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News analysis: Ireland’s NPF sets out its stall on joined-up planning and development

Words: Roger Milne
Ireland / iStock_000022788127

The ink was hardly dry on the Irish Republic’s new National Planning Framework (NPF) and its 75 national planning objectives before opposition parties questioned whether it needed to be voted on in the Oireachtas before it has statutory status.

Sinn Fein has said it is taking legal advice.

However, ministers insisted that the NPF would come into force once the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill currently before the Seanad is enacted.

The spatial strategy in the NPF is designed to accommodate the additional one million people expected to be living in the Republic by 2040 and provide 550,000 new homes and 660,000 new jobs.

The NPF was published alongside a National Development Plan that sets out a 10-year infrastructure programme costing nearly €116 billion. Of this, €91 billion will come from taxpayers, with the remaining €25 billion coming from commercial semi-state companies like ESB, EirGrid and Irish Water. Together, these two documents add up to more than 300 pages.

The government is offering €1 billion for regeneration of villages with a population of less than 10,000 people and is planning to spend €4.5 billion on regional and local roads. Billions of pounds will be spent on the metro scheme in the capital; Cork is set for a light rail system and a major redevelopment of its docklands; and Limerick will finally be connected to Cork by the M20 motorway. The administration is also planning to spend €22 billion on tackling climate change, including greater energy efficiency, more renewable generation and further work to reduce flood risk.

The land-use strategy aims to move away from the current, developer-led, business-as-usual pattern of development, to one informed by the needs and requirements of society.

“This means seeking to disrupt trends that have been apparent over the last 50 years and have accelerated over the past 20,” said the government.

Rather than have excessive population growth focused on Dublin – the current trend – the NPF expects to see 75 per cent of all population growth occurring in the rest of the country. It targets a level of growth in the northern, western, and southern regions combined to at least match that projected for the east and Midland region, which includes the Dublin conurbation.

The government is “seeking to disrupt trends that have been apparent over the last 50 years”

It will support the future growth of Dublin as Ireland’s leading global city of scale, by managing Ireland’s growth to ensure that more of it can be accommodated within and close to the city. This will entail higher densities and taller buildings and significantly less provision for car parking.

The blueprint supports ambitious growth targets to enable the four cities of Cork, Limerick, Galway, and Waterford to each grow by at least 50 per cent to 2040 and to enhance their potential to become cities of scale. It recognises the extent to which Sligo in the north-west and Athlone in the Midlands can fulfil the role of regional centres. It recognises the importance of Letterkenny in the context of the North-West Gateway Initiative and Drogheda-Dundalk in the context of the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor.

The NPF stresses the idea of “compact growth”. In meeting urban development requirements, there will be “a presumption in favour of development that can encourage more people and generate more jobs and activity within existing cities, towns and villages, subject to development meeting appropriate planning standards and achieving targeted growth”.

The blueprint targets a significant proportion of future urban development on infill/brownfield development sites within the built footprint of existing urban areas. This is applicable to all scales of settlement, from the largest city to the smallest village.

A draft version of the plan would have all but banned one-off houses in the countryside, but under the terms of the NPF these will still be allowed, provided they meet local planning policies and are in line with the new breed of housing need assessments.

The NPF includes the commitment that the Department of Housing will establish a new body known as the National Regeneration and Development Agency, which will focus on developing state-owned lands. The new body will have powers to issue compulsory purchase orders for brownfield sites in private ownership if the area is having a distinct housing requirement.

Under the NPF, local authorities will be required to carry out a so-called ‘Housing Need Demand Assessment’ (HNDA) for their area “in order to correlate and accurately align future housing requirements”.

The blueprint wants to make it easier for the planning system to provide more flats. Hence a new national policy that says that “in urban areas, planning and related standards, including building height and car parking will be based on performance criteria that seek to achieve well-designed high-quality outcomes in order to achieve targeted growth”.

“These standards will be subject to a range of tolerance that enables alternative solutions to be proposed to achieve stated outcomes, provided public safety is not compromised and the environment is suitably protected,” it adds. The aim is increased residential density.

The NPF will trigger a burst of new plan-making. It calls for new regional spatial and economic strategies. It also makes provision for so-called Metropolitan Area Strategic Plans to be prepared for the Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford Metropolitan areas and in the case of Dublin and Cork, to also address the wider city region, by the appropriate authorities in tandem with and as part of the relevant regional spatial and economic strategies.

According to the NPF, a Metropolitan Area Strategic Plan may enable up to 20 per cent of the phased population growth targeted in the principal city and suburban area to be accommodated in the wider metropolitan area, i.e. outside the city and suburbs or contiguous zoned area, in addition to growth identified for the Metropolitan area.

But any such relocated growth will have to be in the form of compact development, such as infill or a sustainable urban extension.

“The NPF will help Ireland play to planners’ strengths” – Marion Chalmers, RTPI Ireland chair

Statutory arrangements between spatial and transport planning in the Greater Dublin Area will be extended to other cities. Provision will be made for urban area plans, based on current local area plan provisions, and joint urban area plans and local area plans will be prepared where some town and environs lie within the combined functional area of more than one local authority.

Under the NPF city/county development plan core strategies will be further developed. The blueprint promises the introduction of standardised methodologies and guidance on how to introduce “a coordinated and balanced approach to future population and housing requirements across urban and rural areas”. Planning authorities will be required to apply a standardised, tiered approach to differentiate between (i) zoned land that is serviced and (ii) zoned land that is serviceable within the life of the plan.

The NPF will facilitate landscape protection, management and change through the preparation of a National Landscape Character Map and development of guidance on local landscape character assessments to secure a consistent approach to landscape character assessment, particularly across planning and administrative boundaries.

The new policy also requires the identification of green belts and green spaces at a regional and city scale, to enable “enhanced connectivity to wider strategic networks, prevent coalescence of settlements, and to allow for the long-term strategic expansion of urban areas”.


RTPI Ireland chair Marion Chalmers said the publication of the NPF was a “significant day for planning in Ireland”.

“For the first time, the NPF will set out how the government will deliver its vision for Ireland over the next 20 years, with a direct link between the plan and capital investment. This will provide welcome certainty in uncertain times – given Brexit, a housing crisis, climate change, uneven economic growth – for communities, developers, investors and planners.

"The NPF will help Ireland play to planners’ strengths – long-term, strategic planning and place-making is what we do best. This long-term, strategic approach will help ensure the government maximises the capacity of the planning system to deliver its ambitious agenda.

"We call on the government to make best use of this nation’s planners to ensure a joined-up approach to delivering these new projects, which considers housing plans and other government plans and strategies. We must plan housing needs alongside infrastructure to successfully create vibrant, prosperous communities.”

The RTPI has warned that politicians and officials will be faced with difficult decisions on where to prioritise investment and development, but says they must be “bold and visionary” if the plan is to succeed.

The Irish Planning Institute (IPI) gave the NPF a mixed reception. President Joe Corr said the strategy “is not following the evidence as we hoped it would in order to become a robust enabling tool to shape and enable future investment in the growth of our society and its economy by both public and private sectors”.

“It presents as a framework for politics following politics rather development following planning,” he said.

However, he welcomed the emphasis on brownfield development.

“Establishing some priority for brownfield over greenfield use is a positive way to addresses challenges to both economic and environmental sustainability. It serves to reduce sprawl, to increase the efficiency of land use and enables a more focused and efficient investment in infrastructure”.
“We welcome and endorse the leadership that the NPF provides. As a framework it leaves ample scope for addressing local needs in an active and informed way. We believe as a community, in both the private and the public sectors, that we have a lot of insight available to support implementation and will be advocating strongly for a continued commitment to this thinking,” added Corr.

Project Ireland 2040 can be found on the Irish Government website.

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