Special Report 41 - Planning Appeals

Published on 08 April 2002

Summary of Findings

Spatial planning is regulated by local planning authorities whose decisions can be appealed to a national agency - An Bord Pleanála (the Board).

Persons can appeal to the Board challenging refusal of permission or conditions attached by the authority to permissions granted. Third party appellants can challenge decisions to grant permission.

Appeals involve a complete re-examination by the Board of the application for permission.

The examination set out to review

  • how well the appeals system is managed and
  • how its effectiveness is evaluated by the Board and by the Department of the Environment and Local Government (the Department).

Overall, around 7% of all planning decisions were appealed each year during the period 1995- 2000. There is a greater tendency to challenge refusals with 29% of all applications refused coming before the Board while only 4% of cases where permission is granted are appealed.

Rates of appeal against decisions of individual planning authorities, however, varied considerably. During that period, the rate of appeal against refusals in individual planning authorities varied between 12% and 58% while the rate of appeal against grants of permission varied between 2% and 11%.

Managing the Appeals System

The Comptroller and Auditor General's (C&AG) examination of the Board’s output and resources found that

  • its caseload more than doubled in the period between 1994 and 2000 while its staff resources increased by 61%
  • the Board supplemented its staff resources with fee-per-case inspectors engaged on a consultancy basis — 26% of appeals were processed by this means in 2000
  • the Board further increased its recourse to consultancy in 2001, hiring an extra 47 fee-per-case consultants in that year and also engaging firms of consultants to deal with certain complex appeal cases.

The C&AG's examination also found that the Board’s processing performance had been deteriorating in recent years

  • the percentage of appeals processed within the statutory time target of four months had decreased from almost 100% in 1994 to less than 50% in 2000
  • the backlog of cases not disposed of at 31 December 2000 represented 46% of appeals lodged with the Board in 2000.

While some of this occurred because resources did not keep pace with the increased caseload, the examination also noted that the productivity of the Board’s staff in terms of reports produced by each inspector diminished, reducing from a level of 120 reports per inspector in 1995 to 86 in 2000.

This may, in part, be due to the fact that fee-per-case inspectors typically handle less complex cases which correspondingly increases the processing time for those cases handled by the Board’s staff.

The Board has introduced a new performance review system for its inspectorate in 2001. The system focuses on report outputs but the full effects of this system have yet to be realised.

Impact of Appeals on Planning Decisions

97% of all original planning authority decisions are either not challenged or are upheld on appeal. My examination noted that where decisions are challenged, a considerable number of them are either reversed outright or varied. In 2000, 27% of all decisions considered on appeal were reversed while a further 31% had the conditions attached to the original decision varied.

There is an apparent need to examine the factors which give rise to the very high overturn rates in some authorities. In cases where the Board was given an opportunity to review grants of permission, the rate of overturn of decisions in individual authorities ranged from 12% to 56% with an average national overturn rate of 28%.

In the case of appeals of refusals, the rate of overturn of planning authority decisions ranged from 8% to 33% compared with a national average overturn rate in this category of 18%.

Although some deviation from the national norms is to be expected, high rates of overturn on appeal suggest that certain planning authorities’ decision making would merit deeper examination.

Effectiveness of the Board

The examination found that the Board has adequate systems in place to allow it to evaluate its performance in quantitative terms. However, no formal system is in place to monitor the quality of its decisions. The Board has undertaken to examine how this might be done and has also recently begun to set out reasons in cases where its final decisions depart from an inspector’s recommendation. There would be merit in analysing and categorising these departures so as to provide feedback to inspectors.

The examination concluded that the Board needs to consider how it can contribute to adjustment and learning on the part of planning authorities by isolating the main causes of overturns of original decisions and relaying the trends and patterns to the authorities.

Departmental Monitoring

In regard to the role of the Department, the examination found that while it publishes statistics on the planning performance of local authorities, it does not carry out any analysis on the underlying trends. The identification of such trends and their underlying causes would better position the Department to evaluate the effectiveness of the overall planning system.

In addition, data on the volume of development comprised in appeals should be analysed by development category so that the patterns and trends associated with the different types and scales of development can be isolated and, where appropriate, addressed.

The Department has informed me that following the implementation of the Planning and Development Act, 2000, it will move to put procedures in place for ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the performance of planning authorities and the Board.