Legal challengers to housing developments given ‘free pass’

Changes may be needed on legal challenges to housing schemes, says planning board chief

A "free pass" is being given to those who seek to challenge planning approval given to housing developments in the courts, the chairman of An Bord Pleanála has told the Minister for Housing.

Dave Walsh, chair of An Bord Pleanála, the body which rules on planning appeals, said there had been an "upward trend" in the number of legal challenges against housing developments in recent years.

Mr Walsh told Minister Darragh O'Brien in a September 23rd email that under the current regime "a lot of parties are taking legal action on the expectation that they will not be liable for costs if they lose".

In contrast, he said the board was spending “huge amounts of money” on its legal defences against these challenges, an average of more than €3 million a year, with around 50 cases defended.


Mr Walsh said it was “right that people have access to the courts to seek to challenge decisions they consider to be flawed”, particularly when it came to environmental concerns.

“The upward trend in challenges and the ‘free pass’ that the courts are granting them around the very limited potential liability for our costs if we win the case would suggest that some clarifications and reforms are warranted,” he wrote.

Mr Walsh, a former assistant secretary general in the Department of Housing, said proposals for reforms in the area would “generate some debate and may divide people”.

Delays to developments while court hearings were awaited – in some cases running to “months or years” – were leading to major infrastructure projects being stalled, he said.

There was also a need for a better way to track how many new homes were being delivered than the numbers granted planning permission. “There seems to be a significant lag or lack of progress in activating the permitted developments and turning permissions into homes on the ground.”

Mr Walsh said a better method of tracking when building actually commenced on sites would allow officials to see if the system was tackling the demand for housing.

The correspondence was released to The Irish Times following a Freedom of Information act request.

Mr Walsh’s email outlined that he was giving his own thoughts on policy areas, which were “not formally cleared or endorsed by the board”.

Large projects

He also lobbied Mr O’Brien for some extension of the controversial Strategic Housing Development scheme beyond this year. The scheme allows planning applications for large projects of more than 100 houses or apartments to be fast-tracked in an attempt to bring more homes onto the market.

Developments under the scheme do not have to go to local authorities for planning permission, and instead are considered by An Bord Pleanála. The scheme was extended late last year until the end of this year.

Opposition politicians have criticised the scheme due to the low numbers of projects granted permission where construction has started.

Mr Walsh said he was aware of “ongoing reservations” from local councillors that the scheme “undermined” the ’ decision-making powers of local authorities.

He said that while the board recognised the temporary nature of the scheme it could be retained in a more limited form for very large developments of more than 300 or 400 homes.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is acting Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times