After 11 years at the helm of Irish planning, John O’Connor said the appeals board had rejected many such schemes, “often in the teeth of local and media criticism”, but it permitted some “which with hindsight it might have refused”.
Addressing the Irish Planning Institute’s annual conference a month before he is due to step down, he said: “Perhaps a few shopping developments that were too large or too remote from town [and] city centres got through.”
He said it was “undeniable that the centres of some of our cities and towns have been badly affected by the flight of retailing” to out-of-town centres. But the retail planning guidelines and decisions made by the board had “prevented a much worse situation”.
He described the new motorway network, much of it approved by the board despite considerable opposition, as one of the lasting benefits of the boom era and said the board had protected it against “piggyback” local development.
Mr O’Connor said many sections of Irish society were now in the process of “evaluating how things were done in the past and how matters can be improved for the future” and said planners “must participate fully in this national reappraisal”.
He said the choice of location for major public or private sector projects should have a much stronger planning input.
“Planners should be part of the site selection process and not seen as people to be brought in to make the planning application afterwards,” he said. He added that he found it extraordinary that developers and banks made significant decisions about land purchase and development without any apparent input by planners.
He said the greatest failures in Irish planning revolve around the zoning of land, which is “the issue that has brought the system most into disrepute”. The “excessive and unsustainable” zoning of land had contributed to the property bubble and its aftermath, he said.
He welcomed the 2010 Planning Act’s emphasis on the need for local authorities to have a “core strategy”, saying this “will avoid a repeat of the disorderly sprawl of inefficient and wasteful development and restore credibility to the planning system”.
He said he had never had an improper approach about planning, and that the board’s reputation for independence and integrity was ultimately its most important attribute.
He complained that councils took “widely different approaches in interpreting and applying” sustainable rural housing guidelines. In some cases, “undue pressure being brought on planners” and the “lack of transparency” could lead to “huge frustration”.
Referring to the proliferation of one-off houses, Mr O’Connor said the planning system had not done enough to protect the unique Irish landscape, “which is a cultural, environmental and economic asset of inestimable value: once destroyed, it cannot be restored.
“There is a theory that there is an element of chaos in the Irish character that makes us sceptical of regulation or planning – ‘rules are there to be broken if you can get away with it’. This may account for some of our very serious failings over the past decade.”
He said this may also explain why the Irish body politic has been reluctant to fully embrace spatial or land-use planning. Such planning would involve agreeing visions for development at the national, regional and local levels, involving difficult choices, he said.
The National Spatial Strategy “needs to be reviewed to take account of radically changed prospects” and this could allow for a serious debate about the future of development planning, he said.
Given Ireland’s “severely diminished level of resources”, planning “has a crucial part to play in national recovery – in terms of efficient and economic planning and use of infrastructure [and] protecting our environment and natural and built heritage,” he said.