THE controversial 'locals only' and 'must speak Irish' planning rules have been challenged by the EU as illegal and discriminatory.
A landmark EU ruling yesterday will test the Fianna Fail/Greens coalition as the parties are poles apart on the issue of one-off houses in the countryside.
The move will put serious pressure on 22 local authorities to abandon their 'locals only' policies when granting planning permissions.
The EU ordered Ireland to explain why the 22 authorities discriminate in favour of local people.
The EU Commission has written to the Department of Environment asking it to show how its 'local needs' rules do not break several internal-market rules and are not discriminatory.
After months of examining the issue, officials believe the rules break articles 43 and 56 of the EC Treaty which guarantee freedom of establishment and the free movement of capital.
They examined planning rules in Carlow, Clare, Cork, Donegal, Fingal, Galway, Kerry, Kildare, Kilkenny, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Laois, Longford, Limerick, Louth, Offaly, Sligo, Tipperary North and South, Wexford, Westmeath and Wicklow.
These authorities require either residency or family ties to the area before permission for one-off family dwellings is given.
Several authorities require that an applicant be employed locally in agriculture while two counties can insist that an applicant must speak Irish.
The vast majority of EU citizens were unable to claim former residency, family ties or fluency in Irish, said a Commission official.
A 'letter of formal notice' asking how Ireland reconciles the rules with EU law has been sent to Environment Minister John Gormley, who has two months in which to respond.
The letter says: "The Commission requests observations from Ireland on the discriminatory aspects of the restrictions, their objectives, and the proportionality of the measures with the objectives pursued."
The issue is expected to provide one of the first of many expected tests of the Fianna Fail-Green partnership.
Within Fianna Fail many members believe people should be allowed to build on their own land as they see fit while the Green Party favours regulated, sustainable development.
One councillor admitted last night that his local authority was going to have to "revisit" the issue of planning permission to ensure it was not at variance with EU law.
Cllr Dermot Connolly, a member of Galway County Council, said he believed that the EU did not always have the best interests of regions and cultures at hand.
Mr Connolly said local authorities had to have practical measures in place to ensure cultures continued to flourish.
Last year, councillors agreed to make changes to the Galway County Development Plan which meant people in large sections of the county no longer had to fulfil stringent "local" rules when applying for planning permission for a family home.
In Clare, the development plan favours local rural people applying for planning permission.
West Clare councillor PJ Kelly, a member of Clare County Council, said the use of 'locals only' was a controlling mechanism by planners.
Mr Kelly said he agreed with the EU decision and he would be bringing up the issue of revamping the planning laws with the council.
"It's replacement will have to be intelligent, workable, functional and respectable," he said.
Mr Kelly said the moves to restrict planning to locals or Irish speakers had brought the system into disrepute.
In 2005, the Law Society warned that county councils discriminating in favour of family members over planning permissions for one-off rural housing were breaking the law.
The law reform committee of the society informed the Department of the Environment that positive discrimination in some cases breached the Constitution and EU law.
Bernard Purcell and Treacy Hogan
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