The changing focus of the Planning function

November 15, 2012

The local government reforms announced by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on the 16th October received relatively limited coverage in the national media. The coverage primarily focused on the abolishment of the 80 town councils, missing, in effect, some of the most transformative ideas in public management since the foundation of the State. A key feature of the proposed changes relates to the local authority planning function which, if the reforms are carried through, will fundamentally alter the planning role at local level.

One of the enduring criticisms of existing planning legislation is that it over focused on individual planning consents and the scope for planning taking a pro-active approach to create sustainable communities was as a result restricted. This was further affected by a relative ambiguous approach to the implementation of the National Spatial Strategy at national level while the central importance of the cities of Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway was not fully developed (perhaps with the exception of Forfás) across government departments and agencies, particularly in their role as drivers of economic and social development. No matter how focused any one local planning authority might have been on sustainable development, for example, in the absence of a more general cross government policy application, much of the potential from such local thinking would be lost, and vice versa.

The gaps arising in local spatial policy have, at last been recognised through a more substantive implementation of the current regional planning guidelines but there is the continuing challenge of bringing such integrated thinking into effect at both local planning authority and state agency levels. The Government has clearly recognised that this is an on-going challenge as it highlighted the need for integration in the public policy arena with the publication of the national sustainable development strategy “Our sustainable future”. In what has to be a welcome proposal this thinking is carried through into the local government policy statement and now, if fully implemented, will place the planning function at the heart of a vibrant local democratic process which will be central to local social and economic development.

As a central feature of the renewal of the planning function, local authority planning will no longer be simply centred on spatial policy, important as that is but will, rather, place the spatial dimension of local policy within a sustainable policy framework which provides for economic, social and cultural development. Such thinking is not, necessarily, new as both the Devolution Commission and the Task Force for the Integration of Local Government and Local Development clearly called for policy integration some twenty years ago. What is different is that the policy statement clearly appreciates that planning policy is not just something that planning authorities should be concerned about but that most economic and social policy stakeholders have a role as well as responsibility to ensure that planning is delivered sustainably.

Thus the policy envisages an integration across the tiers of government in the State, from local to regional to nation but also, and in line with most other European Countries, an a diagonal basis across agencies as well as the local and regional authorities.

So what does this mean for planning?
The proposal to introduce Regional and Economic Strategies which will be given effect though national policy adoption will, for the first time if implemented, provide a regulatory framework for enforcing regional policy, something long absent in planning in Ireland. The adoption within the county/city development plan of an economic development plan along with a county/city community development plan will pull together into a statutory process, policies which are both critical to spatial development but also need in their own right to be underpinned by such policies. As such the beginnings of a genuine local sustainable strategy, in the form of the renewed county/city development plan beckons if the intentions and objective of the reforms are fully carried through.

Importantly, given the focus of Our Sustainable Future, policy coherence within the statutory basis of a renewed county/city development plan, will be further underpinned with the alignment of local development and local enterprise creation with the mainstreaming of local, community and rural development into the local authority policy process and upwards into the business planning of the national development agencies. Giving effect to this, radical, thinking will clearly require detailed guidance from the national level but the intent in the policy statement will be welcomed by those that have been calling for such integration over the past twenty years.

For those in planning in local government there will be a critical need to up-skill on understanding that economic development is not just about zoning lands for industrial development but is more about creating the conditions in which economic activity can flourish. Equally, for those in local development there will be the need to build up capacity in understanding the dynamics of spatial development and the impact local and community development can have to quality of life, understanding the dynamics of Ireland’s environment while those at State agency level will need to recognise that local democracy is a central feature to a vibrant entrepreneurial and competitive economy.

Capturing such thinking within a development will be a great challenge but actually applying it even greater given the diversity of thinking that comes with seeking integration across different policy fields. Ensuring that there is an iterative cascade of thinking form the national to the regional and local planning framework will require the sort of detailed guidance from several government departments which has being applied to the adoption of the “core strategy” in recent planning reforms at local level.

Furthermore, with a possible move towards a single local area plan for each of the new municipal districts (the proposal for which was almost totally disregarded by the national media!) and the possibility of building on some of the more innovative community planning initiatives in local development, it actually be possible that in a matter of years Ireland could finally have a fully integrated planning framework from the very local to the national encompassing all features of a proper planning and sustainable development framework. A real move towards that long lost idea of Agenda 21?