The right moves: Culture change needed for National Planning Framework to succeed
Project Ireland 2040, the Government's plan to "make Ireland a better place for everyone", is welcome, ambitious and overdue. As distinct from previous plans, it links the spatial planning part (The National Planning Framework) to the financing part (The National Development Plan 2018-2027) and that, combined with the intention to make the plan 'statutory', gives the initiative its best chance of success. However, a change of culture will be needed among the politicians, the planners and the people, if the plan is to succeed.
For an expert view on the implications I met John Downey of Downey Planning and Architecture. Downey, who is also Chair of the Royal Town Planning Institute Ireland, was on the National Advisory Group, which had three years of input into preparing The National Planning Framework (NPF.) Downey welcomes the plan but fears that "60 years on from the Buchanan Report, we are no further on in planning for population growth and sustainable living".
He is concerned that the plan has been diluted by two 'political insertions': The draft plan provided for 50pc of development to take place in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford, but in the final plan, Letterkenny, Sligo, Dundalk, Drogheda and Athlone have been added, to take 30pc of national development. And while the draft plan supported a ban on more 'one-off' rural houses (except for farmers), the final plan sees such houses also permitted on 'social and economic' grounds, which undermines the strategy.
The implications of restricting growth in Dublin, in order to promote growth regionally, are stark. As Downey points out, the plan aims to restrict growth in Dublin to 25pc of national growth. However, Dublin is currently growing at almost twice that rate. Halving the rate of development in Dublin, he suggests, may require de-zoning land outside the M50, which I see as a huge challenge for county councillors. That will also dramatically increase land values inside the M50, which should also benefit from higher densities under the 'compact living' aspirations.
The plan increases the requirement for houses to be built from the 25,000 annually in 'Rebuilding Ireland' to 30,000 to 35,000 annually. The obvious question arising is; how can we hope to meet that target, if we are failing miserably on the lower target? Part of the solution may be the creation under the plan of the new Development and Regeneration Agency, which will be tasked with generating development on underutilised land (including State land.)
Downey strongly supports that move and stresses that the new agency must engage with local authorities on details such as services, and oversee the local authorities doing the work, to avoid becoming a "national quango".
Downey also pointed out that the plan proposes the integration of the four Dublin planning authorities, which he believes is highly desirable. "There should be one Metropolitan Area Planning Authority for Dublin, with one, accountable Director of Planning, rather than four separate authorities. There are even areas of green belt inside the M50, solely because they are legacy boundaries between the authorities. However, he fears that the move to a single planning authority will not happen as it will be resisted by the public service.
Downey is pleased that we will now have a good 'top-down' planning system, that is national, regional and then local, rather than the existing 'bottom-up' development led system. The making of regional plans, he points out, will mean delaying the review of some local plans, for example the County Meath plan, for approximately a year.
Tom Dunne, Head of the Surveying School at DIT, supports the plan and pointed out that the problem with our larger cities is sprawl and not population. He emphasised the "magic dust" of what planners call "agglomeration" which sees cities grow exponentially because of the combination of population and activity.
However, he warned that this can only happen "at scale" and strong growth will be harder to achieve in regional centres. "Braking development in Dublin, to try and promote growth elsewhere, risks losing growth nationally," he says.
I strongly support the plan, but its only chance of success is if it can be made statutory, so that it cannot be messed with subsequently. That statutory status is already being questioned politically. For the plan to succeed, planners will need to be brave, politicians will need to take a less local view, and urban residents will have to stop objecting to more development in their back yard.