Planning was a key feature of ‘boom and bust’ but reforming the system and explaining it plainly to the public will help to drive the recovery. Minister of State for Planning and Housing Jan O’Sullivan discusses her portfolio with Owen McQuade.
To Jan O’Sullivan, the lessons of the Celtic Tiger are writ large in planning and housing policy and therefore make her portfolio an important driver for reform.
“While it might sound like a relatively dull ministry, it’s actually a really interesting ministry because of the particular time we’re at in Ireland’s history where we’re uniquely getting over an enormous economic collapse and planning for the future,” she comments. Both policy areas are “very central to what we did wrong and what we need to do properly.”
As with many TDs, O’Sullivan found that her local authority experience gave her a basic understanding of how these systems work, which is “invaluable for a Minister in this particular role.” However, the role of Planning Minister must now be “much more visionary” than it was 10 years ago and involves thinking outside the box at a time of scarcer resources.
“That is a very good thing because throwing money at problems doesn’t necessarily solve them,” O’Sullivan remarks. “In the past 10 years in particular [for] almost any problem, there was money there to throw at it. That certainly isn’t my idea of the country that I want to live in. I’d prefer to shape a much more coherent and sustainable future.”
The Minister divides up her planning remit by looking to the legacy problems arising from ‘boom and bust’ and also the forward-looking need for reform and vision.
“There was a great deal of development that wasn’t sustainable, that wasn’t in the appropriate places, that wasn’t in any way built on the foundation of the evidence of the needs of the community and the population,” she says.
The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is “steadily” working through a process of site resolution plans for all unfinished estates across the country. Local authorities are being asked to work with NAMA and the banks to develop those plans. Outcomes could include fully or partially completing the sites, carrying out public safety works or clearing the sites. Her aim is to achieve a “very clear pathway” over the next two years and eventually “finally close the door on that legacy issue.”
O’Sullivan continues: “My real concern and my real intention is to build a sustainable planning system for the future: one that will learn from the lessons of the past and will be a key element of the recovery of the country and the growth of the country over the next medium to long term [period].”
Outlining the core values for a good planning system, she lists integrity, sustainability and transparency.
“I know these are all buzz words, if you like,” she acknowledges, “but if the public doesn’t understand how the planning system works, why certain things are permitted and certain other things aren’t, then your planning system isn’t doing its job.”
Her first priority is to implement the recommendations of the Mahon report (March 2012), the department’s internal planning review (June 2012) and Henk van der Kamp’s further external review (March 2013).
O’Sullivan was speaking to eolas just after recommending an independent review to the Cabinet of six local authority areas covered in the planning review: Dublin City, Cork City, County Cork, County Carlow, County Meath and County Galway. The reviews are to be approved under Section 255 of the Planning and Development Act 2000.
The establishment of an independent Planning Regulator is “probably the most important” recommendation from the reports. The Cabinet has agreed the move and legislation will come before the Oireachtas later this year. The Planning Regulator’s role is three-fold:
1. examining development plans to ensure that they are appropriate to the available evidence (and advising the Minister on any actions required);
2. carrying out the investigative role under Section 255 (currently held by the Minister); and
3. ensuring that the education and research role, involving councillors and the Irish Planning Institute, is carried out.
Democratic accountability will be maintained as the regulator will suggest a course of action to the Minister: “It will be in the public arena and I will then make a decision and will be publicly accountable as Minister, as will future ministers.”
O’Sullivan has already sent out a circular and three directives on “putting a strong emphasis on enforcement” which is “one of the areas that I think isn’t as strongly implemented as it should be.” Last year, she intervened twice in local area plan decisions, in County Laois and County Clare. This power (a Section 31 directive) had only been used eight times over the last decade. “I wanted to send a clear signal that I’m serious about local authorities making decisions on the basis, again, of the evidence that is available,” O’Sullivan affirms.
Guidelines on development contributions, retail planning and local area plans have also been published.
“We want the local authorities to specifically prioritise centres as opposed to peripheral ‘donut’ [applications] that were given permissions in the past,” the Minister adds. “They’re beginning to do that. I know that some local authorities have already reduced the contribution for developments in the city or town centre. That’s positive.”
That said, delivery on development contributions and retail planning will take longer due to limited activity in the economy. Her vision is that when development increases again, “everything that we do is done for the needs of communities” and that this is “clearly understood” by developers.
The Minister reiterates that she is “very keen on public education and plain language.” Consultation often attracts professionals and does not capture the full range of views from members of the public.
Responding to that point, she says that the aligning of the community and the local government sectors (through ‘Putting People First’) should help “because it will challenge both sides really to engage and I think that can only be positive.”
The planning policy side of the remit is “more about having a vision and implementing it” and involves a lot of policy. Housing is about both planning for the future and “managing the present.”
Long waiting lists built up during the Celtic Tiger era, when money was plentiful, but capital budgets have now “shrunk” due to the troika agreement. The Government must therefore find “innovative ways to meet housing needs” e.g. working with the voluntary sector to raise extra funding, professionalising and providing more support within the private rented sector, and securing housing units from NAMA.
O’Sullivan has also been working with the Department of Social Protection to transfer rent supplement to local authorities over the next two years. This will bring all people who need housing support from the State under a single system apart from short-term rent supplement which will still be there as an ‘emergency service’.
In Britain, the voluntary housing sector has a significant role in providing housing and can take on debt finance. Irish housing associations, though, are relatively small compared to the British ones. Financially, there are “issues of scale” but there is also “very active … scaling up” to ensure that debt finance can be used to provide housing in future.
The retro-fitting insulation scheme for older local authority housing is creating jobs and helping to tackle fuel poverty as well as improving standards. The Minister wants to increase the construction of local authority housing but sees leasing as a cost-effective option that will meet immediate needs.
“We’ve been using leasing as a measure at the moment because for approximately €7,000-7,500 for a year, you can provide a home for somebody through leasing,” she explains, “whereas if you’re going to wait to construct, it’s obviously much more expensive in the short term.”
The last National Spatial Strategy was published in 2002 when the boom was “on the way up” but the country is now “in a very different space.” The new strategy, to be developed with Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan, will also need to learn from past mistakes.
A scoping exercise to identify issues and important criteria will take place over the coming months but the overall process will be “relatively long” due to consultation.
O’Sullivan comments: “We think it’s important to start it at this stage because, in terms of our economic recovery, we have turned the corner and we are getting to a point now where we’re looking to both economic planning for the future and spatial planning for the future of the country.”
Profile: Jan O’Sullivan TD
With no family background in politics, Jan O’Sullivan became involved through the women’s movement and was frustrated that so few women were involved in politics. “It sounds clichéd but I actually wanted to get involved in shaping my local community,” she adds. Improving female involvement in politics is still a “very slow process” and O’Sullivan backs quotas as a short-term measure “to bring up the critical mass of women.”
Born in 1950, she is a former pre-school teacher and served on Limerick City Council (1985-2004) alongside her role model, Democratic Socialist Party leader Jim Kemmy. She joined Labour when the two parties merged in 1990 and was then elected to the Seanad (1993-1997).
Jan was elected to the Dáil for Limerick East in the 1998 by-election following Kemmy’s death. The constituency was renamed as Limerick City in 2011. She was briefly Minister of State for Trade and Development (March-December 2011) before being appointed to her current post.
Her interests outside politics are hill-walking, the arts, music and literature. Being from Limerick, she is also “an avid rugby supporter.”