Yesterday saw the publication of the first in a series of reports by An Taisce on planning and environmental policy in Ireland.  State of the Nation: A Review of Ireland’s Planning System 2000 – 2011 provides an overview and critique of the operation of the planning system in Ireland during the period of the worst excesses of Celtic Tiger bubble. It is fair to say that An Taisce is not a neutral voice with respect to planning or environmental or heritage issues, nonetheless their data is compelling, and as they state themselves their purpose “is not blinkered opposition to development, but opposition to blinkered development”.  And we’ve certainly had a lot of the latter in the past two decades along with localism and cronyism and at times corruption.

As part of the report, An Taisce graded each local authority with respect to 8 criteria.

1  Overzoning Amount of zoned land as a percentage of population in 2011.
2  Decisions reversed by An Bord Pleanala 2005 – 2010
3  Decisions confirmed by An Bord Pleanala 2005 – 2010
4  Percentage of vacant housing stock 2006 – 2011
5  Change in vacant housing housing stock 2006 2011
6  Water quality. Urban areas with secondary treatment failing to meet EPS standards 2011
7  Percentage of one-off houses permitted as a percentage of all residential planning permissions 2001 – 2011
8  Legal proceedings commenced following non-compliance with enforcement notice 2005 – 2010

This seems like a fairly robust set of measures to assess planning performance, concerning overzoning, planning appeals, oversupply, water quality, enforcements.  The one variable that would have been good to add for oversupply, but for which their is no data, is vacant commerical property.  Some data on the ratio of serviced and unserviced zoned land and permissions on flood plains, etc would have been useful as well, but would have probably done little to the overall result.  It is perhaps worth noting that variables 4, 5 and 7 would tend to work in favour of urban authorities (though 7 is tempered by 6) – re. criteria 4 and 5 planning might not have been any better in urban areas than rural areas, but very strong population growth meant what was built was occupied.  Regardless, oversupply is a significant issue in many rural counties and should not have been allowed to happen. It should also be pointed out that other government policy, beyond planning policy, was driving development in all counties, but disproportionately in rural counties, namely tax incentives.  Again, how these tax incentive developments were implemented could have been better handled, but there was certainly political pressure to facilitate them.

The results from these variables provided grades for each local authority (see map below).

Using their 8 criteria, nine local authorities score bottom marks: ‘F-‘ is awared to Donegal, Roscommon, Leitrim and Kerry; ‘F’ to Mayo, Galway County, Cavan, Carlow and Waterford County.  All other counties score D’s or E’s except for South Dublin, DLR, Fingal and Galway City who score C’s.  Everywhere it seems was poor, with some counties worse than others.

Why does this all matter?  Planning decisions are economic and social decisions – they set out patterns of development, service costs, travel costs, etc and generally shape the space economy.  Making good planning decisions leads to social dividends and economic growth, poor decisions leads to weak or negative growth, additional costs and losses – and these have long term consequences.   Changes to the landscape such as new buildings or roads or quarries, etc are generally very long-term alterations; they are lived with by not just this generation but many generations to come.  And when it all goes wrong, like it has in Ireland, the taxpayer is left to pick up the costs of excessive development loans (think bank bailouts, NAMA, the troika, austerity, etc) and the social consequences (think unfinished estates, houses flooding, bottled water or water from tankers, etc).

In my view the report should be read by any person interested in sustainable development and communities in Ireland and be compulsorary reading for anyone involved in planning at all scales in the country, particularly councillors, national politicians and local authorities.  As this report and the Mahon Report make clear we need changes to how planning is viewed and understood and how it is implemented.  Planning should be utilitarian and for the social good; some of it in Ireland works that way, much does not.  An Taisce’s report provides much food for thought useful for conceiving what kind of planning system we want.

Rob Kitchin

Late last week, I attended an interesting talk in which the ‘moral compass’ of planners – and local authorities as a whole – was questioned.  During the ensuing discussion, an enthusiastic debate played out as to whether planners are to blame for ‘allowing’ the overbuild that characterises every county in the Republic of Ireland.  As a planner, I agree that, yes, we have to take a certain degree of responsibility for the state of the (blighted) landscape in which we find ourselves living —- I emphasise a ‘certain degree’ given that the role of the planning system as a whole has been little considered or unpacked, as argued by the NIRSA report A Haunted Landscape — but I cannot accept that as a profession, we have lost our moral compass.

At the heart of our planning education lies the concepts of the common good, community, social justice and the accommodation of people in place (not just in terms of housing but also in respect of access to services, mobility, leisure and recreation, to name but a few).  What transpires in practice does not usually live up to the aspirations of planning educators or  graduates – the reality is that local government is too ill-equipped to thoroughly address all aspects of planning and the focus rests on short-termism and politics – two pillars of poor planning.  And, of course, what people are taught and what they then actually do are two different things.  One factor at play in this regard, for example, is where the planner ends up working; the working ethos of a planner in local government will inevitably be different to that of a planner working for a consultancy or developer.  And where a planner first worked for local government and then went to work for a developer – as happened quite frequently during the ‘boom years’ – it would be inevitable that their moral compass becomes recalibrated, possibly even dormant; but not lost.

The problem, as I see it, is that the planning profession has lost not only its voice but also its authority and power in the process of decision-making.  Within the workplace, and I refer specifically to local government here, planners are no longer taken as seriously as they might with their role in the planning and development process relatively diminished; an outcome of the politicalisation of planning.  Planners’ recommendations can be disregarded at the whim of senior officers and/or elected officials.  Too often, I have heard stories from colleagues working in local government of occasions where they have been told to say nothing – by their Directors of Service or County Manager – at either council meetings or discussions with developers on proposed applications.  That the voice of an expert in their field can be so blatantly taken away – instead of encouraged and embraced in the interests of the community to which a proposal may relate and the wider common good of the county and region to which it belongs – is a true failing of the local government system as it is currently structured.

The Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010 finally gives play to the hierarchy of plans that was proposed under the Planning and Development Act 2000 – namely, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS), the Regional Planning Guidelines (RPGs), County and City Development Plans, and finally, Local Area Plans.  But what is the point of having this hierarchy in place if the views and recommendations of the planners who are the drafters of these documents (containing a mixture of policies and maps) – with their multidisciplinary perspectives (geographers, sociologists, environmentalists, conservationists, economists, psychologists) – can be so easily ignored?

The solution?  Greater emphasis needs to be placed on the recommendations of planners when it comes to determining planning applications and preparing development plans.  To this end, it should not be as easy, as is currently the case, for officials – elected or otherwise – to override the recommendations put forward by planners. And yet, while this is part of the democratic mandate of councillors – to speak for the communities they represent – the resulting practices are unreflective of democratic principles.  It is clear that change is required to the current status quo in decision-making – but, in the case of the reserved function role of elected officials, there appears to be little appetite for reform.  But were that appetite in place, changes that should be considered, so as to strengthen the democratic principles of planning, include:

  • Elected officials should have to undertake an accredited course in understanding the planning system prior to being able to engage in any debate on a planning-related topic (whether planning application or development plan); and with any change in the legislation, all councillors should have to attend an ‘expert’ seminar on the implications of the new law;
  • Where elected officials work as estate agents, auctioneers or in other fields related to the planning field, they should be prevented from contributing to debates on planning applications or zonings to avoid clear conflicts of interest;
  • Directors of Service with responsibility for planning should have a background in the planning system; in this way, they would then better understand the decisions of planners and the reasonings behind these standings / recommendations (and while the brief of Directors of Service increasingly tend to extend beyond planning only – also covering for example, community and enterprise, or infrastructure, for example – the multidisciplinary nature of planning ensures that a director with a planning background could equally, and fairly, administer these other functions).  You wouldn’t after all have a nurse head up an accountancy firm or an engineer run a hospital ward?

There are many faults with the local government structure as it currently stands; but care needs to be exercised when confusing these short-falls (even failings) with a loss of morality among the local authority planning profession.  The planning system is complex and planners are often the foot soldiers not the generals.

Caroline Creamer

This blog focuses on the spatial dimensions of Ireland after Nama. As such, I think it’s worth dwelling on Nama’s scale. Not scale in the ‘economies of scale’ sense, but in the ‘politics of scale’ sense.

The idea that there is a ‘politics of scale’ is not by any means new in academic Geography (in fact, it’s probably one of the biggest literatures in academic Geography). What it tends to point towards is the set of relations that exist between different scales of government (but note that it needn’t draw attention to governing; for example, it can be about the local, regional, national or global scales at which social movements act). So, a question about the politics of scale might ask how a national government interacts with local governments, or with institutions or actors that have a global presence, such as the IMF or even a transnational corporation.

In the ‘Namascape’, this line of questioning might lead us to examine how Nama, as a national ‘asset’ management agency, interacts with local governments in Ireland. Or it might mean asking questions about relations between Nama and even more local branches of the state, such as town councils (which the McCarthy Report wants abolished, by the way). Alternatively, we could ask questions about the internal scale division of Nama: will it have an office charged with looking after its international ‘assets’; one for its urban and one for its rural ‘assets’; or will the breakdown of its ‘asset’ management follow the scale division of the Irish state e.g. a Cork office, a Dublin office, etc?

Towards proposing that we think about these relations between Nama and local government, I’ve just conducted a search for Irish newspaper articles published in the last year that contain the words ‘Nama’ and the phrase ‘Dublin City Council’. Not much came up (nor did I get much by searching for Cork City Council). In fact, only five of the 49 articles had anything pertinent to say and none of these got to grips with the sorts of issues I’m thinking about: namely, will Dublin City Council, or any other branch of local government, have any input or dealings with Nama; will local governments know and have an up-to-date register of Nama ‘assets’ in their areas; or, will there be scope for local governments to use ‘Nama’d’ land in strategic or even ethical ways that benefit their local populations [don’t laugh here: I’m fully aware that some readers of this blog might find it difficult to grasp the idea of local governments acting strategically or, indeed, ethically!!]?

Anyway, back to the five useful articles. Here are some of the issues raised:

1. Dublin City Council’s Assistant City Manager, Michael Stubbs, acknowledges “that the council has a number [but how many and where?!] of developments that are unfinished” – and he flags the North Fringe area, in particular. Source: Irish Times, Oct 3 2009.

2. Ciaran Murray, managing director of Ballymun Regeneration Limited, acknowledges that Treasury Holdings might struggle to raise financing for its town centre development on the 15 acre site in Ballymun, which is owned by Dublin City Council and leased to Treasury. The Ballymun project is, “tipped [by whom?!] to be transferred to Nama…” Source: Irish Times, Sep 22 2009.

3. Dublin City Council is “on board” Harry Crosbie’s development strategy for the Point Village. Crosbie will be owing Nama and will “pay it all back…Every single cent.” Independent, Sep 20 2009.

4. The Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland met in September and slammed the McCarthy Report’s call to abolish town councils. The councillors passed a motion rejecting McCarthy’s ideas. Ok, Nama was only mentioned in the article because John Gormley couldn’t make the AMAI meeting because he had to “remain in Dublin to deal with the new Nama bill”! Source: Irish Times, Sep 11 2009.

5. Finally, acres of Nama’d land might need to be mothballed because the “country’s waste water infrastructure needs to be upgraded significantly before any development can proceed.” A spokeswoman from Dublin City Council said the council will endeavour to ensure that “wastewater facilities will not infringe on any future development.” Source: Sunday Tribune, Aug 16 2009.

There are clearly some indications here of Nama’s politics of scale: as the fifth article indicates, it will need local government to do a good job on Nama sites; as the third article makes clear, it matters whether local governments, such as Dublin City Council, are “on board” development plans for Nama’d land; and as the first and second articles highlight, key tracts of land owned by local governments (such as in Ballymun) or which form part of their long-term spatial planning (such as the North Fringe) look set to be Nama’d, which means strategic decisions in places such as Dublin are going to have involve Nama.

So these articles hint at some of the sorts of relations between Nama and local government (and hopefully comments to this post could expand on this list) but just what are the terms of those relations, whose interests are given priority and why, and just what impact will Nama have on local government in the future? And re-phrasing my questions from earlier, will local government have any input or dealings with Nama; will local governments have a register of Nama ‘assets’ in their areas? Just how much will Nama’s politics of scale hurt or help local development in Ireland?

Alistair Fraser