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Irish regulator warns of ‘seriously overstretched’ council planning departments

Words: Roger Milne
Overstretched / iStock-1200786794

Many local authority planning departments are ‘seriously overstretched’, Ireland’s independent planning watchdog has warned.

That assessment by Niall Cussen is highlighted in the regulator’s latest annual report, which has just been published.

He notes that an overall headcount of technical and administrative working in planning authorities “is not yet readily available. As a result, it is difficult to determine the staffing resources dedicated to implementing the government’s planning policy and prevents making a comparison between planning authorities”.

But he stresses: “Anecdotal evidence is that many local authorities are seriously overstretched.”

The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) annual report also points out that planning application fees – last revised in 2001 – represented less than 30 per cent of the cost of running local authority’s planning and development functions.

Cussen states that the Covid-19 pandemic had thrown the issue of online council services into “sharp focus”.

He comments: “Delivery of an enhanced range of online planning services is under way but has been heavily delayed and this is a lesson to learn from and take into account from the resourcing perspective.

“A seamless online service from pre-application consultation to planning application and planning appeals and enforcement backed by an integrated ICT back-office support across the planning sector is long overdue,” Cussen insists.

“Given the performance of the planning process in overall terms, the above suggests a growing and urgent need to undertake a strategic workload and resource assessment. The OPR will be factoring this into its developing reviews programme.”

On a more encouraging note, the report says that over the OPR’s first full year of operation there were “significant” increases in both the scale of the regulator’s activities and “their impact in enhancing planning in Ireland”.

The pace of local authority development plan preparation grew markedly with the publication of 16 issues papers and seven draft development plans.

The report says: “Local authorities worked hard to review and update a backlog of plans. In total, we made 110 observations and 93 recommendations across 45 plans.

“The vast majority of our recommendations were implemented by local authorities pointing to better planning policy outcomes.

“We had only one ultimate case of a recommendation to the minister to use the statutory power to require a local authority to implement our recommendations, which the minister accepted.”

The report also points to an unprecedented level of training for planning for hundreds of local councillors.

In conjunction with the Association of Irish Local Government (AILG), the OPR both produced documentation and advice as well as organising five events attended by more than 600 elected members of local authorities.

In statistical terms the OPR says the total number of planning applications submitted in 2020 decreased marginally with just over 31,000 applications, but approval rates remained high.

“However, ensuring planning applications submitted by applicants meet legal requirements continues to be an issue across the country. Levels of applications declared invalid has been increasing each year from 2016 (14.3 per cent) to 17.1 per cent in 2020 and varies widely between individual planning authorities”.

The regulator was impressed by the number of new homes approved over 2020: a total of 44,538 residential units received planning permission. The report says that in the circumstances this represented a “remarkable increase of 13.5 per cent over 2019”.

Also on the statistical front, the report notes the surge in fast-track applications (126 schemes decided in 2020 compared with 82 in 2019), a 17 per cent fall in industrial and manufacturing floor space approvals, and a fall of 18.7 per cent in office floor space permissions. However, there was a 16 per cent increase in the trade sector.

The report also highlights a surge in legal challenges to decisions made by An Bord Pleanála, up by 74 per cent over the period between 2017 and 2020.

“However, the percentage of planning decisions that are subject of legal challenge, annually, remains very small (only 0.3 per cent in 2020) and only 0.07 per cent of decisions were overturned by the courts.”

Planning-related judicial reviews continue to primarily relate to the implementation of statutory requirements of EU environmental directives, such as those on environmental impact assessment (EIA), habitats and urban waste water.

Annual Report 2020 can be found here on the OPR website (pdf).

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