Over a year on from the publication of the Mahon Tribunal Report the Government has moved to implement one of its key recommendations – the establishment of an office of the Planning Regulator (OPR). The OPR will entail a radical transformation of the way in which planning policy has been implemented in Ireland to-date. I have previously posted on the dilemma which has been facing the Government in crafting the policy response to Mahon’s recommendations – Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchmen?). I argued that the OPR should have independent oversight authority to issue Section 31 Directions to planning authorities but with a failsafe mechanism built in so that the Minister would have the power to override the OPR in the unlikely circumstances where it fails to act or acts inappropriately. However, the Government has plumped for an alternative option whereby Section 31 powers remain with the Minister of the day. The role of the OPR will be to advise the Minister on the content of development plans and where appropriate provide recommendations (which will be published to ensure accountability) on whether the plan should be amended or rejected. The new OPR will also have the authority to initiate investigations following complaints from the public and will be an independent corporate entity staffed primarily by redeployment from An Bord Pleánala. An Bord Pleanála is one of the few planning bodies to come out of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ with its reputation relatively untarnished. Since its establishment it has developed a strong culture of independence and impartiality and has, on occasion, been unafraid to ruffle some feathers on major planning decisions.
While a new oversight regime is important, since the introduction of the 2010 Planning Act the latitude for planning authorities to stray from national spatial policy has been greatly diminished. Of much greater potential is the new role which will be mandated to the OPR to carry out research, training and education in planning and the built environment. Public education on the key role that long-term planning plays in society has been sorely lacking in Ireland and we are today paying the cost. In the context of the reform of local government and the mooted review of the National Spatial Strategy there has never been a greater requirement for bringing research and education to the policy front. It remains to be seen how the OPR’s new role in research and education will pan out and whether there will be sufficient funding allocated to carry out this critical work. Drawing on the extensive research capacity and experience which has developed within Irish academic institutions over the past decade should surely be part of the plan.