housing units, retail units, offices and hotels were produced than there was demand for.  How can planning have ‘a crucial role in this by directing where development should be located’ but then have no responsibility for the location or level of poor sustainability of development?  And planning is meant to restrict competition around issues such as zoning of land.  Plus the main statement is somewhat contradictory.  If ‘bad local decision making in planning contributed to some of the current problems, such as ghost estates’ it is difficult to see how these ‘cannot be put down to a failure on the part of the planning system’.  The second half of the sentence does not logically follow the first part.   ‘Bad local decision making in planning’ – so it was bad planning then (perhaps not by planners, but certainly within the planning system).

If the planning system was not part of the problem then why have the government just introduced a new Planning and Development (Amendment) Act, that explicitly recognised that planning played a significant role in producing unsustainable development, even if it was mainly those parts of planning most influenced by politicians and politics, and a lack of coordination across boundaries and scales?  And if the planning system was not part of the problem why do An Bord Pleanala think that ‘The bursting of the property bubble raises questions about the role of the planning system in the property market.’  That we need to ‘learn very important lessons from recent experience’ including:

  • ‘planning for each area must adhere to national policies and must be governed by the relevant regional and local context;
  • all zoning must be very carefully considered on the basis of well established good planning principles;
  • development must be strongly directed to locations where infrastructure – especially, transport, water services, education – exists or is proposed under the public capital programme’
  • in planning the public good must be given greater priority over private interests;
  • statutory development plans, when duly made, need to be respected across the board by all interests, and indeed by local authorities themselves, rather than being seen as something that can be changed or circumvented if enough pressure is applied?’

What the statement seems to be trying to argue is that the planning system as it was devised did not fail as it worked within its parameters.  The argument seems to run: the system might not have been fit for purpose, but we ran that system as it was designed; therefore planning did not fail, because we followed and upheld all of that system’s principles and guidelines. If that’s the case, then it’s somewhat of a specious argument.  All it is that means is that we had a poor and failing planning system, that was implemented as it should, thus leading to poor, but procedurally correct, planning decisions.  The system was nevertheless a failing system.

Planners clearly had a very difficult role during the boom.  They were under fierce pressure from politicians, developers, businesses and residents.  There was a presumption for development operating and the system did not always help them.  They were accused of blocking or slowing development and being a general hindrance and nuisance.  The vast majority were trying to do a good job, often trying to work back against the system, with the odds stacked against them.  I’m not then arguing that planners or organisations such as An Bord Pleanala were the problem.  Indeed, they did a sterling and valuable job of trying to counter some of the worst and inappropriate excesses.  The overall planning system in terms of planning for, and overseeing, development did however contribute to the problems we now face.  If that was because the system did not give planners a strong enough role or position or powers, then that is nonetheless a failure of the system as it was (though not necessarily of planners).

In my view, planners need to move from being defensive about both their role and the system. Rather than saying, ‘it wasn’t us or the system,’ they should be using the crisis – as noted by An Bord Pleanala – as an opportunity to point out the weak parts of, and flaws in, the system, highlighting what aspects of the way the system was configured contributed to levels of oversupply and ghost estates, and how it should be altered and their position strengthened.  Trying to argue that the planning system did not contribute to the problem, at the same time as calling for very important lessons to be learnt and the system to be altered is simply not credible – especially when what is being asked for relates to changes in how planning is performed and implementation.  If there were no failings within the system, then everything can surely be left alone?

The overall thrust of An Bord Pleanala’s statement is correct – the present crisis presents the best opportunity in generation for planners and their organisations such as the Irish Planning Institute and An Bord Pleanala to push for change in planning in Ireland at all scales.   However, rather than be reactive and defensive, now is the time to be proactive.  Now is the time to seize that opportunity.

Rob Kitchin