Monday 11 October 2010

Children with crayons would have made better councillors

THE sorry rezoning mess alone is reason enough to turf most of the country's city and county councillors out on their ear come the next election.

Every serving politican who calls looking for a vote should be quizzed in great detail about their zoning decisions because it is these people who have left us with a multi-billion euro mess that will take years to sort out. Toddlers with maps and coloured pencils could have made a better fist of proper planning.

Councillors essentially just declared everywhere suitable for housing. No political party is immune from criticism. They were all at it.

We have 114 local authorities for a country with a population of just 4.2 million. There are 1,627 elected members, many of whom have their eye on national politics and a Dail seat.

What the figures from the Department of the Environment show is that none of them had their eye on the ball when it came to their local area, and they have let their communities down dreadfully.

Zoning is a function of 88 local authorities and their councillors. They make the decisions on where is deemed suitable for housing, and the decision is theirs alone.

But we didn't cause the mess, they'll say. We didn't grant permission for all these houses, many of which are lying empty.

True, they didn't. But through their rezoning madness they allowed the situation to be created where planning was expected.

The figures are staggering. A population increase of more than four million people was needed to make proper use of the landbanks zoned.

That this didn't happen is hardly a surprise -- while high, Ireland's birthrate isn't so impressive that we can churn out the numbers of babies needed to become mortgage-holders in the near future.

Cheap credit fuelled the boom and resulted in high prices being paid for land. There was no joined-up thinking on what was good planning, and every council in the country was keen to cash in on development levies -- worth €700m a year at the height of the boom.

But where was the oversight from central government -- which was footing the bill to install water systems, roads and all other utilities -- to support a housing development?

There wasn't any because senior politicians were loathe to get involved in local matters because of the outcry that would arise from their meddling.

Planning is not an exact science, but there is a range of policy documents which are supposed to set out how an area should be developed on a national, regional, county and local level.

But until the new Planning and Development Act, signed into law this summer, local authorities were only required to "have regard" to these strategies instead of being "consistent with" as is now required.

The figures show that in practice they were essentially ignored. That the Government announced decentralisation to towns not earmarked for growth showed there was no leadership from the top.

But the Environment Minister did have the power to step in and issue a direction for a local authority to de-zone land, although it was rarely used.

Between 2004 and 2008 they intervened in six development plans belonging to Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, Laois, Monaghan, Castlebar, Mayo and Waterford.

Four of those interventions came from the present minister, John Gormley. One case, that of Mayo, perhaps best illustrates the thought process that has led us to the current mess.

In 2007, councillors proposed zoning six times the amount needed to meet future demand in its county development plan.

The Department of the Environment expressed concerns, including one that instead of clear, robust policies being implemented, there were "non-specific principles".

The county manager said it went against professional advice, and could lead a deterioration in drinking water quality

Notwithstanding the issues raised, the councillors adopted the plan.

When the minister stepped in and forced them to de-zone, they told the Dail Environment committee they were "astounded" he had intervened.

"We are not prepared to allow the meltdown of the social and economic structures of our county. Should the minister's intervention be successful it will ensure the death of rural Mayo," Fianna Fail councillor Al McDonnell told the committee.

It wasn't about one-off housing in rural Ireland. It was about stopping the spread of housing estates outside villages, towns and cities.

It was about leaving some greenfield sites for future generations to enjoy. It was about calling a halt to the madness and trying to have some order on development, instead of developers dictating what should happen.

NOW is the time to decide whether or not we trust local communities (and their politicians) to plan their own futures, or should we leave the decisions with central government?

The current strategy hasn't worked -- 2,700 ghost estates is testament to that. But what's the alternative? Let Dublin decide?

This is the last throw of the dice for the councillors. In the next year, they will have to bring their plans in line with national policy. And when the dust settles, and the country gets off its knees, those toddlers better have grown up.

We can't afford to get it wrong again.

Paul Melia
Irish Independent

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