Posted on Thursday 10 May 2012 by Ulster Business

If the economy is the priority....

The Department of Regional Development has published an updated revised Regional Development Strategy (RDS) for the period to 2035. The 111 page document purports to address ‘economic, social and environmental issues aimed at achieving sustainable development and social cohesion.’

That claim deserves to be contested. Essentially, this RDS repeats the main thrust of earlier versions but is assertive rather than convincing in relation to some economic and social policies, although it is generously sympathetic to environmental questions.

Nevertheless, there is little dispute that Northern Ireland does need an RDS. A long-term view is needed of the way in which people will want to live in a more prosperous society and the implications which that has for the use of space, improvements in infrastructure, and the protection of the environment (or being sustainable, in the new terminology).

The emphasis in the RDS leans towards an overly restrictive prescription. Issues of personal choice such as style, size and location of new housing, the balance of better transport facilities and constraints on the use of the private car, and the sustainable use of energy to reduce harmful gaseous emissions, are central to the role of a democratic (even regional) government.

Issues of public policy related, for example, to a growing economy could be frustrated by an over-restrictive RDS. Urban regeneration on a more ambitious scale than currently in existence and green-field sites for modern advanced services and industry are critical building blocks for the evolving economic strategy.

If the RDS is either too tolerant of difficult aspects of personal choice or too restrictive, as can be argued for this local statement, then enlightened positive political leadership is needed. Passive acceptance of over-restrictive planning dogma would be a mistake. This has the potential to become critical when the reform of local government is completed and the new local authorities are given responsibility for most planning decisions for which they should accept the constraints imposed by the RDS.

The RDS has a blind spot in relation to the now approved economic strategy of the Executive. The implicit thesis of the RDS is that, with appropriate tight land use planning, economic policy can fit within the now prescribed land use constraints. Flexibility and moderation to meet changing needs for the economy are far from prominent.

In illustration of the lack of connectivity between environmental and economic policy, the arrangements for the implementation and development of the RDS include consultation with other Government departments but do not include the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. In a reciprocal ‘gap’ the consultative arrangements for the further development of the Economic Strategy include several other Ministers (or Departments) but no mention is made of DRD.

The 111 pages of the RDS make only one tangential mention of the existence of an Executive approved Economic Strategy. Consequently, the expected mutual re-enforcement of what should be complementary documents is lacking.

Whatever the merits of the RDS and the possible benefits of ‘joined up Government’, the planning framework of the RDS makes its own assumptions about the needs for economic growth and, disputatious as they may be, there is the potential to frustrate economic expansion.

There is much in the RDS that is not controversial. Many of the development concepts are laudable. The concern, linking to economic policy, is that the RDS does not build in scope to provide for the degree of economic and social change that may need to evolve, particularly if the rate of change in productivity or business development improves.

The unintended but controversial remit of the RDS is summed up in the statement of purpose. ‘The RDS therefore addresses economic, social and environmental issues aimed at achieving sustainable development and social cohesion.’ To address the economic issues with modest population estimates, restrictive estimates of land needed for employment changes, conservative calculations of the scale of possible new house building with no explicit reference to the implications of higher average space requirements when living standards recover, and over-modest investment strategy proposals suggests a certain naivety in the face of a dynamic real world.

If the Economic Strategy succeeds, even modestly, the implementation of the RDS may become a constraint, rather than being a positive facilitation.

The RDS frequently refers to the need for an increased flow of new jobs. Nowhere does the document spell out the scale of the ambition to generate increased employment. There is no specific mention of the implications or consequences of the target for 2015 of 25,000 promoted jobs and the further multiplier impact if the Economic Strategy is making progress.

At no point is there provision for extra facilities for business and jobs in urban areas where the suggested guidelines become too tight. Nowhere in the document is there any reference to assessments of business profitability and their enhancement. Although the RDS frequently refers to the need for a competitive economy this is expressed as an abstract concept without any operational guidance to aid its achievement.

The RDS is surprisingly imprecise on two critical subjects where planning policies must be active.

First, whilst the RDS refers to the merits of strategic improvements in the economic infrastructure, the priorities nominated (at a macro-level) are transport (roads and public transport), telecoms, renewable energy and waste management. These references lend further weight to the plea that the Strategic Investment Board should work with (not alongside) the Economic Strategy to rebuild a selected set of investment priorities for the Executive to adopt.

Second, the RDS sets out the challenge of the management of too much waste material. Northern Ireland is in danger, still, of failure to reduce the reliance on land-fill to dispose of waste.

The RDS recognises the problem but, having emphasised the merits of prevention of waste, its re-use, recycling and recovery, then offers little encouragement to the role of waste incineration (and energy generation) as a necessary contributor. The closest the RDS comes to an acceptance of what may become difficult planning decisions is when it quotes research that Northern Ireland will require three ‘energy from waste’ (EfW) plants and up to seven Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) units.

Local councils and ratepayers would hope that this does not now predicate difficult planning appeals when bids are sought for modern processing methods.

Having prepared 85 pages of policy ideas which may attract criticism for the constraints on economic development, then on page 86 towards the end of the document, the RDS offers a possible escape clause.

‘4.26 No regional strategy can anticipate every major development requirement, technological advance or new entrepreneurial initiative. The RDS is intended to be sufficiently flexible to allow the private sector to bring forward innovative development proposals which are of significance to the whole or substantial part of Northern Ireland...’

Is this a real escape clause or a gesture? The Planners will still have the final say and past precedents are not encouraging.

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