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Housing Minister Darragh O'Brien. PA
planning overhaul

Q&A: New planning laws and the controversy over residents groups

A potential coalition clash is brewing, with a number of Green Party members uneasy with the proposed changes.

CABINET YESTERDAY AGREED on plans to overhaul the planning system and the new laws are set to go before the Dáil early next year.

Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien said the reforms will create a “modern, efficient planning system, with coherence between policies, plans and decisions”.

But a potential coalition clash is brewing, with a number of Green Party members uneasy with the proposed changes.

What’s the news about residents groups objecting?

Among the major changes proposed in the ‘Planning and Development Bill’ is a ban on residents groups from taking High Court actions against planning permissions.

An outline of the proposed bill states that judicial reviews “will have to be taken by an individual or individuals, rather than by the (residents) association”.

However, the bill includes a provision for costs protection for judicial review cases, “unless the Court considers that the proceedings are frivolous or vexatious or an abuse of process”.

The proposed bill also states that a Judicial Review can be taken by an “environmental NGO who meets certain criteria”.

What’s the government’s reasoning around the residents groups change?

The Department of Housing said that the bill will “bring clarity to the role of different parties in accessing justice” and that Judicial Reviews will have to be “taken by an individual or individuals”.

The Department’s proposed bill added: “Some changes are proposed to the Judicial Review provisions which should be seen in the context of the wider review and the key aim of moving to a plan led system and ensuring a greater consistency of approach.”

This is primarily for transparency, it is believed, for example, in the past groups have been set up to take reviews, then disband when it comes to addressing costs after a judicial review.

The draft bill adds that “public participation in the planning system will remain a central component”.

Why has this caused controversy?

It is understood that the three Green Party ministers around the Cabinet table yesterday flagged concerns that changes to judicial reviews would restrict access to justice.

Wicklow Green Party TD Steven Matthews also told RTÉ that there are “major reservations” with the legislation.

The party is understood to believe that the “widest number of people should be allowed to take an appeal if they so wish”.

Elsewhere, Environmental Pillar, which is comprised of national environmental NGOs, said the bill “threatens to restrict public access to justice”.

The group said the bill has “painted an alarming picture”.

It added: “Certain changes will severely limit the ability and rights of the public, its associations and organisations to challenge unlawful planning decisions in the Court and hold public authorities to account.”

Meanwhile, Community Law and Mediation, a community law centre and charity established in 1975, states that it has “serious reservations about the direction of travel that the government is taking”.

It added that the proposed bill “seems to limit, not enhance, public participation in environmental protection”.

However, business group Ibec has labelled the proposed bill an “important, necessary step in the right direction” and added that “proposals for streamlining the Judicial Review regime are badly needed”.

Are other major changes planned?

An Bord Pleanála will also be re-structured and re-named ‘An Coimisiún Pleanála’.

The re-structuring will the planning body, with the Chairperson and Board Member roles being replaced by a Chief Planning Commissioner and up to 14 full-time planning commissioners.

A new governing executive, separate from the decision makers, will also be responsible for the organisation’s governance.

Why is An Bord Pleanála changing?

The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) released a review into An Bord Pleanála in October that stated the planning body is in need of “urgent reform”.

Its review contained 11 recommendations aimed at restoring public confidence in An Bord Pleanála and to ensure effectiveness in the overall planning system.

The review followed several months of controversy at An Bord Pleanála, with its deputy chair, Paul Hyde, resigning in July after revelations about alleged conflicts of interest.

Hyde has always denied any wrongdoing.

Its chair Dave Walsh also announced last month his decision to retire early, citing “personal and family reasons”.

In the proposed bill, the Department of Housing writes: “It is vital that there is confidence in the integrity and impartiality of this process.”

The Department added that a “new organisational structure” is needed to “underpin confidence in the capacity of An Bord Pleanála to make planning decisions in a fair manner”.

Minister of State for Planning and Local Government Peter Burke said the changes “will result in an important separation of decision-making and the corporate/organisational roles”.

Will this make planning decisions quicker?

Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien has previously said the planning system “has become very unwieldy” and needed to be more efficient.

Other changes to the Judicial Review process includes giving An Bord Pleanála the ability to “correct an error of fact or law in a planning decision.”

The planning body will also “be able to apply for a stay on the determination of Judicial Review proceedings whilst making such corrections”.

In recent years, judicial reviews have been used to challenge decisions made by An Bord Pleanála around large-scale property developments around the country.

There will also be timelines set out for the entire judicial review process, from pleading cases to the delivery of a judgement.

The Department of Housing said of the proposed changes: “Where infrastructure such as housing is needed and is appropriate, it will happen with greater certainty and speed.”

Timelines are also being introduced for appeals and consents applications made to An Bord Pleanála and the body will be subject to fines if it fails to adhere to these timelines.

These timelines have yet to be finalised.

Can changes be made to the proposed bill?

Any controversies around this planning legislation will wait until next year ,when the proposed legislation goes before the committee.

As the proposals are contained in a draft Bill, Green Party sources have said there will be “extensive” discussions when the legislation goes through pre-legislative scrutiny in the Oireachtas Housing Committee.

Indeed, Green Party sources have said the issues will be “trashed out” and solutions found at this stage.

Meanwhile, Rose Wall, the CEO of Community Law & Mediation, said: “We look forward to engaging with the bill as it makes its way through the Oireachtas and hope that the government will actively engage with social justice organisations, environmental NGOs and others, to produce a piece of legislation which places public participation and environmental protection at the heart of our planning system.”

Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien faced a vote of no confidence yesterday; are these issues linked?

Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien is one of the few ministers to be told that they will be remaining in position after the Cabinet re-shuffle later this week.

However, he faced a motion of confidence in the Dáil yesterday.

A motion from Solidarity-People Before Profit stated that the Dáil “has no confidence in the Minister for Housing, that his housing policies are creating a catastrophic failure that is tearing apart the social fabric of Irish society, and calls for the minister to be removed from office”.

This motion was then countered by a Government motion of confidence in the minister.

The government’s motion was passed by 86 votes to 63, with one abstention.

People Before Profit-Solidarity TD Richard Boyd Barret said the motion was “a desperate attempt to force the Government to acknowledge” its housing policy is “an absolute catastrophe”.

So while concerns over the proposed Planning and Development Bill, particularly among members of the Green Party, are not helpful for O’Brien, these concerns are not linked to yesterday’s motion of no confidence.

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