Democracy in the planning process

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Dr. Deiric Ó Broin, NorDubCo

I present the third opinion piece in context of the debate on Local Government Reform, organised by the Regional Studies Association – Irish Branch.

The package of proposals contained in the Local Government Bill, 2013, the Report of the Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee and the Final Report of the Local Government/Local Development Alignment Steering Group, taken in conjunction with the introduction of the Residential Property Tax and the incorporation of enterprise development bodies in local government represent the most significant set of local government reforms articulated by an Irish government since the introduction of the city/county manager system.

In particular the proposals are likely to have very significant implications for planners, the planning process and the planning system. This is particularly the case in relation to the proposals that seek to improve the rather limited democratic legitimacy of Irish local government.

The role of democracy in the planning process has often been a matter of debate. The finding of a balance between the role of the elected representative and the expert, between the democratically expressed views of the people and the knowledge and understanding of the professional is a matter that should be considered carefully when any reform of local government and its systems is being contemplated, The interface between democracy and expertise is not a matter to be treated lightly.

To date elected councillors in Ireland have had very limited powers in comparison to their counterparts in other EU member state. This is about to change. How they adapt to the new role allotted to them is unknown. The example of similar changes in Britain suggests that planners will notice a significant change in their work practices and the nature of their relationships for the following reasons:

(a)        Councillors will quickly adopt the role of “rigorously overseeing the performance of their organisations” and the areas in which they exercise this role are likely to be increases;

(b)        With the establishment of Municipal Districts as the primary loci for action and, in many areas, the increase in the number of councillors, it will be more straightforward to scrutinise the activities of the council;

(c)   It is likely that the participatory planning processes, some planners envisage as allowing them to work directly with communities, will actually facilitate councillors in their “community engagement” role. Councillors may well take the lead in such processes because in public policy terms the state has been reluctant to facilitate this type of participatory mechanism despite alluding to participatory democracy and because elected councillors will assume it to be their ‘space’ as community leaders and representatives and act accordingly, thereby denying planners a primacy they may expect;

(d)    As in Britain regionalisation will bring about a number of changes. Putting People First outlined the case for a strong regional planning tier which many planners supported, the Bill is less clear. A key role of the Regional Assemblies was overseeing the development of Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies. These strategies, unlike the analogous strategies of the City/County Development Boards, will have to be “adhered to”. This will mean, as in Britain, a significant increase in inter-agency collaboration to develop binding strategies and this has proved quite difficult;

(e)  The final change is broader but relates to very significant difference between the local and national political tiers in Ireland. Ireland is quite different from other small liberal democracies, for example New Zealand, in that at national level the formulation of public policy has largely been the remit of elected politicians with generalist, rather than professional staff, playing a support role. There is a significant body of public policy governance literature substantiating this analysis. The Bill aims to make the local tier more similar to the national tier, with elected councillors taking on a role as “policy makers” rather than “policy takers”.

Local government structures and the linked rights and responsibilities are about to change radically and change quickly. That remains the key challenge for government as it strives to finalize the legislation that will operationalize the vision outlined in the Bill, and a challenge for planners and other professional staff as they will have to navigate a new politico-legal environment.

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