9 Oct 2008
Since becoming part of Government, Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, has declared on more than one occasion that he’s all in favour of devolution of as much power as possible to local authorities. In occasional effusions he has conjured up the idea of responsible citizens exercising their civic duty by vigorously participating in town meetings reminiscent of those held by early settlers in the Puritan Halls of Colonial America. Mainly, I suppose, he wants us to discuss planning.

All this, as the Minister has – simultaneously – developed a reputation for exercising as much power available to him to instruct Local Authorities on how better their latest Development Plans might conform to his own visions on zoning, sustainability, and so on.

The fact that he holds these contradictory positions – greater local democracy on the one hand: strong powers to override local opinion on the other – is something the Minister himself is aware of; he intends to reconcile the dichotomy in new planning legislation expected later this year which
“… will help to reduce the need for central government intervention in the local government development plan process…’
To do this he intends to:
‘… strengthen the local mandate by clarifying how planning authorities can and should better align their local policies and priorities with sound planning principles and with regional and national guidance… ” (emphasis provided)
Doublespeak? Yes. Put plainly, the Minister wishes citizens to attend public meetings at which they can figure out how to do exactly what he wants them to do. Orwellian? No. The current Minister, like all the other current Ministers and all the Ministers who’ve gone before them, use Doublespeak to describe ideas they themselves might consider ‘nuanced’ but which are, as they always have been, just muddled. It’s the Irish way.

Already, Gormley’s in trouble. At the end of August, to the wild fury of Councillors of all colours and stripes who saw his involvement as meddlesome and interfering, he instructed Waterford County Council not to rezone lands around Dungarvan for future development. The areas in question were small – not of the scale you’d expect a Government Minister to have strong feelings about one way or the other. Similarly, now, in Mayo the Minister is taking a firm stand against rezoning proposals for parts of the County, especially around Castlebar, where he perceives that the Council is trying to make it easier to build single family homes outside of town centres. Mayo’s Fine Gael Councillor., Paddy McGuinness, was quoted in The Times defending the Council’s hard work in drafting up its plan and protesting at the Minister’s intrusion as follows:
“Now I feel my homework has been thrown back at me by an authoritative teacher… all the positivity has been replaced by negativity.”
(Other councillors quoted in the same piece refer to the Minister’s actions as Cromwellian).

So, the question becomes: why does John Gormley have a ‘preach democracy/act dictatorial’ approach to planning? Is it A) Nascent Stalinist tendencies? Or B) confusion about what the concept of spatial planning in general – and the Development Plan in particular – is all about?

I think the answer is ‘B’. The Minister’s irrational response springs from a lack of comprehension of what the Development Plan is supposed to achieve.

Irish Development Plans comprise hundreds of pages of meaningless guff about tourism, social inclusion, sustainability, transport, reduced CO2 emissions, cycle lanes, population-increase projections (usually inaccurate), house price increases (lately wildly inaccurate), politically correct sounding commitments on how to provide traveller accommodation and so on, all of which is cut and pasted by back room officials from the most recently approved Development Plan from some neighbouring county (but with new planning buzzwords inserted) which is then circulated to local interest groups who are usually invited to comment (in highly controlled environments) and, thereby somehow, take ‘ownership’ of a document which stubbornly refuses to be owned or understood. Irish Development Plans make a virtue of their lack of vision, their obfuscation, their haphazardness and their lumpeness. They in no way reflect the image or aspirations of the communities they claim to serve and for the six years of their existence, they co-exist with these communities like Triffids in a patch of tolerant but quietly unhappy daffodils.

In enlightened societies, Development Plans are about the manipulation of shared space for the common good. Effective plans have key ingredients: they possess sufficient detail and imagination to present a clear, tangible vision of how the area they refer to is to be developed as the community evolves. A good Development Plan is not open to a multitude of interpretations: the meaning of its contents should understood by all in the same way. Good Development Plans are both prescriptive and long term while, at the same time, flexible enough to allow for local change whenever the need arises.

Crucially, the power to put the Plan in place rest must in the hands of those to whom it will affect. In other words, Development Plans should be initiated, debated, moved forward, adjusted and adopted by the relevant community and not some wandering local authority dilettante as content to regurgitate the same Ladybird-book level ideas about sustainability whether employed in Donegal or Wexford.

This idea of what a Development Plan ought to be is a far cry from what we in Ireland have grown accustomed to: however, a variety of excellent models are available to us to study – these range from the Zoning Resolutions which act as the ‘scores’ to the symphonic cities of the north eastern United States; the city as collection-of-neighbourhoods concept which has given us the new planning paradigm of Portland, Oregon; and the highly rational ‘dual plan’ approach which, against all the odds, makes a city like Berlin continue to excite.  

The day when the Development Plan is something periodically pinned up on the notice board at the entrance to County Hall like a set of Junior Cert results is surely now past us. If the Minister truly wants to see a greater devolution of power to local communities and avoid the tedious process of constantly sitting on the shoulder of rural authorities, he should take a long hard look at what a Development Plan is and what it could be doing to better serve the Irish people.

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