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Dozens of complaints raised with planning regulator but no investigations launched


Dozens of complaints raised with planning regulator but no investigations launched.  Stock image

Dozens of complaints raised with planning regulator but no investigations launched. Stock image

Dozens of complaints raised with planning regulator but no investigations launched. Stock image

The planning regulator set up last year to investigate planning grievances turned away all complainants, saying none of the issues they raised could be granted a full probe.

Not one of the 91 separate complaints lodged by 131 people during the regulator’s first year in operation met the strict criteria for investigation.

Eight of the cases were considered potentially valid but did not proceed beyond preliminary examination.

Regulator, Niall Cussen, said many cases involved an individual planning matter or enforcement issue rather than “high threshold” systemic failures by planning authorities which is what he is empowered to investigate.

Mr Cussen said it was taking time for the public to understand the distinction, and to realise that the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) office was not another level of planning appeal above An Bord Pleanála.

He stressed all complaints were assessed and he took note of the issues raised.

“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,” he said.

So far this year, there have been 130 unique cases which are following a similar pattern, although a small number have resulted in detailed, ongoing preliminary examination.

The number of complaints in 2019 was small relative to the 29,000 planning applications decided by local authorities during the year but they point to the lack of options for people aggrieved by planning decisions.

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Mr Cussen said some cases would be more appropriately handled by the internal complaints systems within local authorities or by the Ombudsman, but the former is not independent and the latter is not a specialist in planning matters.

After An Bord Pleanála has ruled, the only way to challenge a decision is by way of judicial review in the High Court – a prohibitively expensive route which the Housing Minister has indicated he intends making even more restrictive.

In a move that could make challenging decisions tougher again, Mr Cussen is urging the Government to increase the fees for processing and appealing cases.

He said the Covid pandemic had highlighted the need to deliver new and improved internet based planning services such as an online application 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,” he said.

A standard planning appeal costs €220 but planning fees start at €34, which covers an application for permission to build a modest home extension, and they can run to tens of thousands of euro for processing major developments.

The establishment of a regulator’s office was one of the recommendations of the Mahon Tribunal which published its report on planning irregularities and corrupt payments in 2012.

It was finally set up last year with functions that include assessing all county and local development plans, reviewing planning systems and procedures, and making recommendations to Government where changes are considered necessary.

A number of trends emerged over the year. Approvals for apartments outnumbered houses for the first time, the floor space for industrial and manufacturing approved doubled compared to 2018 and the range of renewable energy projects expanded with 28 solar farms granted permission.

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