The super council must get its planning right

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They say timing is the essence of comedy. In this case we hope not because it could be a comedy of errors.

On April fool’s day the new ‘super’ council will take over responsibility for planning. Instead of just being consulted, as the old councils were, the new council will take the vital decisions.

It’s hard to imagine anyone holding back a planning application until the council takes up its new role. In fact, we’d be surprised if the opposite weren’t the case. Did people put applications in early to get ahead of the new system? I don’t know but I’d be amazed if there was widespread optimism that the new system will be better than the old one, despite its many faults. I have heard architects expressing concern. Hopefully, councillors will prove the doubters wrong. We’ll have to wait and see.

In theory, local democracy is good. The more decision making that can safely be passed out of the hands of officials and into the hands of elected representatives the better. That’s if, and it’s a big if, we can depend on our elected representatives to make rational decisions in an informed, fair and consistent manner, avoiding the temptation to settle old ‘scores’.

The big problem with the planning process has been its lack of consistency. We’ve seen this over and over again. For instance, in rural areas policy has gone in one direction and then swung back in the opposite direction like a pendulum. For a while it was virtually impossible to build a house in the countryside. Policy was too tight. Then the floodgates opened and it was much easier to get permission again. Then, policy was probably not tight enough. If you want to see the damage that lax planning can do to the countryside; just take a drive around West Donegal. There are houses everywhere you look.

Will councillors strike a sensible balance? Can they be consistent? Can they take unpopular decisions? Again, we’ll see.

In urban areas, where there is a presumption in favour of development, the big problem has been the failure to implement a longer-term, strategic vision. We’ve had more grand plans than we’ve had hot dinners but none of them ever amount to a hill of beans.

An honourable exception has been Derry’s magnificent new waterfront and the Peace Bridge. Now there’s a planning success story.

Unfortunately, it’s an exception. Mostly, while grand plans gather dust on a shelf somewhere, development continues in a short-term, piecemeal manner. Thus, for example, we have the showcase Millennium Forum shoe-horned inside the walls while Sainsbury’s Supermarket enjoys a magnificent riverside setting where the Forum or some other prestigious public building ought to be.

In this paper last Tuesday, Councillor Angela Dobbins, outgoing chair of the old Derry City Council Planning Committee looked forward to the new system. Councillor Dobbins said all the right things, presenting an almost Utopian vision. “Our new council planning committee must be strategic, consistent and equitable across society, ensuring that all interests, economic, social and environmental are taken into account,” she said. That’s fine, even if it sounded a little like it had been ‘cogged’ from a planning text book.

I sincerely hope Councillor Dobbins is right and I’m wrong. Planning is too important for our concerns to prove well-founded.