The "chronic underresourcing" of local authority planning departments is the biggest challenge in the State's planning system, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
During an appearance before the Oireachtas housing committee on Thursday, Irish Planning Institute president Dr Conor Norton urged the Department of Housing and Local Government to prioritise "as a matter of urgency" the resourcing of local authority planning departments to ensure the smooth implementation of new planning legislation.
The Government plans to introduce a new Bill to streamline permissions for large-scale residential developments (LSRDs) that would return some decision-making to local authorities. The new Bill would replace the strategic housing development (SHD) legislation introduced in 2017 to speed up delivery of large housing schemes by allowing direct applications to the planning appeals authority, An Bord Pleanála. The regime has been heavily criticised for bypassing local authorities, and many SHD projects have faced judicial review actions in court.
Under the new proposals, the initial LSRD “pre-application” would be submitted to the local authority, entering into a time-bound consultation process with mandatory timelines for the authority to give its opinions.
The County and City Management Association "does not have difficulty" with the decision to implement time constraints on the pre-planning process, but it will require additional resources, said its representative Kevin Kelly, who is also the chief executive of Mayo County Council.
“Providing an on-demand service within these statutory timelines will be challenging . . . With additional funding in place I believe we could move quite quickly,” he told the Oireachtas housing committee.
Dr Norton said the Irish Planning Institute views the proposed measures as an "important and necessary step" in rebalancing the State's planning system towards competent local decision-making. However, he said the "chronic underresourcing" of council planning departments is the "single biggest challenge" facing planning in Ireland.
Robin Mandal, chair of the citizen-led Dublin Democratic Planning Alliance, told the committee the LSRD proposals will continue to alienate members of the public from the planning process. The previous fast-track regulations were brought in as a temporary emergency measure, but they were "patently a failure" and should not be replaced with a permanent version, he said.
Mr Mandal said there is “no connection between fast-track planning and the delivery of housing”. Compliance with planning regulations is the quickest route to development, he added.
Representatives of the construction sector, however, warned that a “concerning slowdown” in planning permissions is due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the risk, uncertainty and cost associated with the planning process were also at play.
Irish Home Builders Association director James Benson said the number of planning applications was down by 29 per cent in the first quarter of 2021 despite there being "pent-up demand" for housing.
He attributed much of the delay and abandonment of SHD schemes to the number of judicial reviews taken against them, as well as referrals to the European Court of Justice. He said some 75,000 potential family homes could be at risk as a result of judicial reviews and referrals.
Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on housing, Eoin Ó Broin, said lack of commencements of SHD projects was a “much bigger problem” than judicial reviews. While he said he would like to see the number of judicial reviews reduced, he believes that greater public participation at the pre-planning stage is beneficial.