Legal – supported by Eugene F. Collins
One of the outcomes of the Mahon Tribunal was a recommendation that an independent planning regulator be established to regulate the Irish planning system. The Mahon Tribunal noted “an over-centralisation of power in the hands of the Minister for the Environment, which is not subject to sufficient checks and balances”.
The Planning No.(2) Bill 2014 (the Bill) seeks to establish the office of the regulator, as well as setting out planning strategies to support the implementation of the Construction 2020 agenda.
1. The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) is to be established as independent of the Department and charged with:
• assessment of the statutory plans (e.g., development plans and local area plans) prepared under the Planning Acts, as well as regional and spatial strategies, and providing comment upon these to the Minister;
• conducting research, education and training programmes for planning authorities; and,
• reviewing complaints on the performance of the functions of the planning authorities.
The OPR can make recommendations to a planning authority arising from its assessment of the statutory plans, but if the planning authority decides not to comply with the recommendations, it must advise the OPR of this. The OPR is then empowered to make recommendations to the Minister, setting out how the plan is inconsistent with its recommendation or inconsistent with an overall strategy for the proper planning and sustainable development of the area. Crucially, however, the OPR would not have the power to issue directions directly to the planning authority. Instead, it would make its recommendations to the Minister, who can decide whether to issue a direction to the planning authority. To that extent, a significant amount of power remains with the Minister under the Bill.
2. The OPR is also charged with the development of a National Planning Framework (NPF) to replace the existing National Spatial Strategy 2002-2020. The NPF is to have a legislative basis, and will set an overarching framework for strategic planning of urban and rural areas to secure balanced regional development, and the co-ordination of regional, spatial and economic strategies, and city and county development plans. The NPF is to identify national infrastructure priorities to address transportation, water services, waste management, energy and communications networks, and the provision of educational, healthcare, retail, cultural and recreational facilities. Conservation of the environment and its amenities including the landscape and archaeological, architectural and natural heritage would also be addressed in the NPF, and it would promote sustainable development and transportation strategies in urban and rural areas, including promotion of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the necessity of adaptation to climate change.
3. The OPR could conduct reviews of the systems, procedures and organisation of a planning authority upon its own initiative, as may be requested by the Minister or following complaints from a third party. Arising from its review, it may make recommendations to the planning authority and the Minister.
Policy statement on planning
This policy is intended to act as a general guidance document on the operation of the planning system, outlining ten key principles that should underpin the system. These include that planning should: be plan led and evidence based, and support sustainable development; create communities and further develop existing communities in a sustainable manner; support the transition to a low carbon future and adaptation to climate change, and support greater use of public transport; conserve and enhance the rich qualities of natural and cultural heritage; and, support the protection and enhancement of environmental quality.
The Government wishes these key principles to be used as a strategic guide with the aim of ensuring that the right development takes place in the right locations, at the right time in providing social, economic and physical infrastructure required to meet Ireland’s needs.
Margaret is a Partner with Eugene F. Collins, solicitors.