In Conversation with Niall Cussen, Chief Executive of the Office of the Planning Regulator

Continuing with LGIU Ireland’s local government leadership series, Thomas spoke with the Chief Executive Officer of the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR), Niall Cussen, to find out more about the operation of Ireland’s planning system.

Niall Cussen, Chief Executive of the Office of the Planning Regulator
Niall Cussen, Chief Executive of the Office of the Planning Regulator

To start us off, it would be great to hear about your reflections and experiences as CEO and Planning Regulator of the OPR, what does this dual role entail, and what surprises you from your time working in Ireland’s planning system?

In the OPR the office holder is the legal entity. We do not have a statutorily appointed Board as such. So the role involves both the normal chief executive functions and ensuring that, through our Executive Management Team, our day-to-day planning and corporate functions are being discharged effectively.

A constant surprise is the adaptability of the planning process in dealing with both new and old challenges. When I came into the planning world in the late 1980s, we were still working through the tail end of a very, very deep recession. And over my time, I have seen about three of those economic cycles, each one of which benefited from the adaptability of the planning system to sow the seeds for recovery. After the economic and banking collapse from 2008 onwards, we had to grapple with stalled housing projects and 3000+ unfinished estates, which we did in a short number of years after.

To many people, it may feel like a distant memory already but we should not forget how the entire planning system – as with many public services – pivoted to work through the pandemic and through public health restrictions. We had to rethink service delivery for handling planning applications, we had to find new ways of engaging with the public. This was to ensure that work on the plans for the future could continue and, as the pandemic eased and passed, we were ready for the future.

The adaptability of the system in coping with huge shocks, never ceases to surprise me.

Another example of this adaptability has been the planning systems’ growing recognition of the climate crisis and initiatives to address this. When I entered the planning sector, no one was talking much about climate change or biodiversity. But fast-forward to today, there’s a whole new language and a whole new vocabulary that permeates the planning space. We also have marine planning approaching fast now.

In terms of things that don’t surprise me, one is the enduring nature of some of the challenges. Principally, housing has been a challenge for a long time. A big aspect of the current challenge today, as we try to ramp up supply, from a range of sources, such as new build and adaptive re-use of buildings, is in bridging the gap between higher density and more sustainable housing that tends not to be affordable and lower density and more affordable housing that tends not to be that sustainable.

The planning process has to play its part alongside areas like new funding approaches and innovation in construction in bridging that gap. Otherwise, we will see more and more sprawling suburbs and declining city and town centres, which people don’t want and our environment cannot afford.

One of the biggest challenges confronting all countries and planning authorities is around population and demographic projection. With a growing youth population and an attraction to work in cities, what can the OPR facilitate to allow the Country to get ahead of the housing demands of such a rapidly growing population?

In a nutshell, the OPR’s statutory oversight of the development plan process ensures local planning authorities have a relentless focus on the delivery of housing (1) in the right places, (2) at the right times, and (3) in the right forms.

We need to see development plans and local area plans that have a constant focus on activating the opportunities for sustainable and viable housing delivery across the full range of types of housing. Through our oversight work, alongside the proactive work we do with local authority forward planning teams and training, we are now starting to see development plans and local plans that are more and more focused on delivery and sustainability and that’s really great to see.

Within this, there is also the recognition that we have to get delivery right.

There is a huge focus on delivery right now, which is right, people need homes, but at the same time, we have to get the planning right too and certainly much better than in the past. Government policy is clear. It is not a question of putting delivery before sustainability. It has to be both if we want to break the continuation of historically unsustainable building patterns. Delivery will happen with a proactive approach by our local authorities in relation to their housing, planning and land activation roles.

You only have to look to the centre of Dublin or many Irish towns, and you see the high levels of emptiness and less than ideal mix of housing types and tenures.

Outside the cities, you see the majority of housing delivery at the edges or even outside urban centres to the detriment of sustainability goals. For example, in rural communities along the western seaboard, most housing (around 70-80%) is sporadic in the countryside.

That means that only 20% or more of housing is delivered in towns or villages where the majority of the population lives, meaning the sustainability of some of those towns or villages is coming into question. More and more people are recognising the connection between these trends and the level of vacancy and dereliction and the role of the local authorities in stepping in where there are failures and blockages and being appropriately supported and funded to do that.

Housing for All describes how a planning system is the “critical foundation of a sustainable housing sector.” What lessons have you seen in EU and other countries that you think would benefit Ireland’s planning system? 

The best planning systems are always plan based, evidence-driven, and delivery-focused, with strong input from three-dimensional masterplans. However, there is still a way to go in relation to truly seeing that type of urbanism in Ireland compared to best practices in other countries.

To an extent, that goes back to capacity issues. There are no glaring barriers in terms of regulation or policy frameworks. Instead, plans that are as much three-dimensional in their visions for renewal and regeneration as detailed in their supporting documents and processes are complex and labour-intensive to develop. They take time to evolve, they take time to consult on because delivery depends on doing your homework properly.

It’s a question of local authorities having excellent multidisciplinary teams, proper research and fieldwork and engagement. We’ve only had limited experience of this type of masterplanning in Ireland, principally in the strategic development zones for Dublin’s Docklands, the Cork area and educational campuses such as Grangegorman.

In the case of Grangegorman, where our offices are based, the implementation of the masterplan for this area required extensive engagement with the community and constant dialogue for issues to be teased out.

The reality is that three-dimensional masterplans take time to deliver. New city quarters or towns take years, sometimes decades, to emerge, and most of our urban centres have actually evolved over centuries.

Vision is the key thing, it has to be inspirational, not aspirational.

Vision in planning has to be inspirational, not aspirational. It must be grounded in addressing both the realities of delivery and the needs of citizens. Where you get that type of buy-in and the vision is understood, it gives you a great degree of certainty in the planning process and much less risk of legal action.

Technology has a huge contribution to make because planning is still largely a paper-based process here with big books, few images and maps that the public finds hard to understand, and can be interpreted many ways, leading to disputes and challenges. A two-dimensional plan is a very challenging mechanism to engage with and agree a long term vision for the proper planning and sustainable development of an area so we have to do better.

Planning needs to move more towards the process of co-design.

Technology is leaps and bounds ahead of the planning process and 3D visualisation software is a tremendous tool to help to create a better understanding of the potential of a particular area and also in getting a better understanding of the legitimate concerns or interests of different stakeholders and feeding that into a process of co-design.

(Interview continues below)

Local government at the Oireachtas: May 2023

In this member-exclusive round-up service, we examine the news from Ireland’s Parliament every month with a focus, as always, on legislation which impacts local government. May’s edition includes a visit from the US President, brand-new local government legislation and ten new Bills signed into law.

In conversation with Dr Pat Daly, Chief Executive of Limerick City and County Council

As part of LGIU’s series on local government leadership, Dr Pat Daly, Chief Executive of Limerick City and County Council discusses how Limerick is navigating the challenges and opportunities of local government in 2023.

How Clare County Council is building up its rural communities: a case study

Given the significance of the original strategy – and now the renewed strategy – this case study from LGIU’s Research Team showcases the exciting innovation coming from Ireland’s 2022 Local Authority of the Year and offers several lessons and insights into the area of rural development.

‘Penny-wise, pound-foolish’. How do you think funding models affect the current backlogs we see in Ireland’s planning system, what advice would you give to those looking to renew confidence in the planning system? 

To be very blunt, our planning service is very critically and structurally underfunded and under-resourced. I don’t say that lightly, I say that having undertaken statutory reviews of the systems and procedures for delivery of statutory planning functions of a number of local authorities and An Bord Pleanála. This should concern us all because the planning process is the eye of the needle through which every thread of the government’s €165bn National Development Plan and €4Bn p.a. ‘Housing for All’ plan must pass.

From our position, we would also like to see the planning system move towards a more self-funded arrangement similar to other administrations. Planning fees were last set by the Minister in 2001. Over the last 22 years, things like environmental impact assessment were in their infancy, assessments under Habitats Directive did not exist, planning performed less of a role in relation to land activation, we didn’t have the link between the National Development Plan (NDP) and National Planning Framework (NPF) and climate and flood risk were far down the priority list.

I think one of the first things you can do is look at the funding of planning, particularly planning fees last set 22 years ago in 2001.

So the point is that there is a whole new array of functions that have landed on local authorities’ shoulders to implement, but their ability to resource those functions from planning fees is controlled centrally.

Today, around 20% of the planning process is covered by fees. What that means is that the €65 that you pay to your local authority for them to process a planning application for a home doesn’t go that far in relation to the many hundreds of euros it costs to assess that application.

At the same time, planning permission for a development is a valuable document, it can dramatically increase property value and with the fees paid for that function coming nowhere near what it costs, the reality is that taxpayers and ratepayers are subsidising a process that confers significant private gain.

That is wrong and limits the ability of local authorities to invest more wisely in for example putting together cutting-edge three-dimensional masterplans. Fortunately, Government recognises this and is committed to researching potential solutions.

Ultimately, we need to remember that confidence in the planning system comes from excellence in the way the system is structured, resourced and operated.

We have a way to go on that. But I’m confident that if we can strengthen the financial and resourcing underpinnings of the planning process, it will be able to better provision for its long-term needs in three areas.

Firstly, strategic workforce planning to fill future skills gaps and vacant posts.

Local authority chief executives are at the coalface in understanding what it is to deliver planning services themselves.

Conducting their own analysis, local authorities have signalled a critical gap of 541 posts across a range of disciplines, not just planners, but people who run their planning functions from management to administrative to technical roles and enforcement.

Planning is essentially a multidisciplinary function. And with an identified need for 541 posts from the overall complement of 1,550 planning staff working in local authorities, progressively working towards closing that gap over time is going to be key.

The Government is currently embarking on the filling of about 100 posts in the wider local authority planning area, and Budget 2023 committed €5 million. Hopefully, future budgetary processes, allied to fee reform, will enable a robust resource base for this most critical of public service functions.

An Bord Pleanála is also critical. The Government has set an action plan in terms of restructuring the Board responding to each and every one of the recommendations of the OPR’s reviews reports. The Planning and Development Bill 2022 also sets out a whole new organisation and a governance framework for the Board and part and parcel of that is its resourcing of the Board. The full complement of the 15 Board members, the OPR recommended as part of our review of the Board, is now in place with sanction to fill other urgently needed posts.

For people contemplating higher education, local government, and planning courses specifically, deserve a much closer look. There are dynamic, progressive and interesting careers in planning for the taking. We are working closely with the team at and with the colleges and planning schools to promote planning as a career of choice.

All of this demonstrates the contribution of the OPR to address oversight, to examine resourcing and to bring on training and research.

Secondly, we need to advance investment in cutting-edge ICT systems in planning, building on the new public-facing online planning application service to replace the three different back-office planning administration systems used variously by the 31 local authorities. Having different systems that do not talk to each other does not enable automated data gathering, information exchange and integration with other ICT systems like the BCMS system that tracks building commencement.

The government would benefit hugely from automatic seamless collection, collation and transmission of data from a national planning service. We need to shift from the manual quarterly input of data to spreadsheets to accelerate a data-capturing project.

Thirdly, a commitment to training with ring-fenced funding and sufficient staffing to be able to release staff, from time to time, to be up to date with the latest legal, operational or policy developments is crucial.

So, with local authorities, the OPR helped bring about the preparation of the first national local authority planning sector learning and development strategy. This was followed by the establishment of a new National Planning Services Training Group to in effect, oversee and drive a national programme of learning and development and training for a whole cohort of staff in local authorities.

One very strong signal we got from a survey of local authority planning staff when the learning and development strategy was being prepared, was that staff are working in a more and more fast-changing space, and they’re sometimes hearing about developments second hand.

So an upfront and engaged process of learning and development is crucial and that means constant information dissemination, webinars, in-person training, and accredited training programmes and we are very, very committed to all those.

40% of Ireland’s housing lies outside census-recognised towns. Forming part of the OPR’s upcoming research programme, how do you envision a sustainable model of rural housing? 

Currently, we are undertaking a major piece of work with University College Dublin’s planning school to better understand the drivers of current patterns of development in parts of Ireland, especially where development creates further challenges in terms of achieving compact and sustainable patterns of development and the roll-out of public transport services.

Given Ireland’s rural heritage, we do have a huge network of rural towns and villages, many of which are not able to offer an economically and infrastructurally realistic alternative to sporadic rural housing.

So this is a huge challenge. And it points to a major role for local authorities to be the ones that step into gaps where they arise and provide serviced, low-cost, self-build sites for householders that have an attractive option to live in a small town or village besides local amenities and services.

This concept is recognised in Government planning documents and ‘Housing for All’, circulars and schemes but has yet to be operationalised in any widespread or extensive sense.

What takeaways have the OPR drawn from the extensive series of learning and training programmes with local authority planners and elected representatives? 

In a nutshell, there is a huge vacuum in training. Thankfully, we’ve been able to step into that vacuum and plug that with our work, but there is a huge amount more to be done, particularly in terms of staff training.

From 2019 onwards, we initially focused on planning training for elected members. This was because before the establishment of the OPR, there was no national planning training programme for the 949 elected members who discharge crucial policy making functions.

That isn’t to say Councillors haven’t independently gone to training. They have, but there was no strategic dialogue in terms of understanding strategic knowledge needs from their perspective.

We have made huge strides, but we are not close to finishing. Indeed, local elections are not that far away and with that comes a whole fresh influx of newly elected members. It’s very important that as and when there is a cohort of newly elected members, the OPR is there from the minute they are elected to support them in understanding their planning functions.

Indeed, the OPR website is now an important learning resource with videos and recordings from previous events, and it offers a comprehensive library of concise briefing notes and videos to take elected members through the basic stages of preparing a development plan and the role of local authorities in topical areas like climate change, flood risk, housing delivery, infrastructure delivery and transport.

Finally, looking towards the OPR’s 2023-25 research programme, what research outputs/gaps do you think will make a real difference in Ireland’s planning profession? 

Our programme for the next couple of years is ambitious, but, ultimately, has a very practical focus. We are not a policy-making body, instead, our job is to support practitioners on the ground in implementing policy.

Since the inception of the OPR, we’ve engaged with the planning sector through the City and County Management Association (CCMA) and our own National Planning Knowledge Group, to identify key areas of research to guide our work.

From that, we developed our first research programme from 2020-22 as well as our current research programme from 2023-25. Under the first research programme, we published practice notes on areas like screening for environmental assessments under European directives, as well as six case study papers on topics including public rights of way pre-application consultation, climate action and the development plan and traveller accommodation and the development plan.

Currently, we’re now working to deliver on research for planning practice and performance, such as methodologies for ensuring the development plan process delivers sustainable land and property solutions to meet the enterprise and employment needs of our growing economy.

Other areas where we are working include developing better systems for monitoring the implementation of development plans so we can demonstrate to the public and stakeholders if or how our planning policies are delivering on their aims and objectives, linking back to previous research work “measuring what matters”  undertaken by the Royal Town Planning Institute.

Across all our research, it is vital that we are aware of the extent to which the planning system has a language of its own. To people on the street, planning can sometimes be hard to understand, so we are doing a lot of work to provide easy-to-use information for the public in relation to their interactions with the planning process. This includes our explainer you-tube videos and 15 extremely popular information leaflets some of which illustrate how you can do work around your home or business without a need for planning permission arising.

In overall terms, what we are totally focused on doing is supporting and strengthening Ireland’s planning process through both our statutory oversight process, but even more importantly through learning, skills and system development and greater public awareness.

Much of what we do has never before been done in Ireland. Four years on, we are well down the road of achieving the objectives we set ourselves with our corporate strategy, with much more to come.

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