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Address by Minister English to The Irish Planning Institute Autumn Conference

Published on Friday, 04 Oct 2019
Aire Stáit Damien English TD

Check against Delivery

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen.

President, members of the Irish Planning Institute – thank you for inviting me to join you today at your Autumn Conference.  This is an exciting and dynamic time for planning in our country.

Project Ireland (PI2040), incorporating the National Planning Framework to 2040 in tandem with the National Development 10 year Capital Plan, is a great opportunity for planners to bring their expertise and input into shaping our future, how we will live and work and function as a society, conscious always of the importance and positive benefits of good planning and design. Paul Hogan, who will be speaking next, will update you more generally on the current work and priorities of the Planning Division. So I wish to focus on some of the headline issues. 

Overall, though, I do think it is important to acknowledge that a lot of work has been done since the Government launched Project Ireland 2040 (PI2040) last year. I very much welcome the engagement we have had from yourselves, local authorities and other key stakeholders. We are now seeing tangible evidence of that work. The preparation and finalisation of the Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies by the Regional Assemblies is nearing completion:  the first of three strategies for the Eastern and Midlands Region came into effect on 28th June and the other two are expected to be made before the end of the year.  Real tangible progress.

The Regional Strategies are fundamental to achieving new Government policy objectives in line with PI 2040 for the planning processes at national, regional and local levels, enabling them to work together to:

  • Deliver more compact, more sustainable urban development by securing more infill and brownfield development with a target of 50% in the cities and 30% across the wider network of towns and villages; and
  • Play a greater role in active land management and working to secure national policy objectives.

Regional governance and regional development are essential cogs for translating and delivering national policy at a local scale. As you know, the strategy underpinning Project Ireland 2040 is based on the enhanced growth of Ireland’s regions and in particular the four cities other than Dublin, (Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford) as accessible centres of scale, while supporting Dublin’s continued role as a key national growth driver, but at the same time tackling its sprawl. 

The strategy also identifies five smaller regional and cross-border growth drivers that complement the five city catchments. The three Regional Assemblies are tasked to co-ordinate, promote and support the strategic planning and sustainable development of the regions. Each of the Regional Assemblies has a leadership role to play in identifying regional policies and coordinating initiatives that support the delivery and implementation of national planning policy. While each of the three regions is distinct, they do not operate in isolation from each other and there are many complementing and connecting assets shared between regions.

For both the Eastern and Midland and the Northern and Western Regions, interaction with Northern Ireland remains a critical consideration as we face into Brexit, whatever form it may take. I cannot overstate the importance of the Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies (RSESs) in navigating and steering us on a sustainable planning course that aligns with PI2040.

Project Ireland also flags the Government’s intention, as part of action on climate change and to improve people’s quality of life, to shift away from “business as usual” sprawl-based development patterns and adopt more compact, sustainable and community centred development approaches. I know that this is also important to the IPI.

There is a recognition that our cities and our towns must grow upwards, not just outwards, if we are to meet the many housing, transport, climate and economic challenges ahead.  Achieving compact growth goals will mean:

  • A more sustainable future for our country;
  • The regeneration of our villages, towns and cities;
  • Development that makes life easier with better access to infrastructure services and amenities that communities need; and
  • Ensuring a balance of growth across the island, not just the never ending sprawl of Dublin city and other urban centres. 

Compact growth is supported by through the new statutory guidelines on apartments and building heights that, together with the Strategic Housing Development (SHD) process of An Bord Pleanála, has kick-started a major increase in housing delivery and interest in apartment development in our key urban centres.

Securing compact and sustainable urban growth also means focusing on reusing previously developed ‘brownfield’ land, building up infill sites (which may not have been built on before) and either reusing or redeveloping existing sites and buildings, in well-serviced urban locations, particularly those served by good public transport and accessible to employment opportunities.

This year also saw the establishment of the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR).  Niall Cussen, who will also be speaking here this morning, was appointed to the role, following an open competitive process. Most of you here know Niall, who left his role as Chief Planner in the Department to lead this new and innovative organisation. I think we are very lucky to have someone of such calibre and expertise to get this new body off the ground and I want to wish Niall well as he and his new team take on this important role. As you know, the OPR is now responsible for assessment of all local authority and regional assembly forward planning, including zoning decisions. We now have an independent Regulator who will ensure that planning authorities are operating with the highest standards of integrity and best practice, an independent body who will ensure that important planning decisions are taken in line with national policy as set out in the National Planning Framework.

The Regulator will also have the power to review the organisation, systems and procedures used by any planning authority or An Bord Pleanála, which is vital to ensuring that our planning framework is fit for purpose. The Regulator will also have the power to advise the Minister on whether a plan made by a local authority conflicts with national planning policy and to recommend that the Minister make directions where any plan is not in compliance with national policy.  These recommendations will be published. Additionally, the OPR will drive national research, education and public information programmes to highlight the role and benefit of planning.

On that general theme, continued professional development (CPD) and appropriate training is critical in terms of improving planning capacity and I want to acknowledge the foresight of the new Regulator, Niall, in organising training events for planners, a really important measure in the current climate. Indeed, I am looking forward to attending two of these events myself, in Limerick on the 10th October and Dundalk on the 12th October.  This is an indication of our commitment to prioritising planning, and to the importance attached to it by Government, as a key enabler to our economic, social and environmental wellbeing.

Achieving progress depends on many variables, not least of which is the respective roles of local authority planners and elected members. City and County Development Plans underpin proper planning and sustainable development and this process is fundamental to our planning system.  The local authority executive including  planners, and the elected members, have distinct but complementary roles.  It is crucial that elected members and the local authority executive work together and in close cooperation in drafting the plan, in the consultation process and in shaping the final adoption by the members. The respective roles are set out in the Development Plan Guidelines (June 2007). However, like many statutory processes, it is not the letter of the law but rather the spirit of it and how planners and councillors choose to work that can elevate mediocre to excellent. 

As you may be aware, the Development Plan Guidelines (June 2007) are currently being updated and will be published in the coming months.  Publication of these is a priority for my Department, particularly in the context of the NPF, and I know they will be welcomed by all stakeholders.

Of course, progress and achieving good quality planning outcomes ultimately depends on having sufficient resources in place. I am aware of the challenges that local authorities are facing.  It takes time to build resources and capability, particularly in the complex areas of planning and development. Both Minister Murphy and myself, conscious of the demands and expectations on planners in this dynamic and evolving environment, are supportive of local authorities’ efforts to enhance their planning capacity.  If there are issues around understaffing or inadequate resources, we would urge you to let us know, and we will work with you to address these issues.

Implementing PI 2040, following through on the principles and expectations set out in the NPF, needs a collaborative approach.  The Government, the local authorities, planners, the IPI and other stakeholders, all have a responsibility to work together to achieve these ambitions.  I believe we can do this using our combined efforts, commitment and expertise.

Finally, I wish you every success with the Conference today and look forward to working with you in the future.

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