The enactment of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2015 is best known as the Act which introduced the revised minimum apartment sizes guidelines however the Act has also given the Minister for Environment new powers to issue mandatory directions known as specific planning policy requirements.
What is different about the new directions? The difference is that, unlike the existing regulations surrounding ministerial guidelines, local authorities or An Bord Pleanala do not have the discretion to depart for these ministerial guidelines. Their introduction has been the cause of concern to local authorities and professional planning bodies who are considering the implications of the new law. The logic behind their introduction is to underpin the implementation of the minimum apartment sizes but they could have a more far reaching effect.
The effects of the specific planning policy requirements is that:
1. they constrain planning authorities normal discretion;
2. they must be applied when deciding whether to grant planning permission;
3. in the event of conflict with the provision of a development plan they will supersede the development plan; and
4. where planning permission for an apartment block (which is subject to the MUDs Act) was granted before the introduction of applicable specific planning policy requirements, any application to amend this planning permission will be subject to a fast track procedure which may only be appealed to An Bord Pleanala in limited circumstances. This relates to the minimum design standards which was introduced to lower construction costs.
The main concern raised here is that any planning function can be the subject of guidelines and therefore the subject of a specific planning policy requirement so it certainly widens the scope of ministerial powers in this regard. It remains to be seen how this is implemented and whether it will be open to legal challenge.
The Act gives new powers to environment ministers to issue mandatory orders to local authorities on planning matters which they had previously decided for themselves. Under the new law, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government planning guidelines, which were previously advisory and to be considered at the discretion of local authorities, can now become mandatory instructions which must be adopted if an environment minister so orders. While environment ministers have always had the power to overrule councils, in practice the new law will allow wider and much earlier direct involvement in county planning matters and will limit, in practice, the discretionary power of local council planners in such cases.