Planning chairman ‘regrets’ design stance

logo_anbordpleanalaThe retiring Chairman of Bord Pleanala, Mr John O’Connor, told the National Planning Conference in Galway yesterday (Fri) his biggest regret was that the appeals board had not taken a strong stand against residential development during the Celtic Tiger years. Mr O’Connor, who is stepping down shortly after 11 years in the post also said that land rezoning was the issue that brought Ireland’s planning system most into disrepute. And he maintained that excessive and unsustainable zoning of land had been a contributor to the property bubble.

He stated: “My greatest regret is that the Board did not take a stronger stand against residential developments that were based on bad zoning, remotely located and of poor design quality. . It is essential if we are to avoid a recurrence of the boom/bust cycle that demand is not artificially inflated by financial incentives and considerations.”

“I did realise at the time that some of the developments coming before the Board, particularly residential schemes, were questionable and indeed at publication of various annual reports I referred to concerns about the poor standard of some of the developments in tax incentive areas, the appropriateness of the suburban type schemes being attached to towns and villages around the country and to the sustainability of the zoning policies of many local authorities.

“However, the Board often found itself in a difficult position because in our planning system if the land is properly zoned in the development plan and serviced there is a presumption in principle that development will be permitted and to refuse could mean local authorities being faced with claims for compensation by landowners.

“While it is a fact that the Board did refuse many schemes that fell short of adequate planning or design standards, often in the teeth of local and media criticism, it did permit some which with hindsight it might have refused. Here I’m referring to schemes that although fully zoned and serviced were too large for the town or too remote from services and to poorly located and designed apartment developments. , Mr O’Connor said.

He went on: “Perhaps a few shopping developments that were too large or too remote from town/city centres got through. In the early days of wind farm developments in bogs I think the Board may have underestimated the risks of peat-slides but in latter times assessment of these risks has become much more rigorous.

Mr O’Connor, speaking to nearly 200 delegates at the IPI organised event, said that “the greatest failures in Irish planning and the issue that has brought the system most into disrepute revolve around the zoning of land.

“The zoning of land for appropriate and sustainable uses is at the heart of planning and if this departs from proper principles the whole system is in difficulty and this extends to the property and land market and the construction industry.

“At the publication of the Board’s 2008 Annual Report, I said that the excessive and unsustainable zoning of land had been a contributor to the property bubble and its aftermath and that if we were to return to realistic development planning some of this zoning would have to be reversed.

“A more sustainable, coherent, evidence-based and objective approach to zoning will avoid a repeat of the disorderly sprawl of inefficient and wasteful development and restore credibility to the planning system as a whole. It will also lead to less lobbying by vested interests, better planning decisions and probably less need for appeals to the Board. We also need to avoid a repeat of the situation where perfectly good established business and community uses were displaced by more ‘profitable’ new development.”

Planning, he said, has a vital part to play in ensuring the most efficient use of existing infrastructure and that new infrastructure is provided in the most effective and efficient manner possible. This will require that development be directed to places where infrastructure already exists or can be efficiently expanded.

This principle should apply whether the infrastructure is provided by public bodies or private companies. The future operational costs of infrastructure e.g. the long term costs of pumping water services should also be factored in. The need to maximise the return from public investment in infrastructure must be factored into the current debate in relation to densities and in particular residential densities.

Mr O’Connor stated: “Current difficulties should not dictate a return to an unsustainable spread of low density development.”

He went on: “I would also like to think that, in the future, planning would be better integrated with other policy areas. Taxation and fiscal policies should support the kind of good planning I’ve been talking about. This is why I’ve been advocating a land value tax for some time.

“The Celtic Tiger era clearly indicated that the demand for property and in particular residential property was determined more by financial considerations than by population projections or demographics. The land use planning system cannot determine or control that demand in a free market economy. It is essential if we are to avoid a recurrence of the boom/bust cycle that demand is not artificially inflated by financial incentives and considerations.

During the boom years, the Board was heavily criticised for adversely impacting on the supply of residential units when it refused permission for a number of very large residential/apartment developments on good planning grounds. Today the planning system is being accused of having permitted too much residential development during the boom years. Restrictions on supply through the planning control system would however have further inflated the price of residential property and added to the problem rather than solving it, he stated.

Government policy, said Mr O’Connor, rightly aims to develop indigenous and renewable energy sources, particularly wind energy. But this in itself gives rise to ongoing conflicts between the needs of such development, including its associated transmission infrastructure, and other issues such as nature preservation, landscape and residential development. The Board had endeavoured to address these issues as best it can, whilst receiving considerable criticism on occasion. Policy development in the energy sector needed to factor in these considerations.

The choice of location for major projects – whether public or private sector – should have a much stronger planning input, he maintained. Planners should be part of the site selection process – and not seen as people to be brought in to make the planning application afterwards. “I find it extraordinary that huge decisions about land purchase were made by developers without any apparent input from planners and, even worse, vast sums of money were lent by banks to facilitate development projects without any apparent planning advice.”

Mr O’Connor said there was a theory that there is an element of chaos in the Irish character that makes us sceptical of regulation or planning. “Rules are there to be broken if you can get away with it”, it was said. “This may account for some of our very serious failings over the past decade. It may also explain why the Irish body politic has been reluctant to embrace fully real spatial or land-use planning,” he stated.

This would mean drawing up and agreeing visions for physical development at the national, regional and local levels, involving difficult choices based on objective criteria for the public good and then insisting on adherence to these plans. Unlike other countries, even when statutory planning documents are adopted “a laisser-faire approach often prevails and many vested interests – landowners and developers – see plans as something that can be got round or changed,” he said.