Strategic flaws led to our fossil fuel dependence

The national spatial strategy — not just the final frontier, but a step too far where the country’s local authorities and planners were concerned.

An Taisce’s report into the planning systems in 34 city and county councils found massive flaws in various elements of planning policy and implementation. Among the errors was ignoring the strategy, leading to development sprawl the report said had created a “dangerously fossil fuel dependent society” that was the second most oil dependent country in the EU.

Published in 2002, the strategy was, in the words of the An Taisce study, “the way things were supposed to be”: a plan-led approach to the development of the country. It was a blueprint for avoiding urban sprawl, with regional gateways developing in coordination with a national strategy.

According to the report, the strategy “has been allowed to completely fail and must be reviewed with clear forward-looking evidence-based policy choices”. The report notes that in the National Spatial Strategy — Outlook & Review 2010, published by the Department of the Environment, development had become more dispersed and fragmented, “with greater distances between where people live and work”.

This has lead to huge population growth in the Dublin commuter belt while the population of major towns and cities fell; greater car dependency leading to a more sedentary lifestyle, with growing obesity and higher greenhouse gas emissions; the “hollowing out” of town centres for edge-of-town retail outlets.

The pace of development “has greatly outpaced investment in supporting infrastructure, particularly water services”, and the report says the population and development imbalance has impacted negatively on crime prevention and healthcare provision.

An Taisce wants the spacial strategy placed on a statutory footing, but according to the chairman of the Irish Planning Institute, Brendan Allen, it may be time to draft a new one. He said local authorities had to have regard to the strategy, but were not bound by it, with the emphasis instead placed on local area plans.

He believes there is no quick fix. “I think it is time to be thinking of a new [spacial strategy]. We are in a completely different economic cycle, we are in a completely different world, if you want to be blunt about it.” His personal view is investment is more likely to be concentrated on big cities — primarily Dublin — which could mean more people living on the eastern seaboard.

“The [strategy] wanted to spread the jam everywhere, but maybe that is against the trend of what the world is trying to do.”

The key now is whether or not a new strategy can help secure the economic and social viability of the regions, especially in an era when, instead of jam today and jam tomorrow, there is no jam at all.

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