29 Nov 2006

Not too long ago, a small developer (a very decent man and a good citizen) bought a large terraced house in a mid sized city with the idea of creating three or four apartments. Prior to the purchase, he had done his homework and felt confident that his ideas conformed with the relevant development plan. In particular, and just to be absolutely sure, he sought advice on a policy which appeared to state that the planning authority favoured the development of apartments in the relevant part of town, otherwise he’d wouldn’t have decided to go ahead with the purchase.  The property happened to be a Protected Structure and when the small developer removed some awful 1970s style doors from the upper floor without planning permission, he was told to stop by the planning authority. The doors were of no architectural value whatsoever (neither was the house for that matter, but that’s a discussion for another day…) and the small developer made a planning application for retention for the work he had carried out.  Retention was granted but, very unusually, there was a condition placed on the permission that the house should not be divided up into apartments and should remain as a single family dwelling. Remember, now, that the application had been made only for retention of the removal of some awful doors so there was no reason for any possible future use of the building to be discussed. The small developer felt that he was being wronged and decided to question the planning authority on the condition. What happened next was pantomime.

When he first approached the planning authority, he was initially told that the Development Plan specifically ruled out apartments in the part of town the building was located. However, any reading of the particular policy by any member of the public would suggest that that the planning authority were seriously misreading their own plan. Just to be absolutely sure he was right, the developer contacted the person who had actually written the policy for the development plan but who was no longer working for the council. This person confirmed that the developer was understanding the plan correctly: the policy was specifically written to encourage the creation of apartments in an area of town where it was felt that the large terraced buildings were too big to be used as single family dwellings and where residential use was preferred over commercial. This person (i.e. the one who wrote the policy) wrote to the planning authority in support of the developer. 

The planning authority responded by saying that the issue had been addressed on previous applications to An Bord Planala which had found that the authority’s reading of the policy was, indeed, correct. When asked, the authority supplied the developer with the relevant case numbers where the Bord had issued judgements. The developer reviewed the files and found very little of relevance to his particular case. When he pointed this out to the planning authority, it was then suggested to him that it wasn’t the policy per se which was the problem but the fact that the building was a Protected Structure. The argument ran (I’m sorry, this is the best that I can explain it) that although the policy did allow for apartment development, it had to be read in the context of the protected nature of the building which, somehow, meant that things were different. 

Months went by, expensive reports were prepared (paid for by the developer, not the council) on the architectural quality of the building and its suitability for conversion to apartments and meetings were held with councillors and senior officials. Finally, two years after it had been purchased, the Director of Services for Planning and Development confirmed that the developer’s understanding of the Development plan was correct and that he could, in fact, lodge an application to build apartments in his terraced house.

Later, one of the ‘decent’ planners we referred to earlier informed the developer’s agent that the whole thing was to do with a locally powerful resident’s group. This group stood totally opposed to the creation of apartments in their neighbourhood for fear of attracting ‘transients’ (the word the group used itself) and it was considered so powerful that the planning authority was not prepared to make decisions which angered them. 

And this is why ordinary people around Ireland have no faith in the planning system: it’s not that they continue to believe that councillors are taking money in brown envelopes, it’s that they feel planning authorities act wifully. 

(PS. Sadly, even though the developer won the battle regarding planning policy another bureaucratic issue arose which meant that he still hasn’t been able to lodge an application and his house still remains vacant.)

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