THE Office of the Planning Regulator is set for its first major clash with a local authority, taking on Cork County Council over its decision to clear the way for a retail outlet centre in Carrigtwohill, similar to the Kildare Village shopping hub.
The OPR was established in 2019 to ensure good planning across the country, and this is the first time it has urged the Minister of State for Housing, Damien English, to intervene to overturn a decision of a local council.
A spokesman for the OPR said: “Since its establishment, in April 2019, the OPR has assessed over 30 development plans. This is the first occasion the OPR has issued a notice to the minister.”
Minister English has two weeks to consider the recommendation of the planning regulator and to issue a draft direction, or, if he disagrees with the recommendation, publish a statement outlining his reasons.
If the minister sides with the planning regulator, he will seek a response from the local authority, before making a ruling, which could potentially quash plans for the retail outlet centre. If he goes against the regulator, he will have to explain his decision to the Oireachtas.
The proposals for a retail outlet centre have had a mixed response, with some people welcoming the €100m project and the 850 direct jobs it will create, but others vehemently opposed, because, they say, it will damage city centre trade and encourage car-based travel.
On January 27, Cork County Council adopted a variation to the County Development Plan, which would allow the retail centre, similar to Kildare Village, to be built between Carrigtwohill and Midleton.
Councillors voted 42 for and four against, with one abstention, by the County Mayor, Christopher O’Sullivan.
Chief executive, Tim Lucey, and director of planning, Micheal Lynch, strongly recommended the changes to support the outlet centre.
Last week, the OPR wrote to Minister English, asking him to intervene in the decision for a number of reasons.
According to the OPR, the variation to the County Development Plan should not be allowed, due to the premature nature of the changes, which were made prior to the development of a joint city and county plan (being devised by Cork City and County Councils together).
The OPR stated the decision of the council results in a development plan “that fails to set out an overall strategy for the proper planning and sustainable development of the area concerned, which is a breach of the requirements of the Planning and Development Act, 2000.”
As a result, the OPR said there would be ‘merit’ in Minister English issuing direction under section 31 of the act.
A spokesperson for the planning regulator said: “A key function of the OPR is to independently evaluate and assess statutory development and local area plans, with a view to ensuring that they set out an overall strategy for the proper planning and sustainable development of the area concerned.
“When the OPR has made its observations and recommendations, the relevant planning authority must outline how it plans to address them, taking account of the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.
“If a planning authority decides not to comply with any recommendations made, the OPR may issue a notice to the minister, recommending that powers specified under section 31 of the planning act be utilised to direct the planning authority to take specific measures relating to the plan.”
Green Party councillor Alan O’Connor, who strongly opposed the retail outlet development and who voted against the variation to the development plan, said he was not thrilled to see the elected members’ decision challenged and possibly overturned, but he agreed with the OPR.
“My argument against the retail outlet village has always been focused on sustainability issues, particularly regards car-dependency, resource-consumption, and climate considerations.”
Mr O’Connor made reference to estimates of 4,500 to 6,500 daily trips to the village and said: “Ultimately, OPR is doing what it was set up to do, ensure planning is sustainable: the right place, at the right time, in the right way, as its strategic plan puts it.”
The Green Party councillor, who lives in Carrigtwohill, also said the actions of the OPR follow the recent ruling of the UK Court of Appeal, which has blocked a third extension of Heathrow Airport, following a case taken by climate campaigners, including the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
“I think this is a trend we will see more of: environmental factors being given greater consideration,” Mr O’Connor said.
Fianna Fáil councillor Seamus McGrath, who voted in favour of the variation, allowing the retail outlet village, said the council were given assurances from the chief executive that the variation was just one stepping stone in a very slow-moving process to allow for the retail outlet village.
“We were given assurances by officials that this variation was one step in the process and it would have to come back before us again, before it went any further,” Mr McGrath said.
Mr McGrath said the process of allowing the retail outlet village would require further policy changes.
Mr McGrath said the OPR intervention was a significant development.
“It is a relatively new office and I am interested to hear what the chief executive has to say on the matter.”
He said that describing the council’s variation as “premature” was a reasonable point for the OPR to make.
“It is a question of timing. The joint retail strategy being developed by the two local authorities is underway and will take approximately two years to complete, so it is a critical issue.”
Mr McGrath reiterated that if the retail outlet village was to go ahead, there would have to be a strong action plan in place for towns and villages, which the council had given assurances would be put in place in the not-too-distant future.
Green Party councillor Alan O’Connor said, speculatively, it was highly likely Minister English would annul the variation.
“That is my guess. This is the first case taken to the minister by the OPR; it is important to set a precedent to combat bad practice.”
When contacted, the county council had no comment.