Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Gormley must get to grips with local councils on planning scandals

FUTURE Prime Time Investigates programmes on RTE should begin with a health warning to the effect that what is about to be screened will impact adversely on the blood pressure of those who care about this country and the mess it is in. The exploration of the local authority planning scandals aired on Monday night was frightening and infuriating in equal measure.

Some contributing councillors smirked, whinged and winked their way through the programme, unapologetic and unrepentant about the enormous damage that is caused to some areas by the links between developers and local politicians and by the failure to ensure local plans comply with spatial strategies and national guidelines.

Wisely, the programme-makers offered continual reminders throughout that the purpose of councillors is supposed to be about serving "the common good". A minority of them have been doing the opposite for many years now, ignoring the advice of professional planners and refusing to leave meetings when an issue is being discussed that represents a conflict of interest for them.

If they have "a pecuniary or other beneficial interest" in the matter being discussed they are required by law not to involve themselves. It is also clear that some have ignored the laws requiring them to submit a form declaring in full their interests despite the fact that it is a criminal offence not to do so.

This is parish pump politics at its ugliest and it raised the question of whether the "tough new ethics laws" that were introduced in recent years actually mean anything in practice when the worlds of local politics and local business and developers collide, with no consideration given to sustainability or quality of life.

The result? The rezoning of flood plains, no public transport or school places to back up housing developments, a determination to create an army of commuters in order to line the pockets of those who own the rezoned land. Most gallingly of all, instances have been highlighted of a complete failure to keep local communities informed of what is going on, where private bargaining and clandestine meetings with landowners are substituted for public consultation and transparency.

As one of the residents in the small village of Puckane in north Tipperary put it, "why would you put hundreds of houses in a small scenic area? Somebody must be gaining". This was a reference to the rezoning of 105 acres in that area, described by the county manager as "unwarranted, unsustainable and inappropriate". Following his rejection, the councillors withdrew the proposal, then merely shifted the goalposts and voted for the rezoning anyway. Puckane was chosen because it is 25 miles from Limerick, with the likely outcome another army of commuters with homes they barely get to spend time in and a dearth of community facilities.

It is all very well to use the argument that local communities have the power to vote the councillors damaging their communities out of office at local elections; the problem is that it is often too late at that stage because the damage has already been done. Councillors, of course, are not the sole offenders here; many are being put under inordinate pressure by vested interests to support rezoning that any rational assessor would deem inappropriate. Clearly, there are not enough checking mechanisms in the planning legislation.

Environment Minister John Gormley has made much of the fact that he is not entitled to interfere with local area plans, but the proposed idea of making it compulsory for councillors to produce reasons for their decisions is far too timid and is not something that will prevent bad decisions. Gormley has also made much of the fact that the only power he has at the moment is to overturn a development plan after it has already been agreed, which thankfully he did in July in relation to the plan in Monaghan that would have involved rezoning enough land to triple the population in six years.

The councillors are furious with him and utterly uninterested in the logical arguments against their almost criminal insanity. One councillor summed up his attitude and the problem with local government generally in Ireland, by smugly asserting: "I only care about Clones."

Gormley has promised a green paper on local government to be published next year, but what about the guidelines that are already in place? What about the Standards Commission that already exists? Does it have any teeth?

Last year, 28% of councillors did not make a declaration of their interests in the required period. It is also clear that there is a lack of even cursory supervision in relation to all this, as 37% of declarations were not even date stamped.

Understandably, given the way local government developed in the course of the last century, councillors were left feeling sore about the amount of powers that were taken away from them in an increasingly centralised State. But it is clear that the powers they retained are being grossly abused in some regions. It raises the question of how councillors see their own role; why is it that the Irish have more of a feeling that they belong first and foremost to their own locality rather than the country as a whole, and make decisions on that basis alone?

Earlier this month, John O'Connor, chairman of An Bord Pleanala, accused rural local authorities of bad planning and improper zoning leading to flooding, ad hoc development of towns and villages and water pollution.

He made the point that was emphatically underlined by the Prime Time programme - in some areas planning is more influenced by pressure from developers than by sustainable development.

THE number of appeals to An Bord Pleanala is at record levels and is expected to reach 7,000 by the end of the year, an increase of 1,000 on last year; so much so that the planning board cannot fulfil its statutory objective to process cases within 18 weeks.

Mr O'Connor also reported that developers were being granted permission for large housing schemes which required private sewerage systems where no thought is given to who will maintain the system in the future.

The Prime Time programme also demonstrated that the councillors who vote for reckless rezoning decisions, and who complain about the lack of other powers for themselves, are, through their actions, ultimately offering the strongest argument yet for the abolition of local government structures in Ireland.

There is truth in the assertion that local authorities are badly resourced and often ignored, and that they have a credible record, historically, in the areas of housing, libraries, parks and community facilities.

It is also true that some councillors find their workload intolerable, continue to be put under unacceptable pressure and that county managers also have questions to answer about decisions they make in the privacy of their own offices without consulting elected councillors.

Mr Gormley needs to continue to be forceful in preventing reckless rezoning when he can. It is also imperative that he finds a solution that will ensure councillors

managers can be made accountable for

their decisions in a transparent way in order to rebuild the trust that has been damaged in far too many communities.

Diarmaid Ferriter
Irish Examiner


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