‘Housing bill will dilute powers of councils’

The representative body of county councillors has expressed serious concern about a key section of new legislation proposed by Housing Minister Simon Coveney to solve the country’s growing housing crisis.

The Association of Irish Local Government claims the legislation, which is designed to fast-track the delivery of housing units, will dilute some of the powers of local authorities and will fail to speed up the granting of planning permission for large residential developments.

Although the AILG welcomed the Housing Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2016 in general, it expressed “grave concerns” about a section which proposes the establishment of a strategic housing division within An Bord Pleanála.

The measure is designed to fast-track construction timelines for residential developments of 100-plus units which often can take up to 24 months to secure planning permission because of objections.

“Planning and the planned provision of housing has always been a key function of the local authority planning system and any move, no matter how temporary, would be viewed by the AILG as a further dilution of the role of the local authority,” the AILG said in a new policy paper.

It claimed the proposed setting up of a strategic housing division within the planning appeals body represented “the centralisation of a core local authority function” and the removal of access by local people to the planning system.

“This, we believe, will result in the significant undermining of the rights of the public when it comes to them engaging with the planning authority,” it added.

Councillors claimed the proposal also ran contrary to government policy in terms of devolving more powers to local authorities.

The AILG said the current two-tier planning system, which allows for decisions of local authorities to be appealed to An Bord Pleanála, was fundamental for a proper transparent system.

“If delays in the planning process are being experienced, the association would advocate tackling the causes rather than eliminating a tier of the planning system altogether,” it said.

Without an appeal mechanism, councillors warned of the risk of an increasing number of An Bord Pleanála decisions being challenged by High Court actions.

The AILG pointed out that 985 appeals in relation to residential homes were made to An Bord Pleanála last year, with 75% of decisions confirming (with or without variation) the original decision of the local authority. In addition 82% of all priority appeals to An Bord Pleanála were disposed of within 18 weeks.

Councillors maintain such figures indicate permitting applications for large housing developments to be made directly to An Bord Pleanála would not achieve the goal of reducing the timeframe for obtaining permission.

The AILG said it believed the local authority planning system was being unfairly scapegoated. It said it believed the country was facing one of the biggest homelessness crises in its history.

“We can safely state that, currently, no other local government issue generates so much of a councillor’s workload as is the case with housing and homelessness,” the AILG stated.

Councillors also expressed concern about a shortage of planning staff within local authorities, with a third of such staff having left their jobs in the past eight years.

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