The National Spatial Strategy-Time to get it back onto the National Agenda?

September 6, 2012

Policy processes are played out within the public arena as well as within political institutions which are local, regional and national. In addition, international institutions are having an increasing impact on the policy processes of both local and national government. there are therefore, on-going institutional conflicts between the local and the national policy systems of government in most countries. differing perspectives on policy development and implementation apply at local, regional and national level. As a result public policy-making is not just about making policy, it is also about implementation and the management of the conflicts which will arise in both making and implementing it.

The current organisational form of the “ideal” public service, if it is to provide a policy environment which supports and complements economic and social development, must therefore move beyond current limited applications of hierarchical and vertical policy development and service planning. Doing so allows for the development of diagonal governance. In other words systems of governance which move outside of traditional sectoral silos and which respect the functionality of communities and their place. Such thinking was a clear feature of the original National Spatial Strategy where, for the first time in the Irish case, policy-makers at national level began to appreciate that planning involves not just deciding where houses should go but that those houses exist within a community which recreates, retails, needs transport, education and healthcare.

However, for the NSS to have worked, called for, in governance terms, policy processes that needed to be both hierarchical i.e. from local to national, given the influence of the centre, and diagonal, i.e. across Departments because of the multi-functional service and planning role they play. This was clearly understood by those driving the process forward. However it was not appreciated by the General political Body at national level for reasons we are all too familiar with and, therefore, the great potential that the NSS brought in policy terms was largely lost. The planner at local level, much criticised in the recent past, needed to have clear national policy direction in transport and housing to be sure, but equally clarity in health, education, economic development and rural development etc.

Such clarity, unfortunately was not necessarily forthcoming in the past decade, undermining in effect, many of the critical objectives of the Strategy. In addition, it is evident that the lack of buy in by senior political and administrative levels since the publication of the NSS furthered diluted the possible potential of the Strategy. It comes as no surprise that on many occasions in the past decade, notwithstanding the Spatial Strategy, it seemed as if government led policies were conflicting with each other and on many occasions just ignored the Strategy.

A lesson we must, in the context of current prevailing conditions, learn is that it is even more essential that public authorities and their programmes can no longer be simply focused on a particular policy arena emanating from a single Department or Minister. National institutions can no longer be the mechanistic corporate bodies directed by a singular political view that Weber suggested in 1947. Rather, they are a part of a dynamic form of governance. The important factor is not the determination of who does what or indeed who holds the resources per se. Rather the challenge is about ensuring that central government is equipped to interact through a policy framework which has the necessary flexibility to influence the policy choices associated with public management at local level and vice versa.

The creation of the capacity to think through policy impact becomes a key requirement, particularly within a multi-dimensional policy process. This becomes even more significant when policy is being determined through an administrative process at central levels, but will be delivered locally with probable implications for the local electoral process. In a country like Ireland, which many associate with centralisation rather than autonomous local government, it becomes more critical therefore to have national policy systems apply integrated thinking, the sort of thinking originally envisaged in the NSS but so clearly ignored by successive political administrations.

What this means is that the spatial planner necessarily must consider the broader policy process. Equally the sectoral policy planner, regardless of the thematic consideration, has to factor in the spatial/territorial impact of the policy being developed by his/her colleagues in other public policy applications. In the absence of a territorial application, education policy, for example, may undermine rather than underpin the socio-economic sustainability of an area because the schools are not available or are put in the wrong place because the education policy-maker did not think about the spatial policy which places people in a particular location to live.

This challenge can only be addressed through the creation of a relationship between the horizontal planning processes of local and regional governance (i.e. those charged with policy responsibility in the State) with those of the State and the international environment such as the influence of the European Union, hence the importance of having a sustainable development policy for the country. It also must address the diagonal nature of cross-boundary planning and policy overlap. This is so as policy influences will arise outside of the immediate territorial or organisational boundary. Equally, however, a failure to address institutional restructuring at the two upper levels of governance i.e. regional/national and national/international will negate most integrationist actions at local / regional level. Integrated planning requires, as a result, a complementary political and administrative commitment to reform at national level.

This will be of particular importance to a public service which is going to see considerable re-structuring in the short-term. the possible migration of back-office services to national or contracted out arrangements will not come easily, even with goodwill on the part of unions and employers. The idea that government Departments will retain their silo mandates and that spatial planning can be “left” to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government with perhaps the Department of Transport having some input will not be sufficient. the institutional model, which suggests specialised thematic policy implementation at national level, will not work, no more than the model it is intended to replace. Until we get the message that communities live in a spatial context, using health, education, transport and other services as a normal feature of day to day living, and create governance arrangements which respect this reality, until we realise that policy must address communities in a place-shaping framework, until we actually begin to apply the thinking which the National Spatial Strategy set out so succinctly, we will continue to encounter the policy disjointedness that is such a feature of the Irish governance environment.

Even if we begin to move in this direction it will have to be translated into substantive re-structuring of the public service. Retaining current 19 century institutional arrangements at national and local levels is not the way to position the country to confront the challenges of a 21st century society.