Tuesday 4 October 2011

Will Fine Gael keep up green planning reforms?

After elections, people keep a close eye on the promises made by incoming government. Planners are no different. Many wonder whether recent Green Party planning reforms will be maintained by the new government. Planners around the country are currently working on introducing these reforms – especially in the area of development plans – and they need reassurance on this question.

In recent years, there was disagreement between Fine Gael and the Fianna Fail/Green Party coalition over new planning legislation and regulations. The recent Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill process (now Act) 2010 highlighted significant differences of opinion. So, will Fine Gael reverse any of the policies which the Greens say justified their staying in government so long?

This debate finally surfaced in The Irish Times on Thursday, March 31 when Frank McDonald, environment correspondent, wrote an article under the headline “Minister risks returning to bad old days of planning”. In an article which didn’t sit on the fence, McDonald set out his opinion of how he expected Phil Hogan, Fine Gael’s new Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, “to ‘review’ key elements of the 2010 Planning Act”. The Minister had, the previous week, criticised the Act in line with Fine Gael’s opposition during Dail debate in 2010.

The concern expressed in McDonald’s article is that the principles of this legislation, which is supported by practicing town planners (local authority and private sector) will, as planners fear, be watered down. These principles are:

● An end to the zoning of land for which there is no evidence of need. This means an end to speculative zoning.

● All zoning must be consistent with regional planning guidelines and the national spatial strategy.

These changes, which seem like common sense, were opposed by Fine Gael because they water down the power of councillors. Councillors cannot, under the new Act, rezone land unless there is evidence of need and consistency with regional and national guidance. If they try to do so, they can be directed by the Minister not to do so.

In raising his concerns, McDonald referred to the chequered history of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in past over-zoning of land; he noted in particular the actions of Fine Gael councillors which led to Ministerial intervention into rezoning of land in Monaghan.

McDonald’s concern is that the actions of councillors were condoned by party leadership. Questions are asked as to why Phil Hogan wanted the Custom House at all at a time when planning irregularities are under investigation in six local authorities including Phil Hogan’s own constituency. McDonald expects that these investigations will be stopped.

McDonald concluded by stating: “Whatever ‘review’ they carry out of the 2010 Planning Act – and it is to be done jointly – will need to be watched closely to ensure that we don’t blindly revert to the utterly discredited status quo ante”.

The Minister responded to this article on Monday, April 4 under the headline “No return to bad old days, but planning decisions best left to local government”. After expressing due disappointment with McDonald’s article, Hogan refers to his “intentions in respect of introducing further improvements to the planning system with a view to making it more accountable, more transparent and more effective.” The Minister’s article then takes a number of paragraphs to reach any reference to planning policy; when it does references are made to:

● The programme for government which aims to “better co-ordinate national, regional and local planning laws to achieve better and more coordinated development that supports local communities instead of the previous system that favoured developer-led planning” with its “inherent failings and problems”.
● The government’s plans to introduce “key changes, for example, making local transport initiatives an integral part of local development plans” and “to build upon the many planning reforms introduced in the 2010 Planning and Development (Amendment) Act”.
● “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.”
● The Minister then notes how, “Local authorities around the country, including Fine Gael controlled councils, are working hard in reviewing their plans to incorporate new strategies”.

All of these points are welcome, especially the new strategies which are integral to the success of the 2010 Act. They point to new evidence-based planning – not councillor-influenced planning. However none of these points are specific; all are standard Minister-speak of the type found in policy document blurbs.

The Minister’s article avoids McDonald’s central concerns until its conclusion. Here his article refers to “continuing reform from within the planning system and through greater consultation and transparency rather than controlling the process from above”. This is the concern: (Some) planning authorities will need to be policed to ensure councillor influence over zoning does not grow again.

Will the Minister’s Department become Hogan’s heroes and ensure an end to speculative zoning by maintaining the reduced powers of councillors in zoning decisions? Having read the Minister’s article, I am not reassured. The article is replete with platitudes and contains little detail confirming the continuity of recent reforming planning policy. This is disappointing to planners around the country working hard to implement the reforms introduced under the 2010 Act.

The importance of planning to the immediate land use planning needs of this county is underscored by NAMA’s recently advertised post “Planning and Development Advisor”. NAMA and every other landowner needs certainty at this time about the future of Irish planning policy. Minister Hogan has not yet provided this certainty. Frank McDonald has set out the concerns of planners across the country. The Minister’s job is to prove him wrong. Res, non verba.

Brendan Buck is head of planning at bps planning consultants & maintains ‘An Irish Town Planner’s Blog’.

Irish Construction Industry Magazine


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