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New planning regulator needs power as much as independence

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Mary Hughes

Mary Hughes

Mary Hughes

Planners will today appear before the Dail Environment Committee to discuss changes to planning legislation, which include the introduction of a vacant site tax and reduced development levies to facilitate construction of new homes.

But the Government also plans to introduce a new, independent planning regulator later this year, who will be tasked with ensuring local policies comply with national standards and are in line with best practice.

Mary Hughes, President of the Irish Planning Institute (IPI), says her members have serious concerns about the lack of powers for the regulator.

Here, she outlines the weaknesses of the current proposal.

 

Almost three years ago, the IPI welcomed the recommendations of the Mahon Tribunal report "into certain planning matters and payments".

In essence, it proposed that some of the Environment Minister's planning enforcement role be transferred to an independent planning regulator with powers to ensure that development plans prepared by planning authorities complied with national policy.

This was to prevent, among other things, the excessive zoning of land. Powers were also promised to undertake investigations into the performance of local authorities, particularly if there were complaints, and to conduct research, education and training.

Proposals for a new Office of the Planning Regulator have finally been made public, but the regulator does not appear to have been given much independence.

Currently, the minister can direct a local authority to change its county or local development plan if it does not conform to national policy.

Mahon proposed transferring these powers to the new independent regulator. However, it is now proposed that the final decision on a development plan will rest with the minister of the day, and not the new regulator, demoting the regulator's role to that of an 'adviser'. Advising is not regulating.

Policy makers faced a dilemma when drafting the Heads of Bill - how to make an independent regulatory body operate without compromising the existing democratic and participative qualities of the planning system.

But has the right balance been struck or is it a case that the Department of the Environment is reluctant to hand over power?

If we are to have the radical reforming legislation envisaged by Mahon, then a better balance between regulation, independence and democratic oversight must be struck.

Whilst the regulator may have a little more independence with its investigative role, the full extent of that role is not entirely clear.

Without powers of enforcement, it is difficult to see how effective the planning regulator can be in the long term.

Irish Independent