“Major reform of the planning system” commences, as building slows

16 December 2022

In the latest quarterly update on the progress of the Housing for All, there was a focus on upon “major reform of the planning system” to dually make housing construction more economically viable and accelerate supply. Indeed, Minister for State with responsibility for Planning, Peter Burke, in an interview with the Business Post unequivocally stated that “the most powerful tool we have is the planning code and it needs to be fit for purpose.” The primary vehicle for this reform is the consolidated planning bill, which will replace the Planning and Development Act 2000. The draft formulation of the legislation was brought to cabinet for approval on 13 December, with a view to publication of the legislation in early 2023. The Minister for Housing has also confirmed the bill will undergo pre-legislative scrutiny.

Of primary focus within the legislation, is reforming the judicial review mechanism within the planning process. Minister Darragh O’Brien accentuated the need to “provide clarity and transparency as to who is taking a case.” In this vein, the bill introduces a materiality test wherein members of the public have to prove the material impact of the development upon them. The reform will also impose time constraints on judicial reviews, and restrict the ability of resident associations to pursue high court actions against planned developments. Meanwhile, environmental NGOs will be subjected to eligibility criteria before being allowed to pursue a judicial review action.

Furthermore, planning decisions by an Bord Pleanála – to be renamed and reorganised as an Coimisiún Pleanála – will be subject to mandatory timelines. The reform also extends to county development plans which will now be developed for 10 years, as opposed to 6, with a review after year 5.

With the government under significant pressure and scrutiny on their housing policies – believed to be a root cause of the advent of teacher shortage across the education system, the bill purports to serve as the necessary incentive to continue, and indeed bolster, the productivity of the housing sector. In a concerning development, CSO figures for Q3 2022 published this week showed a 41% decline in the number of dwelling units approved compared to the same quarter in 2021. 

Though opposition to the legislation is to be expected, it would seem the two greatest impediments to the bill’s effectuation is the internal dissent of Green party TDs within government, and the initiation of legal challenges to the reforms. 

At cabinet, Green party ministers Roderic O’Gorman and Catherine Martin raised their concerns over the legislation. Meanwhile, Green Party TD and Chair of the Oireachtas Housing Committee, Steven Matthews publicly stated his concerns “I don’t think you improve the process by restricting people’s access to justice. I think you improve the process by making the application complete and adherent to law.” His party colleague Neasa Hourigan TD, was more outspoken, saying “the idea that judicial reviews are what snarls up the planning system is demonstrably rubbish.” Additionally, several legal experts have advised the legislation’s reform of the judicial review process could be subject to a constitutional challenge.