The Government’s much-vaunted 2040 plan is a manifesto for sprawl

The dust may be settling over the PR row but the development plan itself is flawed, writes Declan Jordan.

Now that the dust is settling on the controversy about how the Strategic Communications Unit sold Project Ireland 2040, it is useful to consider the substance of the plans.

The National Planning Framework (NPF) and the National Development Plan set out the Government’s vision for Ireland’s regional development in the coming decades and the capital commitments to achieve it in the medium-term.

The framework is ambitious, though the failure to make difficult choices creates potentially contradictory objectives.

By trying to provide all things to all people the Government has sowed the seeds for the failure of the planning framework.

The plan itself refers to the challenges identified by the Expert Group Review of the National Spatial Strategy and the ESRI.

These include sprawling growth outside our main cities and towns, greater distances between where people live and where people work, stagnation of inner cities, and haphazard approaches to planning for climate action.

These can be addressed by harnessing the potential of our cities, but the competing objectives within the NPF, in fact, threaten to worsen some of these problems.

For example, the NPF states that 60% of new homes will continue to be delivered at the edge of settlements and in rural areas.

This means the Government is committed to sprawl and people will continue to live far from where they work.

The continued commitment to sprawling developments, which may be exacerbated by the further development of motorways, will increase Ireland’s car dependency.

The car is already the favoured mode of transport, even in our provincial cities, and this will persist under this plan.

This compromises the promise on climate action. The framework refers to the need to accommodate 550,000 additional households by 2040.

If the target of 60% of these houses being built at the edge of settlements and in rural areas, that is 330,000 new homes that will require transport links to the location of the jobs they will need.

Investing our resources in liveable cities, more easily navigated by cycling and public transport, and greater human capital should be the priority.

The development plan suffers from a lack of focus.

This is alluded to in the document when it refers to the Government’s “ambition to create a single vision, a shared set of goals for every community across the country”.

The National Spatial Strategy failed, not because it wasn’t a good plan, but because localism and weak Government undermined it.

The spatial strategy was barely launched before projects like the decentralisation of public services cut the legs from under it.

Ireland 2040 has swung the pendulum too far in the other direction.

To avoid the perception of pitting one region against another, or urban against rural, the plan has avoided making difficult decisions on how Ireland will develop spatially.

It seems the political horse-trading that happened after the launch of the previous spatial strategy this time took place in the few weeks before the launch.

Formulating a strategy involves the making of choices. That means the decision about what is not to be done is as important as the decision about what is to be done.

It is a contradiction in terms to have every objective as a priority. There is no sense in the planning framework that hard decisions on development planning were made.

Opportunity cost is an important, but simple idea, in economics. It means that to do, buy, or invest in something means giving up the opportunity to do, buy, or invest in something else.

There is little evidence in the infrastructure investment included in the planning framework and the development plan that attention was paid to the opportunity cost.

And the opportunity cost includes investment in schools and hospitals. An example is the commitment to build a motorway between Limerick and Cork.

This is welcomed in the region of course and it’s particularly welcome for a Limerick man living in Cork such as this writer.

However, is a motorway really needed? As someone who travels the road frequently it can certainly use an upgrade, but what is the additional cost of going from a well-designed, safe primary road to a full motorway? And is that additional cost worth the additional benefit? We need to plan for the future.

We can’t repeat the mistakes of the past where economic growth outpaced our ability to put the supporting infrastructure in place.

This created transport and housing bottlenecks during the Celtic Tiger that are emerging again.

However, we run the risk of diluting, and so compromising, our efforts to address these important challenges by avoiding the difficult political decisions that allow everyone to claim they delivered for their own locality.

Dr Declan Jordan is director of the Spatial and Regional Economics Research Centre in Cork University Business School.

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