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Fifty years of Irish planning

The 1963 Planning Act left a legacy of sprawl and drossIan Lumley 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the legislation which has underpinned the building of modern Ireland, the unloved Local Government (Planning and Development ) Act 1963. Its main indulgence is that the term planning and corruption are now interchangeable.

Given that  much of the country, both urban and rural, is a socially-divided visual and environmental slum, how different would things have been without planning legislation?  Houston, Texas,  has no zoning structures yet it seems – at least from the revived Dallas TV series – to be  flourishing. And what swanky cars!

For decades regional development was led or hindered  by ministers able to influence industrial or state development in their backyard. When a National Spatial Strategy was finally introduced in 2002 it was soon subverted by the McCreevy decentralisation programme which ignored its prioritisations. The spatial strategy and democratically-driven local-authority development plans and national plans have been largely flouted by councillors acting as private representatives, as opposed to public representatives, to vested interests of all sorts – from larger developers to one-off house builders.  If you owned property and shouted loud enough you could get councillors to lean on officials to get what you wanted in the frenzy of short-termist greed that was our own tiger. For example, the Carlton site on O’Connell St, the national children’s hospital and Liberty Hall were all supported or permitted by the local authority even though only the democratically-agreed development plan, with all its public inputs, did not allow them.

Outside of Dublin, development-plan policy is usually against one-off housing even though in many counties sixty or seventy percent of housing is built that way. But officials have always largely done what they were told by developers. It was shout power – for developers big and small in the face of any vision of a planned common good. In the face of democratically-agreed policy.

We don’t have to go too far to get the real story here. In 2010, Bertie Ahern said his government had faced “fierce pressure” from developers and politicians not to close down property tax incentives, “We probably should have closed those down a good bit earlier, but there were always fierce pressures, there was endless pressures to keep them. There was endless pressures to extend them”.

Asked who exerted the pressure, Mr Ahern said: “Developers, owners of sites, areas that didn’t have the developments, community councils, politicians, civic society – they were forever at us . . .

They’d be coming to see Cowen deputations right across, and that’s part I suppose of democratic politics. That delayed him down”.

Developers too, aided by conservative lawyers – often including the government’s legal advisor, the Attorney General, have stymied implementation of the 1974 Kenny report which would have insulated us against the property boom by allowing local authorities first to buy land at non-speculative prices and then to rezone it so development would be plan-led rather than developer-led.

When it belatedly and somewhat weakly reported, the Planning Tribunal surprised no-one with its conclusion that the Development Plan and zoning process was dictated by the speculative house builder, and that corruption was “endemic and systemic”.

The fruits of developer-led (non) planning are that our suburbs are in the wrong places and often at the wrong densities, car-based, poorly integrated with facilities and often visually mediocre.

Since 1964, over 250,000 suburban-style houses have been built in ribbon formation along roads outside town and village speed-controlled limits. The belated induction of farm buildings into planning control has done noting to mitigate their rotten design, siting and landscaping.

Inaction on uncontrolled mechanical peat extraction fosters biodiversity loss and contributes profligately to climate change. The country is pockmarked with unauthorised or non-compliant quarries way in excess of need. The hoisting of  straight lines of conifers up hill contours continues, and is still exempt from normal planning. Ireland is the international epicentre of the garage-shop, the ghost estate and the one-off house.

The shelf loads of coffee-table books of Irish landscapes and old farmhouses in your non-idyllic abode, dear reader, conduce to the  national self-delusion, that now extends to a belief we can re-create the edifices of  the boomtown economy too.

When An Bord Pleanála was set up in 1976 its members were ministerial cronies.  Reform of the appointment  system led in time to a Board which, unlike local authorities, does uphold development-plan principles and national policy in most appeal cases. However, it has always been indulgent of road schemes and some  decisions in recent years like the lotus-blossom-shaped Athlone China trading centre, and the White-House-replicating Tipperary casino defy credulity.

Still the national planning ‘problem’ largely now draws from local authorities. The 2000 Planning Act, which superseded the 1963 Act, was supposed to achieve better strategic planning. However, despite it, during the early 2000s somewhat-over-zealous councils managed to rezone enough land for a doubling of the national population.

We never had the appetite for good planning. The national spatial strategy was deliberately made toothless, so local authorities ignore it as well as their own local plans, allowing Dublin for example to sprawl into surrounding counties; while cities and towns outside Greater Dublin languish. Since 2009 the vast majority of the State’s housing output is built in the least sustainable form – one-off.

We have failed to learn the lessons of the Planning Tribunal which have been evident for a decade and a half and did not depend on the publication of a report.

Politicians have not learnt the clear lesson that Development and other Plans need to be assessed quasi-judicially, at the time of their creation, for conformity with the National Spatial Strategy and other subsidiary plans. Without this filter, Councillors cannot be trusted.