That the Government has allowed so many potential new homes to remain stuck in the planning system is simply mind-boggling. More than 22,000 homes on strategic sites remain stuck in the process due to a backlog at An Bord Pleanála, with projects already waiting an average of 79 weeks for a decision by the board, which is meant to make its determinations within 16 weeks. With judicial reviews certain to follow in many cases, we will be lucky to see ground broken on many of these developments until 2025, at the very earliest.
The projects in question involve applications under the Strategic Housing Development (SHD) system for apartments, homes and student accommodation. The SHD system, under which applications on strategic sites could be made directly to An Bord Pleanála, was scrapped last year to be replaced by a reformed process. But 58 applications involving 22,135 homes remain stuck in the pipeline. These include about 15,000 apartments and more than 4,200 houses, while the rest are duplex units and student accommodation.
As well as the change in the planning process, there has also, of course, been significant upheaval at An Bord Pleanála, with former deputy chairman Paul Hyde resigning in July 2022. Earlier this month he received a suspended prison sentence for failing to declare personal interests to the board. With the then chairman taking early retirement later in 2022, there was a significant delay in decision-making.
Some delay was, perhaps , inevitable, but was allowed to persist for too long, leading to a build-up in the pipeline. Following the provision of new resources, the board says it hopes for “improvement in compliance with statutory time objectives” to begin to become evident next year.
An Bord Pleanála is due to be renamed An Coimisiún Pleanála as part of a shake-up of the planning system, under new planning legislation to be brought in next year. The Bill, which aims to speed up and simplify the planning system, is essential. But progress has been slow and it has also met some criticism from planning experts.
In its remaining period in office, this Government thus faces two tasks in the planning arena. One is to steer through new legislation which will genuinely reform the planning process. Beset by objections and delays, the current system is simply not fit for purpose.
The second is to ensure that the whole system is properly resourced and operational – from planning bodies to local authorities to the courts. It is not acceptable to be pouring many hundreds of millions of State cash into housing policy while this point of failure persists. Unless it is tackled, housing policy will continue to lag behind and many vital renewable energy projects will remain stuck in the starting blocks.