Planning for People Observations on NESC Chapter 5

Michael J. Bannon
June 2005

At the close of the 20th century, a mere five years ago, there was delight and optimism in planning and environmentally informed
circles that Ireland was for the first time ever about to have a hierarchically integrated system of interrelated plans covering the country and operating at every level. Preparation of the National Spatial Strategy was well advanced. The provided a statutory basis for the preparation and implementation of Regional Planning Guidelines. The Act also modernised the\’Development Plan\’ process and established procedures for making and implementing Local Area Plans. This new approach to planning was introduced against the continuing national partnership approach, most recently articulated in .

The new Irish planning approach drew heavily on the (henceforth ESDP), which was to bring Ireland into line with the more enlightened planning approaches operating in advanced European countries. Importantly, these new arrangements were imbued with the ESDP philosophy of a balanced vision of \’sustainable spatial development\’ where economy, environment and society are seen as harmonious partners.Throughout, the ESDP approach places particular emphasis on cultural considerations in future development, on inclusive approaches and on what is termed “parity of access toinfrastructure and knowledge”.

Changes in Housing Policy
The view of Professor Patrick Geddes, as expressed to the Dublin housing inquiry in 1913, that “the house is the fundamental fact of real wages”2 was accepted as a give for many decades. Successive governments from the 1920s up to the late 1990s broadly supported this concept and evolved a housing policy which sought to ensure that: “as far as the resources of the economy permit, every family/household can obtain for their own occupation a house of good standard at a price or rent they can afford located in an acceptable environment”.3 In turn, planning was seen as an essential tool to modify the excesses of the market in the interest of the common good and for the needs of society. Since 1999, Irish housing policy and provision have moved decisively in favour of an unbridled free market approach, an approach described in some detail in the NESC report, No.112, .4

This article focuses on NESC Chapter 5, which is entitled \’Sustainable Neighbourhoods and Integrated Development\’. However, the NESC review of the approach to housing and neighbourhood development has to be set in the wider context of housing policy and housing development. Irish housing output has reached an unprecedented level, with 76,954 new dwelling units completed in 2004. But of this output, a mere 6.7 per cent was provided for social housing needs. The shift away from social housing has occurred despite a high level of established need.

A second concern is in respect of housing affordability. While the expansion of the housing construction sector (often supported by an array of tax led incentives) has made a significant contribution to economic growth and to employment in recent years, house prices continue to escalate beyond the reach of many, especially first-time purchasers. There is growing dismay at escalating prices, which prompted the following letter from a bewildered reader to (14 March 2005):

dilapidated, two-bedroomed house in Dublin 4, with the kitchen ceiling falling in and a lean-to toilet that one wouldn\’t house cattle in, was advertised with guide price of €320,000 (originally €290,00).I have just returned, dazed from its auction, where the gavel gave a sharp crack as it brought the madness to a conclusion at €505,000.

The author asks: “which form of madness is driving this mindless purchasing frenzy?”. For an increasing number of households, house prices are far beyond people\’s \’real wages\’, as Geddes had put it.

We have a situation, then, where housing output has been at an all-time high, but the emphasis has been on the provision of housing units for the private market, sometimes with commercial services, and often situated at considerable distances from work locations. Too many new housing developments are places where people have only time to sleep and from which they commute increasing distances with difficulty. Many of these housing developments on the edge of cities and towns are devoid of essential public and community services or the necessary support infrastructures. All too frequently, there is a neglect of the social dimension of planning in favour of an \’Urban Design\’ approach primarily concerned with aesthetics and building form and arrangement, a sort of architecture writ large – an approach that is often more attractive to market driven schemes and projects. Good design is about more than higher densities and proper planning is wider and deeper than both.5 Questions also arise as to the quality and planning standard of at least some of the new free market developments.6

\’Sustainable Neighbourhoods and Integrated Development\’

In Chapter 5, \’Sustainable Neighbourhoods and Integrated Development\’, the Council of NESC argues that sustainable and well-integrated housing developments are now being delivered and that such delivery is compatible with a continuing increased level of housing supply well into the future. This view is largely based on the fact that a wide range of principles, strategies, procedures and policy instruments have beenintroduced and on a belief that these “are of great significance”.

Chapter 5 is masterful in its use of language: four of the five words in the title above are capable of a myriad of definitions and have the capacity to imply much more than may be evident in practice. The concepts of \’sustainability\’ and \’integration\’ can be used in many ways and usually have strong social connotations, though not in this case. There are numerous definitions of the concept of \’neighbourhood\’, much of the
literature dealing with issues of size, organisation, the levels of service provision and the extent and nature of social inclusion. As for the term \’development\’, it can be as inclusive as policy directs or as resources allow.

The Chapter is structured in line with current thinking on Urban Design criteria. The emphasis is on matters such as \’sustainable urban densities\’, \’consolidated urban areas\’, \’compact urban satellites\’, \’rapid communication networks\’ and \’sustainable rural settlement\’. The sustainable neighbourhood is described as \’centred, diverse and walkable\’. Such neighbourhoods are argued to have six characteristics that distinguish them from sprawl.

These distinguishing features include the centre for local
service provision, – residences being within five minutes walk from the ordinary means of daily life, . This is the language of Urban Design and a language attractive to the market economy. There is little in this about people; absent are references to \’the Living City\’, to \’community\’ or to social provision.

NESC argues for the \’urban advantage and added value of good planning\’ without realising that, while their entire model may constitute an Urban Design approach, it falls far short of what might be commonly conceived as planning.7

‘New Principles, Strategies and Procedures’?
In reading the Chapter, ‘Sustainable Neighbourhoods and Integrated Development’, much depends on the practical confidence one can place on the following statement:

The Council believes that this evolution of thinking and procedure is potentially of great significance in assuring both high-quality sustainable residential areas and an adequate supply of housing …
(p. 111, emphasis added)

The principal documents referred to and bearing on the \’Sustainable Neighbourhoods and Integrated Development\’ approach are listed as:


  • The National Spatial Strategy
  • The Regional Planning Guidelines
  • Development Plans
  • Integrated Framework Area Plans
  • Residential Density Planning Guidelines
  • Housing Strategies
  • Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines.

The following sections of this paper examine some of these \’foundation\’ documents in terms of their current or likely effectiveness in achieving proper
planning or in securing sustainable residential development. Reference will also be made to a number of official reports which could have a bearing on
quality of life in residential areas but which are not discussed in Chapter 5. As will be shown, much of what is inferred as being reality is often more in the realm of the possible, the potential or the ideal. In practice, there is a question mark over implementation in many cases and a number of reports on critical issues have been overlooked or quietly shelved by Government.

Whither the National Spatial Strategy?
(henceforth NSS) was published with great fanfare on 28 November 2002.8 The Strategy designated a total of nine Gateways, and a further eleven towns received
designation as Hubs, most of these being located in the relatively underdeveloped areas of the country and designed to
stimulate growth in these regions. As noted in NESC 112, the NSS also proposed what is termed a \’Green Structure\’ for future development, including the prevention of sprawl, the
reduction of the loss of
agricultural land to other uses, the protection of the rural identity, the conservation and
enhancement of biodiversity, the protection of existing buildings and other elements of cultural heritage and the creation of a green setting for cities and towns, providing recreation within easy reach.9

While the NSS was enthusiastically welcomed on its publication and the Taoiseach gave an unconditional assurance “that this Government will work towards full implementation” of the Strategy, few if any key decisions have yet been taken to give effect to its strategic proposals. The announcement in December 2003 of the relocation of 10,000 public sector posts out of Dublin to fifty-three locations around the country, almost all to centres other than the NSS Gateways, is difficult to reconcile with the overall strategy. This decision by the Department of Finance to opt for a dispersal of public sector work has raised major questions as to the commitment of government departments, other than the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to the National Spatial Strategy. Pending difficult policy decisions and significant investment in the strategic elements of the NSS, it is hard to see how the existence of the Strategy in itself can be said to contribute to either
sustainable neighbourhoods or integrated development. There is a need for a national urban
policy within which to implement the strategic components of the NSS, if the production and
publication of the report is not to have been the only real outcome of the exercise, yet again.10

 Regional Planning Guidelines
NESC cites the Regional Planning Guidelines (henceforth RPGs) as being one of the key tools in securing joined-up planning approaches. The RPGs, introduced on a statutory basis by the , are a welcome addition to the range of instruments available to
planners and administrators to manage development and change. However, it is doubtful if, at this stage, the Regional Authorities have the resources, the staff or the technical skills to effectively manage development or to ensure its sustainability. Effective power rests not with the Regional Authorities, but with the Department of the Environment and Local Government and with the local authorities. The composition of the Regional Authorities is inimical to the strategic choices which may be critical for a region in the medium to long term. At this incipient stage, and in the absence of the effective implementation of the National Spatial Strategy, it is doubtful if the Regional Authorities are in a position even to withstand the vested interests of their own constituent local authorities. In some cases, local authorities have taken a cavalier approach to the requirement under Section 27 of the that: “A planning authority shall have regard to any regional planning guidelines in force for its area when making and adopting a development plan.” In the case of the Greater Dublin Area, an original and widely welcomed proposal to reopen the Dublin to Navan rail line put forward in the 1999 Strategic Planning Guidelines was deleted from the 2004 Regional Planning Guidelines. Recent proposals and/or decisions by both Wicklow and Laois County Councils have little regard for their Regional Guidelines. It is to be hoped that in the future RPGs will be resourced and strengthened to enable them to play an effective strategic role in land management. But for the present, it is difficult to see how regional guidelines can manage to control the sprawl of Dublin or effect a better balance of population across the country.

Development Plans

All too often, planning authorities do not have control over the necessary resources to ensure that their Development Plans respond adequately to the needs of people. Two by-elections in February 2005 in constituencies on the fringes of Dublin were fought substantially on the inadequate delivery of social and infrastructural services to match the needs of recent housing expansion throughout the area. Across the suburbs of Dublin, much of the recent development has been housing-led, with serious time-lags in the delivery of those services which are not provided through the market – improved roads, public transport, schools and recreation facilities. Many of the new developments, while attractive, make little or no provision for active recreation, some even having notices saying: \’Well Behaved Children Welcome\’. There is a lack of joined-up thinking or of integrated delivery, despite the best efforts of the planners.

The section on Development Plans includes detailed data on the \’development contributions\’ now being charged by local authorities, but it does not allude to the reality that normally developers just add these to the price of the dwelling.

Integrated Framework Area Plans

Much hope has been placed in the ability of , utilising the supports of the \’Strategic Development Zones\’ legal mechanism, to effect a more efficient and more sustainable form of suburban development, as at the first such site of Adamstown. The success of such an approach will require on-going and sustained resourcing, adequate staffing, careful and constructive management and joined-up thinking across many public bodies. An attempt in the 1970s to develop the Corduff neighbourhood of Blanchardstown on a plan-led basis proved unsuccessful.

{mospagebreak} Residential Density Planning
The NESC report strongly supports the trend towards higher residential densities on the grounds of a more economic use of existing infrastructure and serviced land. Increased densities are especially desirable in inner urban areas. The NESC case for higher densities leading to “a reduced need for the development of green field sites” is more questionable since a law of diminishing returns quickly sets in as density increases. To be truly effective, higher density
policies have to be linked to mass-transit facilities, which is not the case in much of Dublin\’s recent suburban and ex-urban expansion. NESC argues strongly that the move towards higher residential densities “does not necessarily mean high rise” and, of course, this is correct. But pressure for high rise development is intensifying amongst designers and developers. Some architects argue that tall buildings should be seen as “expressions of the \’new Ireland\’ – expressions of the freedom and of the responsibilities that it lays on us all”.11 The economic, planning and social case for higher densities can too easily be transposed.

Housing Strategies
Housing strategies were an important innovation introduced in the (Section 94). These strategies were intended to match residential demand and supply and to help manage the necessary land supply. But in a developer-led culture, where Government is committed to supporting the house building industry, it is questionable how meaningful housing strategies are in practice, at the present time.

Rural Housing Guidelines
Inclusion of reference to draft Rural Housing Guidelines in a chapter dealing with \’Sustainable Neighbourhoods and Integrated Development\’ may appear incongruous. There is a general view that much of the rural housing which has been erected throughout the country over the past decade offends against the principles of sustainable development; there is considerable resistance to placing such developments within villages or \’neighbourhood\’ nucleations. There is increasing concern about the location and design of some of the new rural housing and growing evidence that a disproportionate share of new rural housing is used only as second homes. It is to be hoped that the Minister\’s view will prevail and that the Rural Housing Guidelines “can ensure that applicants and planning authorities can work together, on the basis of clear and objective criteria, to select the best design for a house and the best design solution for that site”.12 It is important for society and the environment that the criteria set out in the Guidelines are adhered to, adequately staffed and properly implemented. But in a society where “upwards of 90 per cent of all jobs are now urban-based”13 the creation of sustainable neighbourhoods and integrated development remains predominantly an urban issue.

In summary, Chapter 5 has been built around a very optimistic
interpretation of the potential impact of a number of reports and strategies. While such optim-ism may prove warranted, urgent action is required to resource and fuly implement the recommended policies.

Significant Omissions
Perhaps of even greater concern than NESC\’s benign view of stated policies is the lack of reference in Chapter 5 to critical issues, such as Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000, to consideration of social inclusion or to urban land policy – issues which should be central to current or future residential development policies.

Furthermore, it is difficult to understand why NESC, in its consideration of integrated development, did not examine the local implications of the socially regressive and anti-integration policy of local authorities divesting themselves of their stock of public housing accommodation, a policy criticised in earlier NESC reports.14

{mospagebreak} Part V of the 2000 Act
Part V of the was enacted to bring order into the planning and provision of housing and to ensure that future housing developments would have within them a mix of private, affordable and social housing. The provisions of the Act empowered local authorities to require housing developers to set aside part of their development area (usually around twenty percent) for social and affordable housing, in accordance with their housing strategy and the objectives of the Development Plan.

These provisions were resolutely resisted by the construction industry and were significantly amended by the . The amended Act allowed for agreements to be made “to reserve land or to provide houses or sites at another location, or to make a payment to the local authority which will be used for the provision of social and affordable housing, or to agree to a combination of any of these options”. This amendment significantly undermined the concept of socially mixed housing developments in Ireland and it largely reversed the proposals for integrated neighbourhoods. Instead, we have a vast number of wholly mono-class, private housing developments, while in Dublin social housing is largely concentrated in locations where land has been purchased by the local authority, most notably in the Cherry Orchard area.

It can also be argued that the 2002 amendments have adversely affected the scale of provision of both affordable and social housing. Only 809 dwellings have been constructed under the revised Part V arrangements, whereas it has been argued that if the requirements of the original Act had not been relaxed the total number of units provided for social and affordable needs would have been closer to 10,000 in 2004 alone, although this figure is disputed by the Department of the Environment and Local Government.
Ireland is a deeply divided society and visibly so. By so seriously weakening the inclusion and social integration thrust of the 2000 Act, Irish society effectively rejected any significant attempt to broaden the scope of planning so as to embrace a socially inclusive dimension.

Development Land
Another major issue omitted from Chapter 5, but central to any notion of proper planning and neighbourhood provision, is the need to free up land availability for development at reasonable cost. The All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution in its deliberations on property rights and the planning process15 broadly endorsed the constitutionality of the principal recommendation of the 1973 Kenny report to the effect that “land required for development by local authorities should be compulsorily acquired at existing use value plus 25%”.16 The Oireachtas Committee\’s report also brought forward a number of other important recommendations relating to compulsory purchase, the operation of the property market, the recouping of \’betterment\’, social housing provision and the management of the planning system. To date, there has been little discussion or practical action in response to the Committee\’s report. This topic is raised elsewhere in the NESC report, but it is of critical concern and central to any attempt to provide rational solutions to Ireland\’s urban residential development.

{mospagebreak} Conclusion
A mere five years after the
introduction of new legislation, policies and strategies that seemed to herald a new era in Irish planning, much has changed in Irish development
circumstances, attitudes and
policies. The relatively balanced ESDP approach has been pushed to the margins by a forceful and dominant market driven approach, with decreasing regard for anything that might delay, modify or hinder economic progress. In turn, planning is in danger of being consigned to a role similar to that which it played in Britain in the early 1980s where planners were reduced to being mainly the enhancer of the value of land and other private property.17 The cultural change that has occurred in Ireland has had major implications for urban planning and for residential development, especially since residential land uses account for approximately half of all urban land. The emergence of a market-led approach to housing and housing policy has had profound implications for households, for urban structuring and for Irish society in general.

The housing boom of recent years has created a massive increase in the national housing stock, but this has been at the expense of affordability, social mix and adequate social provision. What is evident from the examination of Chapter 5 is that the ideas, concepts, reports and plans are available to enable the creation of satisfactory, well-planned and socially integrated residential areas. But there is either a lack of will to implement such polices or a belief that their implementation would be detrimental to the free market approach now in place to facilitate the Irish construction industry. This very visible model of exclusive housing development is, unfortunately, a symbol of the deeper and persistent divisions within Irish society.

Above all, we in Ireland could do well to closely examine best practice in those successful EU Member States where affordable housing provision is a priority and where land, housing and planning policies are regularly reviewed and where recommendations and reforms are implemented. Economic success and social progress do go hand in hand in many advanced

1. European Commission (1999) (ESDP), Luxembourg: EU Commission.
2. Evidence given by Professor Patrick Geddes to the 1913 Inquiry by the Departmental Committee on , London: HMSO (1914).
3. NESC (1988) (Report No. 87), Dublin: Stationery Office.
4. NESC (2004) (Report No. 112), Dublin: NESC.
5. For an overview of theories both of planning and within planning see: Y. Rydin (1998) , London: Macmillan.
6. See for example, “Developers are Criticised for Poor Designs”, , 26 October 2004 – report of comments by the Chairman of An Bord Pleanala. See also Mark Hennessy, “Never Mind the Quantity, Quality of Housing is theIssue”, , 5 March 2005.
7. See Rydin (1998), .
8. Department of the Environment and Local Government (2002) , Dublin: Department of the Environment and Local Government.
9. p. 115; NESC (2004), p. 114.
10. M.J. Bannon (2004) “National Urban Policy is Badly Needed”, , 24 November 2004.
11. D. Brophy (2005) “Tall Buildings to Reflect New Ireland”, report of interview
with John McLoughlin, Director of Architecture, the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, 27 March 2005, p. 15.
12. Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (2005)
, Dublin.
13. M.J. Bannon (2004) “National Urban Policy is Badly Needed”, , 24 November 2004.
14. See for example NESC (1981) (Report No. 55), Dublin: Stationery Office.
15. The All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution (2004), Dublin: Stationery Office.
16. J. Kenny (1973) Report of the Committee on Dublin: Stationery Office, par. 93.
17. A. Thornley (1993) London: Routledge