The current proposals regarding the introduction of a planning regulator in Ireland have the potential, as Gavin Daly suggests to insert a much need level of oversight into the Irish planning system which has been missing to date (notwithstanding the signficant role of An Bord Pleanala as a national appeals body). The question of the relationships between the proposed regulator and existing institutional structures are critically important. Perhaps more fundamental, however, are the implications for how we understand the role of local and regional democracy with regard to planning in Ireland. Given past experience, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a tendency to move a away from a local democratic model of planning to a more hierarchical, technocratic one, but it is important that both the positive and negative aspects of this shift in approach are fully considered. See the comments from Cllr Dermot Lacey on this issue here. The possibility for Regional Authorities to have a role in determining key aspects of spatial strategies at this regional level would seem to me to be worth maintaining and enhancing. A key element here is ensuring buy-in from the local and regional levels of governance. Maybe, an explicit acknowledgment and recognition of the contested and political nature of spatial planning is also needed? It may be helpful to consider the reasons why Northern Ireland is putting in place a major process of reform to decentralise planning powers and competences from the national/regional level to the local level.

Ireland after NAMA

Yesterday, Minister Jan O’Sullivan appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht to outline her Department’s proposals to legislate for the introduction of a Planning Regulator in 2013. The introduction of an Independent Planning Regulator was a key recommendation of the Mahon Tribunal Report published last year. The Tribunal recommended that the Minister for the Environment’s planning policy enforcement powers be transferred to an Independent Planning Regulator who should also be charged with carrying out investigations into systemic problems in the planning system as well as educational and research functions.

The introduction of an independent Planning Regulator, which the Minister has publicly committed to, does not entail a simple ‘bolt-on’ addition to the planning system. It will profoundly alter and transform the entire way in which planning policy has to-date been implemented in Ireland. It is clear from the text of the Minister’s speech that…

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Irish Water and the EU Water Framework Directive: More than a Question of Water Charges

First posted on Ireland After Nama

Commentary on the recent announcement of the establishment of a national water company, has, perhaps, understandably focussed on the related introduction of household water charges. The significance of the decision to establish Irish Water goes beyond the issue of water charges (which was signalled long in advance of last week’s announcement). Given the minimal level of detail provided by government on the specific remit and function of Irish Water, it is as yet unclear, how precisely its establishment will impact on the management of water resources in Ireland. Nevertheless, government decisions across the spectrum of water policy have been delayed over the past twelve months pending the formal decision on the establishment of a national water company, a decision which was expected in September last year. In particular, the question of adequate governance arrangements and resourcing for the implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) has been put on hold.

recent study by the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) on river basin management and spatial planning in Ireland, North and South, found very significant deficits in relation to current governance arrangements and resourcing for  WFD implementation. The study furthermore outlined three ‘strategic options’ for WFD implementation, each involving different institutional arrangements. These strategic options which include reference to the (expected) establishment of Irish Water are reproduced below:

A. Establish the implementation of River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) as a function of regional government

Allocating responsibilities to Regional Authorities would establish a clear linkage between river basin management and strategic spatial planning. It would also allow for a significant concentration of resources and expertise at the regional scale and thus development of the required critical mass for effective action, which is not currently available at the level of local authorities. The spatial mismatch between the boundaries of Regions (NUTS III) and River Basin Districts would, however, require a high degree of close cooperation among Regional Authorities. Regional Authorities would also need to act in close cooperation with the water management and spatial planning sections of local authorities, as well as coordinating with sectoral agencies and stakeholders. Imposing an additional layer in an already cluttered and complex governance landscape brings inherent risks which would have to be carefully managed.

B. Centralise implementation responsibility under a new National Water Company/Agency

The current Fine Gael / Labour Programme for Government, includes proposals for the establishment of a National Water Company, provisionally known as ‘Irish Water’.  This is likely to be a semi-public agency that will sit alongside the Office of Public Works (OPW), EPA and others.  This organisation could be established with a clear remit in relation to RBMP implementation from the outset. The recently published report on public sector capital investment indicates that a decision will be made in relation to the establishment of this agency by the end of 2011. It also refers to funding of ‘priority schemes’ in RBMPs under the Water Services Investment Programme (Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, 2011).  An advantage of this model may be a close linkage between river basin management and water treatment and supply policy which may have significant benefits in relation to cost recovery and sharing of resources. Such a model, may, however, favour more traditional ‘hard’ engineering approaches to water quality protection; approaches which the WFD seeks to move away from and are associated with inhibiting the development of integrated cross-sectoral approaches. In particular, a centralised, sector-specific approach of this nature may make the establishment of links with spatial planning more difficult. This model would need to be accompanied by specific measures and additional resources to ensure that that planning decisions are informed by river basin management and water quality concerns.

C. Centralise implementation responsibility under the Environmental Protection Agency 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has significant technical expertise across the spectrum of ecosystem management, water quality protection and pollution control. The agency already plays a key role in the monitoring of water quality under the WFD. This model has the potential to lead to the development of innovative multi-disciplinary approaches to river basin management drawing on expertise, knowledge and data from across the environmental sciences. The disadvantages associated with a centralised model, outlined above, also apply in this case, however. Fostering stakeholder engagement and public support would require considerable additional resources and the development of skill-sets which are not currently well-developed in a technical organisation such as the EPA. The experience of water resource managers in Berlin-Brandenburg points to the challenges for technical organisations associated with a shift to the more participative form of governance which the WFD requires.

D. Further develop and enhance the lead Local Authority model

The preparation of RBMPs in the Republic of Ireland was led by local authorities with a lead local authority designated for each River Basin District. It is evident that local authorities currently do not have the requisite levels of resources required for implementation. With significant allocation of resources to lead local authorities, this model could, however, prove an effective means of coordinating and delivering implementation objectives. This model would involve limited reorganisation of existing institutional arrangements. The spatial mismatch issue would not arise, provided the lead authorities had the capacity to ensure cooperation from across the local authorities within the River Basin District. In Northern Ireland, the value of stakeholders was recognised from the outset; however, there is still work to be done in the Republic of Ireland to bring local stakeholders within the action programmes – for their value as environmental experts in their own right, and as leaders of community-based action and education projects.

Retaining responsibility for RBMP implementation within local authorities would provide opportunities for greater integration with the planning and development process than might otherwise be the case. This coordination objective would need to be supported with specific funding including enhanced capacity in the area of environmental planning.  It would also be possible to devolve implementation to individual local authorities. Again substantial investment of resources would be required in order for this model to perform effectively. Specific provision would also need to be made for coordination across local authority boundaries to ensure coherence at River Basin District level.   In the medium to long-term, enhanced local autonomy may be instrumental to ensuring community acceptance and indeed ownership of local project-based measures which seek to integrate river basin management, and spatial development objectives.

It is imperative that key issues of environmental responsibility and sustainable resource management are not forgotten in the current focus on water charges and the short-term costs to the taxpayer. The ICLRD report which draws significantly on international case studies of good practice details the extent of the challenges involved in moving towards sustainable water resource management in Ireland. These include the development of expertise in specialist areas of environmental planning as well as the challenges of communicating across disciplinary and sectoral boundaries which should not be underestimated given the integrated approach demanded by the WFD. Above all, however, adequate response to challenges posed by the WFD requires strategic leadership and the allocation of a sufficient level of resources through dedicated budgets.  Each of the strategic options outlined above have both advantages and disadvantages. What is important, now, however, is that decisive action is taken to provide an adequate framework for implementation to prevent further deterioration in the quality of Ireland’s water resources.

Ireland is not Unique: Learning from the Spanish Housing Crisis

First published on Ireland After Nama

Commentary on the current housing crisis in Ireland has placed significant emphasis on what are often perceived as peculiarly Irish problems of clientelism, cronyism, localism and poor regulation leading to the overextension and subsequent collapse of the property market and a massive oversupply of housing. Comparison with the parallel experience of overinflated housing markets and subsequent collapse in Spain may in this context prove insightful.

The bullet-points summary below is adapted from an article in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research published in December 2010– Garcia, M. (2010) The Breakdown of the Spanish Urban Growth Model: Social and Territorial Effects of the Global Crisis.

  • Europeanisation and globalisation led to an average yearly growth rate of GDP of 3.5% between 1994 and 2007;
  • This period of economic boom was accompanied by a high rate of in-migration, with foreign migrants concentrated in Madrid and along the Mediterranean coast, where the labour market was expanding;
  • EU funds supported the modernisation of transportation infrastructure, improving accessibility across the country and reducing disparities between richer and poorer regions;
  • Population increase due to a 1970s housing boom, coupled with high net in-migration, trends of declining average household size and increased disposable incomes,  contributed to a high demand for housing, particularly owner-occupied housing in suburban locations;
  • The housing boom was fuelled by the unprecedented availability of cheap credit from international markets;
  • Optimism combined with fear of future price increases encouraged housing acquisition and led to a rapid rise in the level of private debt;
  • The rate of housing development exceeded the rate of population growth in many Spanish cities throughout the 2001-2008 period;
  • The housing boom was facilitated by government incentives for both developers and house buyers;
  • Second homes and speculative investments accounted for a very significant proportion of the housing market;
  • A segmented housing market developed strengthening social inequalities with problems of affordability for young aspirant home owners in particular;
  • Local and regional administrations actively made land available for development, irrespective of spatial plans, with a view to increasing the local tax base;
  • The level of oversupply in 2010 amounted to approximately 1 million housing units, 600,000 of which are newly constructed;
  • Levels of unemployment in the construction sector are around 30%;

While there are striking similarities, there are key differences in the response to the crisis by government and the banking sector. In particular, Spanish banks have taken an active role in the property market, selling houses at discounted prices and developed innovative mechanisms to restructure the mortgage debt of households whose employment circumstances have deteriorated.

It would appear that there is significant potential for cross-national learning between Ireland and Spain, both in terms of disentangling local, European and global causal factors (in as much as this is possible or useful) and in terms of coming up with solutions and ways forward. We cannot fully understand post-crisis Ireland without an appreciation of similar experiences elsewhere.

The Territorial Agenda of the European Union

First published on Ireland After Nama

At a time when the financial crisis in the Eurozone is seen to cast doubts on the extent to which European institutions act in the collective interests of Europe, it is perhaps instructive to consider the question of the territorial agenda of the European Union. To what extent does the EU have a coherent spatial policy or agenda or do individual sectoral policies have uncoordinated and even contradictory effects?

This is a question which European spatial policy initiatives have sought to address, particularly since the publication of the European Spatial Development Perspective in 1999.

Yesterday (19th May) at a meeting of the Ministers of EU member states responsible for spatial planning and territorial development in the town of Gödöllő, Hungary a new Territorial Agenda for the European Union was agreed upon. With the title ‘Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020: Towards an Inclusive, Smart and Sustainable Europe of Diverse Regions’ the document follows on from a previous Territorial Agenda published in 2007. In light of the lead role of the Hungarian Presidency, the new Territorial Agenda has been expected to place a renewed emphasis on reducing disparities between Western and Eastern Europe and the particular development challenges faced by Eastern member states. The document supports the principle of ‘territorial cohesion’ which may be interpreted as balanced regional development at the European level:

We believe that territorial cohesion is a set of principles for harmonious, balanced, efficient, sustainable territorial development. It enables equal opportunities for citizens and enterprises, wherever they are located, to make the most of their territorial potentials. Territorial cohesion reinforces the principle of solidarity to promote convergence between the economies of better-off territories and those whose development is lagging behind.

It is further stated that ‘development opportunities are best tailored to the specificities of an area’ indicating that territory matters and regional development policies need to take account of the specific characteristics and diversity of individual regions. This echoes recent arguments for a ‘place-based’ approach to regional development policy rather than a reliance on ‘spatially-blind’ sectoral approaches (such as the Common Agricultural Policy). Suggesting continued support for an interventionist approach it is noted that ‘Regions might need external support to find their own paths to sustainable development, with particular attention to those lagging behind’.

Drawing on an evidenced-based ‘Territorial State and Perspectives’ background document (as yet not in the public domain) the Territorial Agenda identifies 6 main territorial challenges facing the European Union:

  1.   Increased exposure to globalisation: structural changes after the global economic crisis;
  2.  Challenges of EU integration and the growing interdependences of regions;
  3. Territorially diverse demographic and social challenges, segregation of vulnerable groups;
  4. Climate change and environmental risks: geographically diverse impacts;
  5. Energy challenges come to the fore and threaten regional competitiveness;
  6.  Loss of biodiversity, vulnerable natural, landscape and cultural heritage

 

Informal meeting of Ministers responsible for territorial development and spatial planning, Gödöllő, 19th May

The challenges outlined serve to highlight that regions in Europe face distinct sets of challenges but that there also significant commonalities. In particular the impacts of demographic and climate change are recognised to vary significantly across the European territory. It may be noted that development disparities between East and West (or urban and rural regions) are not specifically mentioned.

The document subsequently identifies six ‘Territorial Priorities’ for the EU, for the purpose of responding the challenges outlined above:

1. Promote polycentric and balanced territorial development

2. Encouraging integrated development in cities, rural and specific regions

3. Territorial integration in cross-border and transnational functional regions

4. Ensuring global competitiveness of the regions based on strong local economies

5. Improving territorial connectivity for individuals, communities and enterprises

6. Managing and connecting ecological, landscape and cultural values of regions

The concepts of polycentric development and integrated development of urban and rural regions are themes which have featured centrally in European spatial policy since the 1990s; although it may be argued that they still require clarification in terms of their intended operationalisation. The identification of territorial integration in cross-border and transnational functional regions reflects a particular commitment in EU regional development policy to reduce border effects and improve cooperation, particularly through the INTERREG programme from which Ireland has benefited significantly. In total, approximately 40% of the territory of the EU is located within border regions.

Implementation of the Territorial Agenda of the European Union is dependent on EU institutions such as the European Commission taking its messages on board as well as actions by member states, regional and local authorities. The ESPON Programme (see also ESPON Ireland website) receives specific mention in relation to its central role in providing the evidence base for European territorial development and cohesion policy. The new Territorial Agenda places particular emphasis, however, on actions by member states. In Ireland, the National Spatial Strategy and National Development are the principal policy mechanisms in this regard. As the EU does not have any competence in spatial planning, the Territorial Agenda therefore does not represent a binding spatial plan for the EU in any sense. It does however provide a strategic policy framework and represents a high level European commitment to the balanced regional development and place-based approaches to policy. Based on the experience of previous European spatial policy documents such as the European Spatial Development perspective, the impact of the Territorial Agenda may be significant albeit not always directly visible!

Rethinking Planning and Development in Ireland After NAMA

First published on Ireland After Nama

Earlier posts on this blog pointed to the current period of crisis as an opportunity for rethinking accepted ideas, policies and practices in relation to future planning and development in Ireland (for example here and here). The introduction of a new Government with a fresh mandate and (potentially) fresh ideas (see here for a critical perspective!) provides a further opportunity to critically reflect on the role of spatial development policy and practice in the current context.
Understood in its broad sense, spatial planning refers to a state-led interventionist activity that seeks to pursue particular objectives for society through a focus on the diversity and specific qualities of individual places and social and economic relations across space. In contrast to traditional forms of land-use planning, strategic spatial planning claims to provide a focus for the coordination of the spatial impacts of other sectoral policies and public sector investment decision-making processes. In this way the National Spatial Strategy and Regional Planning Guidelines should be expected to inform the proposed new National Development Plan (2012 – 2019) and the decision to progress a new technical university for the Southeast in agreed Programme for Government.

The ‘governance capacity’ of spatial planning strategies is however critically dependent on their capacity to steer the geographical distribution of development and provide a reliable indication of the intensity, quantity and type of development anticipated occurring over the period of the plan. If this capacity is absent then higher level objectives in terms of providing a spatial dimension to sectoral policies will remain aspirational. Unfortunately the record of the past decade indicates that the governance capacity of spatial plans in Ireland, at national, regional and local levels has been rather weak indicating a need to fundamentally rethink some of the basic premises of planning and development thinking in Ireland.

The pointers outlined below are intended as an initial contribution to progressing the debate rethinking planning and development in the current context:

1.    Future planning and development policy and practice needs to make a clear distinction between development in its socioeconomic sense and spatial development. Potential economic benefits in terms of employment generation or commercial rates revenue cannot be the overriding factors in decision-making on spatial development, i.e. the future development of the built and natural environment.

2.    Spatial planning needs to be founded on realistic assessments of projected future growth (or decline) in population, numbers of households, numbers in the labour force and of the economy more generally. Spatial planning decision-making should therefore be needs-based and forward looking, thus reducing the risks of both undersupply and oversupply as we have witnessed recent years.

3.    Spatial planning policy and practice needs to be founded on acceptance that significant areas of the country most likely will not witness significant levels of development or employment creation and may need to plan for continued decline and population loss due to emigration. In this respect, Ireland has much learn from other parts of Europe and in particular parts of eastern Germany, where post-reunification expectations of rapid development have gradually given way to an acceptance of a need to plan for declining population, ‘shrinking cities’ and reduced economic circumstances.

4.    Spatial policy needs to balance normative vision with a pragmatic orientation. The NSS and Regional Planning Guidelines have provided a valuable frame of reference in terms of outlining desirable future spatial development objectives and patterns. The laudable policy goals of balanced regional development and ‘physical consolidation’ of the Dublin metropolitan area need to balanced with an explicit recognition and readjustment of future spatial development prospects in light of the experience of recent development trends. These development trends are well documented and include extensive peri-urban development, ghost estates and a markedly variable performance of Gateway cities.

5.    Spatial strategies should attempt to create a space for shared understanding and agreement among key stakeholders, including political representatives planning professionals, community development and environmental interests. Whether the proposed ‘democratically decided Regional or City Plan’ (Programme for Government, p. 27) with a significantly reduced role for City/County Managers is the best approach to this is of course another question.