The Irish public “does not have the confidence they should have in the planning process”, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Senator Victor Boyhan told the Oireachtas Housing Committee on Thursday that it’s essential that reforms of planning legislation in Ireland restore the public’s confidence in the process, while other TDs and Senators called for transparency and enhanced public involvement in future planning processes.
He was among a number of committee members who referenced the ongoing controversy at An Bord Pleanála.
Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien has commissioned an investigation into planning decisions made by the board’s deputy chair Paul Hyde. Mr Hyde recently stepped back from his duties temporarily as deputy chair at the planning body “without prejudice”, pending investigations into a number of decisions.
On Thursday, officials from the Department of Housing appeared before the committee to provide an update on the review and consolidation of planning legislation.
Maria Graham, assistant secretary at the department, said existing planning legislation can be “impenetrable” for the general public and practitioners, alike. A review being conducted by the Attorney General will be the most comprehensive to date, she said.
As part of the review and drafting of the new laws, officials sought the views of committee members on what Ireland’s new planning legislation should look like.
Social Democrat housing spokesperson Cian O’Callaghan said that there was “no question” that the new planning laws should be set out in plain English and accessible.
He said that the current laws, with all their various amendments, are not accessible to people who access it on a professional basis which plays a role in the various court cases and judicial reviews taken against planning decisions.
“We need to be improving public participation,” Mr O’Callaghan said. “We can do that and have a more efficient system.”
Committee chair, and Green Party TD, Stephen Matthews told the meeting “public confidence has been shook over the years” and shook “recently” in the planning system.
He joined Mr O’Callaghan and Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin in criticising the strategic housing development system, which the former referred to as a “disaster”.
Mr O’Callaghan added: “They thought it would lead to quicker decision making and reduced costs, and it led to the opposite.” Sinn Féin TD Thomas Gould raised the issues with An Bord Pleanála, and said “serious allegations” had emerged which could have big “cost implications”. He said planning reforms should be transparent and fill people with confidence.
His calls for transparency in the system were echoed by Fine Gael TD Emer Higgins while Labour Senator Rebecca Moynihan asked for greater joined-up thinking between State bodies when it comes to major developments.
Ms Graham said it would be important to support transparency in planning legislation going forward and said Ireland already had one of the most open planning systems in Europe.
“We have a common interest in making sure this legislation is fit for purpose,” she said. “I think that’s really important in this review.” Mr Gould also made reference to a recent planning application at the Bessborough site where a woman had her submission discarded because it hadn’t included her address.
“It takes a toll on people who have to do this,” he said. “Emotional considerations need to be taken to ensure accessibility for people is at the core of the planning process.”