There are three main characteristics of the system -
- The system is independent,
- the system is designed to be fair and impartial, and
- the system is open.
The Planning Acts contain clear provisions concerning the independence of the Board. Staffing levels and expenditure by the Board are subject to Ministerial control. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is also empowered to issue general policy directives relating to planning and development and the Board is required to have regard to such directives. However, the law provides that this power does not enable the Minister to exercise any power or control in relation to any particular appeal. In 1976, it was accepted generally that the Board should be set up because political parties at the time agreed that an independent tribunal should deal with appeal decisions in an area as controversial and sensitive as land development. The Board is conscious of the need to discharge this responsibility in a satisfactory manner. While maintaining its independence, the Board advises the Department on possible policy changes relating to physical planning in the light of the Board's experience of considering individual planning appeals on a national basis.
In determining individual appeals, the Board acts in a quasi-judicial role in accordance with the principles of natural justice. Unlike most planning appeal systems in Europe, third parties may make appeals under the Irish system. The proportion of such appeals is growing and in 2003, 48% of determined planning appeals involved third parties. Oral hearings were held in 46 cases ( planning appeals, local authority compulsory purchase orders and road schemes ) in that year to assist the Board in particularly complex cases or where significant national or local issues were involved.
There is no political interference in decisions by the Board in individual cases. Under section 114 of the 2000 Planning Act, it is unlawful to communicate with any member of the Board, an employee or a consultant engaged by the Board for the purpose of influencing improperly his/her consideration of an appeal or a Board decision. There are also legal obligations on members of the Board, employees and consultants to declare certain interests. The Board's procedures are such that no single person, be it Board member, inspector or other person can ensure what the Board's decision will be in a particular appeal. The quorum for the Board meeting is three members and all members normally attend a Board meeting where a particularly complex or sensitive case is involved. In considering an appeal all submissions on the file are considered together with the inspector's report (including recommendation). The Board gives due consideration to the report, but the decision may be at variance with the recommendation; in 2003, the Board accepted the general thrust of the inspector's recommendation in 89% of cases. Under the 2000 Planning Act, in any case where the Board’s decision is different in relation to the granting or refusing of permission, the Board must state in its decision order the main reason for not accepting the recommendation of the Inspector.
The long title to the 2000 Planning Act (which replaced the 1963 to 1999 Planning Acts) indicates that the main purpose of the Act is to make provision, in the interests of the common good, for proper planning and sustainable development including the provision of housing. When an appeal is made to the Board, it is normally required to determine the application as if it had been made to it in the first place. The Board is generally bound, therefore, to apply the same criteria as the planning authority; in particular, it is generally restricted to considering the proper planning and sustainable development of the area. Planning authorities must have regard to guidelines, and must comply with policy directives, issued by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage relating to their functions. The Board must also have regard to such guidelines and comply with such directives, where applicable.
In interpreting the 'proper planning and sustainable development' of an area, the Board is empowered to contravene the provisions of a development plan, but it seldom sees the need to exercise this power. However, in any case where a planning authority decides to refuse permission on the grounds that the proposed development would materially contravene the provisions of the development plan, the Board may only grant permission on appeal in certain circumstances e.g. where the proposed development is of strategic or national importance. The Board will in appropriate cases take account of public policy on major issues since the Board is required by section 143 of the 2000 Act to have regard to relevant policies and objectives of Ministers, planning authorities and certain other public authorities. Where policy on economic development and job creation is a material consideration in an appeal, it is the Board's practice to refer to these factors in its decision, but such factors are a material consideration in exceptional cases only. The Board tries to strike the appropriate balance between environmental and economic considerations in determining appeals.
The Board, where it determines the appeal as if it were made to it in the first instance, conveys its decisions on individual appeals by way of sealed orders, which must include reasons and considerations for the decisions. Having regard to the nature and extent of the appeal process and the provision for a judicial review of a decision in an individual appeal, the Board does not engage in public discussions on the pros and cons of its decisions. The Board endeavours to maintain the quality of its decisions at a high level and to make decisions which are consistent and clear.
A notable feature of the appeal system is the present open nature of the system. The entire file on an appeal received by the Board may be inspected by any member of the public for at least five years starting on the third working day after the appeal is determined. A copy of the Board Order and Direction and the Inspector’s report is also available on this website. Copies of any documents on the file may be purchased at the Board's offices. There is no 'hidden agenda' in individual appeal files. In the context of the Irish Public Service, the appeal system is an exceptionally open system. This access facility is very popular.