Planning regulator declines council invite to discuss build-to-rent orders

Niall Cussen concerned Dublin City Council meeting could spur requests from others

Planning regulator Niall Cussen has declined an invitation to a Dublin City Council meeting to explain his office’s orders on build-to-rent (BTR) schemes in the city.

The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) has clashed with the council and chief executive Owen Keegan over the council's plans for BTR restrictions in the upcoming city development plan.

Councillors, senior planners and Mr Keegan have said the limits are needed to curb the unsustainable dominance of BTR applications in the city.

Deputy planning regulator Anne Marie O’Connor earlier this year told the council to remove policies from the draft development plan requiring 40 per cent of build-to-rent apartments to be larger than stipulated under ministerial guidelines. The council was also ordered not to block the development of small build-to-rent schemes of fewer than 100 apartments.

In response to the regulator’s submission, council chief executive Owen Keegan said the “over-dominance” of BTR schemes in Dublin has become “unsustainable” with the potential to have “significant long-term adverse impacts on the housing needs of the city”.

He recommended councillors press ahead with restrictions on the build-to-rent schemes in the new city development plan.

Councillors earlier this month agreed to write to Mr Cussen requesting his attendance, or that of a representative, at a council meeting to explain his opposition to the BTR curbs.

However, Mr Cussen said this would likely spark a flurry of similar requests from other local authorities.

In a letter to Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland, he wrote: "You will appreciate that to be fair to the sector, if we were to facilitate one authority's request for attendance at a special meeting, facilitating likely other requests from all 31 local authorities would be very difficult for us to manage given our day to day work commitments within a small team."

Training had already been provided for councillors on the workings of the OPR and “the statutory duties of planning authorities and their members, including the taking account of our recommendations”, he said.

Two further in-person training sessions would be available in mid-June, he said, which city councillors would be “more than welcome to attend”.

He also offered to provide written clarification on any specific procedural aspects of the development plan process.

Fine Gael councillor James Geoghegan, who had initially sought the meeting with Mr Cussen, said his response to the council was "extraordinary" and unacceptable.

“It is entirely irrelevant and a trivial explanation from the OPR to say they will not grant the request of the elected members because they are fearful other requests from other local authorities might be forthcoming. Development plans come around once every five years and the OPR was only established in April 2019.”

It would be wise, Mr Geoghegan said, for Mr Cussen to avail of the opportunity to avoid a situation similar to the one which occurred in Cork where the county council took High Court action against a ministerial direction made on the advice of the OPR in relation to its development plan. The council won its case which is now subject to an appeal.

“It is unthinkable that the OPR would not avail of the opportunity to explain its recommendations to elected members, as well as city managers, where there are clear disagreements and different interpretations at the earliest possible opportunity.

“This could avoid a scenario where Dublin City Council could be forced to follow the path of Cork County Council costing the taxpayer even more money,” Mr Geoghegan said.

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly is Dublin Editor of The Irish Times