By 2040 we expect that an additional one million people will live in Ireland, an additional two-thirds of a million people will work here. An ageing population and smaller family size mean that we will need an additional half a million homes to accommodate this growth.
Project Ireland 2040 purports to address this. It consists of the National Planning Framework which sets out a spatial strategy for Ireland, to accommodate in a “sustainable and balanced” fashion these significant demographic changes. It is the overall Plan from which other, more detailed plans including city and county development plans and regional strategies will take their lead. Learning from past experience, the NPF is backed up by an infrastructure investment programme, the National Development Plan. This National Development Plan sets out the significant level of investment, almost €116 billion, which will underpin the NPF and drive its implementation over the next ten years. €91 billion in Exchequer funding for public capital investment has been allocated and will be supplemented with substantial investment by commercial State Owned Enterprises. This increased level of resources is expected to move Ireland close to the top of the international league table for public investment, from a low post-crash base.
In short, the State’s infrastructure investment – the money – should be guided by and follow the Plan. That is what makes Project Ireland 2040 different and a significant innovation in Irish public policy. What is not different is that it does not have teeth, particularly to stop market-driven development that is incompatible with the vision.
Project Ireland 2040 is about enabling all parts of Ireland to achieve their full potential. It seeks to move away from the current, developer-led, business as usual pattern of development, to one informed by the needs and requirements of society. This means seeking to disrupt trends that have been apparent over the last fifty years and have accelerated over the past twenty.
It purports to aim to ensure that rather than have excessive population growth focused on Dublin – as is the current trend – that 75% of all population growth occurs in the rest of the country.The immediate priority is to increase overall housing supply to a baseline level of 25,000 homes a year by 2020, and then a likely level of 30-35,000 annually up to 2027. 112,000 households are expected to obtain social housing over the decade.
A new €2 billion Urban Regeneration and Development Fund will aim to achieve sustainable growth in Ireland’s five cities – Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway – and other large urban centres, incentivising collaborative approaches to development by public and private sectors.
It aims to secure at least 40% of future housing needs by building and renewing within our existing built-up areas, whether they be in the many villages and towns in need of regeneration or in our cities and larger towns where there are also huge opportunities for city and town centre regeneration.
Of course the corollary of this is that an unsustainable 60% of future housing need will be met on green-field sites. It targets a level of growth in the Northern and Western, and Southern, Regions combined to at least match that projected for the East and Midland Region.
It will support the future growth of Dublin as Ireland’s leading global city of scale, by better managing Ireland’s growth to ensure that more of it can be accommodated within and close to the city.
It supports ambitious growth targets to enable the four cities of Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford to each grow by at least 50% to 2040 and to enhance their significant potential to become cities of scale.
It recognises the extent to which Sligo in the North West and Athlone in the Midlands fulfil the role of regional centres. It recognises Letterkenny in the context of the North-West Gateway Initiative and Drogheda- Dundalk in the context of the Dublin- Belfast economic corridor.
It seeks to strengthen our rural fabric, by reversing town/village and rural population decline, by encouraging new roles and functions for buildings, streets and sites, and supporting the sustainable growth of rural communities, to include development in rural areas. That’s one- off housing.
Anyone who follows this will see that there’s not much sense of anything being ruled out, and indeed almost everything seems to be ruled in. That suggests it won’t all happen. And the determinant of what happens and what doesn’t will, as usual, be the market – which will skew to Dublin and its hinterland, and of course one-off housing whose site costs are negligible (for those lucky enough to own rural land) but which pose difficulties for sustainability: economic, social and environmental. It costs more to service far-flung housing with broadband, and everything else.
One might quibble with elements of the plan. Dr Edgar Morgenroth – Professor of Economics at DCU and a primary author of the document – said that plans for the €850m motorway between Cork and Limerick would undermine the proper growth of “second tier” cities in Ireland.
He rejected claims by An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that the motorway would encourage the cities to grow faster saying it would instead lead to sprawl. He told ‘Morning Ireland’ it was important “to put the infrastructure into the cities, not between them”.
“Once you put the motorway between two cities what you’re doing is getting more sprawl. So you’re undermining your own strategy”, he said.
Morgenroth also said that building a new motorway undermined a commitment by government to reduce carbon emissions.
The NPF will also have “statutory backing” overseen, quasi-independently, by the new Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) – a key recommendation of the Mahon Tribunal.
Unfortunately this particulator Regulator will not regulate but rather advise others whose motivation may be political and short-termist. A regulator who does not regulate.
There has been much light-free heat, led by Sinn Féin which even claimed to be seeking a legal opinion, about the failure of the government to put the NPF to a parliamentary vote but instead to include reference to it in the upcoming Planning and Development Act.
In fact the “statutory backing” which they seek and government promised in itself 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 should have been given 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 it ‘statutory’. 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 – indeed 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 NPF suggests little change in suppressing one-off housing. Its ‘Objective 19’ is “to facilitate the provision of single housing in the countryside based on the core consideration of demonstrable social or economic need to live in a rural area” Requirements will be even more flexible in deeper rural areas where the requirement is limited to regard for siting and design criteria and “having regard to the viability of smaller towns and rural settlements”, a phrase drawn directly from the Michael Ring textbook of anti-planning incoherence.
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 “demonstrable economic or social 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 or social requirement need”. Indeed an earlier draft which had referred to only “economic need” was superseded under intense pressure from the laissez-faire one-off- housing lobby which confounds desirable rural development with development in the country side which is mostly unsustainable – unless the applicant for development intends to live and work on the land.
Worse still, the NPF is silent on restrictions where one-off rural housing is not ‘urban-influenced’ – the government and the County Councillors for whom they front are too scared to control it at all or perhaps they see votes in continuing the current pattern even if it dissipates energy which might otherwise fuel development of rural towns and villages – so leaving nearly all the energy in Dublin.
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 – and crucially it does propose to link the plan to investment, 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. Implemented by a Regulator who is obliged to regulate.
Ireland doesn’t really do planning. It is most likely that this plan will see continued one-off housing and sprawl of Dublin into its hinterland, so preventing the desirable re-orientation of the country towards cities outside Dublin, despite substantial investment plans. A review of the plan in five years will probably show this and suggest that there needs to be actual curtailment of such unplanned and unsustainable growth. It is just possible that at some stage the frustrated lobbies for towns, cities and villages outside Leinster might, within a generation or two, learn the benefits of planning and of an end to the wishful idea that designating everywhere means everywhere will grow. By that time the possibility of channelling Ireland’s extraordinary demographic dynamism into world-class quality of life, will surely have been squandered forever.
Michael Smith and Emma Gilleece