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Ireland’s planning regulator warns that urban sprawl is not yet under control

Words: Roger Milne
Housebuilding / iStock

Ireland’s planning system is failing to contain the sprawl of major urban areas, warns the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR).

The alert came in the OPR’s first annual report, just published. It highlights that in 2019, 55 per cent of all houses in the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly area were permitted in the four commuter counties outside of Dublin (Kildare, Louth, Meath and Wicklow).

The planning watchdog says: “This poses a challenge to the government’s planning objectives in tackling the sprawl of major urban areas, including Dublin.”

However, the regulator acknowledges that approvals for flats, a key element of sustainable urban development, exceeded housing for the first time last year. This, it said, was influenced by the fast-track planning regime for major residential schemes, revised national guidance and the government’s National Planning Framework.

The report notes that the Covid-19 outbreak has demonstrated that much-delayed new planning services such as an online application and submission system “needed fresh impetus and investment”.

It adds: “This may also require a review of existing planning fees which have been in place since 2001 resulting in only €24 million of income in 2018 to planning authorities against a cost of providing all planning services of €140m.”

The report reveals that at least 32,000 planning applications were submitted to local authorities in 2019. “While there were variations in the levels of invalid planning applications, almost 90 per cent of valid planning applications were approved.”

The OPR says during 2019 the response to climate change was increasingly felt with “significant approvals for renewable energy in terms of wind and solar energy”.

Planning approvals of industrial and manufacturing development proposals doubled last year. The report says that along with the substantial increase in permissions granted in the tourism and recreational development sector, this “underscored the importance of the planning process to economic recovery and progress”.

Last year the watchdog assessed and evaluated 25 local authority statutory plan stages. All recommendations made by the OPR relating to the 11 statutory plans adopted by local authorities in 2019 were implemented.

The OPR held training seminars on the planning process in 2019, which were attended by 225 elected members of local authorities. It also formed a National Planning Knowledge Group to guide the regulator’s research and public awareness programmes, and developed a free online planning library service. This provides easy-to-access information on planning documents, research papers and resources.

Planning regulator Niall Cussen said: “The OPR is operating at a time when the planning process will play a central role in how our cities, towns and villages develop.

“This is because over the next six years we will evaluate close to 200 draft plans from around the country to measure how well they align with existing planning policy and regulatory requirements with a view to ensuring that the plan provides for the proper planning and sustainable development of the area concerned.”

Image credit | iStock