As noted previously on IAN the 2009 Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill seeks to require that future decision-making by Local Authorities on planning issues is consistent with national and regional policy objectives.

A core element of the Bill is the introduction of ‘core strategies’ in City/County Development Plans. Statements of core strategy are required to demonstrate the conformance of proposed developments to national policy objectives. In this way City/County Development Plans will be required to provide a rationale for both existing and proposed residential and mixed-use zonings, including an indication of the proposed number of housing units to be accommodated on residentially zoned land. This requirement will potentially make it increasingly difficult for councillors and Local Authority management to zone large areas of land irrespective of the demand for housing within the locality or region and ensure consistency between the written statements of Development Plans and the associated zoning decisions of councillors, something which was often absent in the past (see for example Meath 2001 County Development Plan).

Regional Planning Guidelines for the Greater Dublin Area 2004-2016: Settlement Strategy (An example of a spatial strategy)

Spatial Distribution of Urban Development in the Greater Dublin Area: 1990-2006 (Source: MOLAND land-use datasets, analysis and mapping by the author) (An example of an evidence base)

The Bill also makes provision for an enhanced monitoring role for Regional Authorities. Regional Authorities are given an explicit role in the Development Plan preparation process, tasked with ensuring consistency with Regional Planning Guidelines (and effectively national policy). Significantly this enhanced role and responsibility for Regional Authorities is premised on the introduction of an executive role for Regional Authority staff. Currently the only official ‘voice’ of a Regional Authority on planning matters is that of the members (i.e. nominated councillors from constituent Local Authorities). This enhancement of the executive role of the Regional Authorities may, however, have significant resource implications, as existing capacities in terms of planning, research and policy development are quite limited.

The extent to which the Planning Bill (assuming it is enacted following the summer break) heralds a radical shift in planning practice remains to be seen. City/County County Plans in most cases include statements of consistency with regional and national policy and population and housing projections which are also generally broadly consistent with the NSS and Regional Planning Guidelines. In terms of implementation of the Planning Bill, the emphasis must be placed on monitoring, ensuring draft Development Plans are in conformance and more critically ensuring decision-making by Local Authorities on development proposals fully takes account of regional and national policy frameworks.

In particular, it is necessary for Local Authorities to assess whether a development proposal responds to an actual demand or need that is not already catered for by existing developments or proposed or developments, whether they are in the same Local Authority area or not. It is imperative that Local Authorities and An Bord Pleanála begin to refuse planning permissions on the basis that the demand for particular types of development is satisfied by currently and existing proposed developments. This criteria is over and above any consideration of consistency with Development Plans, Local Area Plans, or Regional Planning Guidelines which may have been produced five or more years prior to the time of decision-making on individual development proposal.

The experience over the last number of years has demonstrated all to clearly the outcome of incremental decision-making that does not have due regard to the bigger picture at regional and national levels, both in terms of the location and quantity of development. Strategic evidence-informed planning in this context requires a step beyond considerations of consistency with national policy objectives to decision-making based on a continuous monitoring of spatial development patterns and trends. Such a shift in planning policy and practice may require the development and application of a new spatial data infrastructure creating new challenges and opportunities for social and spatial science researchers as well as policy-makers and practitioners.

Cormac Walsh

The current Planning Bill which is due to be enacted before the Dail breaks for the summer next week has been described in the Irish Times as a ‘Rolls Royce’ of planning legislation. It is heralded as the centrepiece of the planning reform agenda of Minister Gormley’s term of office.

The Bill will have significant implications for planning policy in Ireland and in particular for the relationship between the plans of Local Authorities and the policy of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (DoEHLG). The Bill seeks to ensure consistency between City/County Development Plans, Regional Planning Guidelines and the National Spatial Strategy and provides a more evidence-based approach to planning. In particular the Bill makes provision for future City/County Development Plans to be supported by a statement of ‘core strategy’ which sets out a rationale for the settlement strategy pursued in the plan itself. The Bill has the potential to make it very difficult for councillors to push through zoning proposals which are in conflict with national or regional policy objectives.

The full implications of the Bill have received limited debate, however. I focus on one key aspect here: implications for the relationship between central government, regional and local authorities.

It may be argued that the Bill provides for a more hierarchical and centralised planning system, characterised by increased policy direction from central government. A core principle of the planning system currently is that of subsidiarity: that decision should be made at the lowest level possible. While there may be ample evidence supporting a curtailed role for councillors, it may be argued that it is equally important to ensure that future spatial planning and regional development policy is prepared with due regard for policies articulated by Local and Regional authorities in addition to national objectives and concerns. Regional Planning Guidelines (RPGs) provide a potential framework within which this negotiation or consultation process might take place, provided RPGs are not viewed solely as in implementation mechanism for the National Spatial Strategy (NSS).

The current NSS was prepared at a time of economic growth where it was possible to set out a vision where practically all regions and localities could benefit, based on their individual ‘potentials’. A ‘refresh’ of the NSS is due to be published shortly. This review of a key government policy document has not, however, emerged as the outcome of a transparent consultation process. It is not mentioned for example on either the website of the DoEHLG or that of the NSS itself. It is possible that given the ‘current economic climate’ the NSS refresh or any future review may favour a less ‘balanced’ approach to regional development in Ireland.

Cormac Walsh