Thursday 15 October 2009

Bord Pleanála warns on relaxing planning rules

ANY RELAXATION of planning standards in response to the recession – even for land that falls into the hands of the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) – would be “extremely shortsighted”, the chairman of An Bord Pleanála has said.

At a press briefing yesterday on the board’s 2008 annual report, John O’Connor also said the “excessive and unsustainable zoning of land” that contributed to the property bubble would have to be tackled by local authorities.

“If we are to return to realistic development planning, some of this land will have to be dezoned, and facing up to this has a part to play in deflating the bubble,” he said, adding that this would apply “irrespective of whether it’s in the hands of Nama or not”.

Mr O’Connor said there was nothing in the legislation establishing Nama that would change the need to obtain planning permission. He said that “the normal requirements will apply”.

“There can be no expectation that proper planning standards would not be applied to development proposals, even where the land is linked to distressed loans,” Mr O’Connor said. “Now, more than ever, we need to embrace the principles of good planning and sustainable development in order to prevent further deterioration of our environment, to respond to climate change [and] to maximise the return from expensive infrastructure investment.”

Mr O’Connor said the planning Bill now before the Oireachtas should ensure a “much more coherent and sustainable approach to zoning”. Anyone assessing property values in terms of development potential would now have to “look beyond the particular zoning” and focus on the availability of services as well as other planning issues such as density, height, impact on amenities and orderly urban expansion.

Mr O’Connor expressed concern that developers may be tempted to return to lower density development as a “safer option” in the present market and warned that such applications, particularly in major urban centres, would be “critically assessed” by the board.

The recession has had an impact on An Bord Pleanála’s workload, with a drop of more than 30 per cent in the intake of appeals in the past year. As a result, the number of cases on hand had almost halved to 1,550 and “routine delays” may soon be eliminated.

In 2008, however, “severe workload pressure” meant that the board met the statutory objective of determining appeals within 18 weeks in only 23 per cent of cases – down from 48 per cent in 2007. Last month, Mr O’Connor said the figure was 36 per cent.

Of 5,801 cases determined, appeals by developers against refusals had a 28 per cent success rate, while 39 per cent of third- party appeals were upheld.

The proportion of local authority decisions appealed rose from 6.7 per cent to 8.1 per cent.

From the introduction of the Strategic Infrastructure Act in 2007 to the end of last month, the board dealt with 137 requests from project sponsors for “pre-application consultations” on projects that were “too vague” in some cases, according to Mr O’Connor.

Of the 137 requests for projects to be processed under the Act, 33 qualified for its “fast-track” planning treatment, 46 were not regarded by the board as strategic infrastructure cases, and 18 were withdrawn or otherwise concluded.

Of 15 formal applications for permission received under the Act, eight have been concluded with four granted, three refused and one withdrawn.

Mr O’Connor said the public-service reform agenda must include rationalisation of the number of local authorities with planning functions – currently 88 county, city and town councils.

“Many of these authorities have administrative areas that are much too small and fractured to constitute meaningful planning units,” he said, adding that he would not favour “one big monolithic planning authority”.

Irish Times

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