Sunday 12 November 2006

The Practice of Regional Planning in Ireland

The Practice of Regional Planning in Ireland

Ireland’s planning system is supposed to have adopted a tiered approach from the national to the local level. We are now meant to see the planning system as a policy tree: from the National Development Plan, to Regional Plans, to Development Plans, to local plans. This is the way Irish planners want the public to understand planning policy implementation. People need to see the bigger picture, to understand what planners are trying to achieve each day, to understand that planning is meant to be strategic.

Brief history of statutory regional planning

Anyone with a specific interest in Irish regional planning may know that regional planning was not mentioned at all in the founding legislation for Irish statutory planning: the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 1963; even though the intention existed while the Act was still a Bill.

That’s not to say the need for regional planning was not recognised at all!

Although not required to produce regional plans under the 1963 Act, when the 1963 planning bill became law, the Minister, recognising a need for some regional planning, grouped the counties into 9 physical planning regions, to facilitate the co-ordination of development plans, and appointed consultants to prepare advisory reports on two of them – The Dublin Region (Prof. Myles Wright of Liverpool) and the Limerick Region (Nathaniel Lichfield and Associates) – both good reads! Subsequently, in an attempt to resolve the sensitive issue of selectivity with regard to centres of growth (just like decentralisation some areas were going to gain and others lose and others be ignored entirely), Buchanon and Partners were asked to complete regional studies for the remainder of the country. The Buchanon report was published in 1969 and regional development organisations (RDOs) were established in each of the nine planning regions the same years. These unelected bodies consisted of representatives of local authorities (councillors and managers), various other state sponsored organisations and the Minister for Local Government. The function of the RDOs was to co-ordinate the programmes for development in each region and their first task, the production of regional development reports, was concluded in the early 1970s. Despite little commitment to them from local or central government, which was reflected in their limited allocation of resources, the RDOs continued in existence until 1987, mainly to co-ordinate the work of the various state development agencies. They represent Ireland’s first attempt to co-ordinate planning across jurisdictional boundaries.

Regional planning was finally put on a statutory footing by the 1991 Local Government Act which empowered the Minister to establish regional authorities. In January 1994, eight such authorities were established under The Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 1993 (Regional Authorities) (Establishment) Order 1993. And they covered the whole country.

Dublin Regional Authority

Mid east Regional Authority

Southeast Regional Authority

Southwest Regional Authority

Midlands Regional Authority

Midwest Regional Authority

West Regional Authority

Border Regional Authority

Membership is composed of city and county councillors selected by the constituent authorities and, in his press release on their establishment, the Minister for the Environment carefully reassured the local authorities that these regional bodies would not diminish or restrict their powers (so are they toothless? There’s another debate!). The regional authorities have been given two functions: (1) promoting the co-ordination of the provision of public services on a regional basis and (2) monitoring/advising on the implementation at regional level of the various Operational Programmes for delivery of European Union Structural and Cohesion funds.

As part of its co-ordinating role, a regional authority is required to review from time to time the development plans of local authorities in its functional area and within two years of being established, and thereafter at five yearly intervals, to prepare a regional report covering the overall development needs of the region, the review of development plans and the provision of public services.

By mid 1996, all 8 regional authorities had produced a report. The approach taken to the mandatory review of constituent development plans varied greatly in these reports. It has been noted that where planners had a strong input into the report’s preparation, the final documents reflected a corresponding strength in terms of spatial issues.

The regional authorities are not statutorily empowered to take strategic decisions. Although a number of them interpreted their mandate liberally, enlarging their brief to produce reports which, in some cases, are explicitly plans and, in others, have a considerable degree of policy content, the regional reports are of persuasive value only.

In 1999, a non-statutory report of far more planning significance on the regional scale was drawn up for the local authorities in the Greater Dublin and Mid-east Regional Authorities.

The Strategic Guidelines for the Greater Dublin Area were prepared at the initiative of the Department of the Environment, to provide an overall strategic context for the development plans of the relevant planning authorities and to provide a framework for investment in sanitary services, transportation and other infrastructure.

The guidelines set out a logical development strategy of maintaining a compact metropolitan area while developing strong growth centres in the hinterland. Many of the policies contained in the guidelines are being delivered through the development plans of the constituent local authorities.

Before moving onto look at the most recent strategic plans, such as the national spatial strategy, it is necessary to consider the impact the EU has had on recent regional planning, as it has made the whole issue of regional planning a complicated one.

Regional assemblies

Regional planning was given a new impetus in mid 1998, with the discovery that Ireland’s recently achieved prosperity would leave us excluded from the highly lucrative Objective 1 status under the next round of EU Structural funding (2000-2006). In November 1998, after an extended period of political consultations, the Government proposed to divide the country into two regions to ensure that the poorer counties, which still had incomes below the EU threshold for Objective One areas, could continue to draw down the maximum level of EU funding. It was initially thought that this would result in some genuine devolution of power, if only to satisfy the requirements of the European Regional Affairs Commissioner.

Fifteen counties were selected for inclusion in the disadvantaged or west coast region. These were the counties forming the functional areas of the existing Western, Midland and Border Regional Authorities plus counties Kerry (South West) and Clare (Mid West). The Government was able to show clear differences in relative wealth between the west and east of the country, with dependency on agriculture much higher in the west which had not experienced economic growth similar to that of the east over the period of the 1994-1999 National Development Plan. After assessment by Eurostat, the statistical service of the European Commission, the Minister for Finance announced to the Dail that with the exclusion of Kerry and Clare, the regional proposals had been accepted by the EU. In April 1999, development strategies for each of these approved regions were published as inputs to the 2000-2006 National Plan on behalf of a joint committee representing the existing regional authorities in each of the NUTS II regions (The Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics (NUTS) is a Eurostat term meaning the uniform breakdown of territorial units for the production of regional statistics throughout the EU).

To give effect to the new regionalisation, two assemblies were established as and from 21 July 1999, with membership drawn from the existing 8 regional authorities. The Border, Midland and Western Regional Assembly based in Roscommon and the Southern and Western Regional Assembly located in Waterford City. The functions of the assemblies centre mainly on the promotion of coordination among local, regional and other public authorities.

Here’s the confusion! Because the existing regional authorities remain unchanged there are now four layers of administration (central, supra regional, regional and local).

What’s this to do with planning?

This material is all important for understanding why regional planning has finally been placed on a statutory footing in the 2000 Act. From a position of virtual abandonment of regional policy during the 1980s, Ireland has now moved back to a situation where there is widespread acknowledgement of the importance of balanced regional development and growing interest in its effective implementation. This understanding now extends to acknowledging the spatial dimension to economic and social development and the impact on people’s lives on a daily basis.

Due to the success of the land use strategy for the Greater Dublin Area, EU pressures and growing realisation that many of our policies are spatial in nature: for example, the National Sustainable Development Strategy; Waste Management Strategy; Land Use Planning and Regional Planning Guidelines; Rural Development Policy; Coastal Zone Management; National Spatial Strategy & the European Spatial Development Perspective; and the National Employment Action Plan. We now require co-ordinated planning more than ever before.

What’s happening now?

The National Spatial Strategy is made. In early 2000 work began on the National Spatial Strategy which ended with its publication in November 2002. The National Spatial Strategy (NSS) is a coherent national planning framework for Ireland for the next 20 years.

To achieve its objectives the Strategy will have to be driven forward. Structures and mechanisms to integrate the Strategy into planning and activities at government, departmental, state agency, regional and local levels are being put in place. The purpose of this is to ensure that it shapes the spatial aspects of public sector planning, policies and programmes. The Strategy will also be rolled out through regional and local authorities, starting with the preparation and adoption of regional planning guidelines.

To support the implementation of the NSS as a "big picture" framework for achieving the Government's objective of more balanced regional development, effective planning strategies are needed at regional level. Spatial planning at the regional level must work within the overall approach taken in the NSS, while providing more detail and establishing a development and spatial framework that can be used to strengthen local authority development plans and other planning strategies at county, city and local level.

Implementing the NSS now requires that “Regional Planning Guidelines” be put in place across the country. Strategic Planning Guidelines for the Greater Dublin Area are now in place (OVERHEAD) and other regions are at various stages. Regional Planning Guidelines (RPGs) must encompass a socio-economic vision and context for more detailed planning guidance. These guidelines will all take the form of a single document and – this is the important bit - will act as a regional framework for the development plans at city, county and through the county or city plan, other local plans as well. Project Managers and Steering Groups have been appointed to assist each of the Regional Authorities in preparing guidelines. Planning authorities, the enterprise agencies and the Department of Transport and other relevant Departments and Agencies will also be involved in this process.

In order to achieve this and this is also an important bit of this material, provision has been made in the Planning & Development Act 2000 to extend the process of creating regional planning strategies to all other Regional Authorities. Thus, Regional Authorities now have responsibility for preparing Regional Planning Guidelines.

The Minister for the Environment and Local Government also made two other legal instruments to support the process of preparing RPGs on 1 May 2003.

1. The Planning and Development (Regional Planning Guidelines) Direction 2003 formally directs each regional authority to make Regional Planning Guidelines for the whole of its region. (Note: the Dublin and Mid East Regional Authorities were directed to jointly review the Strategic Planning Guidelines for the Greater Dublin Area (1999) and to make new Regional Planning Guidelines in respect of the whole of the combined area of their regions). The Regional Planning Guidelines Regulations set out a number of requirements in relation to the preparation of Regional Planning Guidelines. In particular, by way of the Regulations, in accordance with powers under section 23(4)(a) of the Planning and Development Act 2000, the Minister has specified that the National Spatial Strategy is of relevance to the determination of strategic planning policies. This means that regional authorities are obliged to take account of the NSS when making regional planning guidelines for their areas.


2. In February 2003, Guidance Notes were issued by the Department to assist regional authorities in preparing guidelines.

For the purposes of this course, it is important to understand what the Act says:

This responsibility is encapsulated in section 21 of the 2000 Act under “Power to make regional planning guidelines”. It says “a regional authority may, after consultation with the planning authorities within its region, or shall at the direction of the Minister, make regional planning guidelines”. Such guidelines can be made for a whole region or for one or more parts of a region. The Minister may direct one or more regional authorities to make regional planning guidelines in respect of the combined area of the regional authorities involved or in respect of any particular part or parts of the area which lie within the area of those regional authorities.

Where it is proposed to make regional planning guidelines, the regional authorities concerned must make whatever arrangements they see fit to prepare the guidelines (i.e. work together to do so).

Interestingly, because they came first, the Act gives statutory effect to the Strategic Planning Guidelines for the Greater Dublin Area which we discussed previously. The Guidelines cover the areas of Dublin Corporation, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, Fingal County Council, Kildare County Council, Meath County Council, South Dublin County Council, Wicklow County Council and were produced by the Department of the Environment and Local Government in conjunction with the Dublin Regional Authority and the Mid-East Regional Authority (published 25 March, 1999).

The Minister may make, and as we have seen has made, regulations concerning the making of regional planning guidelines.

Section 22: Where a regional authority intends to make regional planning guidelines in or to review existing guidelines it must consult with all the planning authorities within the region. Authorities must co-operate and assist (including financially). The amount of assistance is determined by proportion of the population of the area.

Under section 25 of the Act, The authorities concerned must agree on a procedure for preparing and making the regional planning guidelines, including the establishment of committees to oversee and consider preparation of the guidelines. The process is managed by committees, but the making of regional planning guidelines is a matter for the members of the regional authority concerned.

Section 23: The objective of regional planning guidelines is to provide a long-term strategic planning framework for the development of the region for which the guidelines are prepared for a period of not less than 12 years and not more than 20 years. The guidelines must address the following areas, in accordance with the principles of proper planning and sustainable development

Regional planning guidelines must also contain information on the likely significant effects on the environment of implementing the guidelines.

Those preparing guidelines must consider the Ministers regulations and guidance notes.

The guideline must take into account: the statutory obligations of any local authority in the region and any relevant policies or objectives for the time being of the Government or of any Minister of the Government, including any national plans, policies or strategies specified by the Minister to be of relevance to the determination of strategic planning policies.

Consultation process for regional guidelines:

Section 24: Once arrangements are made a regional authority must give notice of its intention to make the regional planning guidelines. This notice is circulated to

the Minister, the Board, the prescribed authorities and any town commissioners in the area and shall be published in one or more newspapers circulating in the region for which the regional planning guidelines are prepared (the required content of the notice is detailed in section 24)

Any submissions made must be considered before preparing the draft regional planning guidelines. Once a draft is made, notice and copies are sent to the same groups as previously notified (again the contents of the notice are detailed in the Act).

A copy of the draft guidelines must be available for inspection for 10 weeks and submissions or observations may be made at this time. Following the consideration of submissions or observations the regional authority shall make the regional planning guidelines subject to any modification considered necessary. It then publishes notice of this in newspapers and makes copies available for inspection.

Review of guidelines:

Section 26: Where a regional authority has made regional planning guidelines, it must, not later than 6 years after the making of such guidelines and not less than once in every period of 6 years thereafter, review such guidelines and when so reviewing, it may revoke the guidelines or make new regional planning guidelines.

You may be wondering what happened to regional reports?

We have seen how, under Article 14 (g) of the Regional Authorities’ Establishment Order 1993, Regional Authorities were required to prepare “regional reports” every five years. We saw how the first ones were published in 1996. However, the next reports were postponed to enable account to be taken of the National Spatial Strategy (NSS). To overcome this at the time, regional authorities were requested to produce a regional strategy instead of a regional report.

There is a good deal of potential overlap between aspects of regional planning guidelines and the task involved in preparing a regional strategy. Overlaps could arise particularly in the areas of research and analysis on matters such as population, development patterns, reviewing development and examining economic performance.

The regional strategy is intended to take a strategic overview of the development of the region, how it is progressing and what the strategic priorities are in policy and developmental terms.

Regional planning guidelines deal with many of the practical manifestations of the overall strategic policy and development priorities, e.g. how many houses will be needed in the region ‘and’ how can settlement and transport be integrated. The provisions of the 2000 Planning and Development Act require regional guidelines to act as a planning framework. Such a framework needs to be set within a robust and appropriate set of broad strategic policy and development objectives. It makes sense therefore to draw the two processes together by preparing regional planning guidelines within the legislative framework of the Planning and Development Act, but incorporating within these guidelines a broad developmental context for the region.

The Minister’s guidance notes show how both processes are meant to be integrated in preparing a single document for each region – “Regional Planning Guidelines”.

The regional authorities are at various stages of the process.

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