THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE PLANNING REGULATOR: DAWN OF A NEW ERA OF TRANSPARENCY?
The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) was established on 3 April 2019 with Mr. Niall Cussen as Ireland’s first Planning Regulator heading up this new office. The appointment of an independent Planning Regulator with oversight of the planning system in Ireland was one of the key recommendations of the Mahon Tribunal which highlighted the planning irregularities, lack of transparency and endemic past corruption within the area of planning in Ireland. The establishment of the Office of the Planning Regulator is provided for under the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018 which established the statutory basis for the OPR, its roles and functions in July 2018.
WHAT IS THE OPR?
The OPR was established by the government to oversee the effective delivery of planning services to the public by local authorities and An Bord Pleanala in relation to proper planning and development. Its core function is to ensure Ireland’s thirty one planning authorities and An Bord Pleanala provide proper standards for the benefit of the country.
WHAT ARE THE OTHER FUNCTIONS OF THE OPR?
The OPR’s functions are quite wide and broad ranging. One of its primary functions would be to provide the assessment of local authority development plans and local area plans, regional assembly and economic strategies and statutory advice to those authorities to ensure consistency with relevant national and regional policies. The OPR will now commence conducting independent assessments of the development plans, local plans and regional and economic strategies and will inform the Minister of any directions that may be required to uphold the policy and regulatory requirements. The OPR is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the national planning framework through local development plans and regional and economical spatial strategies. The planning regulator is a statutory consultee in the process of preparing regional strategies and for all development plans.
In addition, and fundamentally, the OPR has a role in examining complaints from members of the public with regard to the systemic failures in relation to a planning authority or An Bord Pleanala. Whilst matters in relation to individual planning enforcements and administration complaints remain within the remit of the Office of the Ombudsman, the OPR is tasked with the examination of complaints where a planning authority/local authority:
- may not be carrying out its functions in line with the requirements of the Planning and Development Acts 2000 to 2018 (“the Act”);
- is not complying with Ministerial Guidelines, Policy Directives and Directions issued under section 28, section 29 and section 31 of the Act;
- may be applying inappropriate standards of administrative practice or otherwise acting contrary to fair or sound administration in the conduct of its functions;
- may be applying systemic discrimination in the conduct of its functions i.e. may be treating persons differently when they are availing of the same service;
- may be operating in a manner whereby there is impropriety or the risk of corruption in the conduct of its functions; and
- may be operating in a manner whereby there are serious diseconomies or inefficiencies in the conduct of its functions.
Finally, the OPR also aims to undertake a research role into planning matters and provides education and public awareness. This is seen as a major step forward since the loss of An Foras Forbartha in the 1990s and it is understood that there may a move towards the establishments of research groups in relation to climate and planning, housings and Geographic Information System (GIS) tracking of development patterns within Ireland.
FUTURE OF PLANNING PROCESS IN IRELAND
It is hoped that the appointment of the Planning Regulator will help towards building a new era of transparency and education within the planning arena. Given that the appointment of the regulator is in its relative infancy, it is unclear at present whether this office will have any real “teeth” however we can only wait and see if it can complete its mission statement and put an end to planning’s somewhat murky past.