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Planning under scrutiny

HEART OF THE MATTER
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An Bord Pleanala sign

Planning under scrutiny

Heart of the matter
Michael Duffy



LAST week An Bord Pleanála released its annual report for 2005 and it certainly makes for interesting reading. The planning authority, like most of the sectors directly effected the building boom of the last decade, is currently under serious pressure with no sign whatsoever of the numbers of planning applications dropping.
A total of 74,833 planning decisions were made right across the country last year and of those 5,503 appeals were lodged with the authority. Chairman of the board, Mr John O’Connor, maintains that present trends indicate that the 6,000 mark is likely to be passed for the first time in 2006.
“Last year we received a record number of applications but the current strong level of construction looks set to continue judging by the level of developments coming to the Board  and this is putting severe strain on the Board’s resources,” stated the Chairman in his annual report.
This ‘severe strain’ means that it is now taking the Board longer than the statutory 18 week period to adjudicate on decisions. Just over half of the decisions are being made inside four and a half months.
“It just has not been possible to maintain the improved timeliness of the decision making recorded in previous years. The percentage of cases being decided within the 18 week statutory time objective has fallen back from 78 per cent in 2005 to 53 per cent in 2006 but we are taking all possible measures to deal with the backlog, and to get back as soon as possible to achieving our overall strategic objective to dispose of 90 per cent of cases within 18 weeks,“ added Mr O’Connor.
This means that any planning permission granted by Mayo County Council but then appealed to An Bord Pleanála are likely to be held up by as much as six months.
The Council last year made a total of 3,107 planning decisions (the sixth highest in the country) and just 176 of those, ended up been appealed to An Bord Pleanála, which is below the national average of 7.4 per cent.
However, the interesting percentage which jumps out from the board’s yearly figures from 2005 in relation relates to the overturning of the council’s decisions. Last year 46.5 per cent of the council’s decisions were reversed by the planning appeals body.
This is the second highest reversal rate of any council in the country, with Donegal the highest. Just one in five of the decisions made by the Mayo County Council are been backed up by An Bord Pleanála. The remaining appeals ended up being granted but with conditions attached to the council’s original decision.
A planning agent in Mayo, who submits over 100 applications for planning permission a year to Mayo County Council, feels that this is a ‘slightly worrying’ trend.
“It can be misleading to read too much into these figures from annual reports but it should be noted that planners right across the country are working under the same planning legislation and regulations and while there is a certain level of subjectivity involved in making a decision, it is slightly worrying that almost half of the decisions made by Mayo County Council that are appealed are overturned,” he said.
However, Mr John Condon, County Secretary said that every planning application was decided on its merits. The fact that 46 per cent of appealed decisions were overturned was , he said, no reflection whatsoever on the council’s planning department.
“The whole reason that An Bord Pleanála exists is so every applicant has the opportunity to seek a second opinion on a particular application. Only one in every 20 of our decisions made last year were eventually appealed to the board so perhaps that is the figure that the public should be focusing on.
“As a county council, we handled the sixth biggest amount of applications in the country in 2005 so our planners are always in demand but they make every effort to insure that every decision they make is an informed and correct one,” said the County Secretary.
Although theirs is the final say, An Bord Pleanála are determined not to portray an ‘air of authority’ over the public and as Mr O’Connor states, the boards three core principles are ‘independence, impartiality and openness’.
“We are always mindful of the fact that public confidence depends on the integrity and the quality of our decision making and the professionalism with which we carry out business,” he said.
However, much like the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Board intend to maintain there silence in relation to commenting on individual cases after a decision had been made and rubber stamped the board of directors.
“It is the Board’s policy to adopt the most open approach possible in its relations with the public and we operate a completely open file system once cases are determined. As some of our decision relate to major developments, it is only natural that some of them give rise to public controversy but we consider it proper to maintain our long established practice of not engaging in discussion on individual case because of the quasi-judicial nature of our functions and to avoid the risk of prejudicing future cases,” he said.