Local authorities are obstructing the planning process by charging “excessive and unjust” rates for photocopying planning documents, Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has said.
In a report submitted to both houses of the Oireachtas today, Ms O’Reilly said many local authorities were deliberately ignoring Department of Environment guidelines on what was reasonable to charge for such services in order to create revenue streams.
The report found some 60 per cent of local councils were levying charges for simple black and white photocopying that were completely out of line with commercial rates, in some cases up to 100-times the market rate or €5 per single sheet of A4 paper.
The Ombudsman said this could not be justified and posed “a direct impediment to a properly functioning planning process".
"Public participation in the planning process should be encouraged, not checked. People are put off, by excessive charges, from taking part in the planning process despite the fact that in law they are entitled to inspect and obtain copies of certain planning documents.
Ms O'Reilly said: “Voluntary organisations interested in preserving and protecting our heritage, the built environment and balanced regional development, are hugely disadvantaged by these excessive charges.”
“Disproportionate charges could be viewed as a subversion of what should be an open and crystal-clear planning process by placing obstacles in the way of people interested in particular planning applications, for whatever reason,” she said.
The report found there was a lack of consistency across local authorities on charges imposed for photocopying, with charges ranging from zero to €5, and many also failed to set minimum and/or maximum charges for the service.
The worst offending local authorities for setting a minimum charge to copy a standard A4 sheet were Galway, Kildare, Longford, Roscommon, Tipperary NR and Waterford County Councils, and
The authorities which imposed the most excessive charges by reference to Department of Environment guidelines, ranging from 50 cent to 80 cent and up to €5 for an A4-sheet copy were Cavan ,Clare, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, Galway, Kerry , Laois, Limerick, Louth, South Dublin, South Tipperary and Wexford County Councils.
Ms O'Reilly called on local authorities that were overcharging to immediately review their rates, saying her preference was for authorities to put their own houses in order voluntarily.
But Ms O’Reilly warned that in the absence of any real change and a fair system of charges, she would consider calling for legislative change in the future, “as the present situation is untenable”.