Thursday, 10 December 2009

We need good planning now more than ever

Judging from the range and intensity of media debates that followed our recent flooding experience, it seems that some crucially important issues have come into clearer focus for many people. For some, there is a new sense of urgency in the way that they speak about climate change and the environment while for others there are unfamiliar questions to be asked about how basic human needs such as clean water, shelter and sanitation can be met in times of crisis. The importance of community spirit, voluntary work and public service - particularly ‘front line’ emergency services - are all seen in a new light.

On another level still there is a sense of helplessness and, quite understandably, a strong desire to lay the blame fairly and squarely at someone’s door – the council, the ESB, the developers, the so-called experts, the EU, the government. Surely there is a baddie out there who can be made to account for all this devastation? Or, in some way, do we all have to take a little bit of the responsibility? How can we begin to understand all of this? Who are we to believe?

For me, this whole episode is another example of how now, more than ever, we in Ireland need proper planning and sustainable development. We need to set aside the rhetoric and begin to understand clearly how planning permissions are granted, how land is zoned and released for development and how different interest groups can influence planning decisions. We also need to assess and understand, both now and into the future, how these decisions impact on people, on our towns and villages and on the environment generally. And, because these can sometimes be quite complex and difficult questions, we also need to engage in mature and responsible ways with the issues that come up –even if from time it involves making tough decisions.

Many people might be surprised to learn that, with very few exceptions, the power to make planning decisions in this country rests solely with local politicians (in the case of zoning) and with city and county managers (in the case of planning applications). These are difficult and very responsible roles to carry out especially when you consider that very few councillors in Ireland - or local authority managers for that matter - have any formal training in urban and regional planning. Recent examples in Ennis, where excessive amounts of land were zoned against planning advice, and Co. Monaghan, where lands in a flood plain were zoned also against professional advice are cautionary tales. This is why it is important that the opinion of qualified council planning staff is taken on board and given serious consideration before decisions are made.

If the flooding of recent days has taught us anything it is that unsustainable planning decisions are not victimless crimes. While placing new buildings in flood plains is obviously problematic, we should also remember that the scale of future flooding can be influenced by how we zone land and grant planning permissions in other areas too. The accelerated rainfall runoff caused by hundreds of acres of newly impermeable surfaces such as tarmac and concrete can change the downstream flooding characteristics of our rivers irreparably: sometimes with dramatic results. Yet all of this can be foreseen, modelled and prevented. Research, data gathering and flood mapping is more and more effective and sophisticated. The engineers, planners and other specialists in city and country councils understand these issues very well and are in a position to manage them properly.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that the voice of the specialist planning professional has weakened somewhat in recent years. Even though the number of planners employed in local authorities has increased in recent years to deal with complex changes in legislation, their objective planning advice is often not given adequate weight when decisions are made. Also, in the reform of local government services over the last few years, the post of Chief Planning Officer in Cork City, Cork County and other authorities were abolished. Records show however that that theirs were among the very few voices of caution that were expressed during the years of the construction boom.

In public service departments such as planning, which are expected to be run more and more like businesses these days, perhaps we have taken too narrow a view of who the customer is. Is it the developer who pays a hefty planning application fee? Is it the neighbour who pays a fee to make written observations? For some participants, a lot of money can be at stake in the outcome of a zoning or planning application decision. Obviously, different kinds of power relationships then come into play and the concept of the ‘customer’ can be fraught with moral questions. For example, as we are led to believe, can the customer always be right? And what about those people who never in their lives made a planning application or observation but whose homes and workplaces were recently flooded? Surely they were just as much the ‘customers’ of the planning system? Going further, if we are serious about the concept of sustainable development, perhaps we should also try to consider the needs of the generations yet to come - after all, the worst effects of some bad decisions won’t be noticed for many years after they were made.

Until now, setting aside the planners’ advice - which tends to focus on the common good rather than individual interests - has somehow been seen as not very serious. For example, to a society hungry for development at all costs, the consequences of over-zoning were seen as benign: “sure what harm would it do?” The recent floods have highlighted the folly of this approach in particularly dramatic ways. But there are other serious - though not as spectacular - knock-on effects too. Other examples of our casual attitude to planning decision-making include scattered patterns of individual house permissions across the rural landscape - in their thousands each year - and the development of workplaces and retail centres on peripheral ring road sites that are remote from homes, public transport and other facilities. These things were simply seen as dynamic symbols of economic progress while the specialists’ arguments about sustainability and proper planning got lost in all the excitement. As a result, individuals and communities for many years to come will have to deal with the declining vibrancy of many city and town centres, unsustainable commuting patterns; daily congestion, accelerated habitat loss and serious land use challenges in rural areas regarding social isolation and finding the best locations for utility lines, quarries and other essential infrastructure.

Short term pragmatic decision making, with barely half an eye to the big picture has brought us to this point. Its latest and most alarming manifestations are in the flooding crisis and the NAMA debate. Now is the time for people to take planning seriously; from now on only the highest standards of decision making should be expected from those with responsibility. Whilst the planning profession and the planning schools will continue to play their part, real change in my view will only occur when civil society, politicians of all parties and the population as a whole engage maturely with the issues, listen to specialist advice when it is available and be prepared to make tough decisions when they are needed.

By Brendan O’Sullivan. Brendan is a chartered town planner and chartered engineer, is Director of UCC’s Programme in Planning and Sustainable Development, Ireland’s newest planning school.

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