The Green Party is facing internal tensions and a wider backlash from environmental groups over the landmark planning reforms which Coalition leaders say are vital to overhaul an outdated system.
Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien published the draft planning and development Bill on Thursday, saying the State needed “a planning system that is efficient and effective and that is fit for purpose for a modern-day Ireland, and for a society that needs new homes, needs new infrastructure”.
However, there was an immediate backlash from within the Green Party, as well as among some environmental groups. They fear the Bill unjustifiably curtails access to justice by narrowing the grounds upon which a judicial review of a planning decision can be brought, warning it will lead to years of delay due to legal challenges.
Green Party TD for Dublin Central Neasa Hourigan said the Bill was also not compliant with the Aarhus Convention, a key UN declaration on public participation in decision-making and environmental information which is also in EU and Irish law. She told The Irish Times that “limiting judicial reviews in the manner outlined by the Bill as published is clearly unlawful within the EU and under the Aarhus Convention”.
She said it would result in “protracted litigation” over the next decade and will “effectively and significantly impede the development of renewable infrastructure”.
However, her party colleague and Minister of State Malcolm Noonan said the Bill complies with Aarhus, heralding an internal split in the Greens. Launching the Bill on Thursday, Mr Noonan told reporters he had spent “all of my political life supporting the rights of communities and environmental organisations to participate fully in our planning system” and that he was “confident” that, following pre-legislative scrutiny, “we will end up with a very robust planning Bill”.
Green Party sources said the leadership believed any issues could be thrashed out in the process of pre-legislative scrutiny, due to begin in early February. Green Party TD Steven Matthews, who chairs the housing committee, said he intends to hold 10 sessions on the legislation in a month, promising “detailed scrutiny”.
Asked if the Bill limited access to justice, Minister of State in the Department of Housing Kieran O’Donnell argued it was “quite the reverse”, saying the new legislation would introduce a mechanism for State funding of legal cases.
Dr Elaine McGoff, natural environment officer with An Taisce, said it was “hard to conceive of a more dysfunctional and inappropriate response from Government than the planning Bill published today”.
The Bill sets new rules under which residents’ associations and other interested parties can take judicial reviews and stipulates that applicants for judicial review will have to demonstrate a “sufficient interest”, with NGOs, residents’ groups or other similar bodies expected to be incorporated as a company, have protection of the environment as part of its corporate constitution, have at least 10 members and to have passed a resolution authorising the bringing of proceedings.
Residents’ groups can still take proceedings but if they do not comply with these rules, they will have to sue individually or collectively under their own names.
“What this Bill presents is a significant erosion of the public’s right to access justice and participate fully in the Irish planning process,” Dr McGoff said, adding that An Taisce’s view was it was “primarily an appeasement of developers and a facilitation of developer-led planning.”
Attracta Uí Bhroin, environmental law officer of the Irish Environmental Network, said the group was “extremely concerned” about the changes to judicial review.
“In fact, they’re much worse than what was outlined in December. It’s going to cause delays rather than solving problems. There will be arguments about legitimacy and the lawfulness of what is being introduced,” she said.
Vincent P Martin, the Green Party Senator and senior counsel, warned there could be “no diminution of rights of access to the courts”.
The Bill will allow An Bord Pleanála – which will be renamed as An Coimisiún Pleanála – to correct an error of fact or law it made in a planning decision while a judicial review is in place.
It will introduce a range of reforms – many on a phased basis – which seek to alter the structure and process of planning in Ireland. Mandatory timelines for planning decisions will be introduced, along with penalties for the board when these are not met.
The Bill seeks to establish a new hierarchy of decision-making in planning, with alignment between lower-order plans and ministerial planning statements mandatory. Local development plans will be reshaped and their lifespan extended to 10 years, with more information made available to residents about what sort of development might be expected in a given area during the planning phase in an effort to move the focus away from when a planning application is made.
The expectation is that less litigation and fewer judicial reviews, which have been blamed for slowing down development of housing and other infrastructure, will follow. Local area plans will be replaced with specific types of area-based plans and expected to align to what officials call a “higher order plan” such as the local development plans.