Saturday 10 November 2007

An Bord Pleanála - Annual Report 2006

At the publication of Bord Pleanála’s Annual Report, 2006, on 9th November 2007, the Chairperson of the Board, John O’Connor, said that the Board is experiencing a considerable level of activity under the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act, 2006. To date, the Board has received 64 applications from project sponsors for pre-planning application discussions in accordance with the provisions of Section 37B and other corresponding sections of the Act. First meetings between the sponsors and Board teams headed by some of our most experienced inspectors have been held in relation to 52 of these cases and the pre-application phase of the process has been completed in 19 cases. In all the Board has held over 85 pre application meetings to-date. These cases cover a wide range of projects such as electricity infrastructure, gas infrastructure, waste, mainline, metro and light rail, harbours, airports, large wind farms, etc. The pre-application phase involves the Board determining whether the project is to be admitted as a Strategic Infrastructure project and advising on the significant planning sustainability and environmental issues that will have to be addressed in the formal application. In this the Board will seek to ensure that the project addresses broader national and regional policies and takes account of its impact across other sectors.

Following closure of the pre-application phase formal applications for approval of projects have been received in 3 cases viz, the Dunboyne railway extension, a gas-fired power plant in Co. Louth and a LNG terminal at Ballylongford Co. Kerry. Notice has been given to the general public and relevant consultees and details have been sent for reports to the local authorities concerned. The Board has discretion as to whether an oral hearing will be held but it is the Board’s intention to hold hearings in all cases where there are significant planning or environmental issues or where there are serious concerns for the local community or statutory consultees.

It needs to be stressed that under the new Act the twin criteria of proper planning and sustainable development and the effects on the environment must be applied to all strategic infrastructure projects. This is a significant change in relation to rail projects, motorways and gas pipelines. For example, the broader planning implications of new rail projects will have to be addressed, including the location and design of stations, integration with other transport services, etc. Also, the broader transportation implications of other infrastructure such as harbour developments have to be carefully assessed.

The Board has a statutory objective to determine Strategic Infrastructure cases within 18 weeks of the latest date for the receipt of submissions from the general public. In the interests of transparency and to avoid any perception of pre-judgement the Board has decided as a matter of policy that the inspector who has led the Board’s team in the pre-application phase will not participate in the formal application phase or have any involvement in the oral hearing or the ultimate recommendation to the Board. Different inspectors will be appointed to carry out these functions.

The Board has published a number of guidelines advising applicants and local authorities of the procedures to be followed and advising the general public and interested bodies on how they can participate in the process.

A Strategic Infrastructure Division, comprising 5 members, has been set up within the Board to perform the functions assigned to it under the Act. The new Division of the Board will be supported by a separate Division within the organisation with a staff of 25. 6 additional Senior Inspectors have already been appointed and further recruitment is underway to ensure that the new Division has the necessary capacity to meet the demanding targets set for the Board in the legislation. The Strategic Infrastructure Division is now also handling major roads and other local authority infrastructure projects and related Compulsory Purchase Orders (transferred to the Board under the 2000 Act).

Planning appeals running at record level

Mr. O’Connor also said that the number of appeals or the scale of developments coming to the Board is not, so far, indicating any decline in the level of construction activity. The record intake of planning appeals in 2005 and 2006 is set to be surpassed in the current year and this is putting severe strain on the Board’s resources. As a result, it is proving difficult to maintain the satisfactory performance in terms of the time taken to determine appeals.

* Up to the end of September 2007 the intake of appeals, infrastructure and other cases was 14% up on last year’s intake. On present trends, the 2007 intake is set to approach the 7,000 mark.
* Despite a 10% increase in cases determined, the percentage of cases being decided within the 18 week statutory time objective has fallen further from 53% in 2006 to 49% in 2007.
* Reflecting the high intake, the number of cases on hands at the end of September 2007 was 2741, an increase of 22% over September 2006.

The Board is taking all possible measures to deal with the backlog and to get back as soon as possible to achieving its overall strategic objective to dispose of 90% of cases within 18 weeks. These include putting in place additional resources and considering other options to increase output. The Board regrets the delays that are occurring.

It appears that the continuing high volume of appeals reflects the general increase in planning applications to local authorities and is not due to an increase in the rate of appeal, which has consistently remained at around 7% nationally.

Apart from the Strategic Infrastructure cases the intake of cases has been boosted, in particular, by appeals relating to larger housing schemes (30+ units), quarries (reflecting the general tightening up of the control of quarry developments under the 2000 Act) agricultural developments (reflecting the Nitrates Regulations), wind farms, and houses in suburban gardens.
General trends in 2006 report

The following are some general trends in normal planning appeals contained in the 2006 report:-

* The share of local decisions appealed which were reversed by the Board was 33%, compared to 30% in 2005.
* First party appeals against refusal resulted in grants of permission in 26% of cases, up from 24% in 2005.
* Third party appeals against grants of permission resulted in 43% refusals, up from 40% in 2005.
* 25% of appeals (27% in 2005) were disposed of without a formal decision by the Board, mainly because they were invalid (15%) or withdrawn (9%).

Unsustainable land zoning

The Chairperson said he noted the exercise by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government of his powers to intervene where zoning decisions in Development Plans are in conflict with national policies. He welcomes this and previous similar Ministerial interventions because the Board sometimes finds itself dealing with appeals relating to sites where the zoning clearly does not accord with the principles of sustainable development. The zoning of land should be a clear indicator that the land is suitable for development of the kind stated (subject to any qualifications indicated in the Development Plan) and is fundamental to the operation of our planning system. Mr. O’Connor warned, however, that it could not be assumed that the Board would be constrained to grant permission by zonings which were not sustainable or which contradicted national policies or regional planning guidelines.

He instanced cases where the site is at risk of flooding, where development would devalue investment in national roads, where development would pose an undue threat to heritage or habitats, or where excessively large tracts of land are zoned outside of small towns and villages. The Board would not be deflected from refusing permission in such cases merely because the local authorities might be at risk of having to pay compensation arising out of unjustifiable zonings.

Building heights

The Chairperson said the Board was concerned about the present situation in relation to building heights in cities and even towns. At present developments which, due to their height, can have a profound effect on the visual and urban character of cities/towns are being made largely on an ad hoc basis without the benefit of properly debated and adopted policies by local authorities. The difficulties in adopting clear policies often seem due to tension between developers and their architects on the one side and councillors, reflecting local concerns, on the other, with local authority management and planners somewhere between the two extremes.

The majority of high-rise developments seem to be appealed and, while the Board does its best to apply whatever policy context exists in each case, it has to decide on the particular merits of any proposal based on local circumstances but also bearing in mind broader national policies. Local authorities should be doing more to promote informed debate and to develop consensus around their policies so that there is a shared vision for the future development of urban centres and against which individual development schemes can be evaluated.

Water quality

The Chairperson said that the recent E.P.A. report on water quality prompted him to repeat previous concerns about the effect of the ongoing proliferation of septic tanks (including proprietary systems) associated with houses in the countryside. The 15-17,000 rural houses being built every year are adding to pressure on groundwater resources and must be accounting for some of the decline in standards reported by the E.P.A. (57% of groundwater sampling locations were contaminated by faecal coliforms). Over one-third of refusals of rural houses by the Board feature risk of pollution as a reason. Some local authorities are still granting planning permission without having a full set of drainage tests or without a proper assessment of the tests that are submitted. The Board considers that it is not appropriate to grant permission or even outline permission without establishing that it is possible to provide safe drainage on the site. It is not good enough to rely on conditions requiring post-permission evaluations and actions which may not prove effective. This can also apply to housing schemes on unserviced sites which rely on private treatment systems.

The Board welcomes the new waste water discharge regulations which should ensure that permission will not be given for developments discharging to overloaded or otherwise defective treatment plants.

Residential development standards

The Chairperson said that a lot of solid progress was being made in developing a new more sustainable planning paradigm for our expanding urban centres. There is now fairly widespread acceptance of the merits of building at higher densities (which does not necessarily mean high-rise), employing good quality designs, aligning with public transport plans and other infrastructure such as education, recreation, shopping and so on. In the case of large greenfield development areas the SDZ model is being seen as highly effective. However, the same approach can be adapted, if less formally, to smaller scale situations. Implementation of the new standards for residential accommodation published by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should reinforce the acceptability of apartments as standard family accommodation by ensuring that units offer decent standards as regards internal space, light, storage and private open space. Local Authorities should make it clear to developers that they will look for these standards as a minimum in dealing with planning applications. It can be taken that the Board will do so in any cases coming on appeal, even if the local authority has accepted a lower standard in its decision. The days of blocks of small single aspect flats sitting in car parks are over!

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