The National Spatial Strategy was officially scrapped in 2013 by then Minister, Phil Hogan TD.  Soon after, the development of a replacement strategy, the National Planning Framework, was announced.  On Thursday the initial consultation document was published by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, and launched at Maynooth University by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, the Minister for DHPCLG, Simon Coveney TD, and Minister for State for Housing and Urban Renewal, Damien English TD.  It sets out the process and timeline for formulating the full NPF and provides an initial framing of government thinking with respect to what should be included in the plan.

The NSS was widely considered an unmitigated failure for a number of reasons: there were too many gateways and hubs; it was misaligned with its funding stream the NDP; it was not supported by government, agencies and local authorities and was actively undermined; and it was not implemented on a statutory basis (see this post for a full history and explanation). So have lessons been learned?  The Taoiseach would like to think so, stating at the launch that in the NSS, ‘towns were placed against towns, politics against politics … and we are not going there again.’ Instead, the NPF will seek to be more cooperative, coordinated, and regionally based.

The rationale for the NPF is broadly the same as the NSS.  It is to coordinate spatially the development of sectoral areas (economy, transport, housing, energy, education, health) and guide and drive balanced regional development as the population continues to grow.  If development is not managed and it is left to business is usual to deliver shared national goals, then Dublin will continue to expand, the regional cities will have modest growth, and smaller towns and rural areas will stagnate or decline, the document argues.  Instead, the document argues that there needs to be:

  • a coordinated, strategic approach with a twenty year time horizon;
  • this approach needs to be backed by government across departments/agencies;
  • be aligned with public/private investment, including capital spend;
  • a focus on health and well-being, the environment, North-South relations, as well as economic and property development;
  • a recognition that it is a strategy, not a wish list and that it will involve making hard choices;
  • address all parts of Ireland, avoid the perception of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, but avoid unrealistically seeking to treat all parts of the Country in the same way;
  • include a particular focus on implementation and evaluation, with capacity for review.

The proposed approach to organize and operationalize the NPF through the regional assemblies and in alignment with regional spatial economic strategies that are presently being prepared.  Rather than towns competing within a region, they should cooperate and work together as clusters.  And there should be stronger urban-rural interdependence, with large and small towns supporting rural communities.  Nonetheless, it is argued that there is a need for concentrated development of the five principal cities – Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford – and the towns around them, to create strong growth polls for business and to realise agglomeration effects and to create scales of economy/critical mass for service and infrastructure delivery.  Unlike other countries with a similar sized population – Scotland, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand – Ireland has a weak city structure with just five cities with a population above 50,000 (and only two above 100,000), that limits the ability to create balanced growth.  More modest growth will be sought in regional towns.  While growth would be welcome in rural areas, the priority is to stop further decline and to create resilience, sustainability and to improve quality of life.

There are a couple of big challenges in preparing the full NPF and getting it put on a statutory basis.  The first is the seeming paradox between ‘making hard choices’ and ‘addressing all parts of Ireland and avoiding the perception of winners and losers’.  The plan needs to make strategic decisions and prioritize areas for development and investment while also persuading everybody that those decisions are for the ‘national/regional good’ and that there is something there for them.  Given the legacy of the NSS, the localist/clientelist nature of Irish politics, and the siloed nature of government depts/agencies, that will be a challenge.  Second, and related, is given that the proposers are a minority government, the process of getting political support may involve a watering down of the plans aims, or the plan being tweaked in a way that undermines the plan’s logic to curry favour or ensure votes.  Third, in preparing the plan, it needs to be made clear how it will be implemented in practice, how it will be resourced, and how its progress will be tracked and steered back onto course if it falters, to persuade people to have faith that this isn’t a NSS v.2, but a strategic plan that will actually work in practice.

As someone who is in favour of a planned and coordinated approach – through a guiding framework, not a heavy-handed roadmap – the publication of the consultation documents for the NPF is a welcome first step.  The next step is to develop a full plan that can achieve political and public buy-in.  Part of the process to try and ensure this is, on the one hand, to produce a detailed evidence-base and various scenarios, and on the other to invite submissions as part of a consultative phase.

To make a submission about the proposed NPF go to the website and follow the instructions provided; or npf@housing.gov.ie; or write to:

NPF Submissions,
Forward Planning Section,
Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government,
Custom House,
Dublin D01 W6X0

The deadline for receipt of all submissions is 12 noon on Thursday 16th March 2017.

Some related media commentary: RTE 1, Drivetime interview; RTE Radio 1 News at One; RTE 1 Primetime.

For additional information see the Ireland 2040 website.

Rob Kitchin

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Extended precis (PDF of full paper)

The publication of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government’s ‘non-statutory’ Planning Policy Statement (PPS) in January 2015, heralds the prospect of the replacement of the National Spatial Strategy (2002-2020) with a National Planning Framework (NPF). The PPS emphasises that future Planning Strategy should be both evidence-based and plan-led.

As a contribution to these developments, this paper presents a demographic approach applied to the spatial planning context for current housing needs and points to compelling reasons for developing Ireland’s cities whilst curtailing the ongoing proliferation of villages, small towns and one-off housing, and for services provision, infrastructural priorities and related policy issues.

The paper’s first consideration is that of Ireland’s imperative for its emerging housing strategy: to improve its economic competitiveness which is compromised by its small-scale urban content. The State’s modest-sized settlements, with their inevitable diseconomies of scale, present economic handicaps to the provision of both public and private sector services. Unsurprisingly, they are the subject of current services-rationalisation, often of a controversial nature.

The outgoing spatial NSS planning policy is based on the definition of Balanced Regional Development (BRD) which is self-contradictory. In a modern economy, the optimal performance of the State is critically dependent on that of its primary contributors and of their large settlements’ ability to generate urban agglomerative spill-over: not on the BRD definitional illusion of achieving the full potential of each area. BRD is the opposite to achieving settlements of ‘Concentrated Lumpiness’, which would be characterised as centripetal agglomeration: of dense, efficient centres of population and their associated clusters of employment.

The outcome from the 2002-2020 National Spatial Strategy is that its BRD policy has encouraged excessive village and small-town proliferation. Over a fifteen year period to the last census, there has been a 30.6% growth in the proliferation of settlements of less than 5,000 since 1996, but especially so in for smaller town and village categories. Thus future spatial planning should place emphasis on the selective locations for new housing so as to complement and promote urban agglomeration. New house types are likely to introduce double-duplex and other innovative features of urban design, reducing the need for car ownership whilst encouraging more sustainable forms of transportation, suitable for short commutes.

The paper also differentiates between the requirements of the two principal areas of State: the Greater Dublin Area (GDA) and the Rest of State (RoS) areas. It finds that in 2011 there are many striking contrasts between the two areas. Dublin has nearly eleven times the average population size of the four RoS cities. The overall average settlement size for each of the seven categories of towns and villages is also greater in the GDA.

GDA house vacancy rates in 2011 were between just one-third and one half of those of the RoS areas, a contrast that has increased since then. This places an increasing need for focused housing supply-demand research. The wastefulness and inefficiencies of higher levels of current housing vacancy, directly corresponds to the remoteness of a county from its nearest city and particularly so in its further distance from Dublin.

Given the fragile sizes of Irish urban settlements, the emerging spatial planning and development imperative should especially facilitate the growth of larger, selected, populated towns and some cities, so as to counteract the extent of small-settlement proliferation in the RoS villages and Non-Nucleated populations. The housing crisis and affordability issue is also linked to the unsustainability of long and medium-distance commuting, given the census evidence and the geography of daytime working population and to Ireland’s economic competitiveness.

The research notes that from the most recent indications of prospective developments in Ireland’s spatial planning strategy, there is still little evidence that the authorities recognise or appreciate the need for an urban agglomeration ‘top-down’ approach, where the alternative focus continues to be dominated by rural generated ‘bottom-up’ strategies, making the task of achieving urban agglomeration difficult. Thus there have been few opportunities in the RoS area to exploit and take advantage of urban agglomeration forces.

Unfortunately, Ireland has always had a spatial record of eschewing its cities. In 1969 the first ‘modern’ spatial strategy, the Buchanan Plan’s objective of achieving an accelerated growth of fifteen or so of the provincial cities and larger towns was politically rejected. Subsequent ‘politically dominated’ planning strategies have sought to ‘give a little to everyone in the audience’ instead of implementing a policy of concentrating the State’s limited capital resources to a few chosen locations which have the potential to grow at a much faster rate than the norm and thereby ‘capture’ the benefits of scale, of critical mass and of urban agglomeration.

The irony is that if today’s Ireland had such ‘concentrated lumpiness’, this policy direction would have considerably mitigated the depth of the recession that has visited so many of its small towns, villages and open countryside. Agglomerative ‘spillovers’ from larger Regional cities and large towns remains the only certain way to counteract rural decline. Ireland has yet to learn that painful urban economic lesson.

Because of the bias favouring town growth, exacerbated by the population deflection from unaffordable housing in the cities, especially for Dublin, their aggregate growth has been much lower than might otherwise have been expected. During 1996-2011 the State population increased by 26.53% whereas the cities grew by just 16.42%, – i.e. even less than the 17.72% for the non-nucleated rural areas and towns/ villages of 5,000 and under.

This paper concludes that the capacity to generate ‘spill-overs’ are currently constrained, limited perhaps to Dublin and to the CASP area surrounding Cork City. Thus, it should come as no surprise that due to the defects of past strategic spatial planning policies, rural emigration is rife and economic downturn is magnified for regions which do not have large towns but especially cities.

Full paper

Dr Brian Hughes, DIT