Tuesday 24 August 2010

Planners are not to blame for ghost estates as system was not ready for Celtic Tiger

OPINION: The problem was not bad planning – but rather too little of it, writes GORDON DALY

RECENT COVERAGE of “ghost estates” has again raised the question of the extent to which our planning system contributed to the problem.

What is it that our planning system should ideally seek to achieve? How healthy and robust was our planning structure before and during the boom years? These are important considerations in any such debate.

That the purpose of planning is to achieve the “common good” has rightly been enshrined in our planning legislation since the 1960s. However, by the mid-1990s, some 30 years after the introduction of planning legislation, the planning system simply was not ready for the Celtic Tiger.

There were no proper strategic national or regional planning frameworks in place, many county and city development plans were out of date, and there were fewer than 200 professional planners employed in our local authorities. While staffing levels increased significantly from the late 1990s onwards, it only barely kept pace with the extraordinary growth in planning applications.

A study by the Irish Planning Institute in 2007 showed that at that time, 70 per cent of planners were engaged in the assessment of planning applications, with only 25 per cent working in forward planning and 5 per cent in enforcement. It is disappointing that some commentators have sought to scapegoat planners, particularly in relation to “ghost estates”. Much of the excessive or inappropriate zoning was done against professional planning advice.

The planning profession also repeatedly warned that our planning system was not sufficiently “plan-led”. Our planning legislation was simply too weak to deliver this.

The damage caused by a lack of joined-up thinking by government in relation to inappropriate tax incentives, a decentralisation strategy that ran contrary to the National Spatial Strategy and an over-reliance on construction- related tax revenues have already been well documented.

We all agree it is time to move forward. But what should that involve? Firstly, we must deal with legacy issues such as unfinished developments. The quantification of the problem county by county must be followed by dealing with each development on a case-by-case basis.

A “one-size-fits-all” approach will not work. Banks, including Nama, which now own these developments, must put people before profit – particularly in the worst cases where there are obvious threats to health and safety. It is clear that additional resources will also have to be provided to local authorities to deal with the issue.

Looking to the future, we must finally have a more “plan-led” system. In this respect, the Planning Development (Amendment) Act 2010 is to be broadly welcomed. The new “core strategy” provision will for the first time make it compulsory for development plans to be consistent with national and regional planning policies.

Enhanced legislation, however, is not enough. There must be willingness by all stakeholders to embrace the spirit of what is intended, and we must possess the knowledge, skills and resources to make it effective. There are five immediate priorities:

The promised “refresh” of the National Spatial Strategy due next month should be presented for comment and should not be considered a fait accompli.

A formal training process on planning for our councillors needs to be put in place, as policymaking has become increasingly complex.

The proposal contained in the report of the Local Government Efficiency Review Group to cut the numbers of planners in local authorities must be reconsidered, as it fails to heed the lessons of the past. It also does not recognise the demands of the new Planning Act, or that surplus staff from the reduction in planning applications have already been reassigned to the increasingly complex and demanding areas of forward planning, economic development and enforcement.

The continued absence of comprehensive and co-ordinated research on planning matters must be addressed.

Local communities must engage to a greater degree in the making of development plans for their areas. The innovative idea of Minister for Planning Ciarán Cuffe to include children in the public consultation process for the first time might perhaps help bring the adults with them.

There is much to be done. For too long there has been a narrow view that planning is merely about permission and zoning. We have mainly suffered from a lack of planning, rather than bad planning. For too long the tail wagged the dog. We all have a role in planning a better future.

Gordon Daly is the newly elected president of the Irish Planning Institute.

Irish Times


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