Planning system pivotal to sustainability


Mr. John Gormley, TD, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government - in opening the the Irish Planning Institute's National Planning Conference - gave the following address ...

"The theme of this year's conference - Sustainability - is, of course, one which strongly resonates with me. Indeed, it's probably fair to say that this issue has been the touchstone of environmentalism and the single greatest determinant of my involvement in politics and in public life.

"Sustainability is not about making us feel better about ourselves just because we suddenly become more responsible citizens by composting or recycling the occasional bottle or piece of plastic. Achieving sustainability is more than an optional add-on - it's my firm belief that sustainability is also the hidden ingredient to national competitiveness. Those economies and, indeed, industries that are 'ahead of the curve' already realise and accept this.

"I know I speak to the converted when I say that the planning system has a pivotal role to play in achieving sustainability at local, regional and national level."

Urban Forum Article
"I read with interest this week's articles in the Irish Times, highlighting the need for the planning system to be more proactive and integrated. I welcome this input and the opportunity it afforded me to reflect on the National Spatial Strategy and the progress being made in achieving more balanced regional development.

"The articles raised significant issues about how this country can - and should - grow in a sustainable and successful way and also stimulated a productive and thought-provoking debate among planning experts, proponents and policy makers, such as are gathered here today.

"Let me say on this issue - and on planning reform, generally - that neither I, nor my Department, have all the answers. I believe we have some and that these can make a significant contribution - but, the challenges we face will require all our combined strengths, expertise and abilities.

"I would readily accept some of the conclusions made in the articles, such as the need to work with - and not against - the forces that will shape our future and the necessity for joined-up thinking in planning, investment decisions and delivery. However, I would strongly challenge the notion in the article that the National Spatial Strategy is misplaced and undeliverable and that it is futile to try to alter demographic trends on the island - unsustainable though they may be.

"Contrary to some people's mistaken understanding of what the Strategy is designed to achieve - a misconception reflected throughout the article - the NSS is not about securing the 'nirvana' of balanced regional development, it's about facilitating and securing more balanced regional development. It's not about taking development away from Dublin and limiting the economic growth of the capital, which we all acknowledge is the main international gateway to this country and main driver of our economy.

"Indeed, looking at the scale of investment in critical infrastructure in the capital - such as the Metro and Luas - new Governance arrangements through the establishment of the Dublin Transportation Authority and the commitment to a Dublin Mayor with real decision-making powers - and the support for significant developments in the Docklands or Adamstown - this theory does not stand up to scrutiny.

"The NSS is aimed at tapping fully into the resources and opportunities available to 'Ireland Inc.' as a whole, by activating the unique and specific potential of all the regions - while, at the same time, supporting the development of Dublin in a sustainable manner. This has to be our over-riding objective and definitive goal."

The Importance of Competitiveness
"The article rightly acknowledges the intrinsic role that planning plays in creating and sustaining the conditions for employment. Planning for the future and putting in place the services and the infrastructure that our economy needs to grow, will be critical to meeting this challenge. We must remain competitive - anticipating the future demands that our economic success will bring - and the national vision set by the NSS, reflected in regional and local planning priorities, is the best way forward.

"From the Government's perspective, we will continue to ensure that our planning system works to change the face of our cities and towns for the better and that through it, we can add impetus to the creation of dynamic regions, cities and towns that provide a competitive and vibrant environment for enterprise and a high quality of life that attracts people to live, work, visit and come together in.

"Without this strategic perspective and long-term planning vision, we will be hard-pressed to cope with the projected national population of over 5.3 million people by 2020 - over 7 million on the island as a whole."

National Development Plan
"Under the National Development Plan, investment in the regions - particularly infrastructure investment - is being focused and prioritised around the NSS. The Plan sets out a strong framework for the promotion of regional development with a particular focus on critical and accelerated investment in the NSS Gateway centres.

"This is the first time that we have been able to base and influence financial decisions on strategic spatial analysis. This link provides us with an opportunity to ensure that the investment decisions we now make at both central and local levels, facilitate sound planning decisions and the creation of sustainable communities.

"Rather than 'spreading the jam' too thinly across the country - as has been posited - the NSS and NDP are about maximising the use of our resources and tapping the potential of all areas of the country - despite more difficult economic circumstances, the jam-jar is still at least half full!"

Developing Areas
"Intrinsically linked to the strategic planning of sustainable communities is the coordinated delivery of the necessary infrastructures and services in those strategic locations which are currently under development pressure.

"The Developing Areas Initiative is an innovative and refreshing response to the challenge of joined-up Government and integrated delivery of infrastructure and services. Fundamentally, developing areas is about communication - between local and central government, between public and private sectors and between Government Departments and delivery agencies.

"I would agree with Mr. Skehan and Lirr that new developments need to be more than just the provision of houses. The Government set out its stall on this very clearly in 2007 in the housing policy statement - Building Homes - Sustaining Communities - and further reinforced its commitment by mandating my colleague, Minister of State Batt O'Keeffe, to take responsibility for driving forward the 'Developing Areas' Initiative. We are all agreed that the integration of schools, community facilities, employment, transport and amenities with the housing development process, in a timely, cost-effective and sustainable manner, is essential."

Ensuring Consistency between Plans
"Since the publication of the NSS only five years ago, which is not at all long in planning terms and the 2004 RPGs, we now have a solid hierarchy of plans and policies to effect strategies and decisions at local level. And these policies are beginning to have an effect on the ground - take, for example, the prioritisation of the Western Road and Rail Corridor in Transport 21 and the creation of the strategic non-national roads programme to fund critical roads infrastructure in and around the gateways and hubs.

"We can improve further in reinforcing the links in the planning hierarchy. We need to look closely at the scale, pattern and location of development - especially with regard to newly-zoned lands, where trends towards dispersed, rather than strategic and sequential, development have emerged in some locations, especially around Gateways, Hubs, county towns and other urban centres, leading to uncoordinated development and expensive servicing and environmental costs. I am examining policy and legislative measures necessary to support achieving the consistency I refer to.

"Against the backdrop of a tightening economic environment, it is vital that we make the best use of Exchequer funding by focusing infrastructure provision on those locations which have been earmarked for development within each county and, through which development we can secure optimal value for money.

"My Department will continue to be proactive in ensuring conformity in development plans with regional policies and priorities and I will continue to impress upon councils their responsibilities to plan effectively and appropriately for their constituents and for future generations."

"I am excited by the challenges facing the entire planning system over the coming years. These challenges present great opportunities to make a lasting contribution to the development of a more responsive, transparent and effective planning system that delivers high-quality outcomes for communities across Ireland rooted in the principle of sustainability.

"I recognise the potential to make our system more effective and plan-led and I do not intend to let these opportunities pass us by.

"I recognise your professional commitment and determination as planners in delivering the type of vision I have set out here today. Let me repeat what I said earlier - the challenges we face will require all our combined strengths, expertise and abilities."