Saturday 15 December 2018

'Government's €116bn master-plan for Ireland 2040 will only work if we change our mindsets'

Members of the Cabinet sit on stage during the launch of Project Ireland 2040. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Members of the Cabinet sit on stage during the launch of Project Ireland 2040. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

While an enormous sum, the €116bn capital spend is the least important part of the Government's grand plan, Project Ireland 2040.

It is relatively easy to spend money, assuming you have it. The success or otherwise of this plan will not be seen in the successful delivery of a Metro, road or hospital.

If this is working, we should begin to see the results in Census 2021 when we consider how our urban and rural areas have developed, and if the aim of consolidation and growing the regions is working.

Investment in public transport, cultural facilities, climate action and the water and road network is hugely important. But this spend only represents the goodies, the razzmatazz that ministers hope will get them returned to office.

What will be far more difficult to achieve is changing mindsets to allow high-density in our cities; spurring redevelopment of brownfield sites or dilapidated urban areas; transforming towns and villages into innovative and sustainable communities and seeing a shift in attitude where greenfield sites are only built upon as a last resort.

There are lots of places where planning has worked, and large parts of our urban areas are fine places to live and work. The problem is there are lots of places left behind. As a nation, we should ensure that citizens feel they have a future wherever they choose to live, and not be forced to move in search of opportunity.

The strategy says that half the future growth of some one million people by 2040 will take place in Dublin and the regional cities of Galway, Limerick, Cork and Waterford. To encourage development outside the capital, a special €2bn Urban Regeneration Fund will be created to open up lands for development, to provide roads, bridges and other services. A similar fund of €1bn will be available for rural areas.

But one immediate concern springs to mind. Will every city or local authority area get a slice of these funds, or only those which are quick off the mark to develop ambitious plans? While there cannot be something for everybody, there has to be an element of fairness. Cork County Council, for example, is a huge local authority. It is likely to produce plans for both the urban and rural fund in a relatively short timeframe.

Contrast that with a smaller council, say Leitrim or Roscommon. Do they have the expertise in-house to develop such plans? If they don't, and have to seek outside help, will they be penalised for delays? This needs to be clarified. There are also a number of concerns around housing and development. It is important that people have choice in terms of where they live, but the mistakes of allowing unfettered one-off housing are well known - parts of the country without sufficient numbers of children to sustain a school, health centres operating well-below capacity, rural roads serving small populations which require massive ongoing investment.

That said, it's important that settlements are allowed to thrive, but the rules around one-off housing have to be clarified. Saying that development is allowed for social or economic reasons is vague and open to numerous interpretations. Is a house allowed because I farm the land? Because my parents live there? Because I used to take holidays in the area?

Besides, the conditions should be put in place that people want to restore an existing property or build a home in the centre of villages and smaller towns, rather than feeling that a one-off home is their only option. It gives the benefit of providing much-needed footfall to sustain businesses and services already in place.

There is concern too around housing developments of scale. Some councils have granted permission for schemes that have later been overturned due to insufficient density. Instead of following local and national planning policy, where a minimum amount of homes must be provided on urban sites, councils have allowed far fewer.

What's the result? Urban sprawl continues, buses don't have the passengers to justify the service, and local shops struggle to remain open.

The Government is planning to put in place an independent planning regulator, tasked with ensuring that planning policies are appropriate and adhered to. The question is how many planning applications will they see? It cannot possibly be all, there are simply too many, but will it be enough to ensure the plan remains on track?

While 20 new homes means nothing in the context of Dublin, Waterford or Athlone, it can change the fabric of a village. If not appropriately sited - on a greenfield plot on the outskirts, instead of the vacant site in the middle - the aims of the plan will be scuppered from day one.

Above all, this plan needs public and political buy-in. It says just one in five houses should be in rural areas, but if planners enforce the rules, will they be supported by elected members?

Enhanced powers to compulsorily acquire urban lands are welcomed, and the right to refuse permission in areas which are not earmarked as priority locations, but councils needed to be backed in the inevitable legal cases that will arise.

We can argue about whether certain projects should or should not be built, but at the very least we should foster a system of making best use of what we already have, and avoiding unnecessary spend on services to new communities, where others could be regenerated. At the very least this represents a vision. If we disagree with that vision, we should engage and provide alternatives to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

The services that should be in your area under the national planning framework

Smaller settlements & rural areas

Shop, pub, post office, petrol station, local hall, GP, pharmacist, childcare, business units, primary school, broadband, play areas and clean sewerage.

Smaller towns and villages

All of the previous, plus supermarkets, mix of shops, restaurants, Garda station, enterprise centre, library, primary and social care services, community centre, sports facilities, recycling centre, water and sewerage systems, campuses of higher education, link roads and bus/rail services to larger centres.

Large towns

Shopping centres, retail warehousing, range of restaurants, water and sewerage treatment plants, leisure centre including pool, arts/culture centre, outpatient and diagnostic services, minor injury clinics, further education including higher education institutes, major roads, bus and rail, park and ride, cycle network, industrial parks, tourism office, courthouse, probation services and Garda district offices.

Cities

Department stores, specialist shops, arts and cultural facilities, power generation, museums, galleries, concert arena, acute hospitals, higher education institutes, ports and airports, key transport routes, signature tourism projects, major industrial parks, strategic development zones, Garda HQ, High Court and prison.

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