Thursday 1 July 2010

Sounds like a plan? Tell that to the planners

Article by Isobel Morton:

RECENTLY, I made the huge mistake of trying to explain the Irish planning process to English clients who wish to renovate their recently purchased period home in Dublin.

After 45 minutes of their questions and my total inability to provide them with adequate answers, we gave up.

I am absolutely sure they thought I was lying through my teeth, mentally unhinged and suffering from some sort of planner phobia (the latter I will admit to, as it may well be the case).

They spoke very slowly and smiled through gritted teeth as they politely rephrased their questions for the umpteenth time, in the hope that this tragically simple Irish woman might eventually understand.

I did, but unfortunately they couldn’t understand my responses – which was hardly surprising, as they made no logical sense to me, let alone to them.

To further complicate matters, my clients’ property was listed as a “protected structure” and the planning application would have to include a conservation report including photographic evidence and be subject to additional guidelines pertaining to protected structures.

In the vain hope that the architect involved would have better luck explaining the endless vagaries of the Irish planning process, I asked him to speak to the clients. He sighed and mumbled that he has been trying unsuccessfully to second-guess the planners for 35 years but he did at least explain the situation to the clients and reiterated my views. Now the clients are of the belief that we are both completely off the rails.

They carefully explained the simple and perfectly logical UK planning process, hoping, no doubt, that I would at some point interject and confirm that we followed a similar system. I didn’t because we don’t.

Their story included “a nice man from the council”, who would call (at a time suitable to them both) and have a cup of tea and a chat about what they proposed building.

He would then help them to fill in forms and give them tips on what things the planners favoured and what should be avoided. Then, assuming they stuck by the advice given and didn’t apply for permission to build a Trump Tower in their back garden, the planning would fly through the system.

How perfectly civilised and sensible, I thought, as I attempted to explain that there was a distinct possibility their application will be delayed by a few months, as the planners may well respond with a short few lines requesting “additional information” and indeed could subsequently come back with a further demand for “clarification of additional information”.

Looking concerned, and with a slight edge creeping into their voices, the clients told me they sincerely hoped I would remember to provide all of the necessary information the planners would require in order to avoid any unnecessary delays.

Politely, I explained that it wouldn’t matter how much information had been included with the application, the planners were still within their rights to request “additional information”.

Indeed, the term “additional information” was a useful stalling tactic, used a lot during the boom years, coming up to Christmas or summer holidays, when they hadn’t the time or the inclination to go through your planning proposal. I explained that it could include anything from a demand for details of the proposed exterior paint colour, to an engineer’s report on the condition of a disused Victorian drain running through the end of the property’s garden. In fact, it could be for anything at all or indeed for nothing in particular.

“No!”, they said in unison, “Yes” I replied emphatically. “There may be neither rhyme nor reason to the planner’s requests and demands.”

“But, surely there are rules?”

“Yes, their rules, which change like the wind.”

Watching their eyes widen, I warmed to my subject and warned them that they would probably be asked to make a “development contribution” to the planning authority towards the cost of services such as water supply, roads and sewage, which would be a condition in the grant of permission and would have to be paid prior to commencing work on their small kitchen extension.

I gave the example of another client, whose two-storey (garage with bedroom above) extension was given planning permission but with a €17,000 contribution charge. (With fewer planning applications these days, they have to earn their money from those who do apply.)

Then, of course, if permission was refused or there was an objection, they would have to appeal to An Bord Plean├íla, which would be both time-consuming and expensive, with no guarantee of success, as our planning board regularly chooses to ignore its own inspectors’ reports and recommendations.

The clients’ eyes were out on sticks. Having experienced the open and democratic planning system that operates in the UK they were horrified that the planning process here was so expensive and protracted and that it continues to be conducted behind closed doors.

Irish Times

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