Dublin People

No role for citizens in the planning process

Tom Fahey

IN RECENT times the experience of individual citizens and community groups in the planning process is one of frustration and disappointment.

Residents’ associations and individuals feel that their views and suggestions, no matter how well thought out and sensible, are ignored by the Planning departments of local authorities and Bord Pleanala.

The government also regard the involvement of individual citizens and associations as a necessary nuisance and appear to be determined to restrict the rights of individuals to make observations on or to influence the planning process as much as possible.

The process of restricting the right of citizens to influence the planning process was started by the then housing Minister Simon Coveney in 2016 with the passage of the 2016 Planning Act which enabled developers to apply directly to An Bord Pleanala for permission to develop projects of greater than 100 housing units (the so-called Strategic Housing Development Legislation).

This Act removed Local Authorities from the decision-making process and removed any possibility of an appeal against An Bord Pleanála’s decision except via the High Court which is outside the ability of most individual citizens due to the prohibitive costs involved.

Yet the number of court challenges rose significantly as a result of the 2016 Act. This created a crisis in An Bord Pleanala.

Right now, it appears to most people who engage in the process that the government and planners regard them as a nuisance and the process of submitting so called observations is somewhat of a cynical exercise to give the impression that Joe Citizen has some role in the process when in reality their views are rarely given any consideration.

Why was this done?

This change was driven by developers and some TDS who argued that allowing appeals against the decisions of local authorities slowed the ability of the industry to deliver on the urgent need to build more houses and apartments.

The result of this change to the law has not had the desired effect.

It has significantly increased the number of legal challenges to projects which local people had issues with. And not without significant success in preventing some major projects about which the objectors had major concerns, going ahead.

There was no compelling reason to bypass local authority planners, as it has done nothing to speed up the planning process.

An Bord Pleanála was clearly not equipped to deal with the massive increase in large and complex housing developments that require local planning expertise.

Government’s response.

Pre 2016 all planning applications were required to be decided a local authority and An Bord Pleanala was the appeal body to which project promoters and objectors could appeal to if they were dissatisfied with the decision of a local authority.

The 2016 Act removed local authorities for the decision-making process for projects of 100 units or greater.

In April of this year the government announced plans to introduce legislation to radically restrict the grounds on which a judicial review can be taken against An Bord Pleanala.

Around that time serious issues were raised about the process which the board used to allocate planning files came to light and resulted in a major controversy, the resignation of a senior official and the prosecution of that individual.

With the current chaos surrounding the board people have lost confidence in the board and consequently in the whole planning process.

It is essential that people have full confidence in the planning process and if the policy of exclusion continues to be implemented it will inevitably be resisted by all democratic means possible.

Transparency and fairness are the bedrock of any democracy and is enshrined in European law. Trust in the planning system is vital and there appears to be a serious lack of trust in the planning system at present.

Restricting the rights of citizens access to the courts and to engage with the planning process will surely result in further legal challenges to the European Court of Human Rights.

Under European law, the system has to be fair, equitable and not prohibitively expensive.

A planning process which respects the rights of all stakeholders, especially those of people living close to planned developments and future residents of these developments, is essential in a modern democracy.

To achieve this aim local authorities must be resourced and empowered to enforce the rules and regulations around building developments.

If such a system existed prior to planning permission being granted for the controversial Oatlands development in Cherrygarth and the Park West development fire safety issues covered here last week it is probable that such issues could be avoided.

This requires a major shift in the mindset of politicians and local authority managements.

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