Tuesday, 4 December 2007

In defence of planning

In ‘Down Under’ by Bill Bryson, Bill notes how Australia is unknown to most Americans because it is never mentioned in the media. Planning has the opposite problem: it is never out of the media. ‘An Irish Town Planner’s Blog’ contains 1283 articles of direct relevance to planning so far for 2007. Whether it is incinerators, prisons, motorways, or developer’s dreams, planning has it all. It is hot stuff. Even for gossip in a Dara O'Briain style Dublin Pub Ad you can hear the punters saying: “Did you hear about U2’s plans for the Clarence – sure they pay no tax?” or “Gormley’s certainly looking green after swallowing the Fianna Fail flavoured M3 proposals.” Switch on your TV or open a newspaper; planning issues are in the headlines. At the same time, oddly, few planners are ever caught talking or writing about planning, so complaint about planning, planners and “The System” often goes unchallenged and unexplained, which, like waiting for a pre-planning meeting, is frustrating.

This article, the first of a series, takes on the planner’s perspective. Just because you have seldom heard this perspective other than at a pre-planning meeting where things are all a bit one-sided, does not mean it isn’t there, it just takes too much effort to find.

A planner’s perspective on your planning application often involves approaching a planning counter (when it’s open), requesting a dust-filled file, and picking through a planner’s report. This report will have been written by one planner, read by another, signed by another and checked by another, and so on: hardly representing an independent planner’s opinion. When read, a planning report is dissected by construction industry professionals in a manner which often misunderstands its content as being open for discussion. Decisions are not democratic; rather, they are judgements. The forum for expressing genuine professional planner opinion does not exist, so most are cautious. You can debate the judgement, but you cannot alter the decision, but by appeal.

Planning has a bad reputation in the construction industry. This is hardly surprising. No industry likes its regulator. In private conversations, few disagree on the need for planning, but everyone has had a bad experience. Most women feel this way about men, but most want a relationship with one. Likewise planning, love it or hate it, we must work within its rules, so when it says the bedrooms need to be bigger to meet the new Guidelines, do it or suffer.

At its most basic, most of the frustrations with planning are understandable. The industry wants everything to be granted planning permission as fast as possible with as few conditions and as little payable by way of development contribution or contributed by way of Part V as is possible. Throw in objections, technical issues with roads, drainage, etc. one can begin to understand the magnitude of the job confronting planners. While behind each individual planning application is normally a client and a group of industry professionals each focused on its outcome, for a planner it’s another day at the office and another planning file. If it’s bad, it’s bad; if it’s good, it’s granted. This means no one gets special treatment, but it can mean the project on which months may have been spent working is, coldly discarded. Getting the right decision every time means proposing the right project, at the right time, at the right scale, at the right location. This according to the planning statistics is not a big ask.

What I mean is, if it is planning permissions on which the construction industry judges planning and planners, then what’s the problem? Granting planning permission is mostly what happens. Planning authorities made 80,029 planning decisions in 2006. Of these 81.3% were grants of permission and just 18.7% were refusals.

Assume the most frustrated people with planning are those who are refused planning permission. This is around a fifth of applicants. If you were really frustrated with your local planning authority, you would appeal to An Bord Pleanála. 20% of 80,029 planning applications would be 16,005, but only 3903 appeals were made in 2006 – and, only 42% were against refusals. Thus not everyone in the industry disagrees with their refusal. Of course some will go back with revised planning applications – but they must alter the scheme – normally in the direction required by the planning assessment and technical referrals.

For the frustrated individuals who appeal against a local planning authority decision, statistically only 24% will succeed in over-turning a decision. And planner’s recommendations on files are right - according to the Board – in 88% of cases. The remaining 76% reluctantly still stewing over the first refusal and determined to go on now have just one choice. It’s defibrillator time. By applying a barrister to the metaphorical chest of a planning application, it is theoretically possible to over-turn a Board decision. Taking 2005 figures, during 2005, only 17 cases made it through to High Court judicial review proceedings. Add to this that judicial review only provides an opportunity to examine the administration of the case, not its planning merits. It hardly represents a route for proving a planner wrong.

Therefore, of the thousands and thousands of planning applications assessed each year. Most people are granted planning permission and a quarter of those who are not will get it on appeal. Few planning applications in which there is merit have problems obtaining planning.

Contrary to the notion that planners are anti-development, planners are pro-development. The stats speak for themselves. What planners are not is eejits. This is not the impression provided by reading a newspaper or watching the news. Without any knowledge of planning, one would be left with the impression of all planners as apparatchiks who consistently deny individuals and developers their due. This is not the case; most planners have attended the same courses as professionals in the Construction industry. And, all planners have attended professional planning courses. Planners are well able to assess planning applications.

In the last fifteen years, planners in Ireland have reacted to the changing face of this country by permitting previously unheard of scale developments. To cope with growth the Irish planning systems has become more complex, but more capable. Irish planners have withstood demands and pressures – often being thrown straight from college into planning authorities around the country due to demand for planners – and have not complained openly about it. Planners have gotten on with the job.

During the administration of this system, we all have stories of difficulties with obtaining pre-planning, spurious invalidations, odd decisions, and so on. This is to be expected with a planning system the size of Ireland’s. Beyond all these minor stories, the reason for the much-hyped but non-existent stand-off between the construction industry and planners is nothing to do with planners being disagreeable. It is to do with planners doing their job. That is, of regulating the industry.

In my next article I will review the growing role of shock planning in Ireland. Shock planning is where a very large proposal is introduced and the pressure is placed on planners and planning to react. Recent cases include Greystones Marina and Sean Dunne’s Ballsbridge.

Brendan Buck
Irish Construction Industry Magazine

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