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A useful guide to Ireland's planning system and how to have your say on proposed developments

News of two developments brought the system into focus again this week.

Image: Shutterstock/CHAIYA

IRELAND’S PLANNING SYSTEM came into focus again this week amid opposition to the proposed construction of two new developments in the centre of Dublin.

The approval of plans to build a four-storey hotel at Merchant’s Arch were criticised on social media early in the week, with claims that the red-brick development would destroy the character of the walkway that links Temple Bar to the Ha’Penny Bridge.

Anger at that decision hadn’t yet subsided when it emerged that another hotel was being planned in Smithfield beside the Cobblestone pub, one which would essentially replace the pub’s smoking area and venue, leaving only the front bar in place.

Opponents to both developments have decried what they feel is an overabundance of hotels in the capital, combined with the gradual erosion of cultural spaces.

Whatever your stance on these issues, there are formal methods of expressing your views on planning applications, and ways to find out about what’s being planned before you hear about them in news reports or on social media.

For those who want to know how it all works, here’s a guide to Ireland’s planning system.

How do developers get permission to build something? 

It’s important to note from the start that the planning system covers far more than the construction of new houses or hotels.

Every year, tens of thousands of applications are made for permission to build or retain developments on a much smaller scale, like house extensions, driveways, disabled parking spaces, the use of certain signage outside shops, or pub smoking areas.

Planning applications – whether they’re small like the ones described above or bigger ones like houses or hotels – are submitted to the local authority which governs the area that the proposed development is going to be located in.

As part of the process of submitting an application, developers must advertise a notice of their plans in a locally circulating newspaper and install a site notice at the physical location of the development, which looks like this:

Sitenotice Source: Clare County Council

Details of the application will then be posted on the council’s website, where documents – including drawings and models of what’s proposed – will also appear.

Members of the public can then submit their observations on the development – whether they support or object to it – until a certain date, before the local authority’s planning department decides on whether to give the proposal the green light.

If the developer is unsuccessful in their application, they can appeal the council’s decision to An Bord Pleanála, which essentially involves the same process: details of the proposal are posted on the board’s website and the public are invited to submit their views, before the board makes a decision.

Even if a local authority approves a development, it can be appealed to An Bord Pleanála by a member of the public or group of people who do not agree with the council’s decision. This is known as a ‘third party appeal’.

Although An Bord Pleanála’s decision is the final port of call within the planning system, its rulings can be appealed to the courts by people seeking a judicial review, though this is a much more expensive and time-consuming process.

These reviews have made headlines in recent years because a number of local groups across the country have successfully prevented the construction of large-scale housing developments.

However, most planning issues in Ireland never get as far as the courts system.

Where can details of proposed developments be found?

Planning applications for every area in the country, both those that are active and those that have been decided on, are uploaded to each local authority’s website.

The planning section on each council’s website is generally easy to find, but there’s also a handy list with links to all 33 of them here.

Unsurprisingly, every local authority’s website is different and it might take a bit of looking around on the planning page to find what you’re looking for, but most of them are fairly straightforward and easy to navigate.

Each planning page contains useful links that you can use to find details of applications, and there are two things in particular that you should look out for: a search function and weekly lists.

If you can’t find these on the local authority’s website, put “[local authority] planning search” or “[local authority] planning weekly lists” into Google, with the name of the council you’re looking for (e.g. “Donegal County Council planning search”).

If that still doesn’t work, you can also ring the local authority for help.

Councils allow you to search for applications manually, so if you’re looking for details about a specific application and know the address, you can look it up by using a search function or on a map, both of which look like this:

Searchfunc Source: Kildare County Council

Searchfunc Source: Kildare County Council

General searches using a street or area name can help you to find out what’s being planned in a specific area. And you can also search by date to look back at other developments which may already have been approved or declined permission.

When you click into a planning application itself, the council provides details, including the type of development being proposed and the date by which it will make its decision.

There are even links containing documents – including drawings – submitted by people/developers as part of their application, which allow people to see exactly what’s being proposed.

For those who don’t have internet access or would prefer to see documents in person, details are also kept at the offices of the relevant local authority.

Weekly lists

Councils’ websites also contain details about new applications as they are submitted and decisions as they are made.

Each week, local authorities publish weekly lists of the most recent planning proposals they’ve received, as well as the developments they’ve approved or turned down. These lists are usually published on Mondays.

This is usually how media reports about approval for new developments come about, and how people find out about proposed developments that haven’t been given the green light yet (like the Cobblestone).

Details about appeals made to An Bord Pleanála – including weekly lists like those published by councils – can also be found on its website.

What information can be found in planning applications?

This is where the process gets slightly tricky.

Planning applications can sometimes use quite technical language because applying for planning permission is a technical process.

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But don’t be intimidated; you can glean plenty of knowledge from applications online, even if it’s your first time looking at one.

Firstly, there are a couple of types of application that refer to different things:

  • ‘Permission’ refers to an attempt to build a brand new development; for example, a house or an extension. This covers the majority of applications.
  • ‘Retention Permission’ refers to an attempt to continue with something that has already been approved on a temporary basis only; for example, a pub’s smoking area.
  • ‘Outline permission’ refers to an application to see whether a planning authority will agree with a proposal in principle before the applicant goes to the trouble of making more detailed plans.
  • ‘Section 5′ is where an applicant is seeking a formal declaration to establish if planning permission is required for the type of work they want to do.

The type of permission being sought will be stated in a specific section of the page where details of the application are found.

This is where you can look at what’s being proposed, along with details of any impact the development will have on the adjoining area (including nearby streets or other addresses).

Applications will often lay out what is being built, whether any demolition will take place, the size and area of any new buildings, and whether any amenities are being provided (like car parking spaces or bicycle stands).

Sometimes, they will contain proposals to close roads or sections of them to allow construction works to take place.

When planning permission is granted, a council will usually attach a number of conditions – such as the time that works must be carried out – to the application.

These can also be seen on the page where the application is found on the local authority’s website, after a decision has been made.

How can I make on observation about a development?

As part of the planning process, anyone has the right to make a written submission or observation on an application, which can be in support of or in objection to a proposal (or even a mix of both).

If you want to do this, you are required to contact the relevant local authority in writing and, if possible, quote the planning application’s reference number and give your name and address. A fee of €20 also applies.

Observations must be made by a certain date, which can be found online (as you can see from the Cobblestone example above). The final date for applications is usually five weeks after the application has been submitted.

When you’re making an observation, there are a couple of things to note.

You should clearly explain your reason for supporting or opposing the development: simply saying “the area needs/doesn’t need this” is unlikely to have much of an impact on how a council’s planners reach their decision.

Instead, you can factor in things like the impact something could have on a local area and the people who live there, how building works might affect you or your property, or how many similar amenities there are in the area already.

If you want a better idea of the kinds of submissions people make and how much planners consider them, a good tip is to look back at what members of the public have said in relation to similar developments in the area.

You can even see whether they took these into account by looking at the conditions attached by councils to planning permission for previous developments, or decisions about why certain developments were refused.

An Bord Pleanála inspection reports likewise detail the types of submissions that people make, as well as conditions for approval or the reasons for refusing permission.

The more submissions and reports you read, the more of an idea you’ll get of the type of reasons certain developments are allowed to go ahead.

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