A conference on Irish planning, held on the 14th of June, brought together planners, policymakers and those interested in the planning process to discuss various aspects of planning. A key theme of the conference was the proposed National Planning Framework – what it could and should look like, which was held coincidentally on the same day that a new Minister for Planning, Minister Eoghan Murphy T.D. was appointed.

Niall Cussen, the Chief Planner from the Department of Housing, Planning & Local Government provided a progress update on the Ireland 2040 National Planning Framework, see here also.

Consultations with various stakeholders, sectoral groups and the public have been undertaken, a position paper and website prepared and the first of two public consultations has been held. The various options and scenarios are being prepared currently and a draft NPF is to be issued before the summer recess with further consultation following. Input from the NPF into the Capital review and Budget 2018 in late Summer – early Autumn, will also be important.

Key themes to emerge from the NPF consultations included:

  • Governance – better collaboration across all levels of Government is required.
  • Cities are crucial for regional development along with towns and villages located outside the cities
  • Communities are now more aware of links between our local environment, planning and health
  • Infrastructure investment needs to be considered and aligned with longer term goals. Broadband was the one specific infrastructure requirement cited continually, an issue the WDC has been highlighting for many years.
  • Another key theme to emerge is the need for an All island approach.

The NPF team are now considering key questions, which include:

  • Dublin – should growth be upward or outwards?
  • How to release untapped potential in regional centres?
  • How to support realising the potential of rural areas? Rural policy is considered important recognising that – depending on the method – between 30 and 50% of Ireland’s population live in rural areas. Rural areas should be seen as more vibrant than some suggest and planning has a major role in identifying and realising potential. Some towns and villages are growing and are very attractive places to live, however there is a need to improve the living environment in all towns and villages to make them more appealing places to live in.
  • There is a need to support urban regeneration also – existing vacant sites within cities and brownfield sites need to be utilised. There is much spare capacity here and there is a need to make city/town living more attractive.

Niall Cussen outlined evidence to demonstrate that higher densities present savings to the State in terms of carbon emissions and financial cost. Less commuting will offer emissions savings while servicing costs and deployment of infrastructure can be more efficient when delivered in higher density developments.

The aim is to have the Ireland 2040 vision and principles endorsed by the public, approved by Cabinet and to have broad political support. There is also an aim that annual Budgets and medium term investment should be ‘working in sync with identification of strategic planning and development opportunities’.

Deirdre Frost, Policy Analyst with the WDC, outlined some of the key points from the recent WDC Submission to the NPF Consultation. See here for full submission (PDF 4.5 MB), see here for Executive Summary (PDF 0.7 MB).

  • A key goal of the NPF should be to effectively promote second tier cities.
  • The five cities serve the East, South, Mid-West & West respectively, driving development in their regions.
  • The North West needs a stronger urban centre with Brexit as an additional challenge facing the Region. Sligo is geographically best placed to drive development in the North West, though Letterkenny is important also.
  • Galway is the only built-up area nationally which has experienced consistent population growth greater than national average over the period 1996-2016, 41% and 31% respectively. This is in part because of its quality of life appeal, good employment opportunities and strong educational & health facilities. The absence of a larger growth centre to the North with a university and ‘Centres of Excellence’ in healthcare have provided Galway city with a very extensive catchment.
  • The role of other towns and particularly smaller towns in a largely rural Western Region perform functions of larger towns or cities in other regions.
  • The regional cities do have the capacity to ‘take the strain’ – if given the resources & more effective linkages between them.

In the WDC presentation it was noted that one of the often expressed arguments about the incapacity of smaller centres to compete effectively for mobile investment is their relative size compared to Dublin. However, Dublin competed successfully internationally, when it was much smaller in size. Also, the experience of Galway, Cork and Limerick show that smaller centres can and do successfully compete.

Research in the UK has found that regional policy can and did effectively alter the location of Foreign Direct Investment in favour of the north of England. However when the policy weakened, investment reverted to an earlier location pattern indicating that policy needs to continue to be regionally focused.

 

Scale

This issue of scale is very important.

  • Not all centres can or should compete for very large scale investments.
  • However it is also worth noting that there have been significant investments in smaller centres recently, for example in the two months of August/Sept 2016, there were investments in Fort Wayne in Castlebar; Coca Cola in Ballina and Jazz Pharmaceuticals in Co. Roscommon, all highlighting that smaller centres attract and retain multinational investments of a scale appropriate to their size.

Transport improvements and labour supply

The importance of transport improvements improving labour supply and extending labour catchments was also noted. Better transport linkages between the second tier cities would extend their labour catchments allowing them to compete more effectively for mobile investment.

Rural-urban linkages are also a very important aspect of labour supply. Census data examining rural dwellers commuting into towns and cities show the importance of rural dwellers as key component of the labour supply of large multinational employers. For example over a quarter of rural dwellers commuting to work in Galway (25.6%) work in the IDA business parks on the East of the city.

Infrastructure Investment Considerations

The WDC, in its submission to the NPF outlined a series of observations that should help frame consideration of investment in infrastructure to support NPF goals.

  • While our low population density in Ireland is often cited as a difficulty when investing in infrastructure, what is not mentioned is that for example – unlike the Nordic countries – Ireland is geographically quite compact and does not have particularly challenging terrain, all of which is an advantage when deploying infrastructure.
  • Also, while our population density is low, it is relatively broadly dispersed, meaning investment deployed from coast to coast can serve the entire country in between. This is unlike for example Scandinavian countries or Canada or Australia, where extensive parts of the country are uninhabited, but the infrastructure needs to pass through these areas, with no benefit to users.
  • The cost of investment in infrastructure in congested and brownfield sites can be multiples of that in less congested centres.
  • Investment in infrastructure is often considered independent of other infrastructure investment, with implications for unserved areas. For example some broadband networks are along the motorway network, meaning those regions without motorways may not be served well.
  • More specifically investment in transport is often considered on a mode specific basis and the cumulative effect on specific geographic routes and regions is often not considered. The North West of the country is at a disadvantage compared to other regions with regard to road access. The proposed investment in rail is now focused on those routes with better road access (motorways), for rail to stay competitive. Therefore the regions well served by roads will also be served by a better rail network.
  • Short term needs but long-term impacts. Infrastructural investment especially significant investments like new roads or rail routes take time to deliver. It is important to consider the long-term spatial implications as well as trying to solve current problems.
  • Appropriate Appraisal and Evaluation Methods need to be re-assessed in light of policy goals that may emerge from the NPF. The traditional cost benefit approach will naturally favour the larger population centres as the impacts are likely to be felt by a greater number, wherever the project is being delivered. The impact on the wider spatial balance of the country and the extent to which the investment is supporting the NPF goals, will need to be factored in. There is a need for a CBA methodology which accords the NPF/regional development goals and objectives a higher value
  • The capital appraisal & evaluation methods also need to consider wider, future benefits. For example the planned National Broadband Plan underwent a CBA process which included analysis on the health benefits which could be realised. This was estimated as equivalent to a reduction in national health expenditure of 2% per annum (or €261.5 million pa currently).
  • The concept of social return on investment could also be considered. This might lead to different outcomes when considering cuts to, or additional investment in, various services in that the wider impacts and effects will give a more holistic assessment of the impacts of investments.
  • Finally in the WDC Submission, some necessary, though not sufficient, conditions for successful implementation of the NPF are outlined.
  • A single body with responsibility and designated budget is required.
  • All other spending, investment and policy decisions need to be made in line with NPF
  • Currently sectoral policy and planning largely drives regional development.
  • There needs to be a clear relationship between the delivery of the NPF and the RSES in each of the three regions.
  • Most importantly, there needs to be ‘Buy – in’ – this is not to say that there should be so many growth centres designated, which may be unachievable and invariably suggests a winners and losers scenario. However the Plan does need to address communities in all regions, urban and rural, identifying potential and along with the RSES and County and local area plans identify real opportunities for communities to grow and improve the economic and social opportunities for their residents.

Dr Brian Hughes, Consulting in Urban Economics and Demography at Dublin Institute of Technology discussed new techniques as an evidence base for selecting City and other Growth Centres in the National Planning Framework (NPF).

Key themes from his presentation included the need to learn

  • Lessons from previous spatial strategy failures.
  • An evidence-base replacing political whim so as to achieve cross-party buy-in.
  • An evidence-base to provide political confidence to support the NPF.
  • The urban economic need for population densities in Ireland
  • The New Economic Geography and Centripetal Agglomeration
  • The OECD-EU Harmonized technique and the Graz model
  • An example of its census data application in identifying an emerging city
  • 2016 census provincial and regional population trends
  • How many growth centres should there be and their locations.

David Minton, Director of the Northern & Western Regional Assembly in his presentationMoving from balanced to effective regional development’, outlined how far the West and Northwest regions have come following decades of emigration. He highlighted the huge advantages the region has to offer. From 3rd level institutions through to a wide range of modern manufacturing and financial services companies which now operate throughout the region. Mr Minton argues that the region is well placed to position itself further as a ‘smart region’ with a range of quality employment opportunities as well as a high quality living environment.

The Atlantic Economic Corridor extending from Limerick northwards through to Galway, Sligo and on to Letterkenny could, if effective linkages were provided between them, be a real driver of economic development, acting as a an alternative growth centre to Dublin and the Greater Dublin Area in the East. Mr. Minton also discussed various themes including:

 

  • Exploring innovative interventions for peripheral economies
  • Capturing latent potential of economic catchments
  • Regional governance and competitiveness
  • Rural Ireland as canvass for 4th industrial revolution
  • How can we plan for true technological transformation?

 

Conclusion

Much work has been done in preparing a new national spatial strategy – the National Planning Framework. The previous Minister (Minister Coveney) noted the importance of long-term planning and the need for a new spatial strategy.

The new Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government, Mr. Eoghan Murphy will take responsibility for the NPF. Whether the change in ministerial portfolios will signify a change in direction, only time will tell. In the short term there may be renewed focus on the housing crisis.

The Atlantic Economic Corridor, a feature of some submissions to the NPF, is an initiative supported by the now Senior Cabinet Minister, Minister Ring.

Given the need to align capital and current spending to support long-term planning it is hoped that the timelines set out by the Department at the conference – a draft NPF to be issued before the summer recess – will be fulfilled. Following this Oireachtas approval will need to be sought along with input from the NPF into the Capital review and Budget 2018.

Deirdre Frost