THE PROPOSED National Assets Management Agency (Nama) needs to be part of a different future for Irish planning, compared to the developer-led approach of the the boom years, according to John O’Connor, chairman of An Bord Pleanála.
In an outspoken address to the National Housing Conference in Sligo yesterday, he said Nama needed to be “more than a financial exercise” if it was to maximise benefits to the public, and this should include providing sites for schools, enterprise and amenities.
Mr O’Connor said the mooted property tax offered an opportunity to begin tackling the long-standing issue of the value of development land. The absence of such a tax had contributed to the bubble and militated against sustainable planning.
“Land value tax . . . would drive sustainable development, promote logical behaviour and stabilise the market,” he said. It would also reduce pressure on local authorities to grant planning permission to generate revenue for themselves.
He urged local authorities to be pro-active in giving concessions on development levies and making more use of compulsory purchase powers to promote good developments, even at a small-scale, in the right locations such as town centres. During the boom years, Mr O’Connor complained that councillors and local authority managers had succumbed to vested interests and the “any development is good development” syndrome.
“Developers and vested interests had undue influence on plan-making [and] little regard to statutory development plans in buying land and designing schemes,” Mr O’Connor said.
Banks had also ignored planning parameters in lending to developers. Local authorities had often failed to vindicate their own development plans or sent the wrong signals to developers. Land values were “subverted” and many bad planning decisions had to be overturned or amended by An Bord Pleanála on appeal.
He said the current recession was a time to reflect on lessons from the recent past, giving architects, planners and developers an opportunity to start laying the groundwork for a resurgence in the housing market – after it eventually stabilised.
“A ‘plan-led’ system is more efficient, equitable and publicly acceptable than a ‘developer-led’ system,” Mr O’Connor said. “Development plans must be externally and internally consistent: zoning should reflect policy objectives and avoid exceptions.”
Seán Ó Laoire, president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland – which jointly organised the conference with the Department of the Environment, said one of the tasks we faced was to “clean up the mess” left by the boom.
The current recession meant “we now have a chance to ameliorate, remediate and recover”, he told some 200 participants.
He said “this time of crisis” should be used to set out a vision for the renewal and well-being of Irish society . . . “to openly interrogate our mistakes and system failures [and] articulate the economic and social dividends of good governance, planning and design”.
It was a cliche for politicians to talk about developing a smart economy when they didn’t have “a skeleton to put flesh on”. Instead, Ireland should focus on becoming a smart society, based on being collectively rather than merely individually creative.