Tuesday 21 October 2014

Community, not just profit must be blueprint for planning

Mary Crowley

Published 02/06/2014 | 02:30

The Government is to publish its construction plan next month

RECENT commentary has expressed the view that complexity and rigidity in the planning system is holding back development and fuelling a housing supply shortage and a housing bubble. Confidence and certainty are key strengths the planning system brings developers but repeated, sometimes conflicting, calls for the knee-jerk relaxation of planning standards under the banner of 'reform' undermines this. It attempts to reframe a strength as a weakness, sowing confusion and cynicism.

The planning system must always be responsive but it would be a retrograde step to install the laissez faire approach to planning that some advocate. There is scope to deal with some types of applications or minor alterations more quickly. However, the pressure to 'fast track' large development or facilitate major changes to approved projects without planning or community oversight must be resisted. When examining proposals, planning does not seek to put unnecessary hurdles in the way of good development that complies with the objectives of the development plan. As Department of the Environment Ministers Phil Hogan and Jan O'Sullivan's foreword to last year's Local Area Plans – Guidelines for Planning Authorities states, we must focus on "settlements and place, rather than just development ... We need to plan for communities, not for profit".

Serviced urban land remains a scarce resource and professional planners are the experts in ensuring it is effectively managed for the long term. Planning correctly now gives us the best chance of avoiding storing up issues for the future. We cannot lose sight of the fact that climate change is the greatest long-term challenge facing the planet and that unsustainable, car dependent, badly designed patterns of development today block the way to a low-carbon future. Part of this is ensuring that we make the most of vacant and underutilised land in and around our city and town centres. Focus on the long term and sustainable development is the key characteristic of planning that must never be compromised and we must heed the lessons of the past. Planning cannot endorse marginal or low-quality proposals again.

The Mahon Tribunal report emphasised the importance of long term, evidence-based planning research, something lacking since the abolition of the State's built environment research institute An Foras Forbartha in the 1980s. The Irish Planning Institute is of the view that this is something the proposed Office of the Planning Regulator must address. Good quality data, such as that from the Housing Agency, is now becoming available to set out actual housing needs and the sizes of homes required, rather than leaving it in the lap of what the construction sector might be geared to build or consider most profitable.

Planning is the main interface many people will have with their local authority and the planning application process is probably the highest value transaction (in terms of time, money and ambition) that anyone ever conducts with their local council. For example, residents might never have to deal directly with their local roads department and are unlikely to spend months preparing to meet their local librarian to borrow a book, making planning and the planner a potential lightning rod or scapegoat. Planners understand the time, effort and personal and financial investment individuals, families and developers put into projects. In this context, as a professional institute, we are conscious of the importance of local authority planners being proactive and accessible without compromising the priorities expressed in the development plan.

There must also be a commitment at national and local government level to ensure that planning departments are adequately staffed and resourced to guarantee applications are dealt with as efficiently as possible and to safeguard consistency and accountability in the decision- making process. Many of these have seen significant reductions in staff in recent years. The alternative is a backlog in pre-planning meetings and applications that will further harm people's perceptions of planning and lead to more calls for 'reform'.

The tools now exist to deliver more certainty, speed and quality, including core strategies (which ensure local policies are consistent with population projections) and government-designated Strategic Development Zones, such as that recently approved in Dublin's Docklands. Ensuring the delivery of quality place making for people must now be firmly front and centre and the ingredients are now there to get it right. One doesn't have to look much further than the broad suite of national guidelines that have been published in recent years placing quality, sustainable development firmly on the national agenda.

The planning system is ready but other partners need to step up to the mark and put forward appropriate, high quality proposals in line with national and local aspirations. It is now time for all actors in the sector to step away from the microphones and get on with the job of delivering sustainable places.

Mary Crowley MIPI is president of the Irish Planning Institute

Irish Independent

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