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The decision by An Bord Pleanála to refuse approval for the National Children’s Hospital may have come as a surprise to the Minister for Health but not to those of us who earn our living as planning consultants. As soon as the photomontages showing the visual impact of the Hospital appeared, it was obvious the impact was so visually negative in terms of its impact on the northern historic core of Dublin that there could be only one outcome. I even wrote to the Minister back in June 2011 on the assumption the project would be refused and suggested that sites in Dublin’s Docklands might provide preferable options for an alternative location to progress the project. Others have suggested a site near Heuston Station and other more peripheral sites.

Although some might consider it pointless to inquire where things went wrong, it is essential that some form of review is carried out to avoid repeating past mistakes. It is also pointless blaming the Board. They come in at the end of a long process. They are always going to disappoint somebody when there are two sides to the argument. In this case, it was the Government who was disappointed and some of the reaction from Ministers is regrettable. The Board operates within the legal framework as set out in their legislation. There is no provision for them to prejudge a development prior to a full assessment involving all interested parties.

Even if the Board had granted approval, I suspect there would have been a legal challenge in relation to the issue of alternatives. We have a woeful record in terms of achieving many major state projects expeditiously and we badly need to improve our performance. So where did the failures occur in the case of the Hospital? Were they as a result of cultural failure, systems failure, political failure or failure by individuals?

Areas where questions should be asked

• Did land use/transportation/conservation form part of the selection criteria at early site selection stage or was selection based solely on medical criteria? How were the criteria weighted?

• Was advice taken at an early stage on the regulatory planning and environmental process and its local operation in Dublin with recognition that An Bord Pleanála would be the ultimate arbitrator?

• Was specialist advice provided on planning issues?

• Was advice listened to?

• When were planners, conservation, transport and other experts employed in the process? Was it when the building was fully designed and an Environmental Impact Statement about to be undertaken?

• Was reliance placed on the views of Dublin City Council as to the acceptability or otherwise of the building? It can be noted that large-scale projects approved by the Council were being refused or heavily modified on appeal by the Board during the development of the Hospital project, examples include the Jury’s site in Ballsbridge, the Arnotts site, The Digital Hub and many others.

• Did the size of the project just grow and grow and people get sucked in to an agreement in principle without realising the implications of a bigger project?

• Were capacity studies simply based on whether a building could fit on the site (it is fairly obvious that any building will fit if you go high enough)without considering the urban design and other impacts on Dublin?

• Were comparisons with hospitals abroad primarily based on medical considerations and upon transatlantic typologies, which were perceived as the area of best practice in medicine (but perhaps not in land use planning)? Did anyone look at European mainland practice in historic cities?

• Did the Government not appreciate the legislative framework within which they were operating or did it consider it could rely on a Government decision alone to secure the project and did they regard the application to the Board as a rubber-stamping exercise?

Where to from here? My advice would be to:

1. Draw up a comprehensive range of applicable judgement criteria and apply risk assessment including regulatory risk i.e. Is it likely to be approved by An Bord Pleanála? The criteria and risk need to be weighted according to their importance in ensuring we get the best hospital in the best possible location, within a reasonable time frame and at a reasonable price in terms of construction and cost in use. One thing that struck me was that the Hospital, as designed, was probably a very costly option because of its height, difficulty in construction, complex structure and servicing.

2. Be open about the criteria; amend if necessary to achieve wide public and stakeholder support.

3. Ensure that objective expert advice is sought across a range of skills aside from medical skills such as land use planning, transport, architectural, environmental, conservation and cost experts. The Government has made a good start by appointing two respected land use planners and an experienced local architect to the new committee to advise on location.

4. Listen to what the experts have to say and act upon reasonable advice.

5. Commence the Environmental Impact Statement at an early stage so that it informs the Hospital design.

6. Listen to what the officials in An Bord Pleanála have to say in the pre-application meetings. The officials are constrained in that they cannot give an opinion on the Board’s likely decision and prejudge the application ahead of the planning inquiry. However they will signal the main issues and from reading between the lines it is possible to determine where the project is at risk.

If the Government considers that the Board should give an earlier indication of whether a project is likely or not to succeed it would have to amend the legislation to bring in wider powers of consideration at pre-application stage. This would seem difficult given the quasi-judicial nature of the Board and it would need very detailed consideration. It is also important not to rush into new primary legislation because the decision of the Board was not to the Government’s liking. In my view, they reached the correct decision and despite the money wasted to date, a new location may well prove to be a more economic solution. 

This article was published in the latest edition of the PAI Journal Issue 83 March/April 2012. To view other articles from this Journal, click here.