Would planning authorities please stand up?

In the blame-game for the current economic recession, ordinary citizens have pursued the bankers with an understandable, but as yet ineffective, verbal venom. There is no limit to the vitriolic things we say about them as we imagine them sailing their yachts in the Caribbean or playing endless games of golf in some posh Spanish resort. It is a useful and healthy exercise in venting anger and frustration. Yet, the fact that local planning authorities were an essential vehicle in the banks’ injudicious lending, has yet to evoke some serious examination.

In the blame-game for the current economic recession, ordinary citizens have pursued the bankers with an understandable, but as yet ineffective, verbal venom. There is no limit to the vitriolic things we say about them as we imagine them sailing their yachts in the Caribbean or playing endless games of golf in some posh Spanish resort. It is a useful and healthy exercise in venting anger and frustration. Yet, the fact that local planning authorities were an essential vehicle in the banks’ injudicious lending, has yet to evoke some serious examination.

It was refreshing, therefore, to read the report of the outgoing chairman of An Bord Pleanala, Mr. John O’Connor, in which he himself questions the contribution of local planning decisions to the current crisis. He refres to the fact that sections of Irish society were now evaluating “how things were done in the past and how matters can be improved in the future.” And in the evaluation of “matters,” it would seem that planning permissions which led to ghost estates, skeletal hotels, vacant shopping malls, derelict town centres, and vast acres of re-zoned and now abandoned land, call for explanations from local planning authorities.

But then, do local planning authorities, or local governments, “do” explanations?

Mr. O’Connor did not just confine himself to the role of these authorities but spoke of his own regrets that the board had not taken a stronger hand against poorly designed and remotely located housing schemes based on what he described as “bad zoning.” These now stand, unoccupied, some as yet unfinished, some vandalised, on the peripheries of small villages and towns, even incongrously on the edges of the one-street sráid bhailes. Many have now been attached to NAMA’s long list, and unless some economic miracle happens, will be paid for by the ordinary people of Ireland, and their children’s children, for many decades to come.

Yet, all owe their initial origins to the planning permissions given by local authorities. And while some banks recklessly financed the construction of these ghost estates (and hotels), the prerequisite for obtaining that finance was planning permission from the local authority. It was the first step in the chain of development. Even the acquisition of land was, more often than not, based on: “if we get planning permission.”

From the perspective in which we now find ourselves, the question has to be asked: What are the alleged custodians of good planning (local planning authorities) doing, in the circumstances of planning applications for developments that were clearly unsustainable? Such as: the one-street hamlet that I recently passed through on the Cork/Kerry border, consisting of a church, a small school, six houses (two abandoned), a post office-cum-shop and a creamery that had now gone out of business.

On the approach road, a very large colourful sign invited purchasers for “the last four houses.” Glossy pictures and superlatives are no substitute for the truth, and when I talked to a woman in the post office she laughed, shrugged her shoulders and said: “Last four - more like last 54 - sure nobody lives there!” Fifty plus, houses had been imposed on a settlement that could, at most, have taken six. And this has been repeated all over Ireland, to the tune of approximately 250,000 empty “housing units.”

It is unlikely few of these developments ever reached the Appeals Board - Bord Pleanala. Making an objection to developments required more courageous civic spirit than most of us are capabe of. Who would object to a neighbour attaining all his Christmasses rolled in one, when he was offered a half a million for a reedy piece of land that would not support a cow? Or, in the heady climate of the time, who would risk accusations of being a Luddite, or of being anti-progress, or of being a crank? And besides, taking an objection to the desks of Bord Pleanala was both expensive and time-consuming.

Even the legimately prescribed bodies under the Planning Acts were abused when they took planning appeals. I recall the outrage expressed by many members of South Tipperary County Council when an appeal against planning permission granted for a hotel development in Cahir and made by An Taisce (The National Trust) was upheld by Bord Pleanala, on the grounds that its situation on the river adjacent to Cahir Castle was of such a height and bulk that it would adversely affect the presentation of a national monument. (A monument, incidentally, which brings many thousands of tourists to that Tipperary Town).

Some enraged councillors told those of us who were members of that independent environmental organisation that we should cancel our subscriptions in protest. (This subscriber did not cancel!).

This was the sort of hysteria that impeded rational assessment and long-term planning. And long-term planning, is much more than bricks and mortar. It is about that recently discovered concept - sustainability. It is about communities, how they gel and interact. It is about the environment. It is about the conservation of amenities. And it is, of course, about money and affordability.

In the madness of the tiger years, did local planning authorities sacrifice these principles to the attactions of earning vast amounts of money in planning fees? And to what extent has that short-sighted policy contributed to the state in which we now find ourselves: “we are where we are,” as we are so frequently told.

The retiring chairman of Bord Pleanala raised the issues of “how things were done,” so that the same mistakes could be avoided in the future. If any lessons are to be learned from inappropriate re-zoning and from shoddy, hugely expensive, poorly-sited developments, then (the chairman implies) planning authorities need to take a critical look at the decisions they have made.

Is this likely to happen? The politicians and government which facilitated the madness have all retired with mega pensions. The bankers have sailed to their villas in exotic places. Likewise many of the developers. Will local planning authorities stand up now and be counted? Or will they just ride off into the sunset?