There has been a catastrophic failure of the planning system in the Republic of Ireland: few would argue with this statement. This failure not only left our landscape scarred by ghost estates but also contributed to the housing bubble which popped so spectacularly. Have we learnt any lessons on planning? And, as the Northern Ireland Executive shifts planning power from central government to district councils, is it in danger of repeating the mistakes of the Republic?
Popular opinion directs the blame for Ireland’s current crisis at the door of our bankers, our regulators and our developers, but the role of the planning system is less touched upon in pub chatter the country over. As a 2010 report, A Haunted Landscape (Maynooth), puts it: “The banks could have lent all the money they desired, but if zonings and planning permissions were not forthcoming then development could not have occurred in the way that it did”. We have yet to see an independent review of the operation of the planning system during the Celtic Tiger years. Such a review might lay bare the uncomfortable truth: the current planning system does not guard against abuse, and it simply should not be tolerated as is.
The Planning and Development Act of 2010 aimed to move away from the developer-led and poor planning mistakes of the past towards a more sustainable, evidence-based and plan-led approach. However, many would argue that the changes were not fundamental enough and that planning legislation remains unconsolidated. In fact, planning legislation has been amended so many times that even experts struggle to gain a clear overview. As Yvonne Scannell, Associate Professor of Law in Trinity, stated in an interview with irish environment, “You find amendments to a planning act in totally unexpected places. They have not consolidated the legislation and they themselves don’t know what it is”. The consolidated version online is only up until 2010 and Ms. Scannell says that it is “not 100% accurate and cannot be relied on” and cites an example in 2012 when the Department of Environment itself was not sure of the legislation.
Apart from the patchwork nature of the legislation, according to Ms Scannell, part of problem lies in the fact that the responsibility for planning has been laid at the door of our local elected representatives, who are often all too eager to abdicate the responsibility for fear of making unpopular decisions. When drawing up local area plans, elected representatives in some dysfunctional councils simply omit thorny issues, such as landfills or windfarms, leaving the ‘nasty bits’ to the city or county manager. “They say we’re not going to zone for a landfill here because this will be electorally disastrous so we won’t do it, in which case the manager has the power to do it…They are trying to fool the electorate so when their constituents say to them ‘why did you vote for this landfill or that social housing?’ they can say, that wasn’t me, that was the county manager. This is literally true but it is misleading.” When making planning decisions, many county/city managers are wary of riling representatives, who themselves are wary of making themselves unpopular with the electorate. Popularity contests make a shaky basis for decision-making. As the Maynooth report notes, “Planning should provide checks and balances to the excesses of development and act for the common good, even if that means taking unpopular decisions.”
Ms. Scannell has mooted the idea of making planning decisions at regional rather than local level to reduce community pressure that can lead to favouritism and abuse. In Northern Ireland, the power is shifting in the opposite direction with central government devolving planning power, except with regard to projects of significant economic impact, to 11 newly established district councils. The argument is that the new system will be speedier, simpler and more streamlined – good news for developers but is it good news for good planning? The North’s Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood, MLA believes it can be if the right balance is struck. “How are we going to ensure that people don’t have a licence to do what they want…is currently being decided and will be put into law, guidance or regulations. Whilst there have clearly been excesses, wrongs and corruptions in the planning system in the South, 80% of the land mass in the Republic is currently covered by plans and plan-led development is better development than what we have in the North.” See his interview in irish environment.
The Green Party would argue that in the Republic we are stuck in a vicious cycle. It cites the recent decision by An Bord Pleanala to grant planning permission for a petrol station to be built on a floodplain in Carrick on Shannon (on the land of a local councillor), noting unpleasant echoes of Celtic Tiger planning lunacy. “[The decision] to grant permission for a petrol station to be built on a floodplain is shocking. This is clearly another case of development at all costs; we have learned nothing from past planning errors. This land is not suitable for a petrol station and could present a major risk to the surrounding environment and the River Shannon.”
Wherever the changes in the North lead, the consensus among experts in the South is that real reflection is needed. Ms. Scannell suggests, for example, that applications for one-off housing or extensions could be dealt with by code instead of wasting resources on lengthy assessments. She is in agreement with the writers of the Maynooth report that only a fundamental review will lead to real change and ensure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Aoife O’Grady is an Irish, Brussels-based journalist focusing on environmental issues.
Rob Kitchin, Justin Gleeson, Karen Keaveney, Cian O’Callaghan, A Haunted Landscape: Housing and Ghost Estates in Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis at the National University Ireland Maynooth (July 2010). www.nuim.ie/nirsa/research/documents/WP59-A-Haunted-Landscape.pdf
See, also, “Booms, Busts, Ghosts and NAMA: Irish Planning at its Worst” in the Reports section of irish environment (December 2010). www.irishenvironment.com/reports/booms-busts-ghosts-and-nama/
Interview with Yvonne Scannell in the Podcast section of irish environment (May 2012). www.irishenvironment.com/podcasts/interview-with-yvonne-scannell-law-school-trinity-college-dublin/
Interview with Alex Attwood in the Podcast section of irish environment (November 2012). www.irishenvironment.com/podcasts/interview-with-alex-attwood-mla-environment-minister-for-northern-ireland-department-of-the-environemnt/
“Proposed Petrol Station in Floodplain puts River Shannon at Risk,” www.greenparty.ie/news.html?n=181