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So, what determines whether a planning application is refused, granted, delayed, or ultimately abandoned?

There is a widely held belief that the “right” planning decision is somehow inevitable (yes it can take a lot of time) but that it’s largely formulaic. It is policy driven. It can be a tedious process, with often endless requests, but nevertheless a fundamentally logical one.

Decisions obey a stated set of rules and time frames. Policy reigns supreme. Decisions are largely consistent with other decisions for similar types of applications. The public (if not the applicant) can be guaranteed consistency over time.

Well, up to a point.

Anybody with more than a couple of experiences (most private sector architects and nearly all developers) with Dublin City Council Planning Department will probably tell you differently.

Every developer and architect knows that the singular most important question to determine the likely success of any application is not the “where” (that zoning or this zoning) or the “what” (four floors versus six floors etc.) or even the secrets of the “when” (the Planning Departments own special seasons, “pre-Christmas rush” or the “summer lull”) but the “who” – the actual individual planner dealing with the application.

The “who” isn’t so much personal as it is personality types, or planner personality types to be more precise.

With some 20 years’ experience on the floor of the City Council Planning Department (and now safely living abroad) I can now reveal the little-known “fact” that planners can roughly be divided into five distinct personality types. There are of course some overlaps, hybrids, and mutations, but essentially there are five.

These are the “Instinctively Cautious”, the “Solo Operator”, the “Wannabe Architect”, the “Gotcha Planner”, and  “The Dude”. Understanding which planner type is sitting across the table from you is critical, and arguably the fundamental factor that should determining both your planning strategy and hopefully your goal ultimate of securing a planning permission.

“Instinctively Cautious”

The “Instinctively Cautious” planner is thorough. They examine every floor plan and elevation, every building line or parapet height in minute detail. They are rarely seen without their scale ruler or a City Development Plan in hand.

In addition to being instinctively cautious, they are also generally inherently suspicious – suspicious that someone (the developer, the architect) may be “pulling the wool over their eyes”. Hence the endless poring over plans and documentation.

The “Instinctively Cautious” planner tends to write a mini planning thesis on the simplest of planning applications. Extensive extracts (cut and paste) of planning policy are quoted, lest that they be accused of forgetting something.

The biggest fear of the “Instinctively Cautious” planner is making a mistake. This explains perhaps why the “Instinctively Cautious” tend very often to get unwittingly mired in policy detail. They can’t help themselves. They can get lost down rabbit holes of policy excavation, occasionally coming up for air to think.

The “Instinctively Cautious” aren’t necessarily anti- or pro-development, although they do struggle with that duality daily. Their defining characteristic, attention to detail, is both their strength and weakness. In fact, the Achilles heel of the “Instinctively Cautious” is that their attention to detail can often lead them to erroneous conclusions, or more specifically, erroneous recommendations – a classic case of “can’t see the wood for the trees” syndrome.

The big picture – “housing crisis”, “design quality”, “urbanism”, “architectural innovation”, “city-making”, “economy”, “jobs”– loses out to “plot ratio”, “site coverage”, “parapet heights”, “minimum distances”, and so on. It is, after all, easier to quantify numbers than to qualitatively assess livability.

So, what is the advice to planning consultants, architects, developers – or simply those wanting to convert their garage – when confronting the “Instinctively Cautious” planner?

Well it’s somewhat obvious. Avoid talking about the “big picture” stuff. It irritates them.

Don’t show them glossy images from recent comparable designs in Copenhagen, Barcelona, or New York. At best, these are likely to be summarily dismissed, at worst, they could provoke hostility.

Do show examples of recent similar developments that got planning permission nearby, preferably on the same road, and preferably less than 12 months previous.

The “Instinctively Cautious” tends to live in the suburbs.

Do say: “The development fully complies with plot ratio, site coverage and building height policy.”

Never say: “The development does not fully comply with plot ratio, site coverage and building height policy … it’s bespoke.”

Default decision: Asks for further information (ultra-cautious).

The “Solo Operator”

The “Solo Operator”, as name suggests simply does their own thing. The “Solo Operator” tends to be unabashedly pro-development.

The “Solo Operator” isn’t too interested in what other planners think or do nor are they much interested in adhering to written policy. They are far more interested in changing policy or, failing that, simply implementing their own.

The “Solo Operator” is sometimes known colloquially as a “maverick”. Senior management tend (most of the time) to quite like the “Solo Operator”, as the “Solo Operator” is staunchly pro-development.

This can be mistaken as the “Solo Operator” being in the metaphorical pockets of either the developer or senior management. Truth be told it’s somewhat the reverse.

Being instinctively pro-development gives the “Solo Operator” a free hand to try make the city as they wish it to be, not as how the Development Plan says it should be.

The big picture matters enormously to the “Solo Operator”, but so too does attention to design detail. It’s the middle bit that the “Solo Operator” often ignores. So, while the “Solo Operator” may wax lyrically about liveable urbanism and loves to pour over attentive creative design solutions to roof gardens or entrance foyers, they tend to be indifferent to anything that contravenes building height, plot ratio, or zoning.

They glaze over and groan at the mere mention of EIAs (Environmental Impact Assessments), STZs (Strategic Development Zones), or AAs (Appropriate Assessments). The “Solo Operator’s” Achilles’ heel is their lack of knowledge or interest in planning law, exempted development regulations or other such stuff. They proudly self-proclaim exemption from any regulation.

The “Solo Operator” tends to like tall buildings. Naturally they also tend to grant them even when they are contrary to policy. They are somewhat indifferent to “bird or wildlife directives” and can get positively agitated if anyone mentions the importance of “bat habitats” on 20-year-old derelict sites.

The “Solo Operator” tends to live in the city. The city for them is inside the canal ring, and they can be exceedingly tiresome in telling you that fact again, again, and again.

Do say: “Diversity, regeneration, livable urbanism … Richard Florida.”

Never say: “The market doesn’t want large apartments.”

Default decision: Grant of permission with at times esoteric conditions (ultra-confusing).

The “Wannabe Architect”

The “Wannabe Architect” professes a love and understanding of design.

The “Wannabe Architect” likes the way things look but is generally less interested in how they work. It’s the “Wannabe Architect” that usually demands four dozen CGIs (Computer Generated Images) for a 200sqm three-storey bespoke infill, a request that can often lead to a 10 percent increase in the cost of a small project. These requests can include inexplicable CGI views from more than 1km away.

“Wannabe Architects” tend to dislike tall buildings (anything much over six storeys is tall for them).

Somewhat inexplicably the majority of “Wannabe Architects” aren’t very much interested in apartment layouts, apartment sizes, or their functionality. They instead obsess endlessly over material finishes, with a particular fascination for the diversity, type, and colour of red brick.

Asymmetrical fenestration patterns delight, but cross-ventilation is dreary. Their discussion around appropriate building heights is almost theological, but suggestions for taller ceilings heights bore them. A single “elevation” is often adored, deconstructed, or derided to the point of fetishization.

The “Wannnabe Architects” are the planning champions of appropriately designed shopfronts. They are the moral guardians of taste.

Colour is fundamental to the “Wannabe Architect”. The diversity and totality of the their colour rainbow consists of muted shades of black, grey, and burgundy. Never, ever suggest or propose any primary colour for a shopfront, or hint at such heretical ideas as green, orange, or purple. Plastic is sinful. PVC simply distasteful.

The “Wannabe Architects” are somewhat obsessed with all things shopping. Shopfronts, shoppers, shopping centres, shopping loops, shopping strategy, shoe shops and button shops are all central to their understanding, appraisal, or valuing the city.

“Wannabe Architects” tend to live in the suburbs, dreaming of designer kitchens.

Do say: “Bespoke design, burgundy or muted grey.”

Never say: “PvC.”

Default decision: A complete redesign by way of further information (ultra vires).

The “Gotcha Planner”

The “Gotcha Planner”, as the name suggests, is out to “get you” – “you” being the applicant or developer. The default position of the “Gotcha Planner” is NO.

“NO” can come in all sorts of flavours, shapes, and meanings. But the answer is usually no. No in planning is otherwise known as “The Refusal”

Some of the favorite single-NO words of the “Gotcha Planner” are “premature”, “overdevelopment”, “precedent”, “injurious”, and “contravention”.

More complex multi-word or hyphenated variations that reflect deeper analysis include, “material contravention”, “grossly injurious”, and “out-of-character”.

More colourful expressions that tend not to make it into the planner’s report include “crap” “dog’s dinner”, “cut-and-paste”, and “taking the piss”.

Whilst the “Instinctively Cautious” planner is suspicious that someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes, the “Gotcha Planner” simply KNOWS that they are. The “Gotcha Planner” is a detective. They are our true-planning-crime investigators. They are purveyors of truth and slayers of developer dragons. They are deeply suspicious of “bullshit” language.

Don’t ever try outwit the “Gotcha Planner” on planning law. They have a unique talent and a deep “gotcha” need to quote obscure High Court cases of judicial review, complete with unnecessarily graphic descriptions of “premature applications”.

The “Gotcha Planner” is deeply paranoid. Understanding the paranoia of the “Gotcha Planner” will, however, only get you so far. Every strategy – simple or sophisticated – to convince the “Gotcha Planner” as to the merits of your cherished bespoke design will be met with either a raised eyebrow, a look of incredulity or a dismissive smirk.

And that’s on a good day. On a bad day the “Gotcha Planner” is merciless, forensic (in their mind) and on occasion fiercely combative. Come armed with charm. It can work.

The “Gotcha Planner” tends for the most part to live in their own head. The rest of the time they live in the suburbs.

Do say: Well actually, you shouldn’t say anything at all, you should just sit, listen, and grin and bear it.

Never say: “What’s another floor?”

Default decision: Further information, clarification of further information … and, finally, a refusal (ultra time wasted).

“The Dude”

“The Dude”, as the name suggests, is laid-back. “The Dude” is rarely ruffled.

“Dudes” are both female and male. “Dudes” are consummate professionals, socially engaging and (mostly) impeccably dressed.

“Dudes” get on with the job. They lack the delusions of the “Wannabe Architects”, the anxiety of the “Inherently Cautious”, the obsessions of the “Solo Operator” or the intensity of the “Gotcha Planner”.

“Dudes” are unflappable, so its pointless barking down the phone demanding X or Y. “Dudes” have a pretty much “sussed” attitude and philosophy to planning. In fact, “Dudes” are rarely caught discussing planning at all.

“Dudes” live everywhere.

Do say: “Thanks for your help.”

Never say: “I demand to know who your boss is!”

Default decision: Ultra-simple.

Disclaimer: notwithstanding the entire premise of the above thesis, any resemblance of any planning character above to any individual in real life is purely coincidental.

Next Week: A behind-the-scenes look at how the planning decision is actually “made” (made being the operative word – “sausages and law”, etc. ).

Paul Kearns

Paul Kearns is the co-author of the books "Beyond Pebbledash" and "Redrawing Dublin", which explore Dublin urbanism. His most recent book, "Seamless Neighbourhood – Redrawing the City of Israel", focuses...

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  1. and as a former architect let me add a sixth type and that is the “joy to work together” type planner, this is the type we need more of, they are few and far between, they know and understand the city, they care about it and they want to make it a better place to live for all.

    Paul was one of these and it’s Dublin’s loss he is gone. Architects, planners and developers need to work together for the greater good of the city and leave there ego’s elsewhere – or perhaps the suburbs where the blandness can afford to be disrupted from time to time.

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