The Final Act of the Irish Electoral Cycle
We have entered the Final Act of the drama that is the Irish electoral cycle. The plot so far has involved harsh austerity, deepening neoliberalism, and widespread protest. But in the Final Act – at least in the play as scripted by the coalition government – these plot lines are expected to fade away as a new story arc emerges. Most immediately this will involve a raft of budgetary measures designed to return relatively insignificant amounts of cash to the wallets of various parts of the electorate. But, as the Capital Plan announced last week attests, it will also involve the promise of large-scale and geographically dispersed infrastructural investment.

While in one sense the Capital Plan is a mechanism in support of clientalism – allowing TDs the opportunity to bring the proverbial (and at this stage prodigal) bacon back home to their constituencies – it also serves to usher in the re-emergence of another central myth of Irish political and economic life: the myth of counterbalance.

The myth of counterbalance has been around ever since the Irish State decided to dismantle the walls of protectionism and open the country to the global economy. For various reasons Dublin has long dominated the country economically and demographically. The myth of counterbalance proposes to address this dominance by targeted policies designed to grow the economies of the other major cities.

I call this a myth not because such a feat is unattainable, but rather because, in Ireland, it has consistently proven itself to be. The myth of counterbalance emerges intermittently, the well-worn narrative dusted off to address the same intractable problem for a whole new generation.

Myth and reality
The idea of counterbalancing the growth of Dublin harks back to the Buchannan report on economic regions published in 1969. Buchannan proposed the creation of ‘poles of growth’, which would serve to counteract the unsustainable growth of Dublin. Throughout the 1970s Cork and Limerick were identified by central government as sites for targeted investment. However, while the official policy ostensibly favoured the creation of a counterbalance, in reality the recommendations of the Buchannan report were largely ignored, and later abandoned during the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In the Fanning report of 1984 on the impact of the recession on Cork, the notion of creating a counterbalance was resurrected. Fanning highlighted the need for targeted investment in infrastructure in the cities outside of Dublin, along with investment in indigenous small enterprises, in order to avoid the fallout from another round of global restructuring. In the report, Fanning advised against focussing only on short-termist policies and forgetting the goals of long-term sustainability. But then the Celtic Tiger came along and counterbalance was abandoned in favour of reducing corporation tax to a minimum and putting in place a series of incentives to attract a new round of foreign investment.

In 2002, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) once again broached the subject of counterbalance. Although politically weakened by clientalism, the NSS nevertheless put in place a framework to develop a number of ‘Gateways and Hubs’ that would act as regional centres of growth. There was a four-year gap, however, been the NSS and the publication of National Development Plan, which would link public spending to the infrastructural investment proposed in the spatial strategy.

In the interim, cities like Cork and Limerick launched ambitious development strategies that aimed to capitalise on the NSS. Cork Docklands Development Strategy, for example, inaugurated an entrepreneurial approach to development that transformed the city’s governance structures by inviting a host of private sector actors to shape urban policy. While the 2000s saw a new wave of development activity, the wider redevelopment of the docklands still depended on substantial state investment that, although promised, was not forthcoming. When the 2008 crash happened, one of the first programmes to be cut was the Gateway Development Fund for infrastructural investment.

Thus, the Celtic Tiger period of growth again failed to deliver on the promise of counterbalance.

The return of counterbalance
In the recently announced Capital Plan Cork is expected to get investment in key road infrastructure, an upgrade of Ringaskiddy Harbour and other projects including investment in a convention centre at the former Beamish and Crawford factory. The phantasmagoria of these plans was reinforced by a set of lavish visualisations shared by Simon Coveney on his facebook page. The Capital Plan is indicative of the re-emergence of counterbalance and, in the context of the eternal returns of Ireland’s boom and bust trajectories, the suggestion that we have exited the crisis and entered a new period of growth.

Dunkettle Roundabout Plans

Establishing shot from Season Two of True Detective… Sorry, visualisation of the upgrading of the Dunkettle Interchange in Cork.

But like previous iterations of the myth of counterbalance, we can see the contradictions emerge when we look a little closer at its practicalities.

Boundary issues
Over the last year, it had been recognised by Central and Local Government that the boundaries of Cork city did not encompass the functional urban area and that something would need to be done about it. A Local Government Review was set up to explore options. The logical solution would be for the boundaries of the City to be extended to more accurately reflect its functional area. This being Ireland, however, the simplest option practically was not necessarily seen as the simplest option politically, and – as was the case with Limerick previously – the solution proposed was not to extend the City boundary but to merge Cork City and County Councils.

Irish Examiner Cork MErger

Irish Examiner’s coverage of the proposed merger of Cork City and County Councils.

As reported in the Irish Examiner, Consultant Alf Smiddy and Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly argued that the merger would create “what would be by far the largest unit of government within the State”, which they contended would offer Cork the clout to successfully lobby for devolution of powers. The report stressed that the merger would allow Cork “to act as an effective counter-weight at the national level to the current economic predominance of Dublin and the eastern part of the country”. Alan Kelly argued that it would “put Cork in a position that it can compete on a regional basis with the conurbation that is around Dublin”.

Not everyone agreed. Two members of the Local Government Review, Prof Dermot Keogh and Dr Theresa Reidy (both academics at UCC), broke with the consensus and produced a minority report that stated their disagreement “with substantial parts of the draft report, the main finding, and most of the conclusions”. In a piece written for the Irish Examiner, Keogh and Reidy argued that after decades of delayed decisions on a boundary extension, the “amalgamation has been chosen as an easy political option” and that it wouldn’t solve the problems posed by Dublin’s dominance. Cork City Manager Ann Doherty later called the merger review “fundamentally flawed” and City Councillors sought to challenge the legality of Alan Kelly’s plans to proceed with it.

Myth interrupted
Cork’s boundary issues highlight the problems underpinning of the myth of counterbalance in Ireland. While ostensibly it has long been a central component of Ireland’s policy landscape, in reality it has never been pursued in any serious sense. The Irish state has been adept at spinning webs of visions, stories of ‘what will be’ woven with colourful images, maps and descriptions. But when it comes to frontloading investment into the necessary infrastructure, successive governments have balked.

Indeed, it would appear that Ireland’s period of neoliberalisation and entrepreneurialism has exacerbated the prospect of counterbalance. The suggestion that a merger of the local authorities would, by a sleight of hand, suddenly make Cork more attractive to international investment is indicative of a jaundiced approach that seeks to leverage an illusion of transformation to entice external forces to solve Ireland’s problems of uneven development.

What then is the purpose of the myth of counterbalance? It is an ideal that, while not in any realistic sense committed to, is perhaps periodically aspired to by successive governments. But more often, and particularly in the Last Act of the election cycle, it is a vehicle to carry the illusion of vision and the prospect of hope. The myth of counterbalance presents the notion that there is a ‘plan’. It tantalisingly dangles in front of the voting public the prospect that, within the crisis-ridden theatre of Irish politics, a socially and spatially equitable Ireland can be achieved. It is just beyond our reach, it seems to say, just beyond our grasp. Without fundamental change, it forever will be.

Cian O’Callaghan


Yesterday Minister Phil Hogan announced that the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) is to be scrapped and replaced by a new policy in about a year’s time.  He said that said the present ‘strategy had failed’ because ‘the gateway and hub cities and towns never received the resources to ensure their development and “nothing has happened” in the ten years since they were designated.’  Continuing that ‘there was no point in having a designation without the resources.’

It is certainly the case that the NSS did not live up to its expectations, despite its promise and intent.  The initiative failed for a number of reasons, of which resourcing is just one.

First, there were flaws in its initial design with respect to the designation of too many hubs and gateways and there were accusations of stroke politics in location selection.

Second, because it was introduced in 2002 it missed its logical initial resourcing stream, the National Development Plan (NDP) 2000-06.  It did underpin the NDP 2007-13, but then the crisis hit and the NDP got quitely dropped and funding for NSS initiatives, such as the gateways fund, was one of the first things the DECLG dropped from its programme.

Third, there was weak political buy-in across the board, especially within government.  This was made abundantely clear by the decentralisation programme introduced by Charlie McCreevy in 2003 that sought to move government departments and state agencies to just about every location except gateways and hubs.  Decentralisation seriously undermined the rationale and impetus of the NSS.

Fourth, the NSS was not put on a statutory basis and up until 2010 planning authorities only had to give ‘due regard’ to it, rather than complying with it.  In a period of developer-led, laissez faire, localist planning this was a license to largely ignore it.

What this meant was a very partial implementation, though the NSS did have some effects on other policy (e.g. NDP, Transport 21, Rural Ireland 2020, etc) and was significantly boosted by the introduction of regional planning guidelines and the Planning and Development Act (2010) and the introduction of core strategies (in which planning decisions have to demonstrate they fit local, county, regional and national policy objectives).

So what happens now? Is this the end of spatial planning in Ireland?

Well one would hope not. If Ireland ever needed a strategic plan to make the most of limited resources in order to facilitate inward investment, stimulate and support indigenous growth, produce sustainable development and create of better places, it is now.

The logic of spatial planning is to align and coordinate sectoral initiatives (such as transport, energy, jobs, property, utilities, communications, public services, etc) across territory in order to leverage complementarities, reduce redundancy and duplication, increase competitiveness, and create multiplier effects (where the sum is greater than the simple addition of parts).  It does this by selectively prioritising areas for different kinds of activities in line with its demographics and local resources and distributing funds suitable to enable targetted investment and coordinating development across sectors.

Rather than abandoning spatial planning and the NSS, we need to do a fundamental rethink and produce a new NSS that is suitable to the present context. Localism and ad-hocism is not the solution to the economic and social crisis and will not create a sustainable, competitive country into the long term.

The challenge over the next year is to produce a new NSS based on a robust evidence base, learning from international best practice, and involving detailed stakeholder consultation, that is strategic and is prepared to make difficult decisions given limited resources.  Once agreed upon, the new NSS needs to be put on a statutory basis, as advocated in the Mahon Report, and it needs to be implemented through a series of interlocking programmes and initiatives.

My hope is that we can rise to this challenge and produce a spatial planning framework that will serve us well.

Rob Kitchin


For a good introduction to the present NSS, see the recent special edition of Administration 60(3), The National Spatial Strategy: Ten Years On, guest edited by David Meredith and Chris van Egeraat.

Revisiting the National Spatial Strategy ten years onDavid Meredith & Chris van Egeraat


The National Spatial Strategy: Rationale, process, performance and prospects – James A. Walsh

Economics – The missing link in the National Spatial Strategy – Edgar Morgenroth

Perspectives on Ireland’s economic geography: An evaluation of spatial structures – David Meredith, Jim Walsh & Ronan Foley

Gateways, hubs and regional specialisation in the National Spatial Strategy – Chris van Egeraat, Proinnsias Breathnach & Declan Curran

Urban specialisation, complementarity and spatial development strategies on the island of Ireland – Des McCafferty, Chris van Egeraat, Justin Gleeson & Brendan Bartley

Governance and the National Spatial Strategy – Placing spatial policy at the heart of the diagonal public service – Séan O’Riordáin

Shrink smarter? Planning for spatial selectivity in population growth in Ireland – Gavin Daly & Rob Kitchin

Policy formulation and decision making that is undertaken largely in secret, that affects large swathes of the population, is rarely a success.  Two striking examples from the previous government is the bank guarantee and decentralisation.  Both policy decisions were made with no consultation, even within the cabinet or political parties let alone opposition parties or the public.  Both have proven to be controversial and disastorous.  Interestingly, it is the legacy of the bank guarantee and austerity that has finally killed off decentralisation.

As announced yesterday, a total of 40 decentralisation projects are to be scrapped; a further 32 projects (mainly in locations where permanent accommodation has been secured) will be left in place; decisions regarding an additional 22 projects are pending.  Decentralisation was announced by Charlie McCreevy in 2003 to the surprise of just about everyone except himself.  As an idea, decentralisation has some merits, but not in the cack-handed way that McCreevy envisaged it.  Rather than tying decentralisation to the aims and ambitions of the National Spatial Strategy announced in 2002, with departments and agencies clustered into gateway cities and hub towns, they were scattered across the nation into just about the most inefficient arrangement as possible, almost exclusively ignoring the growth centres identified in the NSS.  As a measure designed to improve governance and local/regional development it was as bad as it got, ignoring best practice around agglomeration effects.  As Proinnsias Breathnach on this blog has argued, decentralisation did not “merely completely ignore the NSS but actually served to undermine it.  This, despite the explicit commitment in the original NSS document  that ‘The Government will take full account of the NSS in moving forward the progressive decentralisation of Government offices and agencies’ (p. 120).  Quite rightly then that Taoiseach Enda Kenny described it yesterday as one of the most “ill-judged, badly planned ideas” of the previous government.

The bottom line is that tactics without (democratically debated and agreed) strategy is a recipe for disaster.  It is somewhat of a shame then that the reform of the public sector announced yesterday follows the same pattern.  The plan is simply to cut numbers – numbers of agencies, numbers of staff.  There is no evidence as to a strategic vision as to why organisations are being cut or merged, or which workers need to be trimmed from the public service, or how the public sector will look in five years time other than thinner.  The tactic for reducing staff is early retirement and to let contracts lapse.  There is no targetting of particular types of job; no re-envisioning of an organisation and its work and work practices; no plan as to how reshape.  The strategy seems largely to pray that the right kinds of staff are left once the labour force has been reduced.

The NSS and NDP were strategies about envisaging the future of Ireland and how we were going to achieve that future.  We need a new NSS and NDP fit for purpose, with budgetary decisions tied to them.  A tactic composed simply of cuts, with no grand plan other than to reduce spend does not form a strategy.  And tactics without strategy is no way to try and get a country out of recession – it relies on serendipity and luck and is as likely to fail as succeed.

Rob Kitchin

Some readers may be interested in this full length article by Proinnsias Breathnach in the international Geography journal, Antipode (Vol. 42 No. 5, pp 1180–1199)


From Spatial Keynesianism to Post-Fordist Neoliberalism: Emerging Contradictions in the Spatiality of the Irish State

Abstract: The transition from Fordism to post-Fordism has been accompanied by profound changes in the spatiality of west European states. The hierarchical, top-down and redistributive structures that typified the Fordist welfare state have been replaced by more complex spatial configurations as elements of economic and political power have shifted both downwards to subnational territorial levels and upwards to the supranational level. A major debate has developed around the nature of these emerging forms of state spatiality and of the processes underpinning their formation. This paper examines how these processes have operated in the particular case of the Republic of Ireland. Here, the spatiality of the state was founded on a peculiar post-colonial combination of a localised populist politics and a centralised state bureaucracy. While this arrangement was quite suited to the spatial dispersal of industrial branch plants which underpinned regional policy in the 1960s and 1970s, it has become increasingly problematic with the more recent emergence of new trends in the nature and locational preferences of inward investment. This is reflected in the profound conflicts that have attended the formulation and implementation of the National Spatial Strategy, introduced in 2002. The result is a national space economy whose increasing dysfunctionality may now be compromising the very development model upon which Ireland’s recent spectacular economic growth has been built.

The National Spatial Strategy (NSS) was back in the news last week with the publication by the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government DOEHLG) of its NSS 2010 Update and Outlook coinciding with the presentation at the annual conference of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) of a number of papers dealing with the NSS.

Almost eight years have passed since the original launch of the NSS, “a twenty year planning framework designed to achieve a better balance of social, economic, physical development and population growth” between the regions of Ireland.  The key element of the NSS was the development of a number of regional “gateway” cities with the idea of creating the level of “critical mass” required in order to achieve self-sustaining growth and act as countermagnets which would slow down the apparently relentless concentration of development in the Greater Dublin Region.

Today, almost halfway through the NSS plan period, it would not be too unfair to suggest that the only visible signs of the strategy’s existence are a number of billboards around the country identifying some urban centre or other as being a gateway.  The now largely-complete motorway system was conceived and installed largely without reference to the NSS and in some ways could be seen as inhibiting the emergence of the polycentric urban system which the NSS sought to create.  Otherwise, the sprawl of housing and other forms of property development which has peppered the landscape over the last decade would, quite understandably, lead any visitor to the country to conclude that no form of planning of any kind operates in this country.

Unfortunately, the DOEHLG’s NSS Update document offers little prospect, not only of the NSS itself ever being implemented, but of any real progress being made towards checking the uncoordinated chaos which characterises most things that happen in this country. One arrives at this conclusion, not from what the document, states explicitly, but from the way in which it reproduces virtually all of the key weaknesses of the original 2002 strategy statement, or fails to address key obstacles to the strategy’s implementation which have remained unchanged since 2002.  Among these are the following:

  • The lack of government commitment to the NSS.
  • Failure to acknowledge – never mind pursue – the level of spatial selectivity in the allocation of public resources required if the gateway centres were ever to achieve their supposed development goals.
  • The absence of concrete implementation measures.
  • Failure to identify the governance structures required for successful NSS achievement.
  • Preoccupation with physical planning considerations and accompanying failure to address the crucial role of enterprise development policy in creating the critical mass required for self-sustaining growth in the gateway centres.

The Ministerial Foreword to the NSS Update contains the almost portentous statement that the document comprises “a re-affirmation of the Government’s commitment to the NSS”.  Given the commitment to the NSS shown thus far by the government, this could be construed as the kiss of death for the NSS.  This, after all, is more or less the same government which, within a year of the publication of the NSS, announced its disastrous decentralisation programme which not merely completely ignored the NSS but actually served to undermine it.  This, despite the explicit commitment in the original NSS document  that “The Government will take full account of the NSS in moving forward the progressive decentralisation of Government offices and agencies” (p. 120).

This is also the government which, in virtually its first move to curtail public expenditure following the onset of the current economic crisis, suspended the €300 million Gateway Innovation Fund which had been included in the 2007 National Development Plan – one of the few concrete measures proposed by the government specifically designed to help the NSS achieve its goals.  This was a fair reflection of where the NSS is located in the government’s list of priorities.

In his paper to the RIAI conference, planning consultant Conor Skehan criticised the NSS for “pretending to offer something for everyone in the audience”.  This was reflected in the designation as gateways of urban centres which had absolutely no hope of reaching the scale of activity and population which the NSS document itself identified as being required of gateways; of the inclusion in the NSS of eleven “hub” towns whose role in the strategy remains a mystery; which identified county and other larger towns as being “critical elements in the structure for realising balanced regional development”; which saw medium-sized towns in each region acting  as “local capitals” providing a range of services and opportunities for employment; and which envisaged smaller towns and villages helping rural areas to draw on “local economic strengths”.

The Update document repeats this (obviously politically-driven)  “something for everyone” approach with passages such as: “a key element of the Strategy is the promotion of a scaled multi-centred settlement strategy comprising a national network of gateways, hubs, county towns, smaller towns and villages with an appropriate critical mass and agglomerations of scale to drive regional and local development”.  Indeed, the use of the terms “critical mass” and “agglomerations of scale” in this context suggests that the authors of the document have no idea was these terms mean.

The logic of the gateway centre concept, as identified in the European Spatial Development Perspective (adopted as a preferred approach to spatial planning by the EU in 1999) is that smaller towns and rural areas cannot compete on their own in today’s globalised market place, and that their long-term interests are best served through the cultivation of regional centres which, through focused development measures, can become internationally competitive in their own right.  These, then, come to act as “gateways” through which investment and innovation are brought into the regions and through which regional exports and communication lines are channelled (interestingly, the derivation of the term “gateway” is never explained in the NSS document).

An important element of the gateway concept is that, while gateway centres, through the creation, for example, of specialist expertise or services, act to attract outside investment, such investment may not necessarily locate in the gateways themselves, but may choose instead to locate in smaller centres in the gateway hinterlands.  The hinterlands may also benefit from the generation of spin-off enterprises from the gateways, from the location in the hinterlands of commuters employed in the gateways, and from recreational travel on the part of gateway residents.

Ultimately, it is argued that regional hinterlands will end up better off through the presence of gateways than without them.  However, at least in the initial stages, this approach requires a concentration of resources in order to get the gateways off the ground.  While this approach has echoes of the unbalanced development strategy advocated by Albert Hirschman for less developed economies in the 1950s, it does possess more logic than the scattergun approach of the NSS.  This is not to say that there is no place for smaller centres, rural areas and local initiative in the spatial planning process.  However, planning at this level is properly a function for regional and local authorities with appropriate powers and funding and has no place in a national-level strategy.

Also speaking at the RIAI conference, Edgar Morgenroth of the ESRI criticised the NSS for being “largely aspirational, with few concrete measures.  What’s really missing is any adequate thought about what we are really trying to achieve and how do we make it happen”.  This is a problem which is repeated in the Update document, which time and again (and regularly echoing the original NSS) tells us what needs to be done but says little or nothing about it will be done.  The document is replete with passages of the following kind:

“Existing arrangements must be improved for investment co-ordination…”

“There is a pressing need to deliver more effective leadership…”

“Strong and successful Gateways need to be able to transcend administrative boundaries…”

“Implementation and review of sub-regional land use and transport strategies (LUTS)

outside Dublin and Cork should be strengthened…”

Remember, these are taken from a document which purports to update a strategy which was first launched eight years ago.

Measures for realising these aspirations are either non-existent or vague, as reflected in the following list of actions to be undertaken (curiously tucked away in an appendix at the end of the document):

  • Develop proposals for more effective co-ordination and implementation of regional plans and strategies.
  • Progress implementation of the Atlantic Gateways Initiative.
  • Publish an analysis of critical infrastructural requirements.
  • Finalise arrangements for the revised Gateway Innovation Fund.
  • Finalise White Paper on Local Government.
  • Assess and monitor local authority development plans for consistency with the NSS.

Again, the absence of concrete measures and commitments is striking.  It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what we have here is a fundamental inability to make firm commitments in order to avoid offending anybody, along the same lines as the inability to be spatially selective in the allocation of public resources.  This is the kind of systems failure which has Irish politics, the Irish economy, and Irish society in the sorry condition in which they find themselves today.

One of the few positive elements of the Update document is its acknowledgement of the failure of the original NSS to address the governance issues posed by the strategy.  It would appear that the NSS simply assumed that neighbouring local authorities, frequently with a long history of mutual competition and rivalry over territory, commercial rates and other resources, and lacking the requisite skills, powers and funding, would voluntarily come together to forge the kind of proactive and visionary planning alliances which gateway formation requires.  It quickly became apparent that this was not going to happen, and the need to address the governance issues posed by the NSS were key foci of the report on the implementation of the NSS published by Forfás in 2006 and in the National Economic & Social Council’s 2008 publication The Irish economy in the early 21st century.

Thus, among the priority action areas identified in the Update document are the following:

“Strong and successful Gateways need to be able to transcend administrative boundaries and have a clear vision of their future development and a strong strategic leadership to deliver that vision aided by effective governance arrangements, embracing not only public sector agencies but also the private sector and leaders in research and innovation”.

“Existing arrangements must be improved for investment co-ordination, sectoral alignment and planned prioritisation between the capital investment activities of Government Departments and agencies, and the planning and development activities of regional and local authorities”.

“There is a pressing need to deliver more effective leadership and vision and better governance structures at regional and local levels to lead and drive development of the gateways and their wider regions”

Again, the Update document is devoid of specific proposals on how these objectives are to be achieved, apart from the Minister’s own favourite hobby horse i.e. a directly elected Mayor of Dublin.  Instead, we are told that these issues will be addressed in the supposedly forthcoming (and long promised) White Paper on Local Government.  Of course, even if the White Paper does set out concrete measures for dealing with the governance issues which currently comprise a fundamental obstacle to NSS implementation, the fate of previous White Papers on local government and administrative reform provides little reassurance that these measures will ever actually see the light of day.

Ultimately, the greatest single weakness of the original NSS document was its failure to address in a meaningful way the fact that successful gateway development requires the cultivation, in each gateway, of a vibrant and self-sustaining enterprise base built around a set of successful exporting firms.  The document mainly focuses on providing the physical and social infrastructure required for the successful functioning of enterprises, and has virtually nothing to say about how these enterprises are to be established in the first place.  It may be that this reflected old-fashioned thinking that if you build the infrastructure, the firms will come, but more likely it reflects the fact that the Spatial Planning Unit which oversaw the preparation of the NSS was located in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government which has lots of physical planning expertise but very little (if any) enterprise development expertise.

The Update document portrays the same weakness, with considerable attention devoted to aspects of physical planning and virtually none to enterprise development.  This is seen as being a matter for the enterprise development agencies, but no particular structures are identified, either in the original NSS or the Update document, to integrate these agencies as key actors into the gateway development planning process.

In principle, the main objectives of the National Spatial Strategy make a lot of sense and probably offer the only feasible long-term path to autonomous self-sustaining development in the Irish regions.  However, major recasting of the state’s governance structures is required if these objectives are to have any chance of being realised.  Governance structures at regional level need very substantial strengthening, and a major devolution of functions and powers to both regional and local level is essential in order to facilitate effective coordinated planning.  In addition, the medieval territorial structure with which local authorities are lumbered needs to be replaced by a new territorial system based on the main urban centres and their hinterlands as combined units (the norm in other European countries).

In the absence of such reforms, the NSS essentially is a waste of time and resources.  The fact that such reforms have a zero chance of being implemented is testimony to the essential dysfunctionality which characterises most aspects of the Irish state.

Proinnsias Breathnach

It will come as little surprise to some IAN readers that I’ve been a long-term supporter of the National Spatial Strategy and what it seeks to achieve.  The NSS took a holistic, strategic and coordinated approach to large-scale, long-term planning of development, key infrastructure, resources, etc., across scales in Ireland.  When it was formulated, it explicitly recognised that policy relating to a whole series of sectors needed to be joined-up across departments and agencies, and across scales and places, and the kinds of growth that Ireland was experiencing had to take regard of the spatial structure of society and economy, rather than occurring serendipitously and with little regard for other initiatives or places, if we were to create sustainable and manageable patterns of growth (population, work, transport, services, etc needed to be coordinated and harmonised for efficiencies and effectiveness).  It should have formed the core guiding logic to the National Development Plans 2000-2006 and 2007-2013, and formed a contextual frame for just about all policy formulation that had a spatial dimension (which is just about everything).  Interestingly, it was heralded in Europe as the model to follow, and it has certainly been a key plank in building North-South cooperation around shared infrastructure and resources.

In its first eight years, however, whilst the NSS did make some progress, it was seriously hampered and undermined by a number of factors including:

  • central government largely ignoring it when formulating other policies (and even now, the NSS is not mentioned once in the Trading and Investing in a Smart Economy policy to create 300,000 new jobs)
  • decentralisation and other policies ran counter to it and actively undermined it, setting precedents for all other parties
  • funding from central government for large-scale, strategic investment for the public good was not tied explicitly to following its principles (addressed through the new Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010 – see today’s Irish Times)
  • local authorities were only required to have regard to it, rather than comply with it (again addressed through the Planning Act) and pushed ahead with unrealistic and overambitious localised growth strategies;
  • it came too late to be the guiding basis for NDP 2000-2006, and although it formed a core design rationale of NDP 2007-2013 the economic downturn has led to many core components being curtailed or cut

This has led to a number of problems, as noted by DEHLG itself, such as:

  • Population growth in some Gateways and Hub towns underperforming, whilst smaller settlements and rural areas within commuter belts have grown significantly;
  • Excessive and inappropriately located zonings and development worked against NSS implementation and undermined efficient exchequer investment in infrastructure and services;
  • Development-driven planning and commuter settlement patterns have created demand for uneconomic and inefficient infrastructure and service provision, while infrastructure and services in towns has become under-utilised;
  • Development has become more dispersed and fragmented geographically, with greater distances between where people live and work, leading to unsustainable oil dependency and reduced quality of life;
  • Dispersed land use trends are undermining the integrity of Ireland’s key habitats and ecosystem networks and placing pressure on the quality of our water resources.

The DEHLG has today published the NSS refresh, having undertaken a review of the NSS to date and its role in the future, especially given the economic downturn and the need for mid-to-long term strategic spatial planning to provide a coordinating framework for managing scarce resources and stimulating economic growth, recognising “that a well-rounded strategy for economic recovery cannot ignore the spatial structure of the economy”.  We had a boom that largely tried to ignore the space economy, especially in the construction sector, and look where that’s got us.

The danger with the refresh is that it will be once again largely ignored by departments beyond Environment and Transport, especially by Finance, rather than performing an important guiding role.  In my view that would be a major folly.  The NSS provides a holistic means to join up thinking across a range of sectors, so that we don’t fritter away what resources we still have in a piecemeal fashion.  We need a much more coordinated and strategic approach to managing inward investment, job creation, demographics, transport, services, etc. that matches up need and planning. This also means moving beyond a zero-sum game of development, and targeting investment into selected locations such as the gateways and hubs – which is where the rub will be for many people.  We can either go the route of spreading evenly and thinly, which will lead to everywhere being under-resourced and struggling, or we can concentrate and take advantage of agglomeration, critical mass and sustained growth.  The latter has to be the path we need to follow.

There are plenty of critics who will argue that the NSS has achieved very little over the past eight years and it’s an attempt at ‘Big Government’.  As noted above, it was never given the chance to perform the role it was designed for, and now more than ever we need a decent policy instrument to provide citizens and private business with a strategic plan and road map of state investment.  Now is the right time for it to be rolled out comprehensively and utilised.  That means it has to inform and guide policy thinking across departments and agencies.  If that fails to happen then it’ll simply limp along, and in my view, we’ll have lost an opportunity to help get the economy back on its feet.  And perhaps this makes me sound like a government spokesperson, but on the rare occasions where I think government policy makes sense then I think it’s worth saying so.

Rob Kitchin