THE PLANNING department in Meath County Council should be “restructured” and the county manager “should assume direct executive responsibility for all planning matters,” according to an independent review that will be debated by councillors at a meeting in Navan today.
The review was commissioned by county manager Tom Dowling after a €4 million award was made against the council following High Court action by Darlington Properties. In his judgment, Mr Justice Peter Kelly found the company had bought a site in Ashbourne from the council in 2006 for €4.5 million after being told a road linking the land to the town centre was to be built on it.
However, it later emerged the council had already granted planning permission on another site, which made the building of the road impossible.
Mr Justice Kelly said this was an extraordinary tale of “error after error” being made by the council.
The review was prepared by Gerry Kearney, a former secretary general and former assistant secretary with the Revenue Commissioners, and John Quinlivan, who is a member of the Local Government Efficiency Review Group and former Louth county manager.
The review, which was given to councillors last weekend, says “a series of events and errors spanning over a decade” were relevant to the court case. These include the granting of permission in 1999 for another company which included a roadway linking with the town centre. A revision of this permission in 2000 omitted the road and instead provided for development across its alignment.
When the council then advertised the land, which was bought by Darlington Properties, “a selling point . . . was the proposed provision of a road from the site into Ashbourne Town Centre”, the review said.
At the time of the sale, the county development plan had the provision of the road as an objective. However, a year earlier (2005) the council had granted permission to Naus Investments for a development along the line of this road and when in 2007 building began there, Darlington raised it with the council.
On the subject of the sale, by tender, of the land, the review said: “It appears to have been left entirely to an executive planning officer to provide planning division input to a sale worth millions, and, however inadvertently, to cause a contractual requirement that was clearly impractical and in direct conflict with the council’s own previous decisions.
“Management oversight was also deficient in the wider management of the contractual terms – at the very least this should have required that senior personnel, both administrative and planning, sign off on requirements emerging from their areas.” It added that “concerns arise as to the wider governance controls adopted by the council when embarking on significant legally binding contracts and major asset disposals”.
Sinn Féin councillor Joe Reilly said the report on numerous managerial failures “calls into question if Meath County Council as presently structured is fit for purpose”.
The Department of the Environment said the Minister would examine the review. “This is a matter first and foremost for the council, who initiated the review. However, the Minister can say that he will consider carefully the outcome of the review and the actions proposed by the council.”