THERE CAN be no doubt that the timing of Minister for the Environment John Gormley’s announcement that the Government had approved his new planning Bill is political; it is clearly designed to put the Green Party in a good light with an eye on next week’s elections, writes FRANK McDONALD
Normally, draft legislation is published simultaneously. In this case, however, the Bill in question is still with the parliamentary drafters and won’t see the light of day for several weeks. And with voters going to the polls next Friday, the Green Party leader couldn’t wait.
That being said, there is much to commend in the proposed legislation, based on details given yesterday. In particular, it addresses the Achilles heel of all previous planning Acts by replacing the phrase “shall have regard to” with the much stronger “shall be consistent with”.
At present, local authorities need only “have regard to” the National Spatial Strategy (NSS), regional planning guidelines and ministerial directives in formulating their development plans.
In future, they will be required to show that these plans are “consistent with” national policy.
The “have regard to” provisions that currently apply are so nebulous that the elected members of a local authority need only glance at the NSS or other guidelines before proceeding to do the exact opposite. Thus, they could get away with snubbing a raft of planning policies.
What the Bill means is that councillors will no longer be able to rezone vast tracts of land at will, in response to landowners’ pressure.
Instead, an “evidence-based core strategy” will have to inform all decisions on zoning, “consistent with” established planning policies.
One of the key elements of the new legislation is that in making or even varying a development plan, the city or county manager’s report on the draft being prepared for public consultation must clearly indicate how it complies with the NSS and regional planning guidelines.
Ministerial guidelines on development planning, flood risk management and other matters will also have greater legal force, and the Minister’s views on a draft development plan will also be dealt with separately in the manager’s report, to allow a “clear and open response”.
Councillors will no longer be able to make significant amendments to a draft development plan or local area plan that’s already been out for public consultation – for example, by adopting entirely new zonings; they will only have the power to modify it “in minor respects”.
As a further safeguard to ensure “democratic accountability”, the making or variation of a development plan or local area plan will require the support of two-thirds of the total number of elected members, instead of a simple majority as is currently the case.
Gormley’s use of his powers under section 31 of the 2000 Planning Act to require local authorities in Monaghan and Mayo to drop “excessive” zonings was deeply resented by the councillors involved and criticised by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment.
To take account of this, the Bill will provide a new “consultative procedure” whereby the Minister would issue a draft direction on which local views would be sought before a final direction is given – perhaps with the aid of an independent planning inspector to advise on it.
The “over-arching objective”, according to Gormley, is to ensure a strategic approach to zoning so that development would take place “at the right time and in the right place”, allowing State agencies to plan for the provision of infrastructure with much greater certainty.
New provisions aimed at supporting the Government’s target of having 40 per cent of electricity supplied from renewable sources by 2020 will integrate foreshore licensing for offshore wind and wave installations with the Strategic Infrastructure Act’s consent process. The Minister believes this would deliver an “integrated, fast-track, transparent and participative consent process” for the onshore and offshore elements of such renewable energy projects – although, of course, they would all go directly to An Bord Pleanála.
The Bill will also provide more flexibility for local authorities to use development levies for a broader range of social infrastructure such as schools and flood relief works.
This contrasts with Fianna Fáil’s pre-election commitment to cut levies by a half for at least two years.
Powers to refuse planning permission to applicants who have been convicted of serious breaches of planning legislation are being strengthened, and also to refuse retention permission to an applicant who has carried out a substantial unauthorised development.
These are sensible provisions – long overdue – to regulate the proliferation of unauthorised development. But one element that flies in the face of common sense is Gormley’s proposal to reduce An Bord Pleanála’s quorum from three to two for “routine” appeals.
Berna Grist, lecturer in planning at UCD and a former member of the appeals board, has pointed out that the “triumvirate” has been the ideal decision-making model since Roman times.
To reduce it to just two could result in the board being “frozen into indecision”, she said. The justification given for the proposed change is to expedite An Bord Pleanála’s determination of routine appeals and help the board to clear a significant backlog of cases.
But with the number of appeals down dramatically due to the recession, this is bound to happen anyway.
One specific recession-related provision in the Bill would allow local authorities to extend the five-year lifespan of a planning permission to facilitate developers who are in difficulties because of the credit crunch and the knock-on effect that this has had on construction activity.
The overall thrust of the Bill is designed not only to ensure better planning at local level, but also to avoid a repetition of the wild speculation that took place during the boom years, creating the property bubble and aggravating the intensity of the recession here.
If it succeeds in doing that, it must surely be welcomed by everyone who believes in “proper planning and sustainable development”, which was the explicit objective of the 2000 Planning Act. Unfortunately, we are now living with the consequences of having failed to achieve it.