How Ireland screwed up on planning

An Taisce, which screwed up a little itself, documents what systemic corruption and incompetence during a boom  look like on the ground

An Taisce recently published an independent review of planning-policy implementation in Ireland from its  perspective embracing its daily experience of working in the system.  It considers there was a catastrophic and systemic failure of the planning system, which was characterised by endemic corruption, lack of transparency and the marginalisation of voices that sought to draw attention to inherent weaknesses.

Though few listened, An Taisce raised repeated concerns during the boom including in respect of over-zoning by councils, development on floodplains, the failure to properly protect water resources and the dominant development pattern which was talking hold – urban sprawl excessively reliant on private cars. As this development pattern was handed dominance, Ireland has been forced into high fossil fuel use, raising costs for families.

An Taisce estimates that appeals taken against inappropriate speculative development has reduced the value of impaired loans by at least €505m. These are loans which the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA) would have had to purchase, or if falling outside the scope of NAMA, would remain with financial institutions as non-performing burdens – liabilities which Irish taxpayers are currently underwriting.

As noted in the Mahon Report, bad or absent planning is not victimless, rather its victims are too numerous to count. There is no doubt a systemic failure of planning in Ireland helped inflate the property bubble, leaving in its wake a great deal of poor quality development, reckless overzoning, chaotic sprawl, a legacy of ‘ghost’ development and widespread environmental degradation. Of particular concern are the ‘locked in’ long-term costs of high fossil fuel dependency and greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the lack of good planning throughout this period not many planning professionals spoke out and this failure to warn was shared by the representative bodies of Irish professional planners with few exceptions.

The Mahon Report exposed the systemic corruption in Irish planning.  This corruption takes many forms including low level patronage, cronyism and clientelism. While the findings are no surprise, they are stark and troubling, and there is now a unified body of opinion that the planning laws must be strengthened to ensure what was recorded by Mahon cannot occur again.

As recommended by the Mahon Tribunal, there must be an independent planning regulator free from political pressure. Recent changes to the planning laws in 2010 and the establishment of the National Transport Authority (NTA) are welcome advancements, but councils continue to routinely ignore national and regional planning policy and priorities at the local level. Instead of undertaking independent planning investigations of significant allegations of planning malpractice in seven councils (as previously planned by Government), the current Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan TD, only proposes an ‘internal review’.

Following the findings of the Mahon Tribunal, there is an onus on Minister Hogan to immediately recommence independent inquiries before a new planning regulator with strong legal powers is in place to undertake this function. Any ‘internal review’ is scarcely credible given that it perpetuates the hopelessly discredited model of self-regulation in which the relevant supervising Government department – here the Department of the Environment, which also pays money to, and carries responsibility for local councils – holds itself out as an impartial bystander in investigating prime facie evidence of malpractice. This is patent nonsense: the Department of the Environment has a vested interest in concluding that ‘all is fine’ in councils. It is to get away from the discredited model of self-regulation that the Mahon Report recommends an independent regulator.

The worst three counties in terms of residential over-zoning were Clare (3,208 hectares), County Cork (2,500 hectares) and Donegal (2,250 hectares), which between them accounted for 20% of the entire national stock of residentially zoned land in 2010. It is remarkable to note that, despite the extent of zoned land within these counties, between 2001 and 2011 some 30% to 50% of all planning permissions in each of  these three councils was for one-off housing on unzoned land. Smaller councils generally cannot justify the necessary staff to carry out increasingly complex functions, including planners, architects, conservation specialists, ecology experts, hydrology engineers, and senior personnel with a good knowledge of European and Irish law. At the same time, certain councils simply have too many councillors per capita of population, resulting in patronage, clientelism and cronyism. It is imperative that we move to a regional governance structure for planning and development with each region having a minimum population of 200,000. Otherwise the existing councils, clearly ineffective in achieving national policies and too numerous to resource, will be stripped of ever more functions.  A well-intended but weak-minded defence of the current dysfunctional system has led inexorably to ever-greater power concentration in Dublin, undermining progressive localism and eroding our democracy.

In line with the findings of the Mahon Report, the windfall re-zoning tax, first set out in the legislation providing for NAMA, must be further elaborated in strengthening the planning legislation. It is also vital to update planning legislation in line with the introduction of a Site Value Tax on all zoned land, as proposed under the 2011 Programme for Government. As well as replacing the current €100 household charge, Site Value Tax will provide a real incentive for the development of land that becomes zoned, and it will deter over-zoning, inappropriate zoning and the hoarding of development sites.

To undertake the groundwork for these reforms, there must be properly resourced spatial planning and governance units in the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government. For example, the Spatial Planning Unit in the Department has recently been reduced to just 4 people and which is indicative of this current Government’s lack of commitment to long-term planning. Coherent joined-up planning and development minimises costs and enables society to flourish.  But such prosperity is impossible without proper resourcing.

Finally, enforcement continues to be the weakest link in Ireland’s weak planning system. Enforcement of any regulatory code is crucial to the integrity of the system. It is essential that the new planning regulator proposed in the Mahon Report is given strong statutory powers to oversee enforcement.



The loopholes in planning law which allowed for this complete absence of planning and chronic over-zoning were well known throughout the ‘Celtic Tiger’ era but were not closed until the enactment of the Planning & Development (Amendment) Act 2010. A significant High Court case in 2000  taken by former chair of An Taisce, Michael Smith, revealed the total lack of any legal obligations on the part of councils to act in the national interest.

This loophole was compounded by the introduction of the Planning & Development (Amendment) Act 2002 which essentially amounted to a developer’s charter. As a result of the 2002 Act, the zoning of land could for the first time be included in Local Area Plans (LAPs), and the Minister of the day had no power to intervene to stop over-zoning or bad planning practice. The deregulation was complete with LAPs essentially becoming mass re-zoning vehicles. Many councils deliberately used LAPs as the preferred mechanism to deliver dubious re-zonings in the full knowledge that there was no possibility of anyone intervening to stop them.

With some exceptions, planners failed to vocalise their concerns and to exercise sufficient judgment throughout this period. While it is true that the advice of planners was regularly overruled by councillors, overall the profession was slow to find its voice at both the national and local level – particularly the representative bodies of Irish planners, the Irish Planning Institute (IPI) and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).

An Taisce strongly supports the recommendations of the Mahon Report to place the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) on a statutory footing, with the same recommendation also applying to future National Development Plans (NDPs). The original NSS from 2002 has been allowed to completely fail and must be reviewed with clear forward-looking evidence-based policy choices. However, of even greater importance, is the reform of Ireland’s obsolete local governance structures. Currently we have 34 city and county councils together with a further 54 town or borough councils undertaking some manner of a planning function. In the absence of local taxation, these 88 councils compete fiercely for new development, with their eyes firmly on the capital contribution levies and commercial rates that result from development, leading to extremely bad planning outcomes.

It was not until 2009 in the picturesque village of Adare, County Limerick, that council management and planners finally decided, to their credit, to stand up to the reckless cronyism of councillors to stop inappropriate zoning – proving that the legal tools were available all along to prevent the chaos if there had been the will to do so.


The analysis presented in the report shows that there is a very strong correlation between councils that have a poor planning record and a range of negative socio-economic and environmental outcomes including, for example, a high rate of residential vacancy,  a high rate of population decline and out-migration,  high levels of unfinished ‘Ghost Estates’, lower residential property prices and significant instances of ground and surface water pollution. These legacy costs of bad planning will affect people living in these areas, and Irish society as a whole, for generations.

Ireland’s 34 city and county councils were assessed using a range of indicators including percentage of overturns on appeal to An Bord Pleanála, over-zoning, vacancy and enforcement. The report was not meant to be truly scientific. Measuring the performance of councils in ensuring good planning is an exercise fraught with difficulty and complexity. However, there are sources of data available which can paint a useful general picture of the relative performance of councils, to stimulate debate and prompt much needed and overdue planning reform. The methodology used was understandably the object of vituperative criticism, notably from the City and County Managers Association (CCMA) which, clearly upset at having their performance measured, called for the report to be withdrawn.  Worse, the originally-published report included some data errors which were quickly seized upon by certain quarters in attempt to discredit its findings. Mayo for example had been somewhat under-rated. However, the core message was well-directed, the errors minimal and that is why Village is publishing this article.  For example, Donegal came last in the league table. By way of illustration of its poor performance, Donegal had approximately 2,250 hectares of residential zoned land in 2010, sufficient for an additional population of 180,000 people. Despite this, approximately 50% of all residential planning permissions the past decade were granted on unzoned land. Donegal County Council reacted by stating that the report ‘ignored its dominant rural character and its unique geographic location and demography’.   These trends are symptomatic of a wider systems failure in …in Donegal over the past decade were granted on unzoned land. Donegal County Council reacted by stating that the report ‘ignored its dominant rural character and its unique geographic location and demography’. The question that has to be asked in this context is why Donegal had more residentially zoned land in urban areas than Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway cities combined. These trends are symptomatic of a wider systems failure in which counties Donegal, Roscommon Leitrim and Kerry perform worst.



The vast majority of councils scored a ‘D’, ‘E’ or ‘F’ grade. Generally, councils with higher populations (e.g. South Dublin, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, Galway City and Fingal) and, as a consequence,  greater resources and a greater number and range of professional and technical staff, scored higher. This underscores the urgent requirement for a rationalisation of councils with a minimum population of 200,000 people.  As recommended by the Mahon Report, the introduction of an independent planning regulator is fundamental to combating corruption and cronyism in the planning system. Bad and corrupt planning has victims and can disproportionately affect specific groups, our young and coming generations for example, burdened with financial and resource deficits, and the ageing, where they are marooned in isolated areas with few services.

Between 2000 and 2009 an average of 45,000 planning applications were lodged each year in Ireland (with a peak of 92,000 in 2006) giving a total of 450,000. Approximately 30,000 applications were referred to An Taisce for comment over the decade. Of the total number of planning applications lodged in the ten years from 2000, An Taisce made (0.4%) of cases.

Of the approximately 2,000 appeals lodged by An Taisce over the ten-year period, 80% were upheld by An Bord Pleanála, with the planning appeals board overturning or significantly amending the original decision of the council to grant planning permission. While the total number of appeals made by An Taisce is small they are very often of important precedent value in reversing or altering inappropriate decisions by councils, and in highlighting significant points of planning and environmental law.