LOCAL AUTHORITIES will have to undo some of the "indiscriminate and excessive zonings" of land that are "now completely out of line with current imperatives", according to the chairman of An Bord Pleanála.
Speaking at the launch of its annual report yesterday, John O'Connor identified these imperatives as the economic downturn, climate change, energy costs, maximising return on infrastructural investment and avoiding "unnecessary sprawl" into agricultural land.
Referring to goings-on involving councillors zoning more and more land against planning advice, he said the appeals board would continue to refuse permission if the zonings were in conflict with national policies or regional planning guidelines.
In such cases local authorities could face massive compensation claims from developers. This should be taken into account by councillors when they rezoned land in response to "special pleadings by landowners and other vested interests".
"The idea that every place must get development, no matter how thinly spread, was never sustainable, but will be distinctly less sustainable in the future," he said. Local authorities needed to realise that investments in infrastructure "cannot be replicated everywhere".
In dealing with planning appeals, Mr O'Connor said the board "is constantly coming across zoned sites that are too far removed from developed areas, too remote from public facilities such as piped services, footpaths, lighting and with no prospect of public transport".
Welcoming the recent publication by the Minister for the Environment of draft planning guidelines on flood risk management, he said the board hoped that these would lead to fewer appeals against permissions granted in floodplains. Water resources were another constraint that had to be taken into account, he said. Already, some urban areas were having difficulties in sourcing drinking water and finding suitable water bodies in which to discharge treated sewage.
"This will mean tough decisions directing development to areas that don't have such constraints . . . The long-term economic and environmental costs of pumping water or sewage over long distances will have to be factored into planning."
Mr O'Connor said the board also had concerns about the number of decisions on individual schemes that did not reflect planning policies. The appeals board was often "a stronger defender of the development plan than the local authority who adopted it".
"This has serious implications for the credibility of the whole system . . . If councils are not seen to respect their own plans, developers and the general public are less likely to do so," he said. This applied, in particular, to local authorities approving out-of-town shopping centres even in defiance of their development plans. But despite some "patchy decisions", the 2000 retail planning guidelines had "served us well".
"There is an onus on planning authorities to protect town centres from being denuded of their retail function, to preserve the capacity of major road junctions, to ensure the local availability of retail services [and] to reduce reliance on private transport."
Mr O'Connor added that "there is a risk that the long-term price to the community of permitting huge megastores . . . outside our towns and cities could be much greater than any short-term gain in terms of grocery prices".
On the growing number of applications for nursing homes, he said some were being proposed for "singularly inappropriate" locations, notably "isolated greenfield sites remote from towns or villages, shops or services of any description". The proportion of local authority decisions reversed by the board in 2007 remained steady at 32 per cent.
The Irish Times