Planning has failed in Ireland. Our management of land has left a legacy of a property crash, unfinished housing estates and much, much more. At a so-called strategic level, the National Spatial Strategy is a deliberately blinkered, grossly misguided, politically driven, waste of paper and will merely serve to prolong Ireland's agony for decades to come. Three-quarters of all land-use planners in Ireland work in development control. In other words the skills they are trained in – their education in communities, health, culture, industry, economics, and how to integrate them – are wasted planning for the present and not the future.
But planning in its broader sense – that of making provision for the future – has a huge amount to offer. Properly done, a plan should guide and not follow. It should direct and allocate resources. And this goes much farther than planning for land.
Ireland badly needs a plan that makes provision for people-centred prosperous futures. It's often a difficult concept to sell, but Ireland has more than one future. What this means is that different parts of Ireland will go in different directions according to their resources, skills and location. The west of Ireland has a different future ahead of it to the east or the south. We need to firstly accept and then plan for this, not pretend there's only one future for the whole of Ireland.
We also need to plan for jobs, growth, enterprise and development. We need to have regard for local wishes, entrepreneurship, commercial energy and cultural distinctiveness. Plans that often serve neither the wishes nor the needs of a community are ignored, resented or resisted.
How do other nations manage to do this? More than 60 countries around the world have a dedicated 'ministry of planning' (some use different names) which provide a platform to co-ordinate sectoral plans and strategies for growth. In some countries the department of finance is a branch of this ministry. Imagine that in Ireland; the finance function being secondary to a national planning department, and not the other way around.
Typically these ministries plan for functions such as agriculture and industry, infrastructure and forestry, enterprise and social welfare. The list is long. The important factor is that they demonstrate the need to have agreed and co-ordinated, high-level national and regional strategies for growth and development.
As an example of what they do, ministries of planning typically provide area-specific objectives around which local plans for settlement and for infrastructure are constructed. They are positive 'yes' ministries. Their plans are not abstract map-colouring exercises. They have budget lines, staffing levels, and targeted objectives for output, employment, tax revenues and capital expenditure. In this system, a coloured map that shows land for a factory or school is backed up by actions from half-a-dozen departments all acting in concert.
In many countries planning integrates all the plans with all the functions, and co-ordinates each with the other, to bring decisive action to bear on a particular place.
This 'joined-up planning' may sound idealistic, but it is eminently reasonable, entirely feasible and even realistic. Not only does this save money and time, by reducing duplication, conflicts and waste, it also improves, increases and multiplies the return on public expenditure. For potential employers on the outside looking in, such co-ordination increases the attractiveness of a place as a responsive and well-endowed area in which to locate investment.
Under pressure, the Department of Finance is currently preparing a four-year budget. However, in well-run businesses the budget supports plans and not vice-versa. It is interesting to see that the department thinks it can prepare a four-year budget in the absence of a four-year plan. For what is it budgeting exactly? Is there perhaps a plan about which we are unaware? Probably not.
The creation of a budget in the absence of a plan will surely guarantee further waste of public money. The payment of debt is not a plan. The creation of jobs, appropriately located according to the resources available, and not allocated through some political whim, is a plan.
More than any four-year budget, we firstly need a co-ordinated plan with specific outputs for each major sector and region of the economy.
Such a plan should be designed to facilitate and support innovation, risk-taking and entrepreneurship. It should be area-based and locally driven, as central planning has and continues to fail us. We need to harness the local loyalties and energies that have been wisely and successfully used by our sporting and cultural organisations for decades.
A plan along these lines will then form the basis of both budget allocation and of future revenue streams.
But a plan like this needs to be considered and carefully crafted. In other words, a plan that was not created by the Department of Finance, which is more likely to create a plan of parsimony and the self-serving protection of core public-service functions. It is not possible to successfully plan from within a departmental silo. Planning needs to be done horizontally across functions, and vertically from nation to community, and vice versa.
More than a directionless budget, enterprise, hope and purpose are pre-requisites for an economic recovery. Unfortunately, the facilitation of enterprise, the instilling of hope and the creation of a real sense of hope won't happen by accident. We have to plan for them.