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How should Ireland’s planning system be reformed?

The Planning and Development Bill 2023, which was voted through the Dáil last week, is intended to streamline the planning process. But critics say Ireland’s planning system needs more imaginative reform

A 3D model shows buildings in Tokyo, whereas Irish plans consist of voluminous text and complex, coloured maps which are difficult to understand. Photograph: Richard A Brooks/AFP via Getty Images

Tony Reddy: 3D models give a sense of ownership and allow for more meaningful debate

The Irish planning system is broken and dysfunctional: community representatives, developers, politicians, architects and planners are frustrated due to the issues arising with many residential planning proposals. This needs to be addressed if we are to meet the challenges of our projected population growth of one million additional people and 1-1.5 million new homes by 2050.

Our planning structure, based on the bureaucratic English model, is a discretionary laissez-faire system. However, it is to EU planning systems that our legislators should look when it comes to finalising the Planning and Development Act 2024.

The significant difference between the two approaches is in the format of development plans. Irish plans consist of voluminous text and complex, coloured maps which are difficult to understand. By contrast, in most European countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and Spain, city and town plans are presented in model, 3D and CGI format which are easy to comprehend.

One of the most impressive features of planning practice in European cities and towns is the sense of ownership of the city or town vision by all. This ownership is generally embraced by all parties across the political spectrum; it is their plan, and they are proud to explain it to citizens and visitors.

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The most important lessons to be learned from best-practice exemplars of European urbanism whether by a city planning department, as in Aarhus, Copenhagen, Freiberg, Gothenburg, Helsinki, Malaga or Stockholm, or a dedicated public agency as in Hamburg, Leipzig or the Dutch Vinex towns, is that the key to success is a well-staffed, well-led planning office with dedicated personnel who have the professional competence to prepare urban masterplans and engage in complex arrangements for implementation with both the private sector and community groups. The preparation of 3D models is essential to this process.

These describe the city’s elements in considerable detail, including street layouts, buildings and open spaces, and the height and massing of individual building blocks.

There is growing recognition among the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI), Irish Planning Institute (IPI), Property Industry Ireland (PII) and other bodies that the Planning Bill, which was recently voted through by the Dáil, should require the development plans, local area plans, special development zones or urban development zones, be in written, map and 3D format (CGIs and models). This would facilitate community engagement, briefing and consultation. On publication, concerned parties should be able to appeal any aspect of the plan to An Coimisiún Pleanála with a final determination of the development plan having the status of a planning permission.

Following completion of the appeals process and the issue of a grant of planning permission for the development plan, all future planning applications which comply with the approved 3D development plan would be automatically approved and be exempt from further planning appeals.

A century from now, when we are long passed and forgotten, future generations will be living with the consequences of decisions and actions made today for our cities and towns.

By moving away from the existing Irish discretionary planning system to the adoption of EU best practice, citizens, local representatives, architects, planners, builders and developers can reach a common understanding of, and commitment to, a shared planned future for our cities and towns that addresses the challenges facing 21st-century Ireland.

Tony Reddy is a chairman of Reddy Architecture + Urbanism, a director of PII and a former director of the Academy of Urbanism, and a former president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland

Robin Mandal: Narrative that the electorate slows down development is untrue

Last week, the Planning and Development Bill 2023 was rushed through the Report Stage in the Dáil. All debate on it was stopped on Wednesday, when it was “guillotined”. This happened in spite of a report from the Aarhus Compliance Committee expressing concerns at some of its contents.

But it is not too late for us to make changes to the way that we approach planning so that we comply with our obligations under the Aarhus Convention.

The now discredited Strategic Housing Development (SHD) process neutered local planning authorities, making An Bord Pleanála (ABP) the sole decider of these planning applications. No appeal was allowed against those decisions. This exclusion of the citizen from the planning process was undemocratic and against the principles of subsidiarity, participation, common good, proper governance and common sense. Predictably, many of these decisions by ABP were to be challenged in the courts.

Specific Planning Policy Requirement (SPPRs), introduced in 2015, spread like a virus, giving the minister of the day absolute power over the local planning. Provided a developer could tick boxes, development plans of areas had to be overruled. As well as being an anti-democratic centralisation of power, the results led to unexpected planning decisions. Some, such as co-living and lower standard Build-to-Rent, have since been removed, but the centralised power of the minister remains.

We saw the results of these interventions in planning – universally accepted as being the result of pressure from the development lobby – as being contrary to proper planning and sustainable development. They removed any restrictions on development contained in development plans, such as height, housing type and mix, and space standards – private and public – among other criteria such as site coverage and plot ratio, which control density. The result was random eruptions of over-scaled pustules on the faces of our cities and suburbs.

Before developers understood how much they could contravene development plans, we saw the poor outcomes of this “regulatory capture”. It was the extreme contraventions that led to the challenges through the judicial review process – the only avenue open to hold to account the absolute power given to An Bord Pleanála.

The Planning Bill was recently railroaded through the Oireachtas, having been promised to be enacted at a recent construction conference “come hell or high water”. The Bill will further disempower local government; centralise power even more to the minister; and restrict access to judicial review. It will reinforce instability in the planning process, resulting in poor social outcomes.

The narrative that the electorate slows down development is untrue. What slows down development is uncertainty and unpredictability. These are beneficial for speculative profit, nothing else. We believe the solution is to have robust development plans produced by local planning authorities, which set out what development will be permitted on any given site. As Tony Reddy writes, the best method is to have 3D models of our cities, towns and villages including models of the outlines of development that will be permitted.

This means any proposals could simply be dropped into the model for compliance. It would remove any uncertainty and allow our planners to plan our places, rather than spending their time assessing unpredictable planning applications. It would allow development plans to be agreed at the plan stage by local planning authorities, with proper public participation.

By removing the present uncertainty and unpredictability, it would get community support, allow for infrastructure on properly planned development and, once and for all, replace the current site-by-site discretionary system with one that would be fit for the future. It could easily be done within the remit of a suitably consolidated Planning Act 2000.

Robin Mandal is an architect, former president of the RIAI and former director of RMA Architecture. He is the chairman of the Dublin Democratic Planning Alliance. He is the speaker of An Taisce and a vice-president of the ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on Aerospace Heritage.

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