On 15 January 2015, the Government published outline terms for Planning No.2 Bill, which aims to improve transparency and accountability in the Irish planning system.  Planning No.2 Bill has been put forward primarily in response to recommendations of the Mahon Tribunal, which stressed the need for increased checks and balances in the Irish planning system.  Planning No.2 Bill also sets out measures to support the planning actions in the Government Construction 2020 Strategy and to improve the efficiency of the planning system generally. 

Key Provisions

The key provisions in Planning No.2 Bill are: 

  1. Establishment of a new independent planning regulator - the Office of the Planning Regulator (“OPR”).  The primary functions of the OPR will include:
    • Evaluating and assessing plans and regional spatial and economic strategies and providing statutory observations and recommendations to planning authorities and regional assemblies on these plans and strategies. 
    • Notifying the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government where a plan or strategy is not consistent with proper planning and sustainable development.  The OPR’s notice to the Minister will be made available on the OPR’s website.  The Minister will be obliged to consider the recommendations of the OPR and if he does not agree with them, he must give his reasons before each House of the Oireachtas and make these reasons available on the Department’s website. 
    • Carrying out research and providing education to planning authorities
    • Powers to review the organisation, systems and procedures applied by planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála, to investigate complaints and to report and make recommendations.
  2. Development of a National Planning Framework ("NPF") to replace the existing National Spatial Strategy 2002-2020. The NPF will set an overarching framework for regional and local development, including strategic investment in transport, housing, water services, communications and other necessary infrastructure.
  3. Publication of submissions and observations received on development and local area plans on the relevant planning authorities’ website within 7 days of receipt.
  4. A new obligation for planning authorities to seek submissions and observations from the relevant regional assembly[1] where a decision to grant planning permission would materially contravene the local development plan. 
  5. Allowing the Minister to make regulations facilitating electronic planning and obliging planning authorities to provide for systems such as “My-plan,” a free public information system for development or local area plans. 
  6. A control mechanism obliging Irish Water to have regard to the Minister in relation to installation of necessary infrastructure.  This is to ensure that infrastructure is installed only when it is required as part of the core development strategies. 

Policy Statement on Planning  

The Government also published a non-statutory Policy Statement on Planning along with Planning No.2 Bill.  The Policy sets out 10 key principles which should be used as a strategic guide to ensure proper planning and sustainable development.  These include principles of sustainable development, creating and developing communities, supporting a transition to a low carbon future and adapting to changing climate, encouraging greater use of public transport, conserving and enhancing natural and cultural heritage and supporting and protecting environment quality.  The Policy also highlights Government priorities for planning development, which include: improving planning services, maintaining high standards of public confidence in the planning system, a new National Planning Framework, a renewed construction sector as envisaged by Construction 2020 and future employment growth and development. 

Has it Gone Far Enough?

A key concern of the Mahon Tribunal in relation to planning was that changes to the system over the years had resulted in an over-centralisation of power in the hands of the Minister for the Environment, which was not subject to sufficient checks and balances.  Planning No.2 Bill and its proposal for the OPR do not reduce the Minister’s substantial powers to issue guidelines or directions in relation to planning matters.  In particular, Planning No.2 Bill does not address Mahon’s recommendation that the Minister’s ability to give directions to the regional and local authorities should be entrusted to the OPR.  The OPR’s powers are therefore limited primarily to observing, reporting and recommending as opposed to having any executive powers or powers of sanction.  However, Planning No.2 Bill does follow many of Mahon’s recommendations and to the extent that it provides an additional, transparent layer of oversight in relation to key planning strategies and decisions, it is to be welcomed. 

Planning No.2 Bill has been transmitted to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht for pre-legislative scrutiny.  It is scheduled to be enacted by the end of 2015.  We will keep you updated on its progress through the legislative process.