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Editorial: Nobody cares about the National Planning Framework

The draft for this key policy evades the public interest, with its toothless 'statutory' backing.

Sure nobody wants a national plan. If they did we’ve had it years ago.The media’d mention what advantages a plan might bring. Or highlight how our national quality of life has been squandered by car-dependent sprawl. Of course the government is preparing a ‘Plan’ for the development of the country which is now in its last draft. It is intended that the ‘Ireland 2040 Plan’ will be a “highlevel document that will provide the framework for future development and investment in Ireland. It will be the overall Plan from which other, more detailed plans including city and county development plans and regional strategies will take their lead”. Hence the title, National Planning ‘Framework’. The National Planning Framework (NPF) will also have “statutory backing”.

The most noticeable thing is that “statutory backing” means nothing. A plan gets “statutory” backing just by being mentioned in legislation. A meaningful plan should be ‘mandatory’ rather than merely ‘statutory’ (perhaps ideally both). Legislation needs to require compliance with, and implementation, of key plans, including the NPF. It needs to have teeth.

The last plan, the ‘National Spatial Strategy (2002- 2020)’, had no teeth and was not implemented, even though the 2010 Planning and Development (Amendment) Act gave ‘statutory’ basis to the National Spatial Strategy which, in substance, was quite sustainable. That Statute said local authority development plans were required to be “consistent as far as practical” with “national and regional planning objectives set out in the national spatial strategy”. Of course nobody knew what this meant or how stringent it was intended to be, but that was the whole point. Someone somewhere, representing the people who vote Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and who benefit from the possibility of land speculation, wanted it to be statutory – so we could appear to be concerned, but not effective – so it would improve our lives.

Most development after 2002, as before, was sprawl for Dublin (as far as Meath, Wicklow, and Kildare – even into Louth, Wexford and Westmeath) or one-off housing in the countryside. The evidence is all around us.

Since 1964, over 250,000 suburban-style houses have been poured forth in ribbon formation along roads outside town and village limits. In most counties more than two thirds of housing is built ‘one-off’. According to the census, in 2013 in Roscommon 100% of new units (although a small number) built in the county were classified as ‘one off’ dwellings. In Kerry and Cork, counties largely dependent on their landscape for tourism, around 75% and 66% of all new units respectively were ‘one offs’.

The momentum in most counties outside Dublin is so strong that we’re going to have to go just a little negative, in order to effect change on the scale required. All the village-development initiatives in the world won’t change a national rural mindset.

In fact the draft NPF suggests little change in suppressing one-off housing. Objective 18b is: “in rural areas under urban influence to facilitate the development of single housing in the countryside on the core consideration of demonstrable economic need to live in a rural area”.

In effect this implies no change to existing practice, where one-off housing is urban-influenced. The EU – driven change from the usual current concept of ‘local need’ – to one of ‘economic need’ – is of little import: no Irish County Council, answerable to private-representing County Councillors, is going to deny that anyone’s desire for a house reflects their ‘economic need’.

Worse still, the NPF is silent on restrictions where oneoff rural housing is not ‘urban-influenced’ – the government and the County Councillors for whom they front are too scared to control it at all.

The NPF certainly nods to the development of cities outside Dublin – with ambitious 2040 population ambitions for Limerick and Waterford for example, and to development of towns and villages countrywide but it is unlikely to stop the juggernaut of development in Dublin’s hinterland and of one-off housing.

With its cynical use of the loaded term “statutory” rather than the more practically important term “mandatory” there is no evidence the Government, under shiny and modern Eoghan Murphy and Leo Varadkar has learnt the lesson from their goofier predecessors of the dangers of sprawling modern Ireland and its diminished quality of life.

We might remember that if a policy is worth legislating for it is worth also pursuing through fiscal measures. It’s fairly simple and logical: incentivise people to live in cities outside Dublin; regulate against development in Dublin’s hinterland (though development in Dublin itself, particularly high-density developments in areas like docklands in the city centre is fine); ensure towns and villages don’t decline; eliminate new one-off housing (that doesn’t create economic activity on the land) as it can never be served with proper infrastructure including proper transport and infrastructure is disproportionately expensive (electricity, postal services, school buses, etc).

And legislate for the lot – using terms like ‘must’, ‘shall’ and ‘implement’, not ‘have regard’ to or ‘may’; and using dates, budgets and allocated duties.

But where there’s no will, there’s no way.

Submissions on the draft of the National Planning Framework process can be made from 27th September until 12 Noon on Friday November 3rd.