RSA European Conference: Session on ‘Ensuring Rigorous and Effective Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies’

Last week the Annual European Conference of the Regional Studies Association took place in Dublin.  Hosted jointly by TCD and UCD, the theme was ‘The Great Regional Awakening: New Directions’ or GRAND if you prefer!  From Sunday evening until Wednesday lunchtime, there were a huge number of plenary, parallel, and discuss and debate sessions exploring all aspects of regional studies research – economic, demographic, geographical, sociological, financial – from across Europe and further afield.  The conference was a great opportunity to catch up with current research on regional development. There’ll be a quite a few more blog posts from it all!

‘Ensuring Rigorous and Effective Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies’

This post will focus on one of the ‘Discuss and Debate Sessions’ held on Tuesday 6 June.  Organised by the Eastern & Midland Regional Assembly (EMRA) together with the Northern & Western Regional Assembly (NWRA) and the Southern Regional Assembly (SRA) the session topic was ‘Ensuring Rigorous and Effective Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies’.

The three Regional Assemblies in Ireland have the responsibility to develop new Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies (RSESs) to replace the current Regional Planning Guidelines. The RSESs are intended to translate the National Planning Framework (NPF) to a regional level and provide a ‘… long-term strategic planning and economic framework for the development of the region …’. While background and research work is underway by the three RAs, the delays in the development of the new NPF have held up the process of developing the RSESs.

Following the public consultation on the NPF, a draft NPF document is expected to be issued for public consultation before the Oireachtas summer recess.  A conference taking place today (14 June) titled ‘National Planning Framework, The Future of Urban Planning, Activating Spaces & Developing places’ may provide some additional insight on NPF timelines. Policy Analyst with the WDC, Deirdre Frost will be speaking later today on ‘The National Planning Framework and Regional Inequalities – Can these be addressed?’

As the WDC pointed out in our submission to the NPF consultation, the NPF Issues & Choices consultation paper did not set out very clearly the relationship and respective areas of responsibility of the NPF and RSESs. So this session during the RSA conference was a timely opportunity to discuss the issues.

Presentation from EMRA

The session began with a presentation by Clare Bannon, Senior Executive Planner with the EMRA. In it, she outlined a background paper prepared by them. Some of the key points were:

  • A lot can be learned from the experience of the NSS/RPGs (lack of legislative basis, lack of ‘rural’ element, no mechanism to amend as circumstances changed, economics missing)
  • Land use planning has increasingly evolved into ‘spatial planning’ as it is not seen as sufficient to consider land use alone.
  • Implementation will be the key challenge for RSESs. Capital Plan needs to be aligned with the RSESs.
  • An evidence base is critical. Data gathering is underway, need more analysis (qualitative, environmental), consultation will be part of gathering data. Under NPF process Demographic and Econometric Modelling is underway for the three regions.
  • Economic dimension is a new departure from RPGs. RSESs expected to encourage regional progress, not just in GDP/GVA but also across range of quality of life indicators.
  • The efficiency / equity debate will come into play in term of the location of public resources.
  • Other policy areas (e.g. transport, health) can have a far greater impact on regional performance than planning.

Every two years each Local Authority will be required to submit a report to their Reginal Assembly on progress made in implementing the RSES. Can the RSES be an operational strategy for delivery of regional progress? Do the RSESs need to include an ‘Action Statement’?


Following the presentation, a panel gave their initial views: David Meredith, Senior Research Officer, Teagasc; Brendan Williams, Assistant Professor in Planning and Environmental Policy, UCD; Alma Walsh, Planning Advisor, DoHPCLG and Caroline Creamer, Acting Director, International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD), and then the discussion was opened to the floor.

There was a lot of debate on the issues and challenges surrounding the development of both the RSESs and the NPF, with contributions from a number of people with huge experience of the previous NSS and RPGs process.  The key themes which emerged from the discussions were:

Different places have very differing needs

  • Concept of scale is very important at regional level. There are three very different regions. A town of 10,000 population in the NWRA region means something very different to its hinterland than a town of 10,000 located in the Greater Dublin Area. A town of 10,000 in a rural county can play a similar employment and service provision role for its hinterland, as a city in another area.
  • The three RA areas are very large with many internal differences e.g. the EMRA includes Dublin city centre and Co Longford. RSESs should be developed at sub-region level, as there are very different priorities and issues within each of the three regions.
  • Place-making and place-shaping are critical to achieving regional growth. Identifying the assets of a specific place and developing those.
  • Quality of life is a key factor for the RSESs, including in how they envision the potential of rural areas to contribute to regional growth.
  • Some concern if the role of rural in the RSESs is seen as a ‘solution’ to an urban problem. Rural areas as a housing location for commuting to cities. Rural should not be seen as a ‘spillover’ from the urban, with quality of life the only factor considered for rural areas, rather than seen as sites of employment and production.
  • A town or area does not need to be listed in a Plan in order to grow, a lot of other public, private and community factors come into play.

Regional v Local

  • Policy is deeply rooted in local issues, but planning has now moved to a regional level. Balancing the conflict between local and regional will be a major challenge for RSESs.
  • It is important, especially for NWRA, to take an island of Ireland approach. With Brexit, a lot of spatial issues will have a more complicated cross-border context in future.
  • Needs to be a clear separation of ‘regional issues’ and ‘local issues’. Have to identify from the start what are the regional issues that are best dealt with at a regional level through RSESs.
  • Level of time and resources put into planning at different levels – as much time could be spent on a local area plan as the NPF – what is expected of planning at different levels?

Spatial and Economic

  • Linking economic and spatial is a significant change in the RSESs compared with RPGs.
  • There is a danger of setting up a false dichotomy between ‘spatial’ and ‘economic’. All spatial planning is economic as it is concerned with the location of activity.
  • While it is important to understand the economics of production (where products and services are produced), NPF/RSESs also need to consider the economics of provision (where products and services are provided). The spatial pattern of service provision (and associated employment) is far broader and more spatially spread, than production.


  • GDP/GVA is a problematic indicator especially at regional level. Disposable income is a better indicator and there is a narrower regional gap.  Measuring income rather than GDP/GVA shifts the debate to regional potential.
  • How do you measure regional progress? What does society consider to be ‘progress’?  What you measure is what you will get. GDP is not a perfect measure, but needs to be included as it is what the EU uses for regional funds.  But to measure success of RSESs we need to use a set of indicators including quality of life indicators.  RAs intend to use adjusted national income plus a broad set of indicators. Selecting what indicators to use to measure regional progress is the technical side of the equity/efficiency debate.
  • Demographic and Econometric Modelling work being undertaken for NPF will be at national, regional and county level. Will be fundamental to drafting NPF and RSESs.
  • How well is the current evidence base collection resourced? A lot of issues/background papers prepared for NSS.


  • Often argued that plans are left on a shelf but need to ask the question, why would anyone (a policymaker) take a plan off the shelf? 1) if they are legally required to; 2) if it is useful to them.  Effectiveness of any spatial plan is down to decisions taken by other policymakers.  This will only happen if the plan is useful to them.  RSESs should provide a strategy to make the case for investment to policymakers.
  • What type of strategic plan do we want? In some countries there is very active/proactive management of the implementation of the plan. Or do we want one that is more aspirational and guidance for policymakers?  NPF/RSESs may need to include a ‘carrot’ to encourage public agencies to take the lead in implementing them.  What should role of Regional Assemblies be in the RSESs implementation?
  • Effective governance is critical to place-based development. What capacity is there at regional level? What is the relationship between local and regional? There is not much appetite to change power structures in Ireland, but the capacity of the structures at regional and local level can be strengthened.
  • The relationships across a lot of policies/plans is not clear, there are a lot of plans at present e.g. Regional Action Plan for Jobs, Action Plan for Rural Development etc, and it needs to be clearer how they relate to each other and to the RSESs.
  • Need to challenge the political acceptance of what is development and how to measure it. In some places e.g. Melbourne, it became the ‘most liveable city’ with no change to its institutions.

Public and community involvement

  • It is important for NPF and RSESs to be clearly understood by public. A lot of communities feel disconnected from planning but face the consequences (negative and positive) of planning decisions every day of their lives. It impacts on quality of life, health and wellbeing, employment, delivery of services etc.
  • More likely to gain public support for NPF/RSESs if they are less ambitious but more achievable. Public will not have buy-in for a plan that is unrealistic and unachievable.  Choosing fewer actions, but ones that can be achieved, will help create public support.
  • What is the capacity in local communities to engage with the NPF and RSESs? The changes in local development structures in Ireland over the past few years, with an increasing role and funding to Local Authorities for rural development, has weakened some traditional local development structures. It cannot be expected that these structures and individuals will have the capacity, or willingness, to now take a lead role in framing or delivering the RSESs. Community organisations may already be struggling to engage with Local Authorities, let alone with regional level also.


  • NSS had the benefit of being set in the framework of the National Development Plan (NDP), now there are a lot of documents for different sectors but no comprehensive economic plan. Where will the NPF sit?
  • There needs to be alignment between policy (NPF/RSESs) and investment. Where public investment takes place should be aligned with RSESs.
  • Needs to be a focus on what can realistically be delivered by public investment over the period of the RSESs. Public investments tends to be very cyclical, there needs to be long-term assurance that investments will be made to deliver on the NPF/RSESs.  If RSESs too broad and ambitious they will not be able to prioritise and will be less achievable.  RSESs need to include prioritisation.
  • Debate in UK at present on having a much wider qualitative and quantitative Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) methodology for investments.
  • There is a wide mix of funding models for investments. Good to have a mix of funding sources for any project, not just public sources.  Cannot have good infrastructure policy in absence of other good policies.

Clearly this ‘Debate and Discuss Session’ could have gone on all day given the scope and importance of developing new strategies for the spatial and economic development of Ireland’s regions out to 2040.  There will be a lot more discussion, debate and consultation on the development of the three RSESs during the rest of 2017, and well into 2018.

Pauline White