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Urban Development & Building Heights in Strategic Development Zones

Urban Development & Building Heights in Strategic Development Zones

Since the issue of the Urban Development and Building Heights Guidelines by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government in December 2018 (the “Guidelines”), land owners and developers are understandably anxious to know how these guidelines will apply to proposed developments of land, the subject of planning applications. The below case note sets out when a planning authority is required to apply the Guidelines and offers a solution for developers of sites for residential use in SDZs where the Guidelines have not yet been implemented.

The High Court case of Spencer Place Development Limited –v- Dublin City Council [2019   IEHC 384] concerned the interpretation of the statutory Guidelines. Judgment was handed down by Justice Garrett Simons in May 2019 and dealt with the central issue in the case regarding the interaction between the Guidelines and existing planning schemes adopted in strategic development zones (SDZs).

The main contention in the case concerned Dublin City Council’s interpretation of a particular provision of the Guidelines known as specific planning policy requirement 3 (A) or “SPPR3 (A)” in the context of the consideration of planning applications already submitted to it. The Guidelines were issued by the Minister pursuant to s. 28 of the Planning & Development Act 2000 (“Section 28”). A planning authority is required, under Section 28 to have regard to ministerial guidelines and to comply with specific planning policy requirements. The question was whether SPPR 3(A) applied to plan schemes where it stated it applied to ‘development plans’ only. A Briefing Note on the Guidelines prepared by Dublin City Planning Officer stated that SPPR 3(A) did not apply to the development proposed for a planning scheme area.

BACKGROUND & LEGAL ISSUES

The plaintiff developer had two pending planning applications before Dublin City Council where the height of the development would exceed the maximum building height under the applicable planning scheme. The developer argued that the Guidelines permitted the planning authority to legally grant the planning permission despite the height restrictions of the North Lotts planning scheme. The court was asked to make a declaration firstly that the Briefing Note of 21 January 2019 was ultra vires or outside the powers of Dublin City Council Planning Authority and secondly, that the Council was obliged to apply SPPR 3 (A) of the Guidelines from the date of their publication in December 2018 and prior to undertaking any review of the North Lotts and Grand Canal Planning Scheme.

SPPR3 provides as follows:-

“It is a specific planning policy requirement that where;

(A)

  1. an applicant for planning permission sets out how a development proposal complies with the criteria above; and
  2. the assessment of the planning authority concurs, taking account of the wider strategic and national policy parameters set out in the National Planning Framework and these guidelines; then the planning authority may approve such development, even where specific objectives of the relevant development plan or local area plan may indicate otherwise.

(B)         

In the case of an adopted planning scheme, the Development Agency in conjunction with the relevant planning authority (where different) shall,  upon the coming into force of these guidelines, undertake a review of the planning scheme, utilising the relevant mechanisms as set out in the Planning and Development Act 2000 (as amended) to ensure that the criteria above are fully reflected in the planning scheme. In particular, the Government policy that building heights be generally increased in appropriate urban locations shall be articulated in any amendment(s) to the planning scheme

(C)         

In respect of planning schemes approved after the coming into force of these guidelines, these are not required to be reviewed.”

The defendant Dublin City Council argued that the judicial review proceedings brought by the developer were premature as while both planning application decisions were pending there was, therefore, no ‘decision’ or ‘act’ that could be the subject of judicial review and that the ordinary meaning must be given to the word ‘development plan’ in SPPR3(A) above. Arising from the application of the ‘ordinary meaning’ test for interpretation, and after having considered the full text of SPPR3, DCC argued that all the guidelines required it to do, was undertake a review of the planning scheme in accordance with SPPR3 (B): SPPR3 did not necessarily require a Planning Authority to amend the planning scheme to incorporate increased building heights, DCC argued.  The developer contended that the Briefing Note issued by the City Council Planning Officer regarding his interpretation of the building height guidelines was ‘justiciable’.

HIGH COURT DECISION

Justice Simons refused to grant Spencer Place Development Limited its three declarations and held in favour of DCC.

CONCLUSIONS FOR DEVELOPERS

This judgment is of interest to developers as it highlights the following:-

  1. Where an amendment to a planning scheme is pending, a planning application will be decided upon by reference to the existing planning scheme.
  2. The building height restrictions of an existing planning scheme within an SDZ cannot be circumvented by reference to the Guidelines.
  3. It clarifies that a planning authority is required to apply the Guidelines when assessing planning applications outside an SDZ. This means that one possible solution for a developer, when faced with a refusal of planning permission in an SDZ on grounds of building heights, might be to apply for permission for the same development under the fast-track Strategic Housing Development process. This is because the relevant legislation[1] does not differentiate between property located in a development plan, a local area plan or a planning scheme. However, the proposed development would need to consist of at least 100 residential units or 200 student units or a combination of both.
  4. Developers are also reminded that there is no right to appeal a decision to refuse planning permission in an SDZ on grounds that an extant planning scheme did not incorporate subsequently issued SPPRs.
  5. Whilst the subject of costs formed a separate judgment of Simons J. this case also demonstrates the requirement for a plaintiff developer to await a decision from the planning authority prior to issuing judicial review proceedings. It was held by Simons J. in a further judgment delivered in the costs application that the developer was unable to make the argument that both parties should bear their own costs pursuant to s. 50B of the Planning & Development Act 2000 by reason of the finding (amongst others) that the Briefing Note did not amount to a ‘decision’ capable of forming judicial review under that section. Simons J made an order directing the plaintiff to discharge DCC’s costs under the ordinary rule set out in Order 99 of the Rules of the Superior Courts that costs follow the event/ the winner at the absolute discretion of the Court.

The Irish Times has reported that the developer has appealed the substantive decision of Judge Simons to the Court of Appeal.  The appeal could also affect the costs order. In addition, DCC has proposed an amendment to the planning scheme which would increase building height restrictions in the North Lotts and Grand Canal SDZ. We will update this note as soon as the decision in the appeal has been published.

[1] See the definition of ‘Strategic Housing Development’ in s. 3 of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2014

Please note whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the within an article, it is not to be construed as legal or taxation advice nor does it purport to be so. Specific advice in each situation is required.
If you have any queries or comments about the above please contact the writers Daragh Burke and Deirdre Farrell by email daragh@amoryssolicitors.com or deirdre@amoryssolicitors.com, telephone 00353 1 23 59 40 or your usual contact at Amorys. Amorys Solicitors is a boutique commercial and private client law firm in Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland.