It's time to quiz planners for their part in the crash, says ISABEL MORTON
AS THE next few rounds of the blame game get going, including the banking enquiry, one wonders when our 88 different planning authorities and more importantly, our planning appeals board (An Bord Pleanála), will get much more than a sharp slap on the wrist for their part in the property fiasco which resulted in some 300,000 homes lying empty.
No doubt individual planning authorities, much like the banks and the developers, were only interested in what was going on in their own back yard, but one would have to wonder how and why An Bord Pleanála upheld permission for so much of what was built during the Tiger days.
An Bord Pleanála’s mission statement is “to play our part as an independent body in ensuring that physical development and major infrastructure projects in Ireland respect the principles of sustainable development and are planned in an efficient, fair and open manner”.
Surely, as an independent body, An Bord Pleanála was responsible for ensuring that local planning authorities didn’t lose the run of themselves? Why did they permit so much to be built, in so many obviously unsuitable locations, over such a long period of time?
Indeed, much like the Financial Regulator, Bord Pleanála could have gone a long way towards stopping the property train from going off the rails. But it didn’t and, so far, has managed to escape the nation’s wrath.
As we recently discovered, it was not just a simple case of getting the numbers wrong and allowing too many units to be built; it permitted many developments to be built in areas which were at risk of flooding and had poor infrastructure and inadequate services and facilities.
Furthermore, there appears to have been no control or any overall planning strategy, which might have prevented many minuscule one and two-bedroom apartments, none suitable for families with children and many of inferior design and construction, being built.
Ironically, last October 2009, at the launch of Bord Pleanála’s 2008 annual report, its chairman, John O’Connor, said he was “concerned that developers may be tempted, in the present market, to return to lower density development. However, national policies on building more sustainable communities for the future do not favour a return to old-style density development due to the greater than ever need for the most efficient use of expensive infrastructure, for increased environmental sustainability and for less urban sprawl.”
Of course developers will be “tempted” by lower density developments of houses rather than apartments, as there would hardly be much point in building more apartments to add to the unsold glut.
However, Minister for the Environment John Gormley recently recommended an amendment to the Planning and Development Bill 2009, which he brought before the Dáil last December. He said: “I have also taken a strong stance with certain local authorities by issuing directions requiring them to amend their development plans where they have included excessive or inappropriate zonings,” suggesting that planning authorities should consider using existing “down-zoning” provisions.
“It is no coincidence that our commuter towns are now suffering the most from the economic downturn. These are the towns where house upon house was built, and field upon field rezoned, with little thought given to flood risk assessment, or where nothing was provided by way of community facilities or amenities. This is not my idea of sustainable communities. Scatterings of estates, poorly linked by transport, under constant threat of flooding, distant from schools and dependent on transport by car, must become a feature of our past, not our present or future.” He explained how the Bill included the introduction of “flood risk assessments” as part of proposed future planning applications and recommended that all land zonings would have to be the subject of public consultation.
An amendment to the Bill is undoubtedly necessary; however, you can’t but wonder at the point of closing and locking the stable door at this stage. Gormley’s most interesting comment, however, came following his acknowledgement of planning departments’ increased workload and his respect for locally elected councillors, when he said: “I do not want their work contaminated by that small number of people who use the planning system for their own gain.”
His statement was a clear acknowledgement that all has not been well within planning departments. No doubt, they will be the next on the long list of organisations, which will be made subject to lengthy public (yet behind closed doors) enquiries. Like a large onion, there is always another layer to be peeled. And with each layer, come more tears.