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Edited on

12 January 2018
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Ireland is now an urban society.  It is where people work, innovation takes place, the global economy is most evident, national competitiveness is largely generated and future prosperity imagined (Irish Times, 24th November 2004).  Despite this, Ireland has no national urban policy.

Ireland is now an urban society.  It is where people work, innovation takes place, the global economy is most evident, national competitiveness is largely generated and future prosperity imagined (Irish Times, 24th November 2004).  Despite this, Ireland has no national urban policy.

During the 1980s/90s, urban policy was dominated by a plethora of national urban-focused programmes such as urban renewal schemes.  Despite their good intentions, their singularity meant there was no coordination around their potential cumulative effect and synergies were lost.  With Ireland entering the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years, the consequences of decades of poor planning and no urban policy were clear to be seen; including growing patterns of urban sprawl, poor urban design and disconnected growth. 


Fuzzy Boundaries: National Planning Policy as DeFacto Urban Policy

In the absence of a dedicated national urban policy, it has fallen to planning policy to guide the balanced and sustainable development of our cities and towns.  In 2015 it was noted by the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (DoECLG) that, across Ireland this is delivered through the National Spatial Strategy (NSS), seven Regional Planning Guidelines, 34 City and County Development Plans and over 350 local area plans, which are updated every 6 years. 


The National Spatial Strategy 2002-2020: People, Places and Potential (NSS) was published in 2002 and, by its nature it is the closest Ireland had come to laying out a national urban policy.  Taking its lead from European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP), its policies and objectives were informed by the ideals of polycentric networking between urban centres, urban-rural partnerships, and the pursuance of more endogenous approaches to spatial planning.  Its overall aim was to achieve a better balance of social, economic and physical development between regions.  Being a small island state, and given its limited number of designated cities,  its core focus as expected was on the development of Ireland’s cities and other urban centres deemed ‘regionally significant’.  This included: 

  • 9 national level ‘Gateways’, comprising the 7 biggest cities in the Country and 2 ‘linked’ gateways of 2 or more strong towns;
  •  9 ‘Hubs’ - county and/or larger sized towns – recognised as having a core role in strengthening their own local areas.

All were charged with the role of promoting social and economic development in their respective regions. 


While non-statutory in nature, the Strategy was further supported by National Development Plans (2000-2006 and 2007-2013) and Regional Operational Programmes tied into EU programming periods.  The Strategy, however, has not been the success that was envisaged.  It was let-down in its implementation – the key decisions required around resourcing and associated support policies (such as regionalisation) were not made.   Key investment decisions to support critical elements of the strategy, specifically around the gateways (the so-called engines of growth) never materialised.  The Government’s programme of decentralisation for example - a mechanism employed to counter-balance the growth of the Greater Dublin Region – saw the relocation of government departments and other state agencies to cities and towns other than the designated Gateways and Hubs. 


Designated Gateways & Hubs in the NSS

gateways & hubs

(Copyright: The National Spatial Strategy, 2002)


Unsurprisingly, this sounded the death-knell for the NSS.  Furthermore, being a non-statutory Strategy, the NSS lacked the ‘teeth’ required to ensure the transposition of its policies and objectives at the local level through county, city and local area plans. 

The Economic Crash: An Urban Policy Crisis

The advent of the economic recession in 2009 and the terms of Ireland’s bail-out agreement with international lenders led to the collapse of the property/construction sector and the suspension of all major capital projects under the NDP that had been formulated. Unemployment soared across Ireland’s cities, towns and villages – leading to mass emigration and a significant ‘brain drain’, businesses failed leading to the hollowing out of main streets and city cores, and little to no investment was made in infrastructure including public transport and telecommunications.  Ghost estates and empty retail units blighted urban centres of all sizes across the State. 


Following years of economic austerity policies and little or no physical development in cities, a new challenge is now emerging: that of undersupply of housing and commercial premises - especially in the Greater Dublin Region.  Private rents are soaring, social housing lists are satiated, traffic congestion has returned to pre-crash levels.  The Dublin region remains the preferred space to locate business – especially FDI; this is largely attributed to its accessibility, connectivity, access to an educated workforce, quality of office space, and proliferation of similarly-minded businesses in the region.  This is putting pressure on an already choked-up space.

A Typical Irish Ghost Estate

Ghost Estate

(Copyright: The Irish Examiner)


This all has implications for the sustainable growth and development of this region vis-a-vis other regions across the State.  It also raises questions on the need for a national urban policy that supports balanced development – including infrastructural investments which will make the other regions and cities more competitive, and an attractive alternative to Dublin and its surrounds.


URBACT: A Tool for Urban Policy Innovation

The URBACT programme provides local authorities in particular to address the many urban policies they address – whether the commercial decline of their economic cores, their shift towards a knowledge and digital economy, the regeneration of brownfield sites, promoting social innovation and social entrepreneurship, addressing challenges such as urban sprawl, promoting more integrated urban mobility infrastructure, and so on.  The possibilities are endless. And through URBACT, a programme whose potential is not yet fully recognised, participating authorities learn that these challenges are transnational in nature and they are not alone.  URBACT provides participating agencies with the scope to share knowledge and practice, to celebrate what they do well and learn new techniques to address some of the many challenges they face.  It encourages officials to ‘lift their gaze’ and seek out new networks and partnerships.


As URBACT Contact Point for Ireland, Maynooth University together with the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (as National Coordination Unit) will take every opportunity available to it to support Irish engagement in the current URBACT programme; and where agencies are successful, to support them in the roll-out and delivery of their programmes of action.


A New National Planning Framework

Why does Ireland not have a national urban policy?  Outside of the business community, who is promoting the urban? Fighting for the sustainable and balanced development of the urban?  Just last week (28th January 2016), the Taoiseach – or Prime Minister – launched the ‘Charter for Rural Ireland’.  Should we not have the equivalent, at the very least, for urban Ireland?


At the start of 2016, Ireland still has no national urban policy.  Instead, 2016 is being dedicated to the formulation of a new spatial strategy – this time to be known as the National Planning Framework.  Taking inspiration from Scotland, this strategy will be a core tool in identifying Ireland’s national priorities around employment growth and development, and promoting a better quality of life for all through high quality, sustainable growth policies.  With it already being clear that economic growth is a key driving principle in the drawing up of this 20-year strategy, it is not yet clear what other themes will inform its structure and objectives.  Taking inspiration from the already adopted Regional Operational Programmes – linked to the 2020 EU Funding Programme – one could surmise the following themes will be there is some guise:

  • Maximising the potential of our cities, towns and rural areas to be successful, sustainable places;
  • Identifying infrastructural priorities;
  • Transitioning to a low carbon society; and
  • Ensuring the resilience of our natural resources and cultural assets


With the social, economic, environmental and cultural challenges facing all settlements being many and varied – and with the future sustainable growth of our urban settlements resting firmly on this Framework (at least in the immediate term) - the next 12months will be a very important time for policy-makers and practitioners alike as they design a pathway forward for the long-term healthy, balanced and sustainable development of Ireland’s regions, cities, towns, villages and rural communities.




Ms. Caroline Creamer & Prof. Mark Boyle


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