Plan your objections well . . .


. . . or they might be declared invalid, writes Eden Morgan

Making a planning objection to a development can be more complicated than it first appears. If you don't want it sent back to you with "invalid" stamped across it in big letters, there are a few guidelines you need to follow.

Firstly, never underestimate the inflexibility of your local authority. If you don't follow procedure to the letter, you could lose the chance forever to object to the incinerator or towering monolith that is being proposed for over your back wall.

I recently heard about residents of an apartment block who decided to come out in force against a development attached to a nearby hotel. They submitted an objection to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council that was supported by 75 residents. Some put their name to a petition and the rest signed identical letters which were attached. The letters were returned by post having been deemed "invalid" because each letter was interpreted by the council as a separate objection and the required €20 fee per letter wasn't included. As the five-week period for objections had elapsed, the residents can't submit a new objection.

The result is that only some of the residents got to support the objection. The residents say their intention that the letters should be included in the group objection was made clear from the outset. Is this a case of bureaucracy gone mad? "It is a bureaucracy and you can call it that if you wish," replies Declan McCulloch, senior executive officer in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council's planning department. "You have to have rules and regulations and they have to be applied unambiguously across the board. We have no vested interest in discounting people's objections - why would we? We will take objections that are properly made."

He says that, even though the letters were sent back, "a myriad of people were making the same point and that point was taken on board. The nature of the objection has been noted and will be taken into account by the planner".

But what of residents' concerns that their submission will be diluted if there are less names? "It doesn't work like that," insists McCulloch. "If there were no objections at all, the planning authority is obliged to look for certain things, like overlooking, density and excessive scale."

McCulloch says these rules are in place to protect the public. "Yes, you can say that there are failings and flaws and that people in the council should use their cop on, but they're sometimes not allowed to use their cop on. There's no room for flexibility, because we could be the subject of a judicial review. There are people only waiting in the wings to say that we registered individual letters without the €20 fee."

Some appear to have a more flexible interpretation of the regulations than others. Dublin City Council, for example, says that if the same situation arose in its jurisdiction it would probably accept the letters as part of a single group objection "if it was made clear from the outset that was the intention".

Whether it's down to stringent bureaucracy or an error on the part of the objector, submitting an objection on the last day of the five-week period can be risky. Brian Kirk, an administrative officer in Dublin City Council, says the two main reasons submissions are declared "invalid" is because there's no fee attached or it's sent in late.

He admits the council deal with objections as "a fairly black and white issue, anything the day after that we are obliged to return". And it appears that no amount of throwing shapes at the planning desk and protesting that your unreliable neighbour was supposed to drop it in on time is going to cut ice. Kirk says, as well as submitting the objection in good time, it's important to put your phone number and email address on the submission - as well as your name and address and the reference number of the development you are objecting to - so the local authority can contact you if you've made an omission.

When I put it to him that maybe some people leave it to the last day because they are suspicious of developers, he agrees there is a "distrust of developers and people tend to believe they are trying to pull a fast one. But I don't think that's generally the reason they leave it till the last minute, it's usually pressure of time".

He says that, while the quantity of objections to a development can carry a certain amount of weight, "the bottom line is the quality. The bigger the development the more people it is going to effect but, if you have 100 people sending in objections with no real valid planning arguments and 10 making submissions that are detailed and relevant, the latter will carry more weight".

He recommends that individuals should consider making their own objection, separate to that of the local residents' group. "It means you have a right to appeal the planning authority's decision independently because the residents' group mightn't want to."

Is it a good idea to hire a planning consultant to formulate your argument? "It's hard to judge. They won't come cheap and it depends on how complex the case is. For smaller developments, I'd say there's no real advantage - people should be able to put down their concerns in their own words."

I asked a planning consultant if residents' groups really hold much sway in the planning process. "It depends on the strength of the planning argument," he said. "If the argument stacks up, it will be heard but, if it's fatuous, emotional and ill-conceived, it won't. Sometimes people get upset by change and object to developments that are acceptable in planning terms."