Wednesday 6 April 2011

No return to bad old days, but planning decisions best left to local government

OPINION: I WAS surprised and disappointed with the tone and content of the article in Thursday’s Irish Times by Frank McDonald (“Minister risks returning to bad old days of planning”) regarding the Government’s and my own intentions in respect of introducing further improvements to the planning system with a view to making it more accountable, more transparent and more effective.

This journalist has neither sought a meeting with me nor attempted to understand my views and objectives in respect of my new ministerial responsibilities, so I consider his views presumptuous.

It is a matter for the Taoiseach to decide who is assigned responsibility for the various departments and I am honoured to serve in Enda Kenny’s Government in whatever manner will best benefit the citizens of this country.

The Government has made no secret of its intention to strengthen local government by, for example:

Moving many of the functions being performed by agencies, such as community employment and enterprise supports back to local government;

Introducing a shared services approach across local authorities in the delivery of key services such as technology support, human resources and fire services;

Reforming local governance structures to allow for devolution of much greater decision-making to local people in areas such as economic development and local healthcare needs.

McDonald has been selective in critiquing the Government’s planning policy. Insofar as planning is concerned, our very first commitment in the programme for government is to seek to better co-ordinate national, regional and local planning laws to achieve better and more co-ordinated development that supports local communities instead of the previous system that favoured developer-led planning.

It is surprising that McDonald’s piece fails to mention this or the other key changes we are proposing, for example, making local transport initiatives an integral part of local development plans. This Government wants development activity to happen in the right place and at the right time and is determined to move away from the inherent failings and problems arising from Ireland’s previous developer-led planning system.

We can see the results of such a system everywhere – unfinished estates, inappropriate zoning and a lack of joined-up thinking between central and local government and between the public and private sectors.

Mismanagement of property development and planning, enabled by failures in banking, has damaged our country and its reputation. Learning from these failures and continuing the reform process is a priority for myself and Minister Willie Penrose.

A pillar of the programme for government is the need to introduce reforms that will enhance the role of citizens and community representatives in decision-making and in policy formation on a collective basis.

To clear up any misgivings that McDonald might have, this Government intends to build upon the many planning reforms introduced in the 2010 Planning and Development (Amendment) Act, integrating planning policy across the various levels and embedding environmental considerations into the very core of decisions on plans and permissions for development.

Local authorities around the country, including Fine Gael controlled councils, are working hard in reviewing their plans to incorporate new strategies.

I believe that decisions affecting local people are best made locally, with the support of the centre, recognising local situations but also working to achieve regional and national planning objectives.

This collaborative approach will benefit the locality, regions and the country in social, economic and environmental terms – the essence of sustainability.

Building on recent key reforms, I therefore want to ensure that my role as Minister is one that enables the process of continuing reform from within the planning system and through greater consultation and transparency rather than controlling the process from above.

In further developing specific objectives to deliver on these commitments, I hope to have the opportunity in the future to outline my views and policies to journalists like McDonald so that there is no further misunderstanding of Government policy in this area.

Phil Hogan is Minister for the Environment.

Irish Times

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