Important applications for projects involving housing, data, transport and inward investment are being held up because of needless delays in the processes involved and there is a need for a more streamlined appeal process for critical infrastructure projects.
In particular delays with An Bord Pleanála, delays in the judicial review process and the lack of resources within local authorities and An Bord Pleanála to deal with complex planning applications are affecting the current system.
Three changes need to be made to ensure that critical infrastructure projects are brought to fruition in a timely manner, while giving all involved proper access to due legal process. These are (1) a statutory timeframe for An Bord Pleanála to deal with strategic investment applications and the necessary resources to make this possible, (2) a statutory timeframe for the judicial review process in relation to strategic investment decisions and (3) the creation of a unit within the Department of Environment to provide advice to local authorities so that the same advice is being given in relation to every planning decision. This unit would also oversee the creation of a standard application process for strategic investment projects going to An Bord Pleanála and would conduct a review of projects that meet the criteria for strategic investment in light of the current housing crisis.
Currently, promoters of strategic investment projects are being held up for months as they wait to have their planning application validated by An Bord Pleanála. Once a project is validated, the An Bord Pleanála process begins and this process is also taking months. This will involve further resourcing of An Bord Pleanála to deal with applications in a statutory timeframe regardless of the size or complexity of the application.
The judicial review process is another element of the problem. If we are serious about addressing critical infrastructure process, then the judicial process for critical infrastructure must be fast-tracked. The volume of judicial reviews has increased to such an extent that a judicial review is now as common as an appeal to An Bord Pleanála, as can be seen from the increase in costs incurred by An Bord Pleanála in defending judicial reviews, which has increased from €0.5 million to €4 million in recent years. Most of the judicial reviews are based on environmental impacts and environmental impact statements so we have to look at what is happening and deal with it and react so that we are better prepared to deal with submissions.
I also believe that judges with expertise in the area of planning and environmental conservation should be employed in the judicial review process to ensure continuity and standardisation and this will allow the judges involved to gain a specialised expertise in the area of submissions relating to environmental impacts.
Currently, local authorities around the country are bringing in consultants to provide advice on large and complex planning cases. Often the advice given depends on the varying opinions of the consultants involved. The creation of a central unit with the Department to provide advice to local authorities would result in a more uniform decision making process and would save local authorities thousands of euro in consultancy fees.
This unit would also have the task of developing a standard process for strategic investment infrastructure projects wishing to apply to An Bord Pleanála and would also be responsible for reviewing the criteria for admissible projects on a regular basis, in light of changing needs within the economy.
The current housing crisis needs to be addressed and the exceptional circumstances of this crisis need careful consideration. I believe that the problem does not lie in the planning system, rather it is the appeals process that is the problem and this is where the focus must be on streamlining the process.
There will be an element of cost involved in making the necessary changes, but there is an even greater cost involved in not making the changes in that the current quagmire will continue and critical infrastructure projects, including vital housing projects, will face unnecessary delays for months and years to come.’