National Spatial Strategy: Discussion with Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government

I welcome the following officials from the spatial policy section of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government: Mr. Dave Walsh, principal officer; and Mr. Niall Cussen. The meeting will involve a brief presentation from the witnesses followed by a question and answer session.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House, or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, you are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence you are to give this committee. If you are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and you continue to so do, you are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise nor make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Mr. Dave Walsh

I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity to outline the background, rationale and content of the draft national spatial strategy update and outlook report 2010 which was prepared by my Department. I will also briefly update the committee on the draft national planning guidelines for spatial policy and national roads. The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Ciarán Cuffe, has asked me to pass on his apologies for not being able to attend this session due to other pressing commitments.

As the committee will be aware, the national spatial strategy was published in November 2002 as a high-level 20 year national planning framework to guide balanced regional development through long-term planning and infrastructure investment. Implementation of the NSS takes place nationally by informing and influencing other national plans and strategies such as the National Development Plan 2007-2013; regionally by setting the strategic planning context for regional planning guidelines, which in turn integrate and co-ordinate city and county development plans; and locally through city and county development plans, local area plans and the actions of local authorities, Departments and agencies at the local level.

In the early years of implementing the NSS, Ireland developed rapidly in terms of economic growth, population change and physical development. The strategy helped to set Ireland on a new development path that is more strategically focused and plan-led than in the past. Since 2002, implementation of the NSS has helped to guide and co-ordinate investment in the gateways, hub towns and other strategic locations identified through the activities of the economic development agencies. It has helped to improve the stock of physical infrastructure through the NDP, including the ongoing transformation of Ireland's transport system, improved water services infrastructure, information and communication technology and broadband infrastructure and knowledge development and innovation systems. It contributed to improved physical planning at regional and local levels alongside the monitoring and review of regions' performance and the implementation of the NSS.

However, since late 2007 and in line with a wider global economic downturn, Ireland has faced serious economic challenges. The economy is now operating within tough budgetary and fiscal constraints. The Government's strategy for economic recovery outlined in the document, Building Ireland's Smart Economy — a Framework for Sustainable Economic Renewal, identifies the fundamental importance of returning to export-led growth. Addressing Ireland's overall cost competitiveness relative to competitor countries is of critical importance in achieving this aim. At the same time, prioritised and strategic investments to pump-prime the potential of the regions will be vital in positioning them as key contributors to Ireland's national growth when the current difficult economic cycle ends. In challenging economic times, spatial planning frameworks such as the NSS are even more relevant in maximising the long-term value of increasingly scarce public funds. Regions are critical to creating a good place to live and to do business and spatial planning plays a key role in setting the framework for delivery of competitive and attractive locations.

Taking account of the fact that implementation of the NSS is approaching its midway point and the changed economic and other circumstances since its publication eight years ago, the Department has prepared a NSS update and outlook report for 2010. The report examines what has been achieved and what can be learned from implementation to date. It sets out a revised implementation framework aimed at maximising the spatial and regional contribution to economic recovery and long-term national competitiveness and sustainability. The report is a critical appraisal of progress to date and an implementation roadmap for the near to medium term future. It is not, however, a review of the policy rationale or structure of the NSS.

In preparing the report, the Department has undertaken an extensive analysis of relevant national and regional demographic and economic data, as well as data and reports from central and local government, regional authorities, State agencies and academia. Throughout the drafting, we consulted with key stakeholders and policy informers, including the Departments of the Taoiseach, Finance, Transport and Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs; regional and local authorities; the enterprise agencies including Forfás, IDA and Enterprise Ireland; the National Competitiveness Council; the Economic and Social Research Institute; Shannon Development; the Western Development Commission; academia; Northern Ireland's Department of Regional Development; and other relevant cross-Border bodies. We have also consulted extensively with other relevant sections within our own Department, including water services and local government policy. In light of these extensive internal and external consultations, we are satisfied that the analysis and recommendations in the report are robust and realistic.

An overview of the economic, demographic and social trends which have emerged since the NSS was published indicates at a very broad level that the economic outlook for Ireland is stabilising and that while there are ongoing challenges in putting the public finances and the banking system on a secure footing, the economy is forecast to return to growth by the end of 2010. In the construction sector, activity remains low with 25,000 new housing completions for 2009, or a decline of over 60% compared to 2008, and an expected 10,000 to 15,000 starts this year. Notwithstanding the challenges for the economy, however, it is expected that capital investment in infrastructure will be maintained at the relatively high level of 4% of gross national product over the period to 2014.

Ireland's economic recovery will depend on growing our international trade, which in turn is dependent on restoring Ireland's overall cost competitiveness to support exporting sectors and enhancing our attractiveness for inward investment so that Ireland can take advantage of the global recovery when it happens. There is little evidence of a dramatic divergence either in growth rates or living standards between the greater Dublin area and other regions from 1997 to 2006. The extent to which growth in economic activity and population has occurred in every region is worth noting. The greater Dublin area remains a critical national economic driver, accounting for 48% of gross value added and accommodating 40% of the country's population.

Nonetheless, despite being a key element of the national spatial strategy policy framework, many of the larger gateway cities experienced lower than average population growth between 2002 and 2006, while growth in the remaining gateways and hub towns was only marginally above the State average of 2% per annum. However, strong growth, averaging 3.8% per annum, took place in the towns, villages and rural areas within commuting distance of the gateways. This resulted in a more dispersed and less sustainable settlement pattern, involving both longer journeys to work or school and college and greater use of the car as opposed to more sustainable modes of transport. Such a settlement pattern also runs counter to the national spatial strategy objective of building up critical mass within the gateways and hubs.

The strongest growth between 2002 and 2006 took place within the commuter catchment areas of Dublin, at 5.2% per annum, Galway, at 3.6% per annum, and Cork, at 3.5% per annum. The map provided illustrates the catchment areas for the gateways and hubs, calculated from 2006 census data. This pattern is highlighted by the fact that 46% of total population growth during the four year period in question was located within these three catchment areas, whereas the three gateway cities only accounted for 4% of total growth. In fact, the central areas of Cork and Sligo lost population during the years in question. On the other hand, the population growth which occurred in the commuter catchments of Limerick-Shannon, Athlone-Tullamore-Mullingar and Dundalk was below the 2% national average.

In rural areas, during the 1990s and in the past decade, contraction of agricultural and natural resource related employment was countered by increases in construction related employment, as well as employment in the tourism sector. This, in turn, drove wider population and economic growth in many smaller towns. Rising car ownership, relatively cheap fuel prices, improving accessibility and a strong supply of development land in rural areas also drove strong population growth in the rural and commuting catchments of the main cities and towns. Contraction of the construction sector has meant that many rural areas have unemployment rates above the national average, with western counties such as Roscommon and Leitrim being hardest hit in this regard.

The national spatial strategy is a 20-year strategy and, notwithstanding the changed economic circumstances, its principles remain robust and valid. Moreover, in its first eight years a good deal has been achieved. The Department recognises, however, that there needs to be a renewed focus over the next five years to improve national spatial strategy implementation. This is to be achieved through strengthening the spatial policy dimension to all public and private investment co-ordination to enhance Ireland's competitiveness and facilitate overall economic recovery; supporting the emergence of strong governance models to drive the overall economic and physical development of the national spatial strategy gateways especially and their wider regions; and encouraging the emergence of much more sustainable patterns of development by tackling the drivers of urban sprawl, maximising the opportunities to reduce CO2 emissions while adapting to the emerging effects of climate change and protecting the qualities of our rivers, habitats and heritage.

In terms of implementation arrangements, the report highlights a package of measures in three priority areas of action. These are: improving existing arrangements for investment co-ordination and prioritisation between the capital investment activities of Departments and agencies and the planning and development activities of regional and local authorities; delivering effective governance under the White Paper on Local Government, focusing especially on the gateways and regional authorities; and reforming planning legislation and policy and implementation arrangements under the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 to bring about a tighter and more evidence-based fit between where future development occurs and how the necessary public infrastructure can be provided in such developing areas.

The research and consultation that has informed the preparation of the national spatial strategy report has already been very useful to the Department in framing the context for the reform of planning legislation under the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009, supporting the update of the 2010 regional planning guidelines, considering options under the White Paper on Local Government Reform, and shaping investment under the Water Services Investment Programme 2010-2013. More widely, the report will be particularly useful across other Departments and agencies in the context of ensuring more co-ordinated and prioritised spending under capital programmes taking account of tight resource constraints.

The next step is to submit the national spatial strategy report to Government for its consideration and endorsement. Publication will follow and copies will be made available to the joint committee immediately upon publication.

I propose to discuss briefly the draft guidelines on spatial policy and national roads under preparation in the Department. The national spatial strategy is complemented by a range of national planning guidelines on specific topics. I understand the joint committee would like to learn of the status of the proposed planning guidelines on spatial policy and national roads.

A working group led by my Department, with the participation of the Department of Transport, the National Roads Authority and representatives from local authorities with both an urban and rural planning perspective, has prepared new draft guidelines which are aimed at ensuring that national roads planning and policy and development planning and development management processes are appropriately and effectively aligned to help guide development to the most suitable locations to maximise the investment in the national roads network, while also, in overall terms, encouraging a shift towards more sustainable forms of travel and transport. These guidelines primarily apply to the national roads network and set out policy with regard to planning considerations relating to development affecting national roads outside the 50 km/h speed limit zones for cities, towns and villages.

The draft guidelines encourage a collaborative approach and early engagement, in line with international best practice, between planning authorities and the NRA, with the aim of ensuring that transport and land use planning considerations are taken into account at the early stages of both development planning and development management processes. This is to ensure future development at locations on or in the vicinity of national roads is guided to the most suitable location and work on Ireland's national road network is planned for and managed in a complementary and integrated manner.

The draft guidelines will shortly issue for full public consultation to allow all stakeholders and interested parties make relevant comments and submissions. It is expected that they will be finalised before the end of the year and, once finalised, they will issue as statutory guidelines under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000. When finalised the guidelines will also replace the document, Policy and Planning Framework for Roads, published by the Department in 1985 and the NRA policy statement on national roads published in May 2006.

I thank the joint committee for the opportunity to brief members on these developments and my colleague, Mr. Niall Cussen, and I are happy to answer any questions members may have.

I thank Mr. Walsh for his presentation. I am obliged to leave the meeting to attend to another commitment. Is it agreed that Deputy Johnny Brady will take the Chair? Agreed.

Deputy Johnny Brady took the Chair.

I thank Mr. Cussen and Mr. Walsh for attending. As they will be aware, the new guidelines to planning authorities on the national spatial strategy are very important in the context of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill the House will discuss next week. It is interesting that the Department has not had an opportunity to discuss with the Oireachtas its progress report — or otherwise — on the national spatial strategy for the years from 2002 to 2010. Do the witnesses agree that there is a democratic deficit in these matters? I am sure, when Mr. Walsh discusses the issue of governance, that he has in mind changes in this regard also.

Mr. Walsh indicated that we wanted to return to export-led growth. Did he have anything to say about policies that were implemented which, based on his statement, he obviously believed were not working to enhance our competitiveness and resulted in Ireland falling from fifth to 25th in the OECD's competitiveness table? Do the witnesses have documentation to support the view that the Department has expressed concern at any stage about the policies being pursued which led us to this position? Is it the case that a strategic environmental assessment, as required under European law, was not carried out for the national spatial strategy? Will such an assessment be carried out in the context of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill in future?

I note Mr. Walsh indicated that building will commence on between 10,000 and 15,000 new houses this year? How many of these houses are located in rural areas and how many in urban areas?

Much of the potential for growth appears to hang on the gateways. One of the maps shows a decline in activity and population in most of the gateways. What is being done to address this issue?

Mr. Walsh indicated that the central areas of Cork city and Sligo town lost population during the reference years. One interpretation of this is that there has not been a boundary extension to Cork city for some time. What might be called the psychological size of the city as opposed to the local authority size of the city has increased substantially. It is a very worrying indicator. If foreign investors are looking at statistics and see population declines in major cities here, it sends out a bad signal to investors, when we know that the population is not dropping but it is the calculation by the means of the local authority area that determines it. Cork city is one example. We see a drop of population in the inner city in Cork, but it is moving to suburbs such as Douglas, Bishopstown, Glanmire and other areas. Using that statistical measurement sends a bad signal to foreign businesses that might be considering investment.

Mr. Walsh stated that construction activity remains low with new housing completions for 2009 of 25,000 units. Research I have carried out shows that between 2002 and 2006, approximately 80,000 homes, representing approximately 30% of residential properties built during that period, are surplus to requirement. During that period, did that set off any triggers in the Department? In terms of spatial planning it is very much based on the idea that people will be occupying those properties at some time in the future. They will be occupying them on the basis that there is a real economy in the locations where those properties are being built or there are economic reasons for building those properties. However, we now know given the statistics for the period from 2002 and 2006 that this was a complete bubble and there was no economic activity underpinning it. What was the Department's interpretation of what was happening then? Was it making recommendations suggesting that we were in an unsustainable position regarding housing development at the time?

At the conclusion of his presentation, Mr. Walsh spoke about new draft guidelines on spatial policy and national roads. Is this ultimately an admission that there is a difficulty with the NRA when it comes to rolling out regional and county development plans? There are recorded instances where the NRA has submitted formal planning objections to plans that have been agreed by individual local authorities and in some instances such as in Cork, both Cork City Council and Cork County Council agreed development plans that the NRA has opposed.

As Deputy Hogan has other commitments, I ask Mr. Walsh to respond to the first two Deputies now.

Mr. Dave Walsh

I believe there were five questions. Deputy Hogan asked about the democratic deficit. I was not involved at the time, but Mr. Cussen was involved from the start of the NSS. Between all the paperwork I know there was a lot of consultation, maybe not formally through the Dáil or Seanad, but certainly a kind of formal endorsement through Government policy. There were extensive regional workshops and extensive engagement with academia before the NSS was drafted in the first instance. It took 18 months to research and draft. What we have here is a review of implementation. We are not saying that the NSS is on the shelf and that we are back to looking at it from square one. We are saying the NSS is a 20-year strategy and we are asking the following questions. Is it going well? Are we implementing it to our best of our ability or are there issues that are working in some locations that may not be working elsewhere? Are there actions we can take over the next five years that will deliver a more consistent and integrated approach across national, regional and local levels?

The NSS does not have any legislative basis in the Planning and Development Act because it post-dated that Act. It was a Government commitment in the National Development Plan 2000-2006 to produce a national spatial strategy. The Government produced, endorsed and adopted it in November 2002. I do not see there being an issue that either the Dáil or the Seanad has any opportunity to deliver on.

We had no say whatsoever; we had no discussion on it.

Mr. Dave Walsh

That is fair enough. The Deputy asked about SEA, which came through in 2004. If we were doing the NSS from scratch now it would have a full SEA as would any other plan or programme. What we have here is an implementation review. The plan as a spatial planning programme remains the same; nothing has changed. We are not changing the number of gateways or hubs or altering any fundamentals. We are asking whether in an implementation basis there are things that the Department or the Department and its agencies can do that will help to deliver this. This does not fall within the SEA directive and require a formal SEA itself.

Is Mr. Walsh sure of that?

Mr. Dave Walsh

Yes.

Even though it is eight years since it was set up.

Mr. Dave Walsh

However, it is a 20-year strategy.

Things have changed considerably since 2002.

Mr. Dave Walsh

If we were coming back to the Deputy and proposing to make six or 12 gateways, he would have a very valid case to say this needs an SEA because there are land use implications for such a proposal. We are asking whether Departments and agencies are talking to each other and whether there could be a better joined-up approach. However, they are all working off the same map from back in 2002.

There are powers in the Planning and Development Acts to dezone land and make certain changes to the way we do business in the planning system.

Mr. Dave Walsh

Yes.

Mr. Walsh is telling me that the national spatial strategy will not be changing, that we will not need an SEA or a new NSS because of the changed economic circumstances.

Mr. Dave Walsh

The NSS is about setting a principle at a national level. The plans that involve quantification, zoning or dezoning, regional planning guidelines, city and county plans, LAPs all have an SEA. That is where one gets the implementation. When an SEA is done, it considers the alternatives and the big issues. If the NSS was being done from scratch there would be an SEA. However, we have been informed that an SEA is not required because this is purely an implementation programme.

The Deputy asked about competitiveness and returning to export-led growth. As part of our extensive discussions with bodies such as Forfás, the development agencies and the National Competitiveness Council, they have come out and said that from 2002 to 2008 we were losing competitiveness. The Deputy mentioned that we are slipping against the international benchmark. As well as looking at our own policies we also need to look internationally. Even if we were standing still and doing something good, if we are missing the boat and internationally everyone is moving ahead, the natural thing is that we are actually going backwards. We have identified that because investment has been disparate and there was a lack of joined-up approach, we are not maximising the investment and the opportunities regarding public and private growth. If one actually tries to improve the capacity and investment in those areas that have the capacity, services and potential to grow, which are the gateways and hubs, and which can be both drivers of themselves and drivers of their wider region, one will then be able to do it. We think that will actually improve competitiveness at a national level.

Dublin will always be our international driver, but with the Atlantic gateway and connectivity between Galway, Limerick-Shannon and Cork and further along to Waterford there is great scope for a wider region to grow that will have international capacity. However, the only way to do that is to try to focus on long-term plan-led growth. The NSS itself in 2002 flagged the Atlantic gateway structure as being a useful counterbalance and alternative to the simplified east coast development.

The Deputy's other question was about the drop in population in gateways. One can, as Deputy Lynch did, point to the fact we are looking at administrative boundaries. The fact that an administrative boundary shows the core city centre is not growing is indicative of our problem of why everyone is moving out to commuter belts and towns like Douglas when we want to encourage them to move into the cities. We have seen the planning success of the Dublin docklands in terms of bringing people back into the city centre. What we would like to see in Cork, Limerick and other docklands would be the use of the huge potential that exists because of the services there which are being under utilised.

Mr. Niall Cussen

On the issue of population growth and where it is occurring, during the period from 2002 to 2006, whereas national population growth was increasing about 2% per annum, the population in the gateway cities — the flagships of the national spatial strategy, NSS — were only growing at about half that rate. Even in Cork, and I accept the point the Deputy made about the administrative boundaries and their relationship——

That is the starting point.

Mr. Niall Cussen

The thing about that is that the CSO also publishes data on the contiguous built-up area, namely, the joined-up urban area between Cork city and its environs in Cork county. Even that area was growing at a rate considerably under the national average during this period of great growth. The fastest population growth, of close to 4% per annum, was taking place in smaller towns and villages up to the 10,000 population mark within the 30 km, 40 km or 50 km ring around the main cities. In other words, it was the satellites that were growing rather than the cities. From a sustainable development point of view, infrastructure provision such as schools and transport, etc., that raises issues which this report addresses.

Are all the questions dealt with?

Mr. Dave Walsh

Deputy Hogan asked about the construction of from 10,000 to 15,000 one-off houses. I do not have the percentage figures, but I know there has been continued development of one-off rural houses. I do not know whether the proportion of these has dropped. It is likely the numbers have dropped. One-off housing used to account for from 15% to 20% of the overall, but I am not sure whether that percentage has increased. However, we will get the figures and pass them on to the Deputy.

Thank you. It would also be useful for the committee to know how much of the policy published in 2002 has been implemented successfully to date. Perhaps the Department could evaluate its document to see whether it has achieved its objectives. I am sure it could benchmark itself very well.

Mr. Dave Walsh

We have certainly not pulled any punches. In our extensive discussions with various stakeholders, they were quite surprised we were being so honest about the Department's performance and that of the other agencies, the regional local authorities. I expect that when this document is published and approved, it will be clear what has worked, where it has worked and where it has been less than successful.

My frustration with the NSS system and the document is that it will only be published after the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 has gone through the Houses of the Oireachtas. We should have information on the implications of the planning system and the Department's and Government's thinking before we approve the legislation. Currently, the local authorities can just look upon this document as an advisory document, but the NSS will have statutory powers with regard to approval following implementation of the Bill. Therefore, we will approve a document after the legislation has gone through without knowing the implications of the document for the legislation beforehand.

Mr. Dave Walsh

The NSS was always implemented through the regional planning guidelines and the city and county plans. Even though the 2004 regional planning guidelines came out after the NSS, they were really the teeth that helped to deliver what was in the NSS. The 2010 reviews of the regional plans are currently going ahead, but the fact that the NSS will be referenced and mentioned in the new planning Bill will not change the fundamentals. Our document is really an administrative assessment of how we can work better, but the principles that underpin the NSS and, therefore, the planning Bill will not alter. Therefore, we are working off the same sheet.

The Department is working from a different hymn sheet from us. We are expected to make major changes, under the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009, to how matters will be implemented, but the Department is trying to implement the regional planning guidelines, which are available now in draft format for consultation, before the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 has gone through the Houses of the Oireachtas. What the Department is doing is trying to implement the national spatial strategy through the regional planning guidelines, before the legislation has gone through the Houses.

Mr. Dave Walsh

With respect, if we did not do the review or implementation update, the national spatial strategy would still stand. It was designed as a 20-year strategy and it is being implemented through the regional and local plans. This document is more an administrative document for ourselves and for local authorities to question whether we should talk or integrate more and it discusses the position of our investment programmes. With regard to what is in the planning Bill, which is an update on the 2000 consolidated Act, it concerns delivering development plans, creating core strategies and bringing about better interaction of the regional plans, the city and council plans and local area plans, which was there anyway.

The Department now has substantial additional clout in the planning process through the statutory implementation of the national spatial strategy in the new legislation. Up to now, the local or regional authorities were obliged only to take account of what the Department had to say. However, now these same bodies will be statutorily obliged to take account of the national spatial strategy.

Mr. Niall Cussen

It could be fairly stated that the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 is a natural evolution in planning legislation to take account of how the spatial strategy has been implemented at regional and local level. It is not necessarily about clout, but more about ensuring we are all working off the same hymn sheet on planning at national, regional and local level. While the content of this report is useful background in the context of evolving legislation, it simply confirms what was already well known about the implementation of the spatial strategy and regional planning guidelines over the past number of years.

This is important from the point of view of a legislator. Can Mr. Cussen confirm that the national spatial strategy is now a statutory document that will have to be taken into account in law by regional and local authorities in framing their planning policy and development plans? Is that correct?

Mr. Niall Cussen

Absolutely.

How is that changed from the current system?

Mr. Niall Cussen

There may not have been a statutory remit or recognition of the spatial strategy in the Planning and Development Act 2000, but it was very clear from the publication of the spatial strategy in November 2002 that the Government was laying out a national framework for overall spatial development in the country and required regional and local authorities to take full and proper account of it in the context of the discharge of their planning functions. If difficulties arose in the outworking of that in the following years, the current legislation, in effect, learns from that overall process and addresses those difficulties.

How can Mr. Cussen reconcile the fact that the Government adopted a document in November 2002 on a particular national spatial strategy and then completely ignored it with the decentralisation programme in 2004? I suppose that was a political decision.

Mr. Niall Cussen

The Government takes some decisions.

I do not think Mr. Cussen can answer that question.

No, it is not easy for him. His silence says it all.

I raised two issues. One was the issue of the 30% surplus housing built between 2002 and 2006 and the other concerned the conclusion of the presentation which indicated there are difficulties with the NRA and spatial planning across the country.

Mr. Dave Walsh

I will briefly discuss the Deputy's estimate of surplus housing.

I cited the CSO figures, which are not estimates.

Mr. Dave Walsh

I suppose the question is who decides what is surplus and what is not. I worked in the housing side in the late 1990s. At the time we knew that because of a lack of supply, there was a huge build up of demand that was not being met. We knew from population estimates that somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 houses a year was our likely growth until 2015 or so. The fact we had been delivering far less housing meant the demand had not been met. Often it is the market that decides what is built.

From a planning perspective — Mr. Cussen would have dealt with this matter on many occasions since 2002 — housing is facilitated by the zoning of land. The Department used the NSS, as the national planning framework, and the regional planning guidelines in order to try to shape development patterns and provide for a more planning-led type of growth. In addition, it worked in conjunction with regional and local authorities to review and assess their draft development plans. More recently, the Minister used certain extraordinary powers available to him in order to intervene in some cases. Housing that was delivered in the period 2002 to 2006 was probably on land that was zoned in the 1990s. It is difficult to change the position with regard to planning when the ultimate arbiters are the planning authorities and it is they who own the land and who are responsible for making planning decisions.

Mr. Walsh stated that the market tends to rule. One of the bizarre findings relating to the period in question is that the laws of supply and demand did not work. There was an oversupply at the time but prices continued to increase. I do not intend to be overly conspiratorial about this matter. However, our guests represent a Department which has let the cat out of the bag and stated that there are too many houses because, for a certain period, Government policy appeared to be that house prices would continue to increase indefinitely. Did our guests monitor the level of housing development that took place during the period to which I refer? Did they consider the spatial implications relating to that development? Did they reach the conclusion that more houses were being built than were actually required?

Mr. Dave Walsh

There are two aspects to this — there is the quantum and there is also the location. The population analysis we carried out recently shows the spatial extent of housing development and highlights the fact that the commuter belts have broadened to a large degree. As we considered the plans of planning and regional authorities over the years, we certainly raised concerns in respect of the widespread zoning and facilitation of housing in the areas to which I refer.

We would acknowledge — the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, commented on this issue recently — that there is an overhang of surplus housing units, some of which are unfinished and others of which are completed but unsold. The Department is carrying out a comprehensive review and assessment of the number, location and current state of these houses. The review to which I refer will be carried out during the summer and will give rise to a comprehensive analysis.

Deputy Ciarán Lynch will be aware that the number of housing units involved has been estimated at anywhere between 150,000 and 350,000. Until one obtains an indication of the scale of the problem and the nature of the issues involved, one cannot make any decisions. From a planning perspective, we would have seen some of the location of some of the developments as being problematic and we would have made our views in that regard known in the strongest manner. The difficulty is that the Minister and the Department were precluded from taking action in respect of individual planning applications and permissions. Our only input came at the zoning stage.

What is the position with regard to the issue relating to the NRA?

Mr. Dave Walsh

Mr. Cussen will deal with that matter.

Mr. Niall Cussen

I would not state that the guidelines are an admission of problems with the approach of the NRA specifically. The guidelines are more aimed at revising planning policy that dates back to 1985. In that year, there was one small stretch of motorway, outside Naas, in the country which had been just opened. Now we have a motorway network which more or less stretches from one end of the land to the other. In addition, national roads throughout the country have been massively improved.

The State has invested many billions of euro in the past ten years under two national development plans. This investment relates to many generations to come and must be carefully managed in the context of the location of development, particularly in the vicinity of interchanges and at key points that feed into the national road network. However, it must also be recognised that national roads pass through places we want to grow and develop. There is a need, therefore, to strike a balance between planning issues and road engineering and safety considerations.

In effect, the guidelines call for real and early engagement among all stakeholders in respect of the planning process. There is a need for local authorities and the NRA to work closely together, particularly when development plans, local area plans, etc., are in the early stages of development. They should not place a major focus on individual planning applications. This is often where difficulties tend to arise. For example, the implications for traffic might not have been recognised early enough in the zoning process relating to a particular project and it is only when the application is being dealt with that those implications, which could relate to public safety or the capacity of infrastructure in the long term, become apparent. The NRA will interact with the planning process in such circumstances and look after the national road network, as it is required to do.

Is Mr. Cussen stating that, under the guidelines, the NRA should be compelled to become involved with regional and county development plans at an earlier stage rather than lodging objections to them at the last moment? Do our guests have any figures with regard to the number of current county developments in respect of which the NRA has raised objections?

Mr. Niall Cussen

On the first point, it is not a question of compelling the NRA to become involved. The guidelines are an affirmation on the part of the authority that it will work closely with local authorities. The last few pages of the guidelines, which will shortly be going out for public consultation for a period of three months, make that very clear. There is also an affirmation on the part of the local government sector — all of those with interests in that area were involved in the development of the guidelines — that it will work closely with the NRA as well.

I do not possess any data in respect of whether the NRA has particular difficulties with certain development plans. Suffice it to say that the NRA has been ramping up its capacity to engage with local authorities in their development planning processes to a significant degree. We work closely with the NRA because broader planning and transportation issues tend to coincide. It is from the partnership and collaborative approach to forward planning among local authorities, the NRA and the Department that the type of policies needed to protect the multi-billion euro investment which has been made in our transport system will emerge.

I have received a number of complaints to the effect that the NRA is not as quick as one might have thought in its response to compensating local landowners. I have been involved in a few cases in this regard. I am of the view that where a road is constructed across greenfield sites and where it severs land holdings, connecting tunnels should be put in place where possible. In many instances, such tunnels could be the difference in respect of whether farmers remain in agriculture.

Do our guests believe that the NSS has complemented the maintaining and sustaining of rural communities in the way that was originally intended? Has it been successful in the context of development? Certain parts of the country have been denuded. I live in County Westmeath and there has been a decrease in population in the northern part thereof. I accept that this matter might be better addressed to local authorities, but what is the position with regard to affording village status to small settlements? This is an important matter, particularly when one is trying to sustain rural developments. When village status is afforded, it complements growth in a rural area.

I thank our guests for their presentation. This matter should be debated on a regular basis. I concur with Deputy Hogan that the adoption of the NSS gave rise to a democratic deficit. I am concerned with regard to this issue. The management structure relating to the NSS operates on a top-down basis and it does not have Oireachtas approval. This is a matter to which consideration should be given.

The NSS has been in place for over eight years and has passed the halfway point of its lifetime. Has an objective analysis been carried out in respect of what has been achieved in respect of the gateways and major growth areas originally identified in the strategy? I live in County Waterford and I am quite concerned that neither it nor the south east were mentioned in our guests' presentation. The strong growth areas have been Dublin, Galway and Cork. Why is that? Waterford city is a gateway city in the south east and now has an excellent motorway linking it with Dublin. An interesting study was carried out by Professor John FitzGerald of the ESRI. He compared how the cities of Waterford and Galway had developed since the 1960s. Both were at a similar level of development in the 1960s but Waterford now seriously lags behind Galway. We need to ask why that is so.

Another analysis was carried out by a third level college, though I am not sure whether it was DIT or UCD. It looked at population projections for the next ten or 20 years and found that most growth would be along the eastern seaboard, particularly in the Dublin catchment area. We need to take account of those analyses to ensure balanced regional development and that the necessary infrastructure is in place where growth is predicted.

To what extent are State agencies required to comply with the national spatial strategy when they make their decisions? The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 requires local and regional authorities to comply with the strategy but is that the case with respect to semi-State bodies such as Iarnród Éireann, ESB and Eircom? These agencies provide public infrastructure which is very important for the growth of an area. A public infrastructure issue which is relevant to the south east at the moment is the proposed closure of the rail line between Waterford city and Rosslare. Rosslare Europort is the gateway to mainland Europe and Waterford city is a gateway which links Rosslare to Limerick and the new western rail corridor. Iarnród Éireann now proposes to close that section of railway, which is a retrograde step from the point of view of developing infrastructure and creating balanced regional development. We can have all the pretty plans and nice strategies we want but, until the infrastructure is developed to keep the gateway cities well resourced and prioritised, the strategy might as well sit on the shelf with all the others.

If there is no way of making agencies comply with infrastructure guidelines, we should look at introducing legislation. If we do not do so, the national spatial strategy will become another document with no teeth. I acknowledge that the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 will make local and regional authorities comply but there are many more providers of infrastructure that should comply. Waterford city is an example of this need because it lags behind all the rest.

Mr. Cussen talked about the national motorways and I welcome them. I particularly welcome the opening of the M3 last week. I used it on my journey to the Houses last night and found that it cuts a lot of time off the trip to Dublin. Mr. Cussen said a lot of development might now happen close to motorways or near interchanges. I am sure there will be no development near the interchange at Tara as I do not think anybody wants that. However, Newgrange has concerned me for a while, from even before the constituency was divided. In my latter days as representative for that area a buffer was created in the area and the same has happened in Tara. The buffer will extend as far as Kilmessan, Dunsany and other rural areas but I would not like to see those areas prohibited from having rural housing. I can understand it being applied to limited areas but this will involve a radius of at least six and up to ten miles and that would be a disaster for rural Ireland.

Mr. Walsh said he would give the committee the latest figures for one-off rural housing. The figures will not, of course, be the same as they were three or four years ago. Would it be possible to get the figures for the planning permissions granted and refused on a county-by-county basis over the past few years? They were published five or six years ago but I have not seen them since. The committee could then discuss the situation as it affects everybody in rural Ireland. As Senator Glynn said, it is important that rural Ireland is not allowed to die away on account of motorways or the national spatial strategy.

Coming from rural Ireland, I have always campaigned to ensure that rural Ireland is looked after. We have difficulties with certain issues, such as the stag hunting legislation brought forward by the Minister and approved by Government, but I would not like rural sporting activities to be affected. We go back a long way and such sports have been part and parcel of rural life over the years.

Mr. Niall Cussen

Senator Glynn asked about rural communities. Rural areas are very important in the context of regional development because regions comprise more than just gateways and urban centres. The rural setting around urban centres is important in defining the character and attractiveness of those centres. The activities in rural areas, whether in the natural resources sector, agriculture or local businesses, are very important in contributing to the overall performance of a region. The NSS always envisaged regions having a number of components and the rural component is a very important one.

We were asked about a broader framework for the development of rural areas in a settlement and rural policy context. The then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, issued planning guidelines on sustainable rural housing in 2005 and they remain the framework across the country, including Meath, for the approach to local housing. It is for local authorities to address these things in the context of their development plans. There have been population declines in parts of the country, such as in Castlepollard and Finea in northern parts of County Westmeath. However, in many other parts of rural Ireland the population has been growing very strongly and in some areas the growth has been twice the national average. Rural areas have, in this sense, benefited at the expense of some urban areas which have not grown as much as might have been expected.

Another question concerned the National Roads Authority and the issue of compensation. I am not in a position to comment on that in any great detail but it is our understanding that the NRA has taken a careful approach in providing accommodation, roads, crossings and underpasses in and around the national roads network to enable legitimate rural activities to continue without interfering with the operation of national roads.

Senator Glynn asked about conferring village status on small settlements. In our guidelines for rural housing and development plans, the Department encourages local authorities to set out how their counties are to be structured and planned into the future. We have mentioned the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009, which introduces the core strategy concept. It sets out an overall framework for how key cities, towns, villages and rural areas will, over time, share and participate in the growth and development of a county. That is fully consistent with the approach in the national spatial strategy, which identifies certain locations as centres of long-term strategic and focused growth. I hope I have answered the questions that have been asked.

Mr. Dave Walsh

I would like to respond to Senator Coffey's queries. He asked us to assess the success, or otherwise, of the gateways. Since 2007, in addition to our work on the implementation of the national spatial strategy, we have been looking at developing areas and strategic locations near the gateways and hubs. As part of that work, we conducted a baseline analysis of the available water, transport, education and community facilities in each of those locations. We examined the capacity for those locations to take on board future growth, if and when it happens. Ideally, the plan was to co-ordinate where there were deficits, such as time anomalies, in particular respects. When a road is provided, for example, it may take three years for a water scheme to be provided. We assessed whether such planning could be better aligned so that capacity is provided immediately. Obviously, the development environment changed in 2008 and 2009. There may be less pressure on locations to deliver in the short term. The analysis has been done.

As part of our assessment, we have completed a broader consideration of the growth of each of the nine gateways, including Waterford. A point was made about the relative growth of Waterford, by comparison with some of the other gateways. Each of the regions has unique dynamics. Gateways like Galway, Limerick-Shannon and Cork are focused on a single unit. In the case of the south east, Waterford is the major city but there are strong large settlements elsewhere in the region. That has probably contributed to the lower levels of growth in Waterford city itself. Waterford is a fairly complex city, in the sense that access has been a major problem. The opening of the M9 should help to resolve some of these issues. While I would not say Waterford has under-performed, it has probably performed less than it would have liked. Waterford is still growing. There is huge potential in the city and the wider region.

The key aspect of the implementation of the national spatial strategy in this regard is that the regional planning guidelines place Waterford city as the gateway for the south-east region. They prioritise the growth of Waterford at the pinnacle of the region. The Department has received positive comments and negative criticism for the population targets it has set. We are trying to shape the regions and encourage more structured growth that is led by plans like the regional planning guidelines. In the south east, we have prioritised Waterford and set targets for it. If those targets did not exist, Waterford would probably continue to grow but not at the rate it should grow. The focus of the policies that will underpin the delivery of those targets will lead to an improvement over the next six years. That will be assisted by the major State investment in roads and water services.

The last issue is the question of how State agencies have regard to or ignore the national spatial strategy as they see fit. All agencies have to work with their policy Departments. For example, Irish Rail's overall rail policy is determined by the Department of Transport. The Department has been a sound ally of the company in the implementation of Transport 21 and other investment programmes. That commitment has been shown through the delivery and prioritisation of the western rail corridor and the improvement of inter-city rail services. State agencies continue to have to make commercial decisions, however. I suppose the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is not in a position to comment on why Irish Rail would choose to close some lines and keep others open. From a planning perspective, the Department does not want to see railway lines removed. The provision of services depends on the level of demand. If the south east continues to expand and grow, I would not be surprised if we see the return of a few services in future years. That is what has happened in the case of the line between Limerick and Galway. Ultimately, it is a policy decision for Irish Rail and the Department of Transport.

Mr. Niall Cussen

The national spatial strategy is a very broad framework. Within that framework, it is not possible to set out policies at a sectoral level, in effect, for every aspect of the activity of the Government and the various agencies. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is satisfied that the Department of Transport and, especially, Irish Rail have taken full account of the national spatial strategy in their investment plans of recent years. Many public agencies, like the country as a whole, are in very difficult economic, budgetary and fiscal situations. Decisions that are very difficult to accept may have to be made from time to time to take account of those circumstances. We face a challenge for the future at a planning level. We need to ensure the settlement strategies and county development plans, etc., stack the deck in favour of rail and public transport by requiring that development is located near public transport corridors. That is how we can ensure this country invests in public transport in the long run. The facts show that in certain parts of the country, population densities are quite low and development has been taking place away from railway lines, etc. Those broad factors should be taken into account when considering the decisions that will have to be taken on the issue raised by Senator Coffey.

I would like to reply briefly. I acknowledge the Department's response, which I would have expected. There is a population of approximately 465,000 in the south east region. It is fine to have population growth targets, but if one expects people to live and work in certain areas one has to set targets for livelihood supports in areas like education and industry. I acknowledge that the national spatial strategy cannot have its hand in every sectoral pie. It cannot micro-manage everything. It is important, from a Government management point of view, that there is joined-up thinking between Departments. The great failing may be the lack of a combined or common vision among Departments and State agencies.

Infrastructural development is evident in the gateway city of Waterford, which is identified as a major growth area in the national spatial strategy. I acknowledge that the motorway has almost been finished, that the local airport is showing growth, that the local third level college is progressive and that other forms of major infrastructure, such as water and sewerage services, are in place. The gateway cities will not be given the tools to grow until the Departments of Transport and Enterprise, Trade and Innovation and the various agencies give all the regions the same level of priority. In recent times, it has been evident that the gateway cities are more or less left to their own devices.

I acknowledge that Waterford city depends heavily on manufacturing and needs to find new ways of creating employment. I do not want to reopen the debate on the demise of Waterford Crystal, which is one of the city's biggest brands. The people of Waterford are being left to stimulate the local economy on their own. That is what they are doing. Waterford City Council took the initiative to open a smaller, more tourism-oriented, Waterford Crystal facility. The city needs investment. When one compares it with Galway, one will note that the two cities were at the same level of development in the 1960s. Why has Galway developed so well, and fair play to it for doing so, while Waterford has lagged behind? These questions must be answered and the debate properly thought through. The areas that need attention are those in which deficiencies and a lack of investment or follow through have been identified.

I have been critical of the national spatial strategy, NSS. Like everyone, I do not like plans that hang out there, namely, those with good intentions but which are not provided with the tools to achieve them. They are undermined in the long term if they cannot make achievements. No one expects a plan to be achieved in the first one, two or even five years. This is a 20-year strategy, but unless one starts to see progress at the ten-year mark, it needs to be revised and all of the stakeholders, including the Departments and agencies, should be hauled in and asked what they are doing to comply with the strategy, where they have made their investments and what their policies to complement the strategy have been.

The strategy is not happening at the moment. Iarnród Éireann is closing down the railway between a gateway city and a euro port. It is a retrograde step. I accept that there are other large population centres, such as Wexford town and Kilkenny, but the railway passes the former. Many of its inhabitants attend Waterford for college or work, but they are not encouraged to use the railway. It was initially used for freight and has not been transformed into an accessible public transport line. Instead, the easy option of closing it down is being taken. This is just one example.

Mr. Niall Cussen

Regarding the rail line, whatever decision Irish Rail takes is a matter for itself. Experience around the country has shown that, where local authorities take progressive policies to focus development in particular locations around rail corridors, the State will not be found wanting where making the necessary investment in providing commuter rail services is concerned. Deputy Ciarán Lynch will be familiar with the progress made on the Cork area strategic plan and the re-opening of the line to Midleton at a cost of almost €100 million after its closure in the 1970s. This investment was made possible because local authorities took a conscious decision to concentrate development around that rail corridor and not at other locations in the wider area. Doing this was a political challenge, but that challenge was grasped in Cork. This will also pose a challenge in the south east in terms of the implementation of the regional planning guidelines, which are working with clear and decisive targets on the distribution of population growth.

It is for the next Wexford, Waterford and Kilkenny county development plans to take a conscious decision to create conditions that make sound economic and environmental planning sense by focusing development around the rail corridor or other public transport modes, such as the bus, which is an important contributor to public transport services. This is the future.

Mr. Dave Walsh

To address the other issue, settling people in an area is one matter, but how does one bring jobs to it so that it can blossom as a region or city? As part of the regional planning guidelines, we have worked closely with Forfás, the regional economic strategies of which have fed into much of the analysis conducted by the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and research bodies like the Western Development Commission, WDC. Each regional economic strategy was fed into and now forms part of an economic chapter within regional planning guidelines.

Regarding the delivery of services, Senator Coffey asked how one can align the different players. This is exactly what the NSS update and outlook report is about. It examines why some places have grown, why something has worked in one place, who is not talking to whom over there, etc., and provides the implementation structure. Prior to the current economic circumstances, there were strong signals of a rebalancing between development in Dublin and the wider commuter belt. Trends were moving, but assessing the drivers is proving difficult in the downturn. We cannot say that they were all policy driven.

Where the delivery of services is concerned, if we do not see strong and further evidence in the next five years of the NSS changing the mindset and interaction between local and regional authorities and between delivery Departments, leading to a coherence across government, something will be wrong. This is what we are trying to focus on.

What about the buffer zones around national monuments?

Mr. Niall Cussen

In the context of evolving overall policy on the national landscape strategy, which forms part of the programme for Government and so on, we or other officials from our Department can revert on the issue. It is fair to say that the 2005 rural housing guidelines still provide the policy framework for the assessment of development proposals in rural areas. They take into account heritage in the broadest of senses, including natural and built heritages. The Acting Chairman will be familiar with the policies that have operated in successive Meath county development plans. In terms of the core and buffer areas around Newgrange, those policies were developed in conjunction with the Office of Public Works, OPW, Dúchas and our Department. On balance, they have operated reasonably successfully in managing the challenges inherent in landscaping a living, breathing thing and changing and adapting over time while conserving the heritage that makes those areas so distinctive, attractive and important in the first place.

We will develop broader policies in the context of a national landscape strategy, landscape characterisation and so on. The initiative announced by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, in respect of the Tara Skryne valley will work through and influence future development plans. At an overall level, the 1999 rural White Paper and the sustainable rural housing guidelines are trying to support strong, vibrant rural communities by ensuring options for living and working. It is a question of finding a balance between these considerations.

People understand this being close to our national monuments, but when it is occurring in a broader area, they start to grow concerned.

Mr. Niall Cussen

Much work is to be done before we reach a final outcome.

It is not finalised. That is grand. On behalf of the committee, I thank our guests for taking the time to attend this meeting. It has been an interesting discussion. We will raise some of the issues with the Minister of State at the Department on Committee Stage of the Bill next week. Mr. Cussen was a respected official in Meath County Council for many a year. It is no surprise that he has gone to the Department. It is well deserved.

Is there any other business to be discussed? No. The select committee will meet at the earlier time of 2 p.m. next Tuesday, 15 June 2010, for Committee Stage of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.30 p.m. until 2.45 p.m. on Tuesday, 6 July 2010.