I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the invitation. I am joined by Ms Anne Marie O'Connor, who is the deputy planning regulator and the director of the plans assessment side of the business. Our remit is as an independent overseer of the implementation, by local authorities and An Bord Pleanála, of the regulatory and policy framework for planning set by the Oireachtas and the Government. In this statement I will draw upon material from an early analysis of our work over 2020. We will be submitting our annual report to the committee in June.
It goes without saying that 2020 was a year of enormous challenge for the OPR, similarly to every organisation and citizen in the country, as we grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a great credit to our staff and those we work with that the challenges posed by the pandemic were not only met but overcome. All of us have very successfully adjusted to a new and flexible way of working. It is also a great credit to the planning process in general, which the Government designated as an essential service from the get-go, that An Bord Pleanála, local authorities, the OPR and the Department maintained, to the greatest extent possible, delivery of planning services throughout the year. Work continued unabated in preparing the plans that will shape our future, informed by learnings from the pandemic, in assessing planning applications and appeals, undertaking enforcement and conducting a wide range of research, training and public awareness exercises. The pandemic also gave us as citizens and communities the opportunity to pause and reflect on our future, coincidentally and helpfully at a time when local authorities were preparing a new generation of city and county development plans right across the country.
I will now address our three statutory functions, focusing on the assessment of statutory plans, as the committee requested, but also mentioning reviews of local authority planning functions and our education, training and research and awareness functions. Regarding our statutory assessments of local authority development plans, we engage proactively with all local authorities throughout the plan-making process, from before the plan is published through the various different stages. We made 110 observations and 93 recommendations across 45 stages of plan-making processes. Members of the committee will be aware that a development plan goes through various different stages, from the initial pre-draft to a draft to material amendments and so on. We made quite a lot of observations and recommendations.
It is important to remember that the Oireachtas established the OPR not to set planning policy but to perform independent and thorough scrutiny of such plans, in order to ensure that the public are confident that the authorities reasonably and consistently apply relevant Government policies. These include important matters like securing urban and rural regeneration, and the targets for same in the Government's national planning framework; the appropriate levels and locations for zoning of land for future development; how we move about; the delivery of quality and affordable housing; ensuring vibrant city and town centres; and a deeper respect and care for nature and our environment in planning for the future. Over 2020, the vast majority of our recommendations were implemented by local authorities. Ultimately, we only had one case of a recommendation to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to use his statutory powers under section 31 of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018 to make a direction, which he accepted. I have included some figures and tables at the end of my submission to make that point. We worked very well with local authorities through 2020.
On the review of planning functions, we completed preparations and initiated our programme of systemic reviews of the procedures used by local authorities in the delivery of planning services. There are currently two local authorities going through that review process, which will hopefully wrap up by the first half of the year or going into the second half. All the preparatory work for that was done in 2020.
In relation to promoting public awareness of planning, research and training, the stand-out success of my team was the move to put in place an unprecedented level of training in planning for the 949 local councillors across the 31 local authorities, in conjunction with our colleagues in the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG. There were five events in total in 2020, which were attended by over 600 elected members of local authorities.
In our corporate functioning, we fully complied with all governance and financial procedures, implementing the code of practice for the governance of State bodies and we took possession of our permanent premises on the Technological University Dublin campus in Grangegorman, Dublin 7.
There are some key themes to our submissions on statutory plans. I hope members of the committee have had a chance to look at the tables at the end of my statement. The areas highlighted show where our independent and statutory assessments of local authority plans cover frequently recurring topics, including, for example, the issue of properly reflecting statutory ministerial planning guidelines across a range of topics from flood risk management to transport, housing and other matters. The second issue was the consistency between statutory plans and the objectives of the regional spatial and economic strategies and the national planning framework. Regarding the current round of regional strategies, we had no role in their development because they predated our establishment. Lastly, there was the issue of climate action and ensuring that plans contain specific and measurable commitments to influence future development patterns and forms in a way that cuts energy needs, increases renewable energy sources and adapts to the effects of climate change.
Our sense is that the interventions we have made in the plan-making process are generally taken as constructive input to ensure that, like the proverbial jigsaw, all the pieces of our local authority plans fit together and that we have good alignment, which good government depends on, between national, regional and local policies. We are getting there as local authorities are now monitoring that much more closely. For example, when we issue a submission on one local authority, other local authorities are looking at that, anticipating and learning right across the sector.
That is a good thing.
I want to highlight some of the recent commentary on the work of the OPR which has, at times, been unhelpful and inaccurate in terms of the statements made about our work. I refer in particular to some contributions made on 1 April during a debate on a Private Members' motion on Project Ireland 2040. There were accusations that the work of the OPR was an assault on rural democracy and that we act in a dictatorial fashion. There seems to be a pattern in that and other subsequent commentary seeking to suggest that our statutory role is attempting to restrict rural development when that is far from the case. Indeed, any proper reading of our submissions will reveal that, taking our lead from Government policy, the OPR encourages a plan-led approach to rural development, in particular the renewal of many of our smaller towns and villages that many members of the committee would probably agree face a very uncertain future.
What is more striking about the commentary, however, is that it seems to be harking back to a previous and darker era of planning in this country when there was absolutely no oversight of the quality, effectiveness or cohesion of the roles of local elected members, local authorities and so on in determining and delivering planning functions. We know what that gave rise to, namely, systemic failures and the establishment of the Mahon tribunal and, ultimately, the OPR in order to give back to the public confidence in the quality of the operation of the planning process.
As we grapple with battling our way out of the pandemic and face the even bigger existential challenge of climate change, we all need to work together for the common good and to align local, regional and national aims. The Government has, to its great credit, hugely developed and strengthened not just the policies but also the investment going in to secure the very concept of proper planning and sustainable development called for in the preamble of the Planning Act passed by the Oireachtas.
It is true that local authorities have some discretion as to how to reflect these policies at local level, but it is not a limitless one. The Oireachtas decided that in 2018 with the passage of legislation around the OPR. Going further back, the statutory duties on councils to properly apply strategic policies existed long before our establishment. The difference now is that, following the will of the Oireachtas in legislating for the OPR in 2018, we are statute-bound to oversee and ensure that relevant national and regional policies are actually implemented in broad intent and detail.
We are barely two years old, yet we have, in my view, built a strong and effective resource to bring about the better planning outcomes that government, the Oireachtas and, most importantly, ordinary citizens want to see. I think of the hundreds of elected members who are attending the first ever national planning training programme for councillors, our research and practice notes for local authority planning staff, our planning leaflets, 14 of which have recently been published for the public, and the wide range of online resources available on our website.
We have hit the ground running. We are working hard to strengthen the integrity and cohesion of our planning process. Moreover, we are confident that many of our submissions on development plans are seen as very positive and constructive advice in the development of the next generation of statutory plans and that they will represent major advances on many fronts. Ms O'Connor and I are happy to take any questions for as long as the committee has time.