21 Jan 2009
Since becoming the Minister for the Environment, John Gormley has used the powers available to him the under the planning legislation to ‘call in’ the Development Plans for Counties Monaghan, Waterford and Mayo (he’s currently in a scrap with County Clare) in order to force these counties to reduce the amount of land they’re proposing to free up for development. Later this year he’ll be bringing forward legislation which will compel local authorities to act in even stricter compliance with the terms of the National Spatial Strategy when preparing new Development Plans. John Gormley will root out planning anomalies in this country if it’s the last thing he does! And, at some level, I suppose we all agree that planning shouldn’t be some sort of free for all where local councillors use their powers to rezone sites willy-nilly for the financial benefit of party lackies.

However, ever more alarmed at the amount of power the Minister has managed to amass for himself not to mention the current incumbent’s predisposition to exercise that power, the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment is believed to be considering ways in which the Government’s authority to interfere in planning affairs might be limited. And while we all agree that willy-nilly rezonings are a bad thing, I’m sure we might also agree that the Government has no real business micro managing zoning decisions in every town and village in the country. Ireland – a republican democracy – buys (or, at least, ought to buy) into the concept that all decisions should be taken at the lowest level possible.

So, here’s the problem: do we trust local communities to plan their own futures? Or do we think that such powers should be subject to the veto of a strong central government?  

The ‘modern’ do-as-the-government-says approach to planning is essentially a German phenomenon. It springs from a concept which is more or less implicit in the German constitution and which suggests that the main purpose of environmental planning is to preserve social order. In effect, this means that development is facilitated in designated ‘centres’ where the nation’s resources can be targeted towards developing first class infrastructure. Strict limits are placed on the amount of development permitted to occur in non ‘centres’. Development in rural areas is almost unheard of. The result is a highly stratified environment characterised by compact, well organised cities which never sprawl beyond their boundaries and a countryside where visitors are seldom confronted by anything visually inappropriate.

‘Freedom to enjoy the property you own however you see fit’ could be said to be the basis of the American planning system. U.S. planning laws are rooted in the belief that the power of the Federal Government to interfere in planning matters should be limited for fear that such intrusion might confer great value on one citizen’s property over another’s. American plans seek to organise urban areas by the simple strategy of zoning, the intention being that incompatible uses are kept as far from each other as possible. Unlike the Germans, the Americans see no need for a national spatial plan.

Now, like the Americans, we in Ireland enjoy the trappings that come with a little bit of property ownership and we don’t respond well to those who seek to interfere with that enjoyment. However, notwithstanding these ‘American’ tendencies on our part, when the Government introduced – after relatively little prior public debate – the National Spatial Strategy in 2002, it was an absolute declaration that the German ‘centralist’ system was the one we were going to have, even if the Government knew in its heart that it wasn’t a perfect fit.  

The American and German planning systems didn’t come about by accident. Both are rooted in concepts implicit or explicit in their constitutions; both reflect certain values or aspirations with which those two nations have become associated (German organisation, American free will). In contrast, the Irish government’s lurch toward centralism was introduced without much prior national soul searching. It’s only because John Gormley has gone so far as to implement the ‘centralist’ planning regulations that people who follow these kinds of things are beginning to have second thoughts.

Now that all of us – even the Minister – have time on our hands to get our house in order, a rethinking of the fundamental basis of our planning system should be item one on the order of business. The worry is that the Minister and the Oireachtas Committee arrive at some muddled form of compromise between the ‘local’ and the ‘central’ – the ‘almost pregnant’ approach which has characterised the Irish planning system throughout its history and which will be once again exploited to awful effect whenever the next building boom comes our way.   

Thursday, February 12, 2009 5:47:54 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Well we should theoretically have an interest in seeing decisions made at the lowest applicable level Garry. It's called 'subsidiarity' - a fairly sophisticated political concept in modern democracies and actually mentioned as an underlying principle in the Treaty of Lisbon (another vote in favour of Dusseldorf I feel). However, I'd love to know exactly how the most centralised state in Europe proposes to turn this into a reality (or is it another hoodwink along the lines of VRT?).

Our current economic malaise demonstrates, among other sicknesses, that the cult of individualism has prevailed over the community/greater good. Without ever wishing for governmental micro-management, maybe Gormley's interventions are a step in the right direction in at least establishing broad parameters for proper planning.

On a slightly related matter (taking the plural form of the above 'Me Fein' philosophy, you might say)I reckon our concept of 'Republicanism' is entirely tied up in the fourth green field with little links with the exponents of liberté, fraternité or égalité beyond the manic waving of a tricolour.

Surely you'd agree that the USA is simply too enormous for a national spatial plan to work? Ireland on the other hand badly needs some coherent structure to work from - even if the botched and compromised-at-birth current NSS isn't necessarily it.
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