Office of the Planning Regulator Launches First Annual Report

Highlights

  • 25 different local authority development plans examined as part of statutory process in 2019 resulting in 31 recommendations.
  • OPR initiated first nationally rolled-out training programme for local councillors on their role in the planning process in 2019 – over 225 elected members participated up until end 2019 – which has continued throughout the pandemic through on-line webinars.
  • 91 unique cases raised with the OPR by members of the public during 2019. None found to meet the statutory criteria for commencing examinations of the local authorities concerned. Many related to individual planning application or planning enforcement cases which the OPR cannot become involved in, rather than systemic issues that the OPR is mandated to examine.
  • Planning services maintained despite Covid restrictions – all OPR staff working remotely.
  • 2019 witnessed over 32,000 planning applications submitted to Ireland’s 31 planning authorities – 90% of valid applications approved with approvals of apartments running ahead of housing for the first time on the back of strong efforts by An Bord Pleanála in processing Strategic Housing Development Applications.
  • However, trend of faster development in Dublin commuter counties than city core continues.
  • Fresh impetus needed in the delivery of greater on-line access to planning application and other planning services and resourcing services through reviews of planning fees.

The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR), the State’s new planning oversight body, has today launched its first Annual Report. The OPR was established in 2019 on foot of recommendations made by the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments (The Mahon Tribunal).

The report outlines some key activities of the OPR during its first year and identifies some significant trends and indicators1 which reflect Ireland’s planning performance in 2019.

The Annual Report highlights the following activities of the Office of the Planning Regulator in 2019.

  • The Office assessed and reviewed 25 local authority statutory plans. All recommendations made by the OPR relating to 11 statutory plans adopted by local authorities in 2019 were implemented.
  • Assessments by the Office included 31 recommendations and 16 observations to the relevant local authorities on the statutory plans referred to above.
  • Most recommendations (39%) concerned better implementation of guidelines on planning published by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to ensure a consistent approach in relation to matters including flood risk management (2009), preparation of local area plans (2013), preparation of development plans (2007), and policy regarding national roads (2012).
  • 91 unique cases raised by members of the public on planning matters were received by the Office in 2019. However, none were found to meet the statutory criteria for commencing examinations of the planning authorities concerned. Most complaints related to individual planning application or planning enforcement cases which the OPR cannot become involved in, rather than systemic issues that the OPR is mandated to examine.
  • The Office initiated the first multi-annual national training programme for local elected councillors on their planning functions in 2019 with a number of training seminars on the planning process attended by 225 elected members.
  • The Office established a National Planning Knowledge Group to guide the development of the Office’s research and public awareness programmes.
  • The Office also developed a free online planning library service, providing easy-to-access information on planning documents, research papers and resources.

The report also highlights key outputs from the work of Ireland’s 31 planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála in 2019 including:

  • Approvals of apartment developments, key to sustainable urban development, exceeded housing for the first time in 2019. This was influenced by the Strategic Housing Development process of An Bord Pleanála, revised national guidance on apartment development and the Government’s National Planning Framework.
  • However, 55% 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) which poses a challenge to the Government’s planning objectives in tackling the sprawl of major urban areas, including Dublin.
  • Just over 32,000 planning applications submitted to local authorities in 2019 and while there were variations in the levels of invalid planning applications, almost 90% of valid planning applications were approved.
  • The response to climate change was increasingly felt with significant approvals for renewable energy in terms of wind and solar energy.
  • Planning authorities’ approvals of industrial and manufacturing development proposals doubled in 2019, underscoring the importance of the planning process to economic recovery and progress.
  • The Covid pandemic has highlighted the need to deliver new and improved on-line planning services such as an on-line application and submission system. This may also require a review of existing planning fees which have been in place since 2001 resulting in only €24m of income in 2018 to planning authorities against a cost of providing all planning services of €140m.

Launching the Annual Report, the Planning Regulator, Mr Niall Cussen said:

“Our planning process directly affects every citizen of the State in meeting housing, physical and social infrastructural requirements, enhancing the quality of our environment and enabling the economic functioning of our country. 

Indeed, proper and effective planning is needed now more than ever in helping to lay the foundations for national recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Government has correctly prioritised the importance of joined-up planning and investment in both meeting immediate pandemic-posed economic recovery challenges, while at the same time addressing the global climate challenge and realising the potential of a greener future.

The OPR is operating at 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 the OPR 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 view to ensuring that the plan provides for the proper planning and sustainable development of the area concerned.”

Commenting on the activities of the OPR in 2019, Mr Cussen highlighted that it had been a foundation-building year in terms of recruitment and putting in place the various policies and procedures necessary for the new oversight body, but added that:

“We have hit the ground running since establishment. In total, we made 31 recommendations and 16 observations on local authority statutory plans. Through proactive engagement with local authority staff and elected members, every recommendation in respect of the 11 adopted plans which were subject to OPR assessment in 2019 has been implemented.

As well as ensuring that the planning process runs well, we must ensure that everybody understands it. This is why training and raising public awareness of best practice in planning is one our central remits, so we intend to continue collaborating closely with stakeholders, providing training and engaging with local authority members and officials.”

Complaints

The (OPR) is empowered to examine complaints about planning authorities which relate to the organisation of planning authorities and the systems and procedures used by planning authorities in their planning functions.

Mr Cussen indicated that it was taking time for the public to understand that the OPR is an independent office where complaints about overall local authority planning systems and procedures across a range or pattern of decisions could be examined, rather than another level of planning appeal above An Bord Pleanála, stating that:

Although none of the 91 unique cases raised in 2019 resulted in a formal statutory examination within the meaning of the OPR’s functions under the Planning Act, matters raised by members of the public are not without merit because they illustrate a picture of the overall system and quality of service delivery.

In many cases, complaints made to the OPR relate to individual applications which are more appropriately considered through local authority internal complaints procedures and the Ombudsman’s Office, with which the OPR entered into a memorandum of understanding in 2019.”

Story Map

A highlight of the annual report is an innovative story map to take members of the public through the work of the Office in a highly interactive and interesting way. The story map was developed by the OPR’s in-house geospatial team. The OPR is the first organisation in Ireland, and within the Irish planning sector, to illustrate its Annual Report through this medium.

Mr Cussen indicated that the inaugural annual report afforded the OPR team an opportunity to be creative and to establish and further the OPR’s position as a leader in the digital planning space. The story map is available on the OPR’s website and at this link.

Mr Cussen concluded by paying tribute to the extensive efforts that his staff and a wide range of stakeholders including the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage had made in enabling the establishment of the OPR in 2019 pointing to the fact that for much of the year pending recruitment, it had been operating with fewer than 10 staff. The OPR is now almost up to full complement, enabling another strong year for thorough and independent delivery of oversight of Ireland’s planning process in 2020.

  1. OPR Annual Report 2019 Trends and Indicators – Fact Sheet

Forward Planning

  • 30 statutory plans, or plan variations/amendments adopted, including first RSES
  • 43 statutory plan making stages notified for public consultation
  • LAPs for the majority of our largest towns are due for review
  • Three SDZ planning schemes approved since 2018

Development Management

  • 32,314 valid planning applications made and 29,117 applications decided
  • 4% of all applications were invalidated, ranging from 4.1% to 29.2% between authorities
  • 89% of valid planning applications were permitted
  • Distribution of permissions: 44.5% EMRA; 36.8% SRA and; 18.7% NWRA

Applications Granted: Residential

  • 40,252 residential units permitted, with apartments (20,582) exceeding houses for the first time
  • 60% of apartment units were permitted through SHD
  • 60% of all permitted residential units were located in Dublin & Eastern regions, i.e. the four Dublin authorities, and Kildare, Louth, Meath and Wicklow (41% in Dublin)
  • 86% of residential units permitted in Dublin authorities were apartments, accounting for 69% of all apartments permitted nationally
  • 73% of all residential units permitted in Galway city were apartments, compared to 24% for Cork city, 18.5% for Limerick city and 19.2% for Waterford city

Applications Granted: Non-residential Development

  • Agricultural accounted for the largest permitted non-residential floor area (>1million m2)
  • Industrial and manufacturing floor area permitted (383,000 m2) was double that for 2018 and five times that for 2014; office and trade sector floor area permitted was stable from 2018
  • Renewable energy expanded, with one wind farm permitted through SID, four wind farms granted on appeal and 28 solar farms granted on appeal

Planning appeals and direct applications to An Bord Pleanála

  • Annual rate of appeal has remained steady since 2010, ranging between 6% and 8% over the years
  • Reversal rate has seen a long running decline between 2010 and 2018, with only a slight increase to 25% in 2019
  • 26 SID applications received and 21 SID cases decided
  • 38 SID pre-application consultation requests received and 41 decided
  • 118 valid SHD applications received, 82 cases decided of which 67 were granted
  • 150 SHD pre-application consultation requests received and 148 opinions issued
  • 56% of all SHD pre-application consultations requests were within Dublin region

Enforcement, Land Activation, Finance (Cost Recovery) & Legal Challenges

  • Enforcement cases initiated rose 1% to 6,637, resolved cases rose 3% to 5,578 (2017 to 2018)
  • 359 sites listed on local authority Vacant Sites’ Register to the value of €144.5m
  • Cost of providing planning services (€140m) significantly exceeded planning fee income (€24m)
  • There were 190 cases involving ABP and 46 cases involving the department at close 2019

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