Planning Regulator Publishes 2020 Annual Report

Significant increase in plans evaluated, recommendations issued and complaints received

The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR), the State’s independent oversight body for planning, published its annual report today.

The report shows that there was a significant increase in the number of local authority development plans evaluated by the OPR in 2020. This led to a rise in the number of recommendations and observations issued to local authorities regarding the adherence of their plans to national and regional planning policy.

In addition, there was a large increase in complaints made to the OPR regarding how local authorities operate their planning function, with a number of these complaints upheld.

The report also identifies and makes observations on some of the key trends which reflect Ireland’s planning performance in 2020.

This report represents the OPR’s first full year of existence since its establishment in April 2019.

Some key findings include:

  • In 2020, 18 plans were adopted by local authorities which had been evaluated by the OPR. Of the 24 recommendations issued in respect of these plans, all but one1 had been substantially addressed by the final stage of the planning process,
  • Inconsistency with the National Planning Framework (30%) and inconsistency with guidelines on topics such as flood risk management, local area plans and spatial planning (29%) were the most frequently occurring categories for recommendations,
  • The OPR evaluated 45 local authority plans in 2020 compared to 25 in 2019. Overall, a total of 203 recommendations and observations (93 recommendations, 110 observations) were made to local authorities, up from 47 in 2019,
  • A total of 119 complaints were received in 2020 compared to 54 in 2019. One hundred of these were on matters not relevant to the OPR. Nineteen complaints were valid as they related to matters the OPR could examine, which compares to eight in 2019. So far, three of these 19 valid complaints (16%) have been upheld,
  • Over 600 local councillors attended planning-related training which took place in conjunction with the Association of Irish Local Government.

Speaking about the findings, the Planning Regulator, Niall Cussen said:

“Despite the pandemic, our first full year of operation witnessed significant increases in both the scale of our activities and their impact in enhancing planning in Ireland.

The major increase in the number of evaluations, observations and recommendations we made in our scrutiny of the local authority plans which shape the future of our communities, mean that the public can be confident that they consistently apply important government policy.

These policies include targets for securing urban and rural regeneration, the appropriate levels and locations for zoning of land, delivery of quality and affordable housing, ensuring vibrant city and town centres and making sure our climate change targets are met.

Encouragingly, local authorities implemented the vast majority of our recommendations in those plans which were adopted in 2020. We only had to issue one recommendation to the Minister, which related to the proposed development of a large out of town retail outlet by Cork County Council. This points to better planning outcomes and ultimately the creation of more liveable and sustainable communities.

We also received an additional level of planning-related complaints, a lot of which related to individual planning matters more appropriate to planning appeals or enforcement at local authority level and not relevant to our role in looking at overall systems in local authorities.

That said, we are upholding more of the valid complaints following our enquiries and these are leading to improvements in planning systems operated by the local authorities. This shows that the public and other stakeholders are becoming more aware of our important role in ensuring that local authorities use the correct systems and procedures in carrying out their planning functions.”

The report also identifies and makes observations on some of the key trends which reflect Ireland’s planning performance in 2020.

  • 44,538 residential units received planning permission in 2020, a 13.5% increase on 2019.
  • Dublin and its surrounds in the Eastern and Midlands Regional Assembly (EMRA) dominated in the level of homes approved, rising to 74% (32,867 homes) of the national figure, up from 64% (25,673 homes) in 2019. Almost 64% of all homes approved in the EMRA area were located within the four Dublin local authorities.
  • Levels of planning applications declared invalid by local authorities has been increasing each year from 2016 (14.3%) to 17.1% in 2020 and varies widely between local authorities.
  • Anecdotal evidence is that many local authorities are seriously overstretched.
  • The pandemic put the online services offer of local authorities into sharp focus.

Commenting on these findings, Niall Cussen said:

“It is a great credit to the planning process in general that An Bord Pleanála, local authorities and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage maintained, to the greatest extent possible, delivery of planning services despite the strictures of the pandemic.

For instance, the fact that there was an overall increase in the number of residential units which received planning permission is quite remarkable considering the circumstances.

I was also encouraged to see that a greater level of planning permissions for housing approved across the four Dublin local authorities compared to more suburban located permissions. This suggests that the basis for more sustainable urban development and less urban sprawl is there if those urban permissions, particularly for apartments, can be activated at a greater level and delivered affordably, something which the Government’s “Housing For All” action plan correctly focuses on.

However, several challenges remain. Ensuring that planning applications meet legal requirements for submission in the first place continues to be an issue across the country with invalidation levels rising. There are also strong signals that local authority planning departments are seriously under-resourced as we begin to analyse these issues in our 2021 Reviews Programme.

The pandemic also put the online services offer of local authorities into sharp focus highlighting that a seamless on-line service is long overdue, particularly in relation to online planning application systems. Delivery of an enhanced range of on-line services is underway but has been heavily delayed and this is a lesson to learn and take into account from the resourcing perspective.”

The OPR was established in April 2019 on foot of recommendations made by the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments (the Mahon Tribunal).

Its purpose is to oversee the continuous enhancement of Ireland’s planning process and its outcomes by driving the co-ordination of planning policy implementation across national, regional and local levels, building a stronger knowledge base and ensuring regular reviews of the performance of planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála.

ENDS

  1. In February 2020, the OPR issued a Draft Direction to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage recommending that he use his statutory powers to compel Cork County Council to take the necessary steps to ensure that the OPR’s recommendation regarding the Council’s variation to the Cork County Development Plan 2014 was implemented. The variation identified a preferred location for a retail outlet so serve the Cork metropolitan area. A copy of this recommendation is available here.