Yesterday we learned that President Sarkozy proposes to introduce a Happiness Index to use in addition to the gross national product as a measure of the success of France’s economy and to guide their future policy.

It is interesting that this comes on the same day that the Dáil begins to debate the Government’s plan to restore liquidity into the banking sector and to set up an agency to manage the national assets that the Government will acquire in the process.

These two debates are not unrelated. If the Government’s plan for our future is, as expected, adopted in some form or another there is a huge opportunity to improve Ireland’s score on a Happiness Index by ensuring that environmental and social issues are taken into account in the final form of the Act.

An Taisce’s contribution to the debate is to propose that any plan proposed now should be assessed against a number of clear criteria that could guard against a return to old ways which ultimately seem to have benefited a few against the common good.

We must not simply aim to get things back the way they were but must aspire to bring our development path into line with a real appreciation that climate change and declining resources of oil, water and good soil are a fact of life. We cannot continue to use up resources as if the future didn’t matter. It’s just not fair. Not fair for our children and not fair for those in developing countries referred to by Mary Robinson in her address to An Taisce’s international Conference of Heritage Trusts.

And the way in which we manage those newly acquired assets really makes a difference.

An Taisce has been speaking out for years against the folly of the large scale over-zoning in the country. Over-zoning, combined with the banks’ childish lending policies have inevitably led to the present crisis and hundreds of thousands of empty properties, half finished projects, planning permissions and acres of zoned land. A short walk around the empty office blocks of Dublin and a visit to any town in driving distance of Dublin will show the reality of the reality of the situation.

As a statutory consultee in the planning system An Taisce has seen a significant number of these planning applications and have frequently advocated against straying from the National Spatial Strategy which could have worked well with a few adjustments.

The new Sustainable Travel Policy also aims to guide development along a path that takes climate change seriously but An Taisce is frequently frustrated by the failure to implement these plans.

An Taisce welcome proposals that move away from labour taxes and towards land taxes and resource taxes but worries that these will be watered down too much.

Our proposals:

  1. For trust to be restored and national effort inspired to remedy the dire circumstances we find ourselves in, there must be transparency in the process and independent directors must be engaged to oversee decisions and the manner in which decisions are made. An Taisce, along with other NGOs, would welcome the opportunity to channel the views of those who share our view that heritage matters. We would willingly contribute the experience we have amassed over the past 60 years.
  2. Any plan must acknowledge that there are limits to growth. Increasing our GNP by 5% a year would double our use of resources within 14 years, which is clearly untenable. A reduction of consumption is ultimately inevitable whether this decline is managed or forced upon us by circumstances. Much current consumption is underpinned by imports from China and the Far East, still largely fuelled by climate changing coal. We note the increase in container shipping and the interest of a Hong Kong company in the development of a new port in Bremore.

We must shift the economy onto a new path that supports more localised economies and builds resilience to future shocks.

This should not be represented as a decline or as impoverishment as there are many benefits to be had in social and environmental terms. Retail Shopping Therapy will be replaced by stronger community ties if we properly design walkable communities.

  1. The valuation of any site must include the environmental costs associated with development of that site and other quality of life indicators, such as those included in a Happiness Index, should also be factored into the equation.

The current crisis presents a huge opportunity to reposition the economy onto a more sustainable path however a totally free market based system cannot safeguard against distortions which cause the system to fail. Proper Planning is required that takes into account

  • Energy use and carbon emissions.
  • Access to sustainable water supplies.
  • Food security and the need to protect good soils.

There will be urban sites which offer good options for development however if the criteria above are adopted many sites (and even completed developments) will revert to agricultural value despite huge prices paid in recent times. Falling land and house prices will bring considerable pain to some and a means must be found to support individuals caught up in this but An Taisce welcome further falls that would bring house prices in line with historic values related to annual rent and wage levels and thus make housing affordable to people without crippling lifetime debt.

There will be new opportunities to encourage and support development projects that benefit the common good.

  1. The proper use of Special Development Zones has been shown to be an effective planning tool.
  2. There is potential for land swaps to provide amenities, parks, sports facilities and allotments back within compact town boundaries.

However there are other matters that must be resolved if this potential is to be unlocked.

  1. The role and boundaries of the Regional Authorities need to be reviewed and strengthened, removing weaknesses in both management systems and democratic control. Transparent systems open to proper public participation by citizens and non government organisations such as An Taisce are essential to ensure success.
  2. Whilst welcoming the proposed changes to the Planning and Development Act 2000, much more work is needed before current land banks are disbursed for development. An Taisce has identified lacunas in current law that urgently require fixing.
  3. The proposed change in the Planning Act to extend the life of permissions must on no account be accepted as to do so will freeze many decisions made before the future unfolded so cruelly.
  4. An Taisce has observed that many planning applications are being made in circumstances where it appears the main purpose is not development but to bring the landholding up to the value required to bring it into the NAMA. We strongly recommend that a cut off date be set to disallow such projects.
  5. Current development plan reviews are based on population trends for the next 5-10 years deduced from 2006 census figures. In reality these trends have been subjected to seismic shifts since that time. This needs to be urgently addressed.

Whatever system is finally adopted will be painful and no public relations campaign can disguise that fact or pretend that we can continue to push painful remedies into the future yet again. We must not waste the opportunity created by this crisis to shift the economy onto a new path that supports more localised economies and builds resilience to future shocks.