An Taisce – Its role in the built environment planning process.

2017

Approved by Board of An Taisce - March 2017 and Ratified by Council in April 2017.

An Taisce - origins and ethos.

See http://www.antaisce.org/ireland/our-history and the Book An Taisce The First Fifty Years (Bond 2005).

Governance of An Taisce.

See www.antaisce.org/governance

An Taisce – The National Trust for Ireland is a charity limited by guarantee, and not having a share capital. Its constitution is laid down in the Memorandum and Articles of Association

It is a ‘Type C’ organization as defined by the Governance Code for community, voluntary and charity organisations in Ireland and is on the path to adopting the Governance Code.

See a list of key people and committees in An Taisce as well as current Policy Committees: www.antaisce.org/publications/who-are-an-taisce

Objectives of An Taisce.

The objectives are set down in the Memorandum and Articles of Association. The main object is:

To act as a voluntary non-governmental organisation for purposes. which are beneficial to the community and to the public generally in a charitable way; and to promote the conservation, renewal and permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation, of land and buildings and other artefacts of architectural, historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural, scientific, social, technical or other relevant interest and, as far as practical, of nature and biodiversity.

An Taisce and planning legislation.

See this page detailing An Taisce's Prescribed Body Role.

Planning legislation in Ireland was first introduced in 1934, but was relatively rudimentary and attracted little interest (O'Leary 2014). An Taisce’s formal role in the planning process began with the introduction of new legislation in 1963, which gave planning powers to all local authorities (other than town commissioners). At this time there was no academic full time planning course in the country (O'Leary 2014). Predictably, there was a dearth of trained planners. This was compounded by a lack of understanding of planning principles outside of Dublin and Cork, and also a general lack of appreciation by the public of environmental conservation and good planning (O'Leary 2014). In the 1963 legislation, An Taisce was named as one of four bodies specifically prescribed to be consulted by local authorities when considering applications for development near national monuments or other sensitive sites. This is most unusual for a national trust, so that An Taisce, in exercising its responsibility in the common good, sometimes finds itself in an adversarial role in relation to development proposals whether from the public sector, semi-state bodies or private developers and individuals. Furthermore, in those early days the governance of planning decisions was frequently in the hands of local authority executive staff without formal planning qualifications, and elected councilors. Proposals for development by individuals or bodies might be refused due to environmental, planning or cultural considerations raised by An Taisce, which consistently advocated for professional and sustainable standards in the planning process.

Planning submissions by An Taisce are only one part of the planning decision process. If planners do not consider our points significant enough, then they are not accepted.  Any individual may make a planning submission on payment of a modest fee, and their comments have due validity and consideration when the planners come to make their decision. An Taisce cannot stop a development; it can only raise matters of importance to the planner’s attention, in particular  where a proposal is contrary to national, regional, or local plans and guidelines. Where a development is granted planning permission by a local authority, the decision can be appealed to An Bord Pleanala provided that the person or body bringing the appeal (including An Taisce) has previously made a submission to the original planning application. The fee for the appeal is significant , and the decision to do so is not lightly taken. The Bord’s decision is authoritative and, in effect, final.

The conservation function of An Taisce is hugely important in terms of the common good, and it has a distinguished record in opposing poor planning or projects that would lead to detrimental impacts at national and local level. Nevertheless An Taisce is frequently the only party to appeal or contest poor decisions. The number of prescribed bodies has expanded to 17 over the years, and includes such bodies as Fáilte Ireland, the Heritage Council, the Transport Infrastructure Ireland (O'Leary 2014). Sadly, these bodies are much less likely than An Taisce to take an appeal, possibly by their more limited remit and other factors. Within the past few decades it has become widely recognized that climate change is the most critical crisis of this century. and some poor planning decisions in the past have compounded our vulnerability.

Local Associations and planning.

An Taisce has a number of local associations (LAs) that may correspond with a county boundary (e.g. Meath), or a subdivision of a county (e.g. Dublin South - R Dodder to Stillorgan Rd). The local association should have its own Standing Orders that govern how it is run, including the formation of its committees, the roles of officers, holding of an annual general meeting and election of a representative to the council of An Taisce (An Taisce 1996). The officers may include a planning officer, and all development planning submissions must be discussed and supported by the committee. The planning function includes making submissions to draft County or City Development Plans, Local Area Plans, Village Design Statements and Part 8 orders. In recent years only certain local associations had formal authority from the Advocacy Officer to deal with planning submissions. More generally the role was transferred either voluntarily or by default to the Advocacy Officer and the Advocacy Unit in Tailors Hall. This is partly a reflection of the increased complexity around the whole planning process, the amount of paperwork involved in large or complex proposals, and possibly a reduction in membership or commitment in previously active local associations.

To help the public understand the planning process An Taisce recently undertook a major project to organise public meetings around the country when County Development Plans were being revised.  Qualified and experienced volunteers visited many counties where well attended meetings were held. The aim was to facilitate the effectiveness of public submissions to the development plan process in line with the government's commitment to increase public participation in governance and the decision making process.  

The Local Government Reform Act of 2014 established a new route for the public to participate in and influence local government decision making. Three ‘pillars’ of public representation were created – Environmental, Social Inclusion and Community. As a member of the Environmental Pillar An Taisce local associations can nominate representatives to the PPNs (Public Participation Networks) and SPCs (Strategic Policy Committees) thus bringing environmental advocacy to these influential and broadly-based forums.

Over the past few decades a programme of workshops on planning conducted by the Advocacy Officer has been held at intermittent but irregular intervals in different areas. The objective is primarily to train interested members in local associations in how to produce submissions that are appropriate, informed and judicious in both content and presentation. Planning issues have become more complex as new developments emerge, such as solar photovoltaic (PV) installations. Local authority planning departments are now well staffed by qualified planners who have the academic training and experience, and this level of expertise is unlikely to be available in a local association. This is well illustrated in the case of Environmental Impact Statements and Strategic Environmental Assessments, which have become voluminous in recent years in response to various EU Directives. The range of issues that they raise is beyond the scope of local association members, and realistically should be dealt with by specially trained planners, including those employed in the An Taisce Advocacy Unit.

Submissions by local associations – or any member of the public - are public documents, visible on-line as well as in the planning department. An Taisce is particularly vulnerable to the risk posed by a flawed submission that could expose the organisation to reputational and even legal and financial hazard. Training workshops stress the point that statements and comments must deal only with the planning issue, and must on no account stray into speculation or rumour. They should use planning law or development plans to justify the stance taken, and must not personalise any aspect of it.

Evolution of An Taisce policy and practice.

A number of An Taisce local associations were, in the past, authorised to make submissions to planning applications within their own area. They were: Galway city, Cork city, Limerick city, Kerry, South Dublin / Dun Laoghaire, Kilkenny, Clare, Donegal North West, and North Tipperary. However local association committee membership is dynamic, committee experience and expertise in planning can change, and the resignation or loss of a knowledgeable planning officer may be impossible to replace. For those reasons An Taisce in April 2017 updated its policy in order to take into account the increased complexity of planning law and the difficulty for non-professionals to keep abreast of latest planning developments and policies. In particular the pre-existing arrangement exposed An Taisce to the possibility of legal, reputational and even catastrophic financial risk. Therefore only authorised named individuals may make a planning submission on behalf of a local association of An Taisce. The authorisation of these individuals will be made by an officer of An Taisce designated as such by the board. Furthermore, such authorised individuals will be re-authorised on a regular basis to be decided by the board. Unauthorised members will not be permitted to use An Taisce’s name in any capacity in relation to planning submissions. The unauthorised use of official An Taisce-headed notepaper will be taken as a serious breach of their membership responsibilities and be considered as subjecting them to disciplinary action, including expulsion from the organisation. However it is important to stress that all local associations have open access to the Advocacy Unit to convey concerns or communicate views on planning issues that arise within their area, to make suggestions and to offer opinion. The Advocacy Unit will then make a planning submission to the relevant planning authority if it is satisfied that such action is justified. The Advocacy Unit undertakes to communicate comprehensively with the local association regarding developments in relation to the planning issue brought to its attention. In the case of planning applications referred to An Taisce by the planning authority similar arrangements will apply.

All members have the same rights as any member of the public to make a planning submission in response to a planning application in a private capacity. Likewise, a planning decision can be appealed to An Bord Pleanála in a private capacity. In each case the usual fee applicable to the public at large will apply.

Local associations of An Taisce have a valuable role in submitting local knowledge on planning applications, which is not always available to planning officers who may not know the area well. Also they may organize general meetings to discuss proposed development plans. In doing so, they are also helping to inform public opinion on planning principles as well as providing an overview of planning policy in areas such as rural house design, zoning etc. Such meetings may also help the members and public to highlight issues that may be significant to some members of the public but less noticeable in the broader Development Plan context, such as noise from trailer parks or light pollution from street lighting. Public participation is a key plank of government policy, which benefits significantly from the contribution An Taisce makes in sharing information and new understanding.

An Taisce and appeals to An Bord Pleanala.

The taking of an appeal by An Taisce to An Bord Pleanála has, for many years, been reserved to the Advocacy Unit. An Taisce has a remarkable record of successful planning appeals, and this has considerable value in enhancing its reputation with the media and therefore the public. These are relatively few in number, contrary to popular perception. Indirectly it helps to educate the public in the nuances and complexity of planning. There are significant financial costs involved in taking a planning appeal, and this is another reason to limit the function to the Advocacy Officer and Advocacy Unit in Tailors’ Hall.

Local Associations and future planning policy.

The Board of An Taisce is the ultimate authority in the authorisation of members who may make planning submissions. The board may delegate this role to the Advocacy Officer (or designated substitute - see below) who will be in charge of the authorisation process, and each individual’s authorisation will be reviewed at prescribed intervals to be decided. Local associations that have specific planning concerns, but who do not have a member authorised, should communicate these concerns directly with the Advocacy Unit. The submission will then be taken by An Taisce Head office (assuming it agrees with the local association’s concerns). The Advocacy Unit undertakes to ensure that there will be full communication with the local association regarding subsequent developments.

In the event of the Advocacy Officer position being vacant or unfilled for any reason, the board will nominate an alternative individual to perform the duties.

As stated above, none of the above provisions bars any member (or group of members) from making a submission (or taking an appeal to An Bord Pleanala) in a private capacity. The cost of making a submission by any member of the public is €20 (in 2017). The planning lists are published on-line on the local authority’s website, and generally the plans and documentation are also accessible on-line.

The change in policy in relation to local associations making planning submissions is essential given the complexity and the increased professionalisation of planning issues. An Taisce is a charity and must take prudent measures to prevent legal and financial situations developing that could be catastrophic in a worst-case scenario. An Taisce’s unique and critical role in environmental integrity and sustainability is too important to be exposed to an unacceptable level of risk.

References