National Spatial Strategy -Too little, too late?

National Spatial Strategy -Too little, too late? – by Ciarán Cuffe , Irish Independent 29th November 2002

Finally the pressure is off Dublin. If Minister Cullen’s words are to be believed we are at the dawn of a new era. Cities, towns and villages around Ireland shall all benefit from clear and regional planning that will enhance and encourage development throughout the country. Newly designated ‘Gateway’ cities and ‘Hub’ towns will act as a counter-attraction to the bright lights of Dublin, and will attract new jobs and housing to the regions.

Would that it were this easy. In reality little has changed. Lines of traffic will continue to head towards Dublin in the early hours of the morning, and will trail back to housing estates in Kildare, Meath and Wicklow in the evening. Weary commuters will have little respite from the traffic that they find themselves in every day.

However the Strategy is looking at the long term: its plans extend as far as the year 2020. It may be possible to redirect investment, and ensure that there is balanced regional development, but there is little evidence of a change of thinking in the short term. The proposed closure of passenger services on the Waterford-Limerick line implies that sustainability is not the top priority for the Minister for the Environment. The National Development Plan is spending most of transport investment on roads, and there appears to be no change of policy here. If anything the National Spatial Strategy’s emphasis on new road construction will means that traffic problems will get worse. The ‘damming with faint praise’ of the railway network indicates that several other existing rail lines may face the chop. Unless a new passenger and freight rail line is provided linking Derry through Sligo and Galway to Limerick and Cork, there will still be too much importance on Dublin

One off housing in rural areas comes in for scrutiny in the document. The authors of the document have used all their diplomatic skills to try and ensure that Minister Ó Cúiv and An Taisce are satisfied. It recognises that many people seek a rural lifestyle but want the option of working in cities. It goes on to suggest that new housing in smaller towns and villages may provide the solution, but this will hardly satisfy everyone.

Quality of life comes in for discussion. The plan points out that major cities and other larger urban areas are attractive for younger people. It states that we must improve the quality of our towns if want them to become places for a new generation to live, work and relax in. It suggests that cities like Limerick and Cork have tremendous potential to provide vibrant new neighbourhoods. Rather than building new towns we should tap into the potential that the existing urban areas already have. One of the challenges in encouraging an urban lifestyle will be to encourage developers to build apartments that are large enough to rear a family in. Local Authorities will also have to ensure that the back-land areas in our towns and cities become new parks and squares, rather than surface car parks. High quality urban design is crucial to attracting people to live in towns instead of in the countryside.

The Strategy says that increases in Climate Change gas emissions will be minimised. However Ireland has already exceeded the targets set for the year 2012, and there is a danger that the European Commission will impose significant fines on the Irish Government unless drastic action is taken. Business as usual is not an option. The alternative is to invest significantly in public transport, including rail services and this commitment is not apparent in the plan.

The National Spatial Strategy marks a milestone in the planning and development of the State. Its publication is welcome, though unless there is a radical change of direction with our land use and transportation policies we may well repeat many of the same mistakes that have been made before. Many decisions have already been made, as the National Development Plan was prepared several years in advance of the National Spatial Strategy. The worry is that with the boom times over it may be too little, too late to stop the suburban sprawl that is strangling many of our towns and cities as it spreads out from Dublin. The last time such an ambitious proposal was commissioned was with the Colin Buchanan Plan of 1969. That Plan is now gathering dust on the top shelf of some long-forgotten civil servants bookshelf. Let us hope that new National Spatial Strategy does not suffer the same fate. ENDS

Irish Independent 29th November 2002, webpage publisehed 10th January 2018