Wednesday 6 February 2019

'Better planning: reforms for sustainable development' by IBEC

I have read IBEC’s recent report: ‘Better planning: reforms for sustainable development’. Any substantive contribution to planning debate in Ireland is to be welcomed. But what does it say? The Report welcomes the appointment of a Planning Regulator and points to areas that it hopes the Office will address in streamlining plan making and the co-ordination of resources with the planning system.

While the report’s comments are worth a read, it must reasonably be noted that the process leading up to the recent appointment of a Planning Regulator took years of work by many bodies, including the Irish Planning Institute. Input from all relevant bodies was sought during the process.

For planners, the Regulator represents one of the most significant changes that has ever been made to the Irish planning system. The Regulator was only appointed in late December 2018 and it is, in my view, a bit early to start judging its performance or likely performance (proposing to change its functions before it has used its existing powers seems premature). It needs to find its feet so to speak. Only then can it start to address many of the areas of change emphasised by IBEC.

There is no doubt that areas of Irish planning require change and that there is impatience around the pace of that change – the Regulator will help in some of these areas (e.g. transparency, independence of decision making, etc.), I am not convinced though that it will be the Regulator, and not the Government through the relevant Department, that makes the decisions on some of the changes proposed by IBEC.

The IBEC report also addresses other areas including:

1. The need to speed up the CPO process. While this is certainly an area that needs attention, it can’t be at the expense of undermining the constitutional right for fair hearing. In my experience, it is the arbitration process that takes a long time and it is this that needs to be reviewed.

2. The need for a CPD programme for local authority planners. In my experience, local authority planners are well qualified and receive support to add to their qualifications and to attend CPO events.  What is actually needed is a move to register all qualified planners and to protect the title of 'Town Planner' in the same way that ‘Architect’ is now a protected term. It should not be the case that other professionals can mislead clients into thinking they are qualified planners when they are not.

3. The need for more local authority planners. I agree that more planners are needed; however, we are now in a position given the huge back log of graduates awaiting planning employment, to choose the most qualified. How can we do this? In my view there needs to be some distinction between planners who hold undergraduate degrees and those who hold a Masters degree (or more) in planning. The reason why wages for planners are so high in local authorities is that planning was once considered a highly technical discipline that required and recruited those with Masters degrees from primarily UCD and Queen’s Belfast. With the introduction of undergraduate degrees in planning (in DIT, Cork, etc.), graduates with a lower level of qualification are now – and have been for some years - directly competing for entry level planning jobs (Graduate Planner. Assistant Planner, etc.), with those who have higher level qualifications. And, they have been and are getting the jobs – I do not understand this as it completely dismisses the additional year or two years’ work undertaken to get the Master’s Degree.

In case you think this is unfair, ask yourself, if you were going for an operation, would you like to be worked on by the person with the most advanced degree or to take pot luck on a person who may be very good notwithstanding he/she left third level education with only a degree?

Under the Irish university system, students qualify with Ordinary Bachelors degrees (NFQ Level 7) or Honours Bachelors degrees (NFQ Level 8). Universities also offer Masters (NFQ Level 9) and Doctoral (NFQ Level 10) postgraduate degrees. It should reasonably be the case that those with NFQ Level 9 qualifications (or even Level 10) should be recruited prior to those with NFQ7 or 8. For me, an NFQ Level 9 qualification should see a planner shortlisted for interview, in every case, above someone with only an NFQ Level 7 or 8 qualification. How can any other position be justified? If local authorities continue to hire NFQ Level 7 graduates over Level 8s and 9s in direct head to head competitions, then some explanation is needed as to why local authority planners are paid so much. The high wages were for advanced qualifications. As with other disciplines, we should hire those who have reached the highest education level – not those who perform best at interviews (the current interviewing style clearly suits some and not others).

I am also of the view that it should not be possible for a planner recruited with a Level 7 or 8 qualification to be promoted past ‘Executive Planner’ without at least a Level 9 qualification. This would justify the very high wages paid to Senior Executive Planners and above. It would also encourage those entering local authority planning with a basic degree to work towards a Level 9 qualification which itself would be excellent CPD. 

Without a qualification framework for planners to work within that positively supports their career development, then what is the point in planners seeking advanced planning and related qualifications? Obtaining an advanced degree or diploma should be a career enhancer, not a waste of time.

I get the impression from the IBEC report that they want to move away from pot luck planning towards streamlined planning. Getting the most qualified planners in the positions most requiring those qualifications is badly needed.

Read the full IBEC report here.

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