Chair of An Bord Pleanála Dave Walsh spoke to us as the organisation is in a period of growing case numbers and an updated remit.

The view from the roof of An Bord Pleanála’s (ABP) headquarters in Dublin is an indication of the level of work facing the organisation. No matter in what direction you turn, you see clusters of cranes stretching out to the city’s edge.
Chair of ABP, Dave Walsh, says there has certainly been a ramp up of activity and the complexity of some applications is also increasing: “You have to take account of environmental considerations, impacts on designated nature sites, and heritage and archaeological issues; these are all further complexities that take more time for the Board [ABP] to fully understand and to gather all the information to make an informed decision”.

A natural move

Before taking on the role in late 2018, Dave spent 23 years in the Department of Housing, Planning
and Local Government (“the Department”). For the past three years, he has been guiding the
Department on the development of the Ireland 2040 National Planning Framework and says ABP has a critical role to play in that. He is finding the move from policy creation to implementation a natural progression: “Having come from 20 years of policy, I’m really enjoying actually looking at hard proposals and deciding whether they are viable and can proceed or not … It’s a good way to test the viability of many of the policies that we [the Department] may have brought through before”.

He explains that when writing policy, you have to be quite general to cover the majority of the system, and that often the cases that come before ABP are the outliers that get missed by policy and require careful consideration from planners: “You’re seeing how do you marry national policies and generalised legislation and policy with what can sometimes be fairly individual and unique circumstances. I suppose that’s where the Board sees its role as being able to balance all those considerations and come to the best decisions it can”.

Fast-track planning
The fast-track planning system has been in place since July 2017. It gave ABP new strategic housing development (SHD) powers, where developers can apply directly to the organisation for planning permission for large-scale housing developments. This was introduced to try to speed up residential building and is up for review this year.
One of the benefits Dave says is the pre-consultation process involving ABP, the developer and the local council: “You’re getting everyone who has critical inputs to make at the table at the earliest time, so that you can actually understand the context for policy at local level, at national level and also for the developer to refine or improve the application before it’s formally submitted. That has helped to improve the overall quality of the applications coming through, as well as facilitating a better understanding of the national and local policy context for the Board to make decisions”.

Turning up the volume
ABP is finalising its annual report for 2018 but Dave says that the overall number of cases it dealt with was up 6-7% on 2017: “It’s not so much that there is a huge increase in volume. What is interesting is that we’re having, this year in particular, a lot more large-scale housing development applications, both for student accommodation and for large developments. We’re currently running at more than twice last year’s rates”.
Another process which it is hoped will speed up and simplify the functions of ABP is its new IT system, Plean-IT. Dave is excited about what this means for the organisation: “That will ultimately be a portal that will facilitate online submission of applications, online submission of comments and objections, as well as payments, etc.”.
Gaps in strategic planning can lead to confusion and indecision (e.g., around ports). Dave says that while ABP doesn’t make policy: “We obviously have an important input in relation to the experiences of processing large-scale infrastructure, housing, as well as other forms of building control, such as vacant site levies. This experience is useful in feeding back into the Department, feeding into local authorities in terms of how they plan for and develop policy but really the strategic policy side is very much resting with the Department or with other relevant departments … Everything comes back to what is the overall national context through the National Planning Framework”.

High-rise and sprawl
Dublin is set to grow by 250,000 people over the next 20 years and one of Ireland 2040’s aims is to have 50-60% of that growth on brownfield sites. Some people say that high-rise may impinge on views of certain areas of the city like its Georgian core, while others see it as irresponsible not to build higher in the middle of a housing crisis and to avoid urban sprawl in our capital and elsewhere: “If an application for either a higher-density development or indeed a high rise comes before the Board, we will obviously look at national policy and guidelines set out by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government but also look at the context in the development plan. There are examples where the Board is looking to promote and facilitate the optimal use of land. We’re not saying that high-rise works in every location and it wouldn’t be the sole consideration but we have to look at each case on its own merits and say what are the constraints? There may well be architectural, heritage, or other environmental considerations depending on which site is there and obviously, one of the key issues would be impacts on the visual amenity of the of the existing neighbourhood and location”.

The issue of urban sprawl is not one that is confined to our cities. Dave says that there has been a “hollowing out” of town centres around the country. He says guidelines coming out of the National Planning Framework will address how to revitalise these places: “The alternative is that as these towns grow, they will grow further out and out, requiring more supporting services; meanwhile, you have once vibrant town centres and villages that are losing their population and losing their ability to maintain commercial activities”.

Rural housing
Rural one-off housing and urban sprawl may seem like contrasting problems but both cause the stretching of resources and services. Although Dave says ABP only deals with rural housing where a decision is appealed, he comments: “You go back to what is a sustainable form of future development to cater for the needs of a changing society and a growing population. In terms of the National Planning Framework, it has a national policy objective number 19 about facilitating development in rural areas where there is an economic and social need … If we are saying people shouldn’t be allowed to build in the country or all over greenfield sites, we have to be able to say there are alternatives. I think the alternatives would be possibly looking at our smaller towns and villages that rely on a rural economy to grow and maintain their vibrancy, and if there are sites that can potentially be repurposed and redeveloped within the town bounds”.

A changing environment
When Dave took up the role, the first thing he did was see what capacity ABP might need in the future given the priority that the Government has placed on housing: “It is important that the Board has the resources and the skillset it needs. We have recently hired our first ever planning ecologist. These are skills that we would have normally relied on from external consultants. We now want to bring them in house because of the centrality of environmental considerations to so many large and smaller scale applications”.
The Green Party’s surge took many of the headlines from the local and EU elections and Dave says that environmental considerations are coming into planning decisions more: “What’s more critical now is that as the directives at EU level have evolved, the requirements and the justifications that are needed to be able to say we understand what the implications are, and that there are appropriate measures to deal with those or to protect important environmental considerations, are built into our assessments, as well as our considerations at Board level”.

The issue of urban sprawl is not one that is confined to our cities. Dave says that there has been a “hollowing out” of town centres sround the country.

Co-living developments have been causing controversy recently, with some people comparing them to bedsits and tenements. Dave says they do have a part to play for a certain section of the market: “There are clear requirements in relation to minimum standards from a building control, and indeed
an amenity, perspective. I think when you look at the National Planning Framework, and you look at the population expectations and projections out to 2040 and the type of households that we are likely to be requiring – the number of people per household is dropping towards EU norms. It is moving away from a four person plus household or family, particularly within our urban centres, where there is a different expectation of what the housing need is. I think the policy in relation to shared accommodation or co-living is an important element but just one element … There are people who are starting off and looking for something different to sharing a house with somebody – something in a city centre with clear amenities around”.

A motivated organisation
A personal goal of Dave’s is to provide ABP’s staff with the opportunity to grow, develop and see the value of their work: “I’m about seven months in the post at the moment and I’m hugely impressed with the professionalism and the commitment of the staff throughout the organisation, both those that are planners and those with specialised skills, but also hugely experienced administrative staff throughout the organisation who carry forward a huge workload”.

Personal profile
Dave lives with his wife just outside Drogheda and has two dogs who keep him active. His college degree is in ancient Greek and Latin, and he taught as a classical scholar for a few years. He says he and his wife like to travel as much as they can, and he is also a huge Tottenham Hotspur fan.

Colm QuinnColm Quinn

Journalist and Sub-editor, Think Media