Monday 23 October 2017

Planning system bound by red tape and close to being unfit for purpose

Transport Minister Shane Ross. Photo: Laura Hutton/Collins Photo Agency
Transport Minister Shane Ross. Photo: Laura Hutton/Collins Photo Agency

Paul McNeive

A big drop in the number of planning officials, delays, excessive demands on applicants, and planning legislation that is lagging behind society, are all leading to our planning system becoming "not fit for purpose".

That's according to John Downey, a chartered town planner and currently Chair of the Royal Town Planning Institute (Ireland).

Downey, whose firm, Downey Planning, provides both planning and architectural services, has worked with local authorities and in private practice, and is well-placed to comment-although he stresses that his remarks to me are purely in a personal capacity.

Downey told me the number of planners working in local authorities (420 at last count) is roughly a third less than at the peak and that recruitment is lagging behind demand.

Downey says that some local authorities are far more efficient in handling applications than those which lack resources, and he points to some flaws in how the system is organised.

Chief among those flaws, he believes, are 'pre-planning' meetings, which take place in advance of an application being submitted. While some local authorities will arrange a meeting by e-mail within a week, with numerous departments including roads, drainage, parks and heritage attending, others will enter into formal correspondence leading to a series of individual meetings with departments (some of which have conflicting inputs) with between three and four weeks being taken to arrange each meeting.

But Downey says the biggest flaw is that the local authority planner leading the pre-planning meeting and advising on how to shape the application, isn't always the planner who ends up handling the application and making the decision.

This, he says, is leading to widespread planning refusals and delays. In other words, two different people are making subjective decisions on issues such as design.

"It's a waste of time," says Downey, and his firm is now insisting that its clients attend pre-planning meetings so that they can better understand the difficulties associated with the under-resourced system.

Downey also points to "requests for further information" (RFIs) as being "sometimes, somewhat, over the top" and creating further delay and cost. Whilst the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government has issued a directive setting out the basic requirements for pre-planning meetings, certain local authorities are insisting on closer to full plans, plus a dozen photo montages and survey work, "which should not be the norm," he said.

The applicant can then find themselves being buried in over 50 RFIs, to include badger surveys and bat surveys (which can only be done at certain times of the year), tree surveys, building condition surveys and assessments of every road junction in the area. Some of these demands amount to what Downey describes as excessive "points of detail".

Planning applications appealed to An Bord Pleanala are taking an average of 70 weeks to process from the pre-planning meeting to final decision.

As an example of the difficulty in getting permission, Downey described the process of applying for planning for a nursing home on Braemor Road, Churchtown, Dublin 14. The site is a derelict petrol station and nursing homes are badly needed in the area. The first pre-planning meeting was held in September 2013.

An application was lodged in December 2014 and permission refused in February 2015. Further pre-planning meetings were held and a fresh application lodged. RFIs were received in April 2016 and two major design changes made, as requested.

Responses to the RFIs were lodged in September and planning permission was granted last month. Downey told me there are now 91 objections to the scheme from local residents and from the Minister for Transport, Shane Ross, who is a TD for the constituency.

The slow pace of legislation is also causing problems and the fact that the Planning and Development Act of 2000 is still being "amended" is causing confusion, Downey told me.

The way forward, according to John Downey, is to strategically re-think our planning system, and for planners and architects to work more closely together, from training to practice. Otherwise, he says, our planning system will become "not fit for purpose".

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