DUBIOUS DECISIONS made by local authorities are to blame for the glut of so-called “ghost estates” particularly in rural counties, An Bord Pleanála chairman John O’Connor has said.
Many of the State’s 88 local authorities thought only of themselves when planning and zoning instead of having regard to regional and national development. Where the board had approved developments which were now ghost estates it was merely following zoning decisions, he said.
Mr O’Connor was speaking following the publication of the board’s 2009 annual report which showed that counties with the highest rates of decisions overturned by the board were the same counties which were recently revealed to have the biggest problems with ghost estates.
Donegal had the worst planning record with almost 60 per cent of appealed decisions overturned by the board, followed by Roscommon at just over 53 per cent. The National Housing Development Survey, published last week, found that Donegal had 133 ghost estates while Roscommon had 118. These were particularly large numbers given the low population densities of these counties.
Mr O’Connor said he had warned local authorities four or five years ago about inappropriate large-scale housing developments on the edges of towns and villages, and the impact such developments were having on those settlements.
“Unfortunately, I think in the past private interest had too much sway over the public good.”
Local authorities had all been “planning for themselves”, he said, without regard to zoning or developments in neighbouring county council areas.
“The tendency for each local authority [was] to look within its own area as to what was the maximum development that could be secured there, without looking at what was happened in the neighbouring authorities or to other authorities in the region, so when you added it all up you got these inflated figures.”
The board could not have stopped the development of ghost estates, he said, because only 9 per cent of local planning decisions were appealed to the board. Where the board did approve developments which are now ghost estates, it was because the land had been zoned for housing by the local authorities.
“I’m sure the board bears some responsibility and probably would have granted some cases . . . but in all cases this land would have been zoned and serviced. The board’s role in the whole planning process is that if land is zoned and serviced normally there is a presumption that development will be granted.
“The issue of ghost estates, a lot of these you will appreciate from the recent analysis were down to dubious local decision making.”
However, Mr O’Connor said the current “very deep lull” in construction activity could not last.
“The present level of activity in the development construction sectors is not sustainable if the country was to have any future in the long run.”
A review of the system of development levies set by local authorities would help maintain some level of construction activity and employment, he said. In some counties levies were excessively high and represented a disincentive to development. There was an argument that no levies should be imposed where a “brownfield” site, which was already serviced was being developed. He called for central Government guidance in relation to the setting of appropriate levies.
While bad local planning could be pointed to as the main culprit in the creation of ghost estates, the planning system was not responsible for the overall excesses of the boom years and could not be relied on to prevent another boom-bust cycle. “This is a matter for macro-economic fiscal and financial policies,” he said.
REJECTED COUNTIES WITH HIGHEST RATES OF PLANNING DECISIONS OVERTURNED:
1 Donegal 59.5%
2 Roscommon 53.3%
3 Longford 48%
4 Galway (excluding city) 46.8%
5 Waterford (excluding city) 44.3%
6 Westmeath 42.3%
7 Leitrim 41.4%
8 South Tipperary 39.7%
9 Wexford 38.8%
10 Cavan 38.6%