THE IRISH PLANNING SYSTEM: AN
INTRODUCTION: THE PRINCIPLES OF PLANNING
Formal planning is the ability to consciously control the future through current actions - by
devising plans and implementing them. As such, it involves the design of a desired
future and selecting effective ways of bringing it about. As the practice of modern spatial
planning, it is concerned with creating geographies of the future through the conscious
and deliberate shaping of the landscapes in which people will work, live and play.
Insofar as planning is concerned with the future landscape it is fundamentally about two
of our most precious resources - land and people. The challenge for planning is to guide
and manage the use of these resources as wisely as possible - to provide as much of
our needs between now and the future as is reasonable without compromising the
ability of those resources to continue to sustain future generations. Planning therefore
attempts to achieve a balance between development and conservation. Development
involves the creation of new living and built environments and conservation is about
maximising the use of existing resources and infrastructures. The essence of
sustainable planning is to keep the best of what we have and add to it without
compromising our future.
Planning also has a strong political and management dimension (governance) because
it involves strategic decision-making about using resources and directing or controlling
change to achieve the desired future to which we aspire. It is through the wise and
effective management of change that we create order and establish certainty and achieve
the optimal use of resources. Planning is expected to shape changes in co-ordinated
and constructive ways that avoid ad-hoc confusion, policy contradictions and wasteful
overlaps. Modern societies do this by establishing formal procedures for spatial
planning and incorporating them into government activities. The spatial planning
process in Ireland is an institutionalised procedure (a systematic legal activity) for
shaping the environment of Ireland’s communities. Plans are made and implemented
through a sophisticated and democratic governance process (of policy-formulation and
decision-making) which involves politicians, officials, and the wider community or public.
The issue of governance in relation to plans raises the question of who actually makes a
plan and implements it. The planning about which we are speaking here is public
planning; it is about plans made by, and on behalf of, the public. These plans are meant
to enshrine the wishes of the public about the future environment in which they will live.
As such, the plans represent the democratically agreed framework or policy context for all
subsequent decisions and actions required to achieve the desired outcome - namely,
the desired agreed future society and environment selected by the community.
This process of planning or shaping the environment applies at many scales from the
local plans for local communities to plans for whole towns and their wider regions, up to
the level of the whole country. Integrated ‘hierarchical’ (or vertical) planning is said to
exist when plans for the different scales are clearly connected in a mutually reinforcing or
joined-up way. Integrated horizontal planning occurs when plans at any one scale are
THE PHYSICAL PLANNING SYSTEM IN IRELAND
Ireland's planning system was first introduced on the 1 October 1964, when the Local
Government (Planning and Development) Act, 1963 came into effect. This Act provided
for the orderly planning and development of the country on a local government basis with
local authorities also designated as planning authorities. It was a system heavily based
on the English planning system of that time and with an onus on ‘trend’ planning.
The large body of planning legislation and regulations in the years since then,
consolidated and updated in the Planning and Development Act of 2000, reflects the
expansion of the statutory development control system to meet the demands arising
from economic growth, rising public concern in the area of environmental control, and a
desire, on the part of the public, for a statutory and independent planning appeals
system. The Act also reflects a growing European dimension arising from Ireland’s
membership of the European Union. The core principles of the review which gave rise to
the new legislation were to ensure that the planning system of the twenty first century
would: (a) be strategic in approach, (b) have an ethos of sustainable development, and
(c) deliver a performance of the highest quality. As part of the new legislation, a clear
hierarchical planning system was introduced within the context of a national spatial
strategy (NSS), with regional planning and its associated guidelines being put on a
statutory footing for the first time.
Following on from the publication of the European Strategic Development Perspective
(ESDP) in 1999, the DoEHLG published the Irish National Spatial Strategy (NSS) in
November 2002. The NSS provides an overall framework for planning in Ireland. Plans at
regional and local level (i.e. Development Plans, see below) must have regard to the
NSS. The hierarchy of plans for Ireland is summarised in Figure 1.
Institutional Roles and Responsibilities
At a national level two main organisations have responsibility for plan¬ning: Department
for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (DoEHLG) and An Bord Pleanála
(Planning Appeals Board). As the main overseer of the planning system in Ireland, the
DoEHLG is responsible for the framing of planning legis¬lation as well as the
preparation and issue of policy guidance. The DoEHLG is, therefore, responsible for
devising a national planning framework and for the issuing, as required, of guidance
documents in respect of national planning issues such as rural housing, wind energy,
Ireland is unique among European countries in that it has an independent third party
planning appeals system which is operated by An Bord Pleanála, (the Planning Appeals
Board). The appeals board provides an arbitration forum in which any decision made by
a planning authority on a planning application can be reviewed at the request of the
applicant or another interested party. Another national organisation, the Environmental
Protec¬tion Agency (EPA), was established in 1993, thereby restricting planning
consideration to essentially land-use functions.
In addition the regional authorities, of which there are eight, have responsibility for
drawing up and implementing Regional Planning Guidelines (RPGs) to support
strategies for regional development.
The implementation of the physical planning system in Ireland is the responsibility of the
88 local planning authorities: this can be broken down into 29 County Councils, 5 City
Councils and 49 Town Councils.
Plan, Development Control (i.e. the planning application process) and Enforcement.
Operation of the Planning System
The system as applied in Ireland has three main functions:
• Making development plans and local plans
• The need to implement the plan through planning permission (unless exempted)
• Planning enforcement.
At this stage it is worth pointing out that the basis of the governance system in Ireland as
it applies to local government is that the functions of a local authority (i.e. the planning
authority) are separated into reserved (political policy) and executive (management)
functions, the former performed by the elected representatives and the latter by the City or
County Manager. Planning is a significant function of the local authority (see Table 1).
The politicians have priority when it comes to making the plan but the manager and the
appointed staff take precedence on a day to day basis. Thus, day-to-day planning
decisions on individual planning applications are executive functions (i.e. the
responsibility of the manager) while the adoption of Development Plans is a reserved
function (i.e. the responsibility of local elected me
1.Roles of Planning Authority and Public in Irish Planning
One of the most important reserved functions is the power to adopt a development plan
or materially contravene it. This function is ‘reserved’ to the politicians who have been
elected to the local authority by the public. The development control and enforcement
functions are discharged by the executive (i.e. the manager and staff of the planning
authority). In other words the power in relation to these two or these different elements of
planning is split between the policy making or strategic element of planning (i.e. the
reserved of making the development plan) and the implementation or execution of the
plan on a day to day basis through the development control system and enforcement
Development Plans and Local Plans
The first function is the preparation and adoption of a Development Plan to represent the
wishes of the people about the future geography of the area over a five-year time horizon.
The Development Plan constitutes a statement of aims and intentions in written and
The Development Plan is the main instrument for regulation and control of development
at the county level. Each planning authority is required to publish notice of its intention to
review its plan, not later than 4 years after the making of a development plan. A new plan
must be made every 6 years (i.e. 2 years after the notice of the intention to review the plan
has been published). The plan states the authority's policies for land use and for
development control and promotion in its area. The authority, in exercising control, must
consider the provisions of the plan, and try to secure its objectives.
In general, the plan shows the authority's objectives for the sole or primary use of
particular areas (e.g. residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural), for road
improvements, for development and renewal of obsolete areas, and for preserving,
improving and extending amenities. Public participation in making the development plan
is important. The public can become involved in the making of the plan at the initial stage
- when the planning authority publishes its intention to review the plan. The public can
also become involved at the draft plan stage and, if applicable, at the amended draft plan
stage. At all these stages, the public can make submissions or observations, within
specified time periods, on what is being proposed by the planning authority.
Notice of the making of the draft plan is published and the draft plan goes on public
display for at least 10 weeks, during which time the public may make submissions or
observations on its content. Any submissions or observations received within the
specified period must be considered before the Plan is adopted by the elected members
of the local authority.
Local Area Plans, the preparation of which has only become a statutory requirement
since the new planning legislation of 2000, are prepared for specific towns and areas
within the remit of the planning authority. A consultative process is also followed through
in the preparation of such plans. In line with the hierarch of plans principle, the contents
of the Local Area Plan must be in line with the policies contained in the city/county
Development Plan. In this regard, the 2000 Act states that “where any provision of a local
area plan conflicts with the provisions of the development plan… the provisions of the
local area plan shall cease to have any effect”.
Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) is a recent obligation that has been
attached to the plan making system in Ireland. SEA involves assessment of the likely
significant environmental effects of plans and programmes prior to their adoption. The
SEA Directive (2001/42/EC) took effect in Ireland on 21 July 2004. It provides for strategic
environmental consideration at an early stage in the decision making process, and is
designed to complement the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process which is
project based. The Directive applies across a wide range of sectors viz. agriculture,
forestry, fisheries, energy, industry, transport, waste management, water management,
telecommunications, tourism and land use planning. The requirement to carry out SEA
of plans/programmes in the sectors mentioned above arises where they "set the
framework for future development consent of projects" which are listed in the EIA
Directive (85/337/EEC, as amended by Directive 97/11/EC). SEA is also necessary
where plans/programmes are likely to have a significant effect on a site governed by the
Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC). Responsibility for implementation of the Directive within
each sector rests primarily with the relevant Government Department.
The second major function relates to the need to obtain planning permission before any
specific development can proceed. All development, unless specifically exempted,
needs planning permission. This is called Development Control and requires all
development proposals (i.e. proposals to build on or change the use of land) be checked
against the policies and objectives specified in the development plan to ensure that the
proposal conforms to the aims and intentions set out in the plan. In summary,
development plans are implemented through the development control system. The
development plan is applied by vetting and checking all development proposals
(planning applications) to ensure that they conform to and are consistent with the aims
and objectives contained in the development plan. Those proposals which are in
agreement with the development plan are those which have granted planning
permission. Those which, are not in accordance with the plan are refused consent.
In general, authorities must decide planning applications within 8 weeks of the date of
receipt of the application. The applicant or any person who made a valid submission in
writing, in relation to the planning application, to the planning authority can appeal to An
Bord Pleanála, within 4 weeks of the decision.
In deciding applications, authorities are restricted to considering the proper planning and
sustainable development of the area concerned, including the preservation and
improvement of amenities, the development plan, and any valid, written submissions or
observations made on the proposed development. Where permission is refused, or
granted with conditions, the authority must give reasons for the decision. A planning
permission normally lasts for five years, but may be extended in certain cases.
As noted above, appeals must be made within 4 weeks of the planning decision. In an
appeal, the planning application is considered anew by An Bord Pleanála, who
examines all relevant issues independently. The Board must, among other things,
consider the proper planning and development of the planning authority's area and any
submissions or observations received.
Certain developments must be assessed for likely environmental effects (commonly
known as environmental impact assessment (EIA)) before planning permission can be
granted. When submitting a planning application for such a development, the applicant
must also submit an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
In the case of development, where the planning authority considers that it is likely to have
significant environmental effects, but which is under the relevant EIA threshold (i.e. not
required under legislation to submit an EIS), planning authorities can, under Article 103
of the 2001 Planning Regulations, request an EIS.
In addition to planning permission, certain activities may also require an integrated
pollution control (IPC) licence or a waste licence from the Environmental Protection
Agency. Other consent requirements may also arise in the context of mining activities
or development on the foreshore.
The third major function of the planning system is Enforcement. In effect this is the
policing aspect of planning; planning enforcement involves checking that all
development actions, whether they be building works or changes of activity (called land
use changes by planners - e. g. changing the use of a building from a grocery shop to a
bank) have obtained planning permission and are therefore legal or authorised.
The intention of this policing aspect of planning is to ensure that the development plan
in particular, and the planning process generally, is taken seriously and properly
observed by developers and the public. Enforcement of planning control is the
responsibility of the planning authority. Where development takes place without
permission, or where it does not comply with conditions of permission, the authority may
take enforcement action.
Under the Planning and Development Act 2000, planning authorities are obliged to follow
up genuine complaints about breaches of planning control within a given timeframe, are
entitled to retain fines imposed by Courts for planning offences to help finance more
active planning control and can refuse to grant planning permission, subject to the
consent of the High Court, to any developer who has seriously failed to comply with a
previous permission. These provisions came into force on 11 March 2002. The authority
must issue a warning notice, then an enforcement notice and possibly court action. Also
the authority, or any individual or group, may seek a High or Circuit Court order against a
developer, stopping an unauthorised development or use.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT STRUCTURES
The local government system in Ireland includes the local authorities and the regional
authorities. The elected local authorities are the county councils (29), the five city councils
(representing the larger urban centres), and the borough and town councils (80). The
members of these authorities are elected by a system of proportional representation,
with elections taking place every five years. The county councils and city councils are the
principal agents of public administration with a lesser range of functions coming within
the ambit of the other bodies.
Compared to other European states, the Irish local government system is relatively weak
with a more limited range of functions and powers. Local authorities have no role in
policing, public transport or personal social services. Powers in respect of education,
health and agriculture are very limited. The only social function is in respect of housing.
The absence of financial autonomy within local authorities - almost all of their funding
comes from central government - severely curtails their scope for independent action.
Traditionally, local government in Ireland has been seen as a deliverer of local services,
its scope defined by the centre. Local authorities were also severely constrained by
legislation in contrast with the norm on the continent where the doctrine of 'general
competence' holds greater sway. Instead of expanding the role of local authorities, as
new services were demanded of central government, the trend has inexorably been to
create new single function agencies at national or regional levels, such as the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Roads Authority (NRA).
CITIZEN PARTICIPATION AND LOCAL GOVERNANCE
Structures for participation in local government in Ireland have undergone change over
recent years with the establishment of Strategic Policy Committees (SPCs) and County
Development Boards (CDBs).
The emergence of area-based local development structures outside of the local authority
system has taken place in the context of a growing realisation globally, nationally and
locally that to be sustainable, development should bring about not only an improvement
in social and physical conditions, but must also contribute to an improvement in the
capacity of people and communities to control and sustain those conditions.
The limitations of both central and local government systems together with the perceived
failure of the statutory agencies to address persistent problems of urban unemployment
and disadvantage and of rural deprivation, led to the first pilot area-based local
development initiatives in the late 1980s. The late 1980s saw the development of the
social partnership model at national level and its success was one of the reasons for the
extension of the partnership model to the local level in the 1990s. The brief of the early
partnership companies was to work with the long-term unemployed and socially
excluded, i.e. those most marginalised from economic and social life.
This was subsequently widened to provide partnerships with a more pro-active
community development remit.
Local government in Ireland has developed largely from a judicial system introduced
under a colonial regime and is historically more removed from its community base than
many continental European systems of local government. The local government system
is inhibited by a lack of resources and an over-dependence on central government
decisions made annually as part of the budgetary process, and by a lack of coherence
and co-ordination in the delivery of services
Traditionally, citizen participation in local government has been through the electoral
system, with councillors representing each local electoral area. The elected members
receive their mandate to represent citizens through the democratic process of local
elections held every five years. Despite the democratic process inherent in the system,
local communities have felt increasingly alienated from local government. This alienation
is attributed to:
• their frustration with the limited range of activities which fall within the remit of the
• elected members being perceived as representing the views of only some sections
of the community, and
• The perceived failure of local authorities to be pro-active in responding to new
needs and demands.
In response to these factors, and also because of the recognition that the introduction of
social partnership in Ireland at national level has provided the basis for social and
economic progress, proposals for enhanced participative democracy at local level were
set out in a 1997 Programme for Better Local Government (Department of Environment,
1997). Measures were proposed which would recognise the legitimacy of local
government as a democratic institution, enhance the electoral mandate within local
government and broaden involvement in local government.
The recommendations of the Task Force led to the establishment of County
Development Boards in 2000 as part of the integration process between local
government and local development at county level. The primary functions of the CDBs
are the putting in place of a comprehensive strategy for economic, social and cultural
development within the county and to oversee its implementation.
developing a vision at local level to encompass various local and sectoral plans; provide
the focus for co-operation on a continuing basis at county level in the work of the various
agencies, promote co-ordination and by bringing together the various interests, seek to
maximise the effectiveness of spending on programmes and projects at local level
included in the National Development Plan (NDP).
In terms of citizen participation the most important sectors represented on the SPCs and
CDBs are the public representatives and the representatives of the community and
voluntary sector in the county. This process was the first time that the community and
voluntary sector were, as a matter of government policy, being invited as full partners to
participate in strategic planning at county level. It was also a very significant step in
enhancing citizen participation and, hopefully, supporting representative democracy with
2. Regional Guidelines
3. Development Plans
4. Local Plans
1. National Spatial Strategy (NSS) and National guidelines
[D / Environment Heritage & Local Government]
|37. THE IRISH PLANNING SYSTEM