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About The Office of the Planning Regulator

Introduction

The Office of the Planning Regulator has a range of functions, including:

  • independent assessment of all local authority and regional assembly forward planning, including the zoning decisions of local authority members in local area and development plans;
  • conducting reviews of the organisation, systems and procedures used by any planning authority or An Bord Pleanála in the performance of any of their planning functions under the Planning and Development Act 2000 (as amended), including risks of corruption and on foot of individual complaints from members of the public; and
  • driving national research, education and public information programmes to highlight the role and benefit of planning.

In performing its functions, OPR will take into account the objective of contributing to proper planning and sustainable development and the optimal functioning of planning under the Planning and Development Act, as amended.

General functions of the OPR

Section 31P of the Act above broadly provides for the following functions:

  • to conduct research, including research at the request of the Minister and to arrange education and training programmes in planning;
  • to review the performance of the functions by the Board and planning authorities;
  • to oversee the delivery of effective planning services to the public by planning authorities;
  • to report annually on the performance of its own functions;
  • to prepare a strategy statement;
  • to make any observations, as appropriate, in relation to planning legislation, guidelines or guidance, and directive or directions issued by the Minister; and
  • additional functions as may be specified in Ministerial Order.

OPR’s functions in detail

Statutory Plans and Strategies Evaluation and Assessment

The statutory evaluation, assessment and observation function of the Minister prior to 3rd April 2019 on development plans, variations of development plans, local area plans and regional spatial and economic strategies is now being undertaken by the OPR although the Minister will remain a statutory consultee.

In cases where a plan or strategy is not consistent with observations and recommendations of the OPR and not be in accordance with the proper planning and sustainable development of the area, the OPR will inform the Minister and may recommend the use of Ministerial powers to rectify the matter.

The OPR will submit observations and recommendations at all stages of the development plan preparation process to the relevant planning authority and submit copies to the Minister.

The Chief Executive’s report prepared for the elected members in respect of the relevant stages of the development planning process will summarise the issues, outline recommendations and will be web-published. The relevant regional assembly will send a copy of any observations or submissions it makes to a planning authority at all statutory stages of the plan making process to the OPR. A planning authority is then required to notify the OPR (within 5 working days) where, in the opinion of the Chief Executive, the planning authority made the plan in such a manner as to be inconsistent with any observations or recommendations made by the OPR, and state the reasons for the decision of the planning authority.

In the case of the OPR’s assessment of regional spatial and economic strategies, the OPR will submit observations and recommendations at all stages of the regional spatial and economic strategy process to the relevant regional assembly and submit copies to the Minister.

The Report of the Regional Assembly Director, prepared for the members in respect of the relevant stages of the regional strategy process, will:

  • summarise the issues raised in the submissions / recommendations made by OPR;
  • outline the recommendations of the Director in relation to the manner in which those issues and recommendations should be addressed, taking account of the National Spatial Strategy and the long-term strategic planning framework for the development of the region or regions, as the case may be, in respect of which it is made, in accordance with the principles of proper planning and sustainable development; and
  • be made available on the website of the regional assembly. A regional assembly shall notify the OPR where, in the opinion of its Director, the regional assembly made the strategy in such a manner as to be inconsistent with any observations or recommendations made by the OPR, and state the reasons for the decision of the regional assembly.

Where the OPR is of the opinion that the plan or strategy as made is not in compliance with the Planning Act, and is inconsistent with the National Planning Framework and the long-term strategic planning framework for the development of the region or regions, the OPR will (within 4 weeks of the making of the strategy) issue a notice to the Minister with recommendations and that the Minister uses his/her powers of ministerial direction to ensure the plan or strategy sets out a long-term strategic planning framework for the development of the region in accordance with the principles of proper planning and sustainable development and include providing a draft direction. A copy of the notice issued to the Minister will be made available on the website of the OPR.

In a scenario where the Minister disagrees with the notice from the OPR, the Minister must state his or her reasons and lay such reasons before the Houses of the Oireachtas and make the stated reasons available on the Department’s website. In addition, a copy of the Minister’s stated reasons will be copied to the OPR and the relevant planning authority and made available on the website of the OPR and of the relevant planning authority. Alternatively, where the Minister agrees with the notice of the OPR, the Minister will proceed to issue the draft direction under section 31 of the Planning and Development Act taking account of the draft direction submitted by the OPR. The Act sets out the detailed procedures that ensue.

Planning Authority Review

The OPR has the power to carry out reviews at its own behest or at the instigation of the Minister.

The reviews that the OPR may carry out relate to the systems and procedures used in the performance of functions under the Planning and Development Act of a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála.

An authorised person may be appointed by the OPR for the purposes of a review (such as an externally sourced expert). The planning authority under review, the Board or the Minister may make a submission or observation on a draft review report received from the OPR and the OPR has to review any submission of observations made before finalising a review report which has to be published on the OPR website. A recommendation relating to a planning authority in the review report may include a recommendation that the Minister consider exercising his or her function under the following:

  • to issue section 28 guidelines;
  • to issue a section 29 policy directive;
  • to give a directive under subsection 255(2); and
  • to appoint a Commissioner under subsection 255(4) to carry out and have full responsibility for all or any one or more of the functions of the planning authority concerned.

A review may be requested by the Minister where he/she has formed the opinion that a planning authority:

  • may not be carrying out its functions in accordance with the requirements under this Act;
  • is not in compliance with guidelines issued under section 28, a directive issued under section 29, or a direction issued under section 31;
  • may be applying inappropriate standards of administrative practice or otherwise contrary to fair or sound administration in the conduct of its functions;
  • may be applying systemic discrimination in the conduct of its functions;
  • may be operating in a manner whereby there is impropriety or risks of corruption in the conduct of its functions; or
  • may be operating in a manner whereby there are serious diseconomies or inefficiencies in the conduct of its functions.

Complaints function

The OPR may also examine complaints made by any person to the Office or where requested by the Minister in respect of a planning authority where such complaint relates to the organisation of the planning authority and of the systems and procedures used by it in relation to the performance of its functions under the Act.

Where the OPR has formed the opinion, having carried out a preliminary examination of such a complaint, that a full examination of the complaint would be warranted and the planning authority concerned:

  • may not be carrying out its functions in accordance with the Act;
  • is not in compliance with guidelines, a directive or a direction;
  • may be applying inappropriate standards of administrative practice or otherwise contrary to fair or sound administration;
  • may be applying systemic discrimination;
  • may be operating in a manner whereby there is impropriety or the risk of corruption or there are serious diseconomies or inefficiencies in the conduct of its functions;

the OPR will then prepare a report on this preliminary examination, which may include its recommendation as to the further course of action, and submit the report to the planning authority or the Minister or to both, or to one or more of the following:

  • the Ombudsman;
  • the Standards in Public Office Commission;
  • the Garda Síochána; and
  • such other State authority as may be prescribed.

The recommendation by the OPR may also include a recommendation that the Minister consider exercising his or her functions on:

  • issuing guidelines, a policy directive or directive under the Planning Act; or
  • to appoint a Commissioner under Section 255(4) of the Act to carry out and have full responsibility for all or any one or more of the functions of the planning authority under the Planning Act.

The OPR may also, having carried out a preliminary examination, decide not to carry out a full examination or, in the circumstances outlined below, not conduct a preliminary examination or to discontinue one, where:

  • the complaint cannot be substantiated or is trivial/vexatious;
  • the person making the complaint, or the person in respect of whom the complaint was made, does not appear to have any interest in the subject matter;
  • the person making the complaint has not taken reasonable steps to pursue the matter with the planning authority in question or has not exhausted the appeal/review procedures available; and
  • legal proceedings have been initiated in respect of the matter.

Education and research function

The OPR also has powers to conduct education and training programmes for members of planning authorities and regional assemblies and members of staff of these authorities in respect of their roles and matters relating to proper planning and sustainable development.

The OPR will also conduct research in relation to matters relevant to its functions and these activities will be outlined in the OPR’s Annual Report.

Niall Cussen: Short Biography

Niall is the Chief Executive and Planning Regulator at the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) established by Government in April 2019.

The OPR’s functions are to oversee the effective delivery of planning services by planning authorities, including implementation of national and regional policies.

Prior to his appointment Niall was Chief Planner at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government from July 2014 and he worked in the Department from January 2000 prior to that.

Niall was responsible for leading the Department’s Forward Planning Section and its professional and multi-disciplinary planning team in the development of legislation and all Government policy relating to planning and related matters, including the National Planning Framework as part of Project Ireland 2040 alongside the National Development Plan.

Prior to joining the Department in 2000, Niall had an extensive planning career working for local authorities in Clare, Meath and Dublin City Council and An Bord Pleanála.

Niall holds qualifications in economics and geography, regional and urban planning and environmental engineering from Maynooth University, University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin respectively and is both a member and a past President of the Irish Planning Institute.

Review the organisation and the systems and procedures applied by planning authorities in the performance of their planning functions under the Act, assessing whether:

decisions were made in accordance with planning legislation, planning guidelines or policy directives issued by the Minister;

• any form of systemic discrimination is applied in making planning decisions;

• the procedures operated give rise to any potential corruption risks, and

• whether appropriate standards of administration are being applied.

The OPR’s Strategy Statement 2019-2024 was published in October 2019, in accordance with Section 31T of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. The Strategy Statement sets out the OPR’s high level goals, actions and milestones in delivering on our statutory mandate.

The Strategy Statement benefited from many observations from the public and private and public sector organisations over a six-week consultation process, which the Office wishes to acknowledge. An overview of the submissions made and how they shaped the Strategy Statement will be made available shortly.

You can also access the submissions which contributed to the strategy. 

 

The Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018 established the legal basis for the OPR and outlines its role and functions, which include the following:

  • Assessment of all local authority and regional assembly forward planning, including development plans, local area plans, regional spatial and economic strategies, etc. The OPR will provide statutory observations during the drafting of statutory plans to ensure consistency with relevant regional or national policies;

  • Organisational review of the systems and procedures used by any planning authority, including An Bord Pleanála, in the performance of any of their planning functions, including assessing risks of maladministration or corruption. However, the OPR has no functions in relation to those of local authorities and An Bord Pleanála in considering any individual planning applications or appeals made to them, or any cases being considered by the Ombudsman, the criminal system or under judicial review;

  • Driving national research, training, education and public information programmes. The OPR will establish best practice in planning matters and highlight the role and benefit of proper planning.

The Planning System in Ireland

The Planning and Development Act 2000, (as amended) provides:

“in the interests of the common good, for proper planning and sustainable development”.

Under the Act, there are four main parts to the Irish planning process.

  1. Plan-Making: the preparation, by Government and the local government system, at national, regional and local levels, of long-run policies to shape and guide development in the public interest, including public and private investment and the determination of individual planning decisions;
  2. Assessment of Planning Applications and Appeals: most development activity in Ireland requires a formal grant of planning permission from the relevant planning authority or in some larger and specific cases An Bord Pleanála. Decisions of planning authorities may be appealed to An Bord Pleanála;
  3. Planning Enforcement: aimed at ensuring compliance with the requirements of planning permissions, including legal actions by planning authorities for the most part in cases of non-compliance by those engaged in the relevant development; and
  4. Oversight: of the planning process at planning authority level through the Office of the Planning Regulator, which analyses the local government planning at regional and local levels and the broad systems and procedures employed by the 31 planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála.

The 10 National Planning Principles from the National Planning Policy Statement (2015) at Appendix 1 below provide a good summary of the purpose of planning.

Planning at National, Regional and Local Levels Working Together
Government provides a broad legislative and policy framework for planning setting the context for the delivery of planning services by the 31 planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála.

Ireland’s 31 county and city councils are local authorities discharging a range of functions and are known as planning authorities in the context of their planning functions under the Planning Act above.

Planning legislation
Planning legislation is largely set out under the Planning and Development Act 2000 to 2018. The principal regulations underpinning the Planning and Development Acts are the Planning and Development Regulations 2001 to 2018. These regulations are updated regularly to put legislative changes into effect on more detailed aspects of the implementation of the provisions of the Act.

In addition to the Acts the Minister may issue Planning Guidelines under Section 28 of the Act and Policy Directives under Section 29 of the Act, which planning authorities must have regard to in discharging their planning functions.

Under Section 30 of the Act, the Minister is precluded from influencing any specific planning case or appeal before a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála.

Under Section 31 of the Act however, the Minister may give Directions to planning authorities or regional assemblies in relation to the content of their statutory development plans and regional spatial and economic strategies.

The Office of the Planning Regulator conducts independent assessment of development plans, local plans and regional spatial and economic strategies and informs the Minister as to any Directions that may be required to uphold policy and regulatory requirements.

National Planning Framework
The National Planning Framework (NPF) is the Government’s statutory strategic planning framework to guide the development of the country in economic, social and environmental terms.  The Office of the Planning Regulator is responsible for monitoring implementation of the NPF through local development plans and regional and economic spatial strategies.

The National Development Plan 2018-2027 was published in conjunction with the NPF and, sets out the capital investment required to implement the NPF.

Regional Planning
The Local Government Act 2014 provides for a regional dimension to local government in Ireland and groups the authorities into three regional assemblies:

  • the Northern and Western Regional Assembly;
  • the Southern Regional Assembly; and
  • the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly.

Regional assemblies, amongst other functions, make regional spatial and economic strategies, which co-ordinate the both the development plans and local economic and community plans of local authorities.  The Planning Regulator is a statutory consultee in the process of preparing the regional strategies.

Development plans and Local Area Plans
The Development plan is a local authority’s main policy document in relation to planning. The making of a development plan is a function of the elected members of the local authority.  The development plan sets out the overall core strategy and specific objectives for the proper planning and sustainable development of the entire functional area of the local authority.  The plan consists of a written statement which sets out the policies for the county, and maps which show zonings for different types of development, for example, residential, industrial and amenities such as parks.  The Planning Regulator is now a statutory consultee for all development plans.

Local Area Plans
Local authorities are also responsible for developing local area plans (LAP). A LAP is similar to a development plan, but provides a more detailed locally focused planning policy framework.  The making of a local area plan is also a function of the elected members of the local authority.

A LAP must be made for any designated town with a population of over 5,000 persons. LAPs can be reviewed or amended at any time, provided the planning authority follows the public consultation procedures set down in the planning acts.

Local Area Plans must be consistent with the objectives and policies of more strategic county and city development plans as well as national and regional policy considerations arising from the National Planning Framework, Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies  with local development plans.

Planning Permission
In the Planning and Development Acts development is defined as ‘the carrying out of any works on, in, over or under land or the making of any material change in the use of any structures or other land’.

Planning permission must be obtained from the local planning authority, or in certain larger strategic cases, An Bord Pleanála, before development, other than minor developments known as exempted development, starts.

In considering an application for planning permission, the planning authority must ensure that the development is consistent with the policies and objectives of the development plan, although An Bord Pleanála has the scope to approve developments that might not be precisely consistent with local planning policies but are consistent with national policies.

Planning permission is also required where there is a material change of use (for example, a change from retail outlet to takeaway restaurant).

The Chief Executive or designated official in charge of planning in local authorities makes the decision on planning applications made to local authorities.

The Board of An Bord Pleanála, appointed by the Minister, makes the decisions on appeals and applications made to the Board.

A planning permission is typically valid for five years and some larger applications may be approved for a 10 year period.

Pre-Application Consultations
A person with an interest in a piece of land who intends to make a planning application may consult the planning authority about any proposed development in relation to the land, and the planning authority may give advice to that person regarding the proposed application.

Pre-application consultations are quite important in ensuring successful applications in that they give the local authority the opportunity to explain to applicants the type of development that is likely to be acceptable according to the local plan.  Local authorities are obliged to keep a record in writing of consultations that relate to a proposed development. This record is kept with the documents relating to that or any subsequent planning application.

Enforcement
Planning authorities may take enforcement action against any unauthorised development.  An unauthorised development is one which is not exempted or which does not comply with planning permission and the conditions attached to it.

An Bord Pleanála and Planning Appeals

Anyone can appeal a decision by a local planning authority to grant or refuse planning permission, provided they have submitted observations to the planning authority on the application.  Appeals can be a first party (this means lodged by the applicant) or a third party (by a concerned individual or organisation).

A planning appeal is made to An Bord Pleanála, whose remit and functions have expanded significantly in the past decade.  The Board generally considers appeals as if the application had been made to it in the first instance, and its decision replaces that of the planning authority.

Unlike a planning authority, the Board can grant permission for a development that materially contravenes the local plan under certain conditions, for example, if it considers the development to be of strategic importance.  The Board can also hold an oral hearing on the application, as it commonly does with strategic infrastructure or large developments.

Strategic Infrastructure and Strategic Development Zones 
Under the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006, applications for permission to carry out strategic infrastructure projects are now made directly to An Bord Pleanála rather than through the local planning process given that such infrastructure often straddles two or more planning authority areas.  Strategic infrastructure means developments that are of strategic economic or social importance to the State or the region in which they will be located.

Strategic Development Zones (SDZs) may be designated by the Government as areas of strategic economic and developmental importance to the State.

In such areas, designated development agencies including local authorities, are mandated under the Planning Act to prepare planning schemes that are subject to the approval of local elected members or councillors or on appeal, by An Bord Pleanála.

Dublin’s Docklands, which has seen a high level of renewal and regeneration and office and residential development since its designation as a Strategic Development Zone, is an exemplar of the SDZ process.

The Office of the Planning Regulator, March 2019

Appendix 1: National Planning Policy Statement (2015) Objectives of Planning

  1. Planning must be plan-led and evidence based so that at the appropriate level, from the National Planning Framework, Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies, City and County Development Plans and Local Area Plans, the Government, local authorities and local communities, work together to set out a cohesive vision for the future of our country.
  2. Planning must proactively drive and support sustainable development, integrating consideration of its economic, social and environmental aspects at the earliest stage to deliver the homes, business and employment space, infrastructure and thriving urban and rural locations in an economically viable manner that will sustain recovery and our future prosperity.
  3. Planning is about creating communities and further developing existing communities in a sustainable manner by securing high quality urban design through the design, delivery and co-ordination of new development providing a good quality of life for all existing and future users of land and buildings.
  4. Planning must support the transition to a low carbon future and adapt to a changing climate taking full account of flood risk and facilitating, as appropriate, the use of renewable resources, particularly the development of alternative indigenous energy resources.
  5. Planning must ensure that development facilitates and encourages greater use of public transport as well as making walking and cycling more attractive for people in support of active and healthy lifestyles by focusing development, whenever possible, at locations with more sustainable travel options.
  6. Planning will encourage the most efficient and effective use of previously developed (brownfield) land over the use of greenfield land to ensure the most efficient use of existing infrastructure, enhancing and strengthening the continued vitality of existing communities through regeneration.
  7. Planning will enhance a sense of place within and between cities, towns and villages and rural areas by recognising their intrinsic character and individual qualities and implement actions to protect and enhance that character and those qualities.
  8. Planning will conserve and enhance the rich qualities of natural and cultural heritage of Ireland in a manner appropriate to their significance, from statutorily designated sites to sites of local importance, and including the conservation and management of landscape quality to the maximum extent possible, so that these intrinsic qualities of our country can be enjoyed for their collective contribution to the quality of life of this and future generations.
  9. Planning will support the protection and enhancement of environmental quality in a manner consistent with the requirements of relevant national and European standards by guiding development towards optimal locations from the perspective of ensuring high standards of water and air quality, biodiversity and the minimisation of pollution risk.
  10. Above all, planning will be conducted in a manner that affords a high level of confidence in the openness, fairness, professionalism and efficiency of the process, where people have the opportunity to participate at both the strategic plan making and individual planning application level with decisions always being taken in the interests of the common good and in a timely and informed fashion and where people can have confidence that appropriate enforcement action will be taken where legal requirements are not upheld.

Conduct reviews of complaints relating to individual decisions of planning authorities, including An Board Pleanála, whether in respect of a planning permission or an enforcement matter.