Planning regulator ‘rocked’ by local authority legal action

The planning regulator called for an urgent meeting with the housing minister last year after a local authority took legal action against the watchdog’s recommended challenge to its development plan.

Niall Cussen, the regulator, told Minister Darragh O’Brien in an unpublished letter that he was “very concerned” about the legal action brought by Cork County Council.

It was the first case brought in the High Court against the minister following a recommendation by the regulator, whose role is to oversee county councils’ development plans for possible material breaches of the legislation or policy.

Cork County Council later won the case on the minister’s directive, made on the advice of the regulator, that it should reverse a change to its development plan which paves the way for an outlet village of 100 million euros in the east of the county.

The case is still before the courts as the High Court decision, which was delivered by Justice Richard Humphreys last November, is now the subject of an application to the Court of Appeal.

The regulator had argued that the council’s plan for the shopping center was premature and should not have been drawn up before an updated common retail strategy for the whole of Metropolitan Cork was prepared , as required by departmental retail planning guidelines.

The council dispute has unsettled the regulator, prompting Mr Cussen to write to Mr O’Brien, Minister of State for Local Government and Planning Peter Burke and Department General Secretary Graham Doyle, to see “what, if anything, can be done at this late stage” in relation to the case.

The letter was released to The Irish Times by the Department of Housing under the Freedom of Information Act.

“Sensitive Time”

“As Director General of the OPR [Office of the Planning Regulator]I am very concerned that such proceedings may be initiated, at a sensitive time, by a public body against you as Minister and the OPR as a body under your umbrella,” Cussen wrote.

He told the minister in his March 3, 2021 letter that the regulator follows a code of practice which states, where there are potential legal disputes with other organs of the state, “every effort should be made to mediate, arbitrate or otherwise resolve before costly legal proceedings are necessary”. costs are incurred”.

Mr Cussen told the minister he had told the two local authorities in Cork that the upcoming development plan processes were the most appropriate context to sort out all retail development policies, including villages outlets, “rather than a plan that is about to expire”.

Mr Cussen suggested his proposed meeting with ministers could discuss redrafting the code to avoid legal disputes for chief executives of local authorities.

A spokesperson for the regulator told The Irish Times that since its inception in 2019 it had made almost 400 recommendations on local authority plans and that “the vast majority have been implemented which will lead to further better planning results”.

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