Sunday Business Post Article - Ireland 2040: A tide to lift all, but Planning must come first

Ireland 2040: A tide to lift all, but Planning must come first

By Joe Corr MIPI

Grand plans for Ireland have been written on a cyclical basis over the decades. So far, we have failed to deliver. History would suggest that to be successful we need to take politics out of development.

Planning, and plan making, is complex and everyone has a view. In practice, it is a balance between what individuals and communities want on one hand, usually in their own interest, and the evidence-based assessment by professionals of what is in the common good on the other.

Grand plans for Ireland have been written on a cyclical basis over the decades. So far, we have failed to deliver. History would suggest that to be successful we need to take politics out of development. We need an evidence and intelligence-based approach to investment decisions that protects development from the excesses of ‘representation’.

When Ireland 2040 was announced, the Irish Planning Institute warned of the danger that history could repeat itself. We must guard against it becoming a catch-all fund for development led by politics rather than a blueprint for development based on good planning.

The protection against falling into that trap is to have a nationally coordinated professional framework of administration for planning that feeds into and influences decision-making on public investment. That framework will enable, support, coordinate and control consistent evidence-based development. It will marry national and local interests and help underpin the case of provable development needs by aligning professional development experts, public administration and capital to work together in delivering solutions.

The announcements late last year of over €200 million investment in more than 100 Ireland 2040 projects nationwide must be welcomed. They are the first ‘cash on the table’ commitments to that much-heralded plan and tangible evidence of impending delivery. It is government putting its money where its mouth is.

However, the confirmation of funding for individual projects was not the most important point of progress in 2018 in delivering Ireland 2040. Instead we would look to the first steps taken to establish a structure and systems that will deliver stronger evidence-based planning for the greater good and over time.

In the first instance, the Planning and Development Act 2016, finally signed into law in July, provides for an independent Office for Planning Regulation with the appointment of the first regulator announced in December. The regulator will have a vital role in strengthening the coordination of planning and bring some control and consistency in delivery to ensure more sustainable solutions.

In parallel, the announcement in September last of the Land Development Agency (LDA) will have a comparable positive effect. It is the first substantive step taken in more than 50 years to put coordination and intention back into the scoping of society’s needs for different types of development. Specifically, it will bring coordination to the development, as appropriate, of lands in state ownership.

When it was announced, much was made of the LDA’s potential role in helping address our national crisis in housing. Critically, it is not just about housing. The new agency will bring coherence to the state’s input into the development of infrastructure, to investment in the productive economy, and to serving the principle of sustainability.

The LDA is a clear step back from any presumption that ‘the market will provide’. It shows a recognition of the state as an actor in the development process for the greater good. The LDA will achieve this by leading through the deployment of expertise that has a national mandate, but is working with – not over – local authorities and state bodies. That mandate includes the ability to provide oversight on funding management.

If the projects confirmed for funding last autumn could be called building blocks of our future, then the creation of the Land Development Agency and the appointment of the regulator are the foundations on which the National Planning Framework (NPF) and Ireland 2040 can be delivered.

Collectively, they will combine to be a regime where decisions are shaped by outcomes that are targeted in the public interest rather than in the interest of any individuals, corporations, or even of a given public body as ‘owner’.

Success will be a higher quality of development for the good of society. The promise is immense but, as always, the devil is in the detail and over time.

Judgment of success cannot be made based on early wins. Many of the projects announced for support over these past few weeks will have been on the drawing board for some time – well thought of and well planned, but lacking a framework to facilitate their delivery, as has happened before.

The test now is to keep the commitment to planning to the fore when funding is at hand. The tools to do so are now in place. History will not judge us for creating them, but on how we use them.

Joe Corr is president of the Irish Planning Institute, the professional body for planners engaged in physical, spatial and environmental planning

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