Landmark planning legislation may not be passed by Oireachtas until 2024

Green Party TD Steven Matthews, chair of Oireachtas housing committee, says he is ‘reserving judgment’ on legislation over concerns about citizens’ rights being ‘watered down’

Minister for Housing Darragh O'Brien said the legislation 'actually helps give access to justice'. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos

The chair of the Oireachtas housing committee has indicated he is reserving judgment on landmark planning legislation approved by the Cabinet, warning against any potential “watering down” of citizen’s rights in the final version.

The planning and development bill has not yet been published, with Green Party TD Steven Matthews saying on Tuesday that the “devil is in the detail”. Mr Matthews’ committee conducted extensive pre-legislative scrutiny on the draft bill earlier this year, making 153 recommendations in its final report

While he indicated that an outline of the bill published by the Government suggested many of the recommendations had been adopted, he added: “The devil’s in the detail – there’s a difference between the guide and what’s written down in the legislation.”

The final bill is expected in the next two weeks, with focus likely to come on whether access to judicial review has been curtailed, a key bone of contention for some backbench greens and environmental groups.


“I’m hoping to see they took on the concerns we had about not restricting access to judicial review,” Mr Matthews said, with particular emphasis on whether the legislation is compliant with citizen’s rights to participation as governed by the UN Aarhus convention. “Nobody would be happy with anything that undermines Aarhus – across the board,” he said. The Aarhus Convention is an international agreement that gives people the right to access information about the environment.

Launching the bill, which has been criticised by some in Government and some environmental groups, the Coalition insisted that communities and individuals will not see their rights to object to planning applications curtailed under the legislation agreed at Cabinet on Tuesday morning.

Speaking after Cabinet, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the reforms would see fewer vexatious cases being taken, arguing that important housing and infrastructure projects were being delayed with the costs landing on the taxpayer and those in need of services and housing.

It is among the largest pieces of legislation ever put forward, with the Coalition promising it will overhaul the planning system and make it fit for purpose, as well as reducing the number of judicial reviews of planning decisions being taken – and speeding up those that are pursued.

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien said residents’ associations would still be able to take judicial reviews – although they must have a vote passed by two thirds of members casting a ballot, as well as other hurdles such as having a Constitution underpinning the association.

“That in my view actually helps give access to justice,” Mr O’Brien said, adding that planned environmental courts and a new scheme to meet the costs of taking a legal case and safeguards for the place of environmental Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) would also safeguard participation.

Describing the bill as “well balanced”, he said: “Central to that is individuals and indeed groups having their right to have their say.”

The legislation may not be passed by the Oireachtas until next year, he added. It will take “certainly until the end of the year, if not into early next year, to get the legislation passed through the Dáil”.

Mr O’Brien said the legislation was “for the future” and was designed with the next 20 to 25 years in mind, rather than making an immediate tangible difference on the ground. He said greater investment in planning authorities and reform of the planning courts would come on stream beforehand.

The Government has promised that a new Environmental Legal Costs Scheme will not be “prohibitively expensive”, but while it has signalled the level of contribution to costs from the scheme could be up to 100 per cent, the bill will not set out exactly what level they will be paid out or if litigants will be asked to meet them upfront and then claim them back.

Minister for the Environment and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, who has faced opposition in his party to aspects of the bill, conceded there have been concerns and that there may be more to come, but said the legislation was needed for environmental justice and to deliver on climate targets.

He said the level of costs would be sketched out in secondary legislation that would be drawn up as the primary legislation works its way through the house. He promised there would be increased support for An Bord Pleanála – which will be renamed An Comisiún Pleanála under the bill – and local authorities. He said a “bigger state” was one of the objectives he had set for the budget and that this would be reflected in investment in the planning system.

The bill will introduce new deadlines for decisions by An Bord Pleanála, as well as the possibility of fines for not complying with them. However, there is no clarity on exactly when the system of fines will come online or what level they will be at.

In a joint statement, Community Law & Mediation and Environmental Justice Network Ireland, said they were “disappointed that the bill has proceeded to Cabinet without any prior inclusive public consultation, indicating a weak commitment to genuine democracy”.

“This is a thread that runs through the currently available version of the Bill, which seeks to reduce local participation and silence local and NGO voices in the planning process, with little regard for the obligations of EU and International law,” it said.

“Community and residents’ groups play a vital role in helping make their neighbourhoods a better place to live. While we welcome the fact that unincorporated associations such as residents’ groups will continue be able to take a judicial review, the intention behind plans to ‘streamline’ the process appears to be to deter these groups from doing so.”

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times