Cranks and idealists – the emergence of the planning profession in local government

Seán O'Leary MIPI

The Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 1963 has been described as when planning came of age in Ireland. However, when the Act came into force in October 1964 there was no full-time planning course in the country. Up to that point there was little demand for town planners and few people qualified – despite the existence of planning legislation dating to 1934 and 1939.

The 1934 Act, amended in 1939, allowed local authorities to give themselves planning powers by preparing a ‘planning scheme’ to guide development, but by 1963 three counties and twelve urban district councils still had not begun to do so. This may be attributed to the complicated planning scheme procedure, the slow pace of development in the period and the limited technical skills of officials.[1]

The planning scheme system was seen as unfit for the ambitious 1960s. The Local Government (Planning and Development) Bill 1963 was signed into law on 7th August 1963 and was to have effect from 1st October 1964. The Bill was developed with input from the United Nations that looked at planning in the United States, but it was ultimately modelled closely on 1947 UK legislation.

The 1963 Act was heralded with a great deal of hope and hype, and represented the ‘optimistic and expansionist spirit of the age.’[2] In the debates on the legislation, Deputy Lionel Booth admitted that in the past ‘planning was regarded with considerable suspicion and was regarded more as something for cranks and idealists. Now it is being accepted as a realistic policy to have wholehearted long-term planning.’[3]

Cartoon on the planning profession from 1980 edition of Pleanail 

Despite this, limited consideration was given to how many trained planners might be needed to operate ‘wholehearted long-term planning’ and where they would come from.

All local authorities (except town commissioners) were granted planning powers when the Act came into force. However it was argued at the time that there were too many planning authorities and it spread already scarce expertise even more thinly. Planning authorities were required to prepare and adopt development plans for their areas on or before October 1967, but ‘for a country with a lack of a planning tradition, or adequate technical staff, this was a daunting task.’[4] On the introduction of the Act the County Engineer became the de facto Planning Officer in each County. There were a few exceptions to this. For example, Dublin City and County had its own Planning Officer, Cork’s City Architect became Planning Officer, and Kildare County Architect became Planning Officer for Carlow/Kildare.[5]

Minister for Local Government, Neil T. Blaney, stated that he was conscious of the need for planning training: ‘in order to augment the overall supply of qualified planners I have secured the cooperation of the Dublin Vocational Education Committee — for which I am most grateful — in providing a two-year post-graduate course in planning for suitably qualified architects, engineers and surveyors,’ adding the somewhat lukewarm assertion that ‘Indeed I envisage that in due course the possession of a qualification in planning will become at least a desirable qualification for the top technical posts.’[6]

For Frank McDonald ‘the new Act imposed enormous responsibility on the local authorities yet, when it was being processed through the Dáil, there were no more than a dozen qualified town planners in the whole country and crash courses had to be laid on in Bolton Street [7] to make instant planners out of a motley collection of architects, engineers and surveyors.’[8]

The strains of establishing and staffing a planning department and completing a plan were quickly felt and the shortage of planning expertise had significant consequences. The bulk of time and resources were put into development control rather than forward planning, meaning early development plans were of varying quality. The vesting of planning functions predominately in engineering staff as an interim measure quickly became the status quo in places.

For planning academic and historian Michael Bannon the absence of a planning profession was a source of conflict with the government’s emphasis on planning for economic expansion as the planning departments that developed were heavily derived from the design professions ‘which all too often saw planning as a regulator.’[9]

The number of graduates from Irish planning schools and the number professional planners employed in local authorities and the private sector increased during the 1990s and early 2000s, but early suspicions of planning, many unmerited but some reinforced by delays and poor quality development plans brought about by understaffing, persisted.

This first appeared on Architecture Ireland - the Journal of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland.

[1] Grist, B. (2013), Introduction to Irish Planning Law, Dublin: Institute of Public Administration, p.2.

[2] MacLaren, A. and Punch, M. (2004), ‘Tallaght: the planning and development of an Irish new town’, Journal of Irish Urban Studies, vol.3, no.1, p.18.

[3] Booth, L. (1963), Dáil Debates, vol. 199, col.853, 31st January 1963.

[4] Bannon, M, (1983), ‘The Changing Context of Developmental Planning’, Administration, vol. 31, no. 2, p.123.

[5] Conway, E. (2015), ‘The Early Years of Planning: A Personal Perspective’, Pleanáil: Journal of the Irish Planning Institute, vol.21, 2015/2016.

[6] Blaney, N. (1963), Seanad Debates, vol.56, col.1698 31st July 1963.

[7] Planning courses were offered in the College of Technology, Bolton Street and then University College Dublin. These were subsequently amalgamated. UCD, DIT and UCC currently offer accredited professional planning courses.

[8] McDonald, F. (1985), The Destruction of Dublin, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, p.62-63.

[9] Bannon, M. (1989), ‘Introduction’ in M. Bannon (ed.) Planning: the Irish Experience, 1920-1988, Dublin: Wolfhound Press, p.10.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the IPI nor are they intended to reflect IPI policy.        

Seán O'Leary MIPI
Executive Director