Thursday, 25 January 2007

Is the NDP built on poor foundations?

This is what Frank McDonald writes in The Irish Times:

The experience of the past 10 years, according to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, "shows the need for, and benefits of, longer-term policy planning to ensure that we rise to the challenges and maximise the opportunities facing us".
Would that this were true. Although the word "sprawl" is mentioned nowhere in the latest National Development Plan (NDP), the document concedes that most of Ireland's population growth "is taking place in the urban hinterlands".
Among the resulting changes, it says, "are longer commuting times, increasing car numbers and usage, and serious congestion difficulties with attendant impacts on competitiveness, quality of life and the environment".
Had the last NDP been properly focused, some of these negatives could have been avoided - for example, with a determined effort to ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing in Dublin and the smaller cities, in order to curb sprawl.
Instead, the Government adopted a laissez-faire approach to planning, with the result that Dublin's commuter belt now extends to 100km and the same is true, to a lesser extent, within the orbit of Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford. There is much emphasis in the new plan on balanced regional development, with the Taoiseach saying implementation of the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) "is crucial to our ability to absorb the huge population growth predicted over the next 20 years".
As the plan says, "economic development in all countries, including Ireland, invariably occurs at a different pace in different regions", reflecting many different factors, "some of which can be directly influenced by Government policy".
The dramatic growth which Dublin has experienced is inextricably related to the fact that it "has spearheaded the growth of the Irish economy" and thus, in terms of scale and significance, it's on a different level to other NSS gateways.
The key question about the latest plan is whether it will succeed in developing these eight gateways and nine "hub" towns in a way that would ensure their growth and prosperity while simultaneously taking some of the pressure off Dublin.
As the NDP says, long-term population trends show that the economically stronger regions are those with large urban centres containing a high proportion of their population. In that broad context, some of the gateways hardly qualify at all.
The best bet in counterbalancing Dublin would be to strengthen the "critical mass" of the Atlantic gateways of Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford, both individually and collectively, to develop a second "major metropolitan corridor".
However, apart from better road links between them, there is not much on offer to Ireland's second-tier cities - though one of Cork's real strengths is its scale, which is equivalent to the combined populations of Limerick, Galway and Waterford.
Yet, notoriously, when it came to "decentralising" public servants from Dublin, the Government ignored Cork city, opting instead to scatter them around smaller towns throughout the county, from Clonakilty right round to Youghal.
Had the Government paid any attention to its own spatial strategy, this would not have happened. So now there isn't even a clutch of civil servants to people a single office block that would help underpin the redevelopment of Cork's docklands.
How can this be reconciled with the new NDP's declaration that promoting regional development "will aim to ensure that each NSS gateway region maximises its potential for economic and social development"? The answer is that it can't.
It is simply disingenuous to say, as the plan does, that the "direct instrument [ of decentralisation] will strengthen . . . the hub, smaller town and rural structure and complement the key and dynamic role to be played by the gateways".
As for the new Gateways Innovation Fund, worth €300 million over three years, each of the nine gateways (including Dublin) will have to make bids for a share of the money for projects that are not funded by "mainstream capital programmes".
This pilot programme is intended to "stimulate and reward joined-up thinking at local and regional level [ and] bring about better co-ordination in regional development and to support distinctive and innovative projects in gateway areas".
But there is a stick as well as this carrot: local authorities that adopt policies which are inconsistent with the NSS by facilitating development patterns such as extensive low-density housing "will not be favoured by investment under this plan".
In addition, Minister for the Environment Dick Roche "will as necessary use his powers under the planning Acts to compel local authorities to adopt land use policies that are consistent with the NSS and the regional planning guidelines".
Mr Roche has already intervened to curb the over-zoning of land in Laois by issuing a planning policy directive under the 2000 Planning Act, and he may well do the same in the case of Monaghan County Council's recent spate of land rezoning.
Roche's predecessor, Martin Cullen, declined to use these powers in 2002 to halt the over-zoning of land around Gorey, Co Wexford, even though there was evidence that up to 70 per cent of its new residents were commuting to Dublin.
The capital's sprawl was allowed to continue unabated, piggy-backing on major road improvements financed under the last NDP. It remains to be seen whether the Government will really crack down on similar piggy-backing on the latest plan.
At least it talks about the importance of promoting a switch from car to public transport. The critical issue for Dublin, it says, is to ensure that the range and quantity of housing as well as transport and social infrastructure can accommodate its population within the region, served by high-capacity public transport.
The real shame is that this was not recognised and made a priority by the last NDP.

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