This is the ST column from two weeks ago – forgot to post..
It’s almost as if newspaper editors have a template for planning stories. Here’s the latest one. In Lahinch, Co. Clare permission has been granted for 114 housing units in the seaside village. An interesting angle is that the line-up of objectors includes an order of nuns who are worried about the anti-social consequences of more houses, or rather, more people. A careful reading of the reports leaves one completely uninformed on the merits of the development. It’s just the usual line up: greedy developers, NIMBY protestors and an incompetent council.
Is this the only planning story in Ireland? Are all councillors muck savages who rezone land for their developer mates? Are residents anything other than concerned about new development? Are officials either guilty of appalling decisions or martyred bureaucrats forced to act against their consciences by the moronic, but unfortunately democratically elected, representatives of the people?
Bad planning has left people without basic services while good planning that wasn’t followed up by necessary investment has turned some areas into ghettos. No one disputes that, but I am tired of the stereotypes. There must be more to planning than this cast of caricatures.
Let’s take the councillors. I know for a fact that there are councillors who have neither proposed land for rezoning nor voted in its favour unless its been approved by planning officials. Well, there’s a least one anyway; my excellent father whose been a councillor for over 40 years. All land rezoned residential in our home village of Enfield was proposed by officials, not councillors. While development has placed typical pressure on infrastructure, from water to public transport, most neutral observers would acknowledge that the village has grown at what’s called a “sustainable” rate.
The local population has increased dramatically but so has the population of the whole country. The 1991 census recorded 3.5 million people living in the country. By 2006 that was just over 4.2 million. We had to squeeze those 700,000 people in somewhere. Where were they supposed to live? In shoeboxes on the M50 hardshoulder? Alright, a lot did move into shoebox apartments not too far from the M50, but more are experiencing the joy of a 3 bed semi-d on the outskirts of our towns and cities.
Those houses had to be built and councillors and officials had to legislate for their construction. That might have discommoded the incumbents who believed a quiet street and a view was a fundamental human right, but the needs of the many outweighed the fortress mentality of the few. I suppose local authorities could have ordered our emigrants not to come home as they did in their tens of thousands in the 1990’s. If they told the immigrants to sod off and instituted a one-child policy, then yes, we could have avoided building housing developments. But this is not China and if our population increases, then we have to accommodate it.
Despite my bias in favour of councillors, I am willing to acknowledge that there have been occasional outbreaks of rezoning psychosis amongst our elected representatives. One of the more creative efforts was in Monaghan, where last year councillors voted to zone enough land to house an additional 100,000 people even though the county’s population was only 55,800. When it was pointed out to them at a Council meeting that one parcel of land near Ballybay was actually underwater, helpful suggestions regarding Venice and the potential to build on stilts were made. Thankfully, our system of local government was reformed in 2000 to protect us from the worst excesses of those we elect.
Under Section 31 of the 2000 Planning Act the Minister for the Environment has the power to direct councils to ignore councillor’s rezoning votes. Last July, John Gormley directed Monaghan County Council to scrap the zoning, carrying out threats made by his predecessor Dick Roche.
This Ministerial power has been used in two other cases. In 2006 Roche intervened in Laois where councillors wanted to provide enough houses for the entire population of the midlands. The other case was more interesting. In 2004, then Minister Martin Cullen ordered Dun Laoighre-Rathdown Council to zone land for housing. Its councillors had refused to do so in the face of opposition from the NIMBYs. Cullen said Dun Laoighre Rathdown was failing in its duty to provide sufficient housing and over-ruled opposition to development.
Still, one could argue that two cases of Ministerial prohibition on excess housing isn’t much. What about all the unserviced housing estates, holiday home madness and environmentally destructive ribbon development? Councillors are an easy target. What part do planners play in this game?
When councillors zone land for residential use, there is no obligation on planners to grant permission to build houses. Planners can refuse permission especially if there is no infrastructure, services or if there is more suitable land yet to be developed. A refusal of planning permission creates no liability for the council. Councillors can do their worst but officials still stand between them and the best interests of the people. If they have consistently granted permission in accordance with zoning, then we have to accept that one of three possibilities operates in each case.
If councillors corruptly rezone land, then planners grant permission corruptly too. I have no doubt that this is the case from time to time. As councillors trail in and out of the Mahon Tribunal it would be naive to believe that past planning travesties took place without the collusion of officials. George Redmond was caught, but you can bet there are more.
We should also consider that rezoning and subsequent development is often correct. In that case we need to get over the knee jerk reaction that zoning equates to either malevolence or incompetence.
The final possibility is that bad development, however misguided, is not the product of an inherently corrupt process, but rather the democratic will of the people. The core function of a planner is to implement the development plans which have been voted on, openly, by those whom the public elects. They might have the executive power to prevent disaster but they must also accept that councillors are accountable to the people, while officials are not. If the people consistently elect pro-development councillors, then why the headlines and complaints when development goes ahead?
People have a terrible habit of wanting what’s bad for them. Our love affair with bad planning may well be just one of those self-destructive instincts. But in that case, the story is about our unlimited desire for development, and not how the antics of a small group are thwarting the fervent wish of the majority to limit housing.
If that’s the case, isn’t it time to change the template on planning stories?