Complaints to State’s planning regulator double in 2020

Niall Cussen says local authority planning departments are seriously under-resourced

Niall Cussen says it is becoming quite clear   the degree to which local authorities are ‘very, very hard stretched at the moment’. Photograph: Alan Betson

Niall Cussen says it is becoming quite clear the degree to which local authorities are ‘very, very hard stretched at the moment’. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Significant investment in the planning system is required to ease the burden on “very, very hard stretched” local authorities, the State’s planning regulator, Niall Cussen, has said.

Planning fees had not increased in 20 years, Mr Cussen said, and were covering “only a small proportion” of the costs of operating the planning system.

“It costs €65 to make a planning application for one house”, while the administrative costs alone of processing an application were “many multiples of that”, he said.

“One thing that is becoming quite clear to us is the degree to which local authorities are very, very hard stretched at the moment” and there were “strong signals that local authority planning departments are seriously under-resourced”.

The public should not have to “bear the burden of increased investment; it should be the people who use the service who effectively pay for that”, he said.

Mr Cussen was speaking on the publication of the annual report of the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) which found the number of complaints made about the State’s planning system more than doubled last year.

While 119 complaints were received, up from 54 in 2019, only 19 were investigated by the regulator, with a total of three upheld.

Mr Cussen said 100 complaints were deemed invalid because they related to issues outside the remit of the OPR.

Many of the complaints related to “individual planning matters more appropriate to planning appeals or enforcement at local authority level” and were “not relevant to our role in looking at overall systems in local authorities”, Mr Cussen said.

The report notes a significant increase in legal challenges to the planning process. Between 2017 and 2020, the number of legal cases brought against decisions of An Bord Pleanála increased by 74 per cent. While the percentage of planning decisions that are subject of legal challenge annually “remains very small”, Mr Cussen said it was “obviously a concern when citizens feel they have to recourse to law to challenge planning decisions”.

Newer policies

City and county development plans had not yet been updated to reflect newer Government policies. “I think it has been very difficult for the board in its decision-making process where it’s dealing with plans which might be out of date vis-a-vis a very rapidly changing policy context.”

The OPR evaluated 45 local authority plans last year compared with 25 in 2019. A total of 203 recommendations and observations were made to local authorities, up from 47 in 2019.

Of the plans assessed by the OPW, 18 were last year adopted by local authorities. Of the 24 recommendations issued in respect of these plans, all but one, a recommendation to Cork County Council, had been substantially addressed by the final stage of the planning process, Mr Cussen said.

In February of last year the OPR issued a draft direction to the Minister for Housing recommending he use his statutory powers to compel Cork County Council to reverse its decision to change its development plan to provide for a €100 million retail “outlet centre” in the east of the county.

The Minister issued the direction to the council. The council has this year initiated a High Court action against the Minister’s decision.

“Encouragingly, local authorities implemented the vast majority of our recommendations in those plans which were adopted in 2020,” Mr Cussen said. “We only had to issue one recommendation to the Minister, which related to the proposed development of a large out-of-town retail outlet by Cork County Council. This points to better planning outcomes and ultimately the creation of more liveable and sustainable communities.”

A total of 44,538 residential units received planning permission in 2020, a 13.5 per cent increase on 2019.

Dublin and its surrounds dominated in the level of homes approved, at 74 per cent (32,867 homes) of the national figure, up from 64 per cent (25,673 homes) in 2019. Almost 64 per cent of all homes approved in the eastern region area were located within the four Dublin local authorities.

There needed to be a realisation the “old model of building almost exclusively two storeys, front and back gardens, with everything based on car transport” was “a busted flush as regards climate and other environmental policies”, Mr Cussen said.