Resident groups to be barred from taking High Court actions against planning decisions

Draft laws set for Cabinet approval on Tuesday would make it harder for objectors to challenge planning decisions

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien wants to increase the power of local authorities to make compulsory purchase orders, including measures to clarify how they can acquire vacant or derelict properties. Photograph: Iren Miller/iStock

Residents’ associations will be barred from taking High Court actions against planning decisions under a sweeping overhaul of planning laws that will boost the power of public bodies to intervene in the property market.

The move to make it more difficult for objectors to challenge planning decisions is part of the biggest shake-up of the planning regime in decades, as Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien pushes to accelerate the delivery of new homes.

Draft laws set for Cabinet approval on Tuesday are also understood to impose timelines in law on all planning decisions and appeals, with fines imposed where they are not met. Energy and other strategic infrastructure projects would be the first to face statutory deadlines.

The Minister also wants to increase the power of local authorities to make compulsory purchase orders, including measures to clarify how they can acquire vacant or derelict properties and sell them for development or residential use.

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Contentious move

The draft laws, in preparation for months, are for discussion on Monday at the regular pre-Cabinet meeting of Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green leader Eamon Ryan. It will be last such meeting before Mr Martin and Mr Varadkar switch posts on Saturday.

Senior Government figures privately acknowledge the narrowing of the scope for legal challenge against planning decisions is likely to prove contentious.

After scores of fast-track approvals for large housing schemes were appealed successfully in the High Court, Mr O’Brien’s legislation will impose new restrictions on the way judicial review cases can be taken. A judicial review is a mechanism for people to go to court to challenge the decision-making process of a public body.

Where organisations such as a residents’ association seek in the future to take a judicial review, the case will have to be taken by an individual or individuals rather than by the association. The aim is to increase personal accountability and transparency when such cases are taken.

Fianna Fáil TD John Lahart told the Dáil in September that certain residents’ associations had discovered that judicial review cases could be financed with the proceeds of “10 cake sales”.

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Clear timelines

Still, it is recognised at high levels in the Coalition that restrictions on judicial reviews are likely to face constitutional challenge.

The reforms will include timelines for each specific step in the judicial review process, including for pleadings, the hearing of cases and delivery of judgments by the court.

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The new laws will also allow An Bord Pleanála or a local authority correct an “error of fact or law” in its planning decision and give them the right to seek a stay on the determination of the case while doing so.

The law on the legal standing of litigants will be changed so a judicial review can be taken either by a person affected by the case or by an environmental NGO that meets certain criteria in relation to its establishment and its purposes. Pending publication of the Bill, such criteria remain unclear.

After months of controversy at An Bord Pleanála, the body will be renamed the Planning Commission with more decision-makers as part of effort to increase confidence in the appeals process. In addition, the ability of An Bord Pleanála and local authorities to make decisions that materially contravene a development plan will be limited.

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley is Current Affairs Editor of The Irish Times