Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Planning for a sustainable Ireland

I drafted this editorial on planning and economic recovery in Ireland a little while ago and it never saw the light of day, so I thought I'd publish it here.

Creating a sustainable, successful society and economy requires a well thought out, comprehensive planning system that works to maximise efficiencies, returns and quality of life, balanced against fairness and social justice, and minimises wastage, inconvenience and deterioration of services. Effective planning works both sectorially (e.g., economic, health, transport) and spatially (local, regional, urban and rural), blending and balancing the needs of different social and economic sectors within and across areas and scales. Good, strategic planning, along with associated targeted investment, is vital to ensure short and, in particular, long term solutions to the present economic crisis. It will work to position both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland favourably to benefit from a global economic recovery when it occurs.

Over the past twenty five years planning in Ireland has been both progressive and regressive. Planning was transformed from the mid-1980s onward by the rolling out of a new form of entrepreneurial planning that designated certain zones for regeneration using tax exemptions and public-private partnerships as a mechanism to encourage and drive development. The new approach targeted very select, flagship sites such as the IFSC that would seek to attract specific industries, notably those of the service sector. Similarly, the Industrial Development Agency (IDA) was charged with encouraging inward investment by skilled, manufacturing companies to selected, ready-made and serviced sites, accompanied by grants and other incentives. As a result, planning became more pragmatic, flexible and results-orientated, focusing on areas that were perceived to have the highest potential for success. This approach, while not free of problems, was successful in providing the planning conditions conducive to encouraging inward investment, gentrification, and speculative property development that drove the Celtic Tiger economy. Planning thus became more responsive to creating the environmental and spatial conditions necessary to attract inward investment (whilst at the same time creating an abundance of problems through poor implementation that ultimately has led to NAMA).

From the late 1990s this was complemented by a spatial planning approach driven in part by the new territorial strategy devised for Europe by the European Spatial Development Perspective. This led to the formulation of the National Spatial Strategy in the Republic and the Regional Development Strategy in the North. The NSS and RDS aim to achieve a better balance of social, economic and physical development across Ireland, supported by more co-ordinated and effective planning at the regional and local level through Regional Planning Guidelines and Local Development Plans. In order to drive development in the regions, the NSS proposed that areas of sufficient scale and critical mass be built up through a network of urban gateways and hubs that links Ireland more effectively into a European and global economy. Effectively the NSS is designed to build connections between urban centres and the creation of new relationships between urban and rural areas to capitalise upon the potential of all regions to contribute to sustainable development into the long term.

Despite these initiatives, the public perception of planning in the Republic is that it is at best weak and at worst corrupt, and that the economic successes of the Celtic Tiger happened in spite of planning decisions and provisions rather than because of them. While the latter assertion can be debated, there is plenty of evidence – both from the press and anecdotally – that planning has been performing sub-optimally. There are many reasons for this including cronyism, too many different institutional bodies and vested parties being involved in the planning process (there are 88 local planning authorities in the Republic plus government departments and semi-state agencies such as the EPA and NRA), a reluctance to prosecute planning offenders, a high turnover of planners from the public sector to private sector developers, and a failure of elected parties to deliver on political promises. The result has been widespread, inappropriate development projects consisting of poor quality housing with weak infrastructure and services (such as no or low public transport provision, a lack of schools, health services and shops), an oversupply of one-off housing, and disinvestment in public housing. In addition, the timing of the NSS was unfortunate as it missed the opportunity to be tied to the NDP 2000-2006 funding stream and was undermined by the decentralisation plan that ignored its recommendations. It now underpins the NDP 2007-2013, although that plan is being massively revised in the face of budget cuts.

While an economic recovery might happen regardless of planning decisions, the chances of long term, sustainable success are greatly increased through a strategically aware and robust planning system. This means, on the one hand reform of the planning system, and on the other the implementation of the NSS and RDS and investment in sectorial and spatial planning initiatives. If these two reforms take place then planning will help create balanced regional development by ensuring equal access to infrastructure and resources necessary to ensure the businesses are not disadvantaged by locating beyond the major cities; regenerate areas blighted by social issues; enable the rolling out of the green economy; implement a sustainable/low carbon transport infrastructure that promotes economic development; and put the housing and commercial property sectors back on an even keel. Moreover, planning on a cross-border basis, where there is a matching up of investment on key infrastructure projects and the sharing services, will lead to new opportunities and cost savings and efficiencies.

Our long term future needs to be driven by a strategic, sustainable, robust planning system that formulates and implements investment decisions that will pay back handsomely into the future. Planning needs to be seen and positioned at the forefront of providing long term solutions to our present economic predicament. It has to become a central plank of our strategy for recovery, not seen as a distraction or a hindrance. This means, in particular, reform of the planning system and pushing ahead with the NSS initiatives.

1 comment:

Mark Gerard Keenan said...

Stumbled across your article - some good points, but like many people you are under the impression that GDP growth and sustainability are closely linked - they are not.

in fact there is no scientific basis for GDP growth - sustainable GDP growth is an oxymoron on a finite planet. Check the work of herman daly, limits to growth book by meadows etc etc Regards Mark - Phd researcher Sustainability.