Local authorities to be assessed frequently, says planning regulator

Irish Planning Institute forum hears new watchdog’s intentions to tighten process

Niall Cussen is the State’s first planning regulator. People who do not co-operate with his office will be guilty of a criminal offence. Photograph: Alan Betson

Niall Cussen is the State’s first planning regulator. People who do not co-operate with his office will be guilty of a criminal offence. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Local authorities can expect to be assessed on their planning performance every five to 10 years under a new regime from the State’s first planning regulator.

Niall Cussen said the practices that had been examined by the Mahon (or planning) tribunal had marked a low point in public confidence in the planning system and it was “important that we keep that door firmly shut”.

Mr Cussen, this week officially appointed to the new office of Planning Regulator, was speaking at the Irish Planning Institute’s annual conference in Carrick-on-Shannon on Friday.

The world’s first independent planning regulator, who has been given roles previously held by the Minister, he made his first public address at the conference. While his appointment was announced some months ago, he was officially appointed this week.

The new regulator, whose office has a budget of €2.3 million for 2019, is the appropriate person to whom protected disclosures in the planning area should be made under the whistleblower legalisation, and he has the power to appoint authorised officers and inspectors. People who do not co-operate with the work of his office will be guilty of a criminal offence.

The regulator is responsible for assessing all local authority and regional assembly forward planning, including zoning decisions, and also has a function in relation to research and public education.

National policies

Over recent years, the Minister has been issuing approximately four directions a year to planning authorities who have been making decisions that do not comply with national policies, Mr Cussen said. “That is a signal that the process is not working correctly.”

He said there was a tendency for planning to become more and more contentious and litigious, and this was not unique to Ireland. He believed that better engagement with communities might help reduce the amount of objections that are occurring, and suggested that planners might reflect on what types of new engagement models could be designed.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of the Land Development Agency, John Coleman, told the conference he has been examining State-driven projects on continental Europe that used public and private land to provide large amounts of affordable housing.

He said he had recently had an interesting meeting with a listed German company that provides 400,000 affordable homes in Germany, in which the average length of tenancy is 13½ years.

Rental housing initiative

The State, he said, could play a key role in the provision of rental housing at less than the market rate. The housing could be developed using cheaper-than-market-price land, and cheap, long-term financing, and then letting it at a rate that covered the cost of its provision.

The agency had been “looking at the numbers” and thought that rental homes could be provided in this way at about 20-25 per cent below market rates, but that the interesting point was that the discount would widen over time.

The cost of such rental housing would only increase in line with increases in the cost of maintaining the housing, rather than the rate of increase in rental prices in the market.

The agency estimates the discount would grow to 31 per cent below market rates after 10 years, and 40 per cent after 20 years. The provision of such housing would add to the stability of the overall housing market, Mr Coleman said.

Initiatives aimed at providing affordable housing in continental Europe had worked well in part because of the use of cheap or nil-cost public land, but also because the State played a key role in implementing the overall plan. He suggested that Ireland could make more use of the strategic development zone model that had been used in the Dublin Docks.