Donegal county councillors have run into conflict with the county's director of planning by scrapping planners' decisions in order to secure permission for one-off housing for their constituents.
Councillors generally have no involvement in granting planning permission. However, Donegal councillors have used an obscure section of the Local Government Act to overturn decisions to refuse planning permission.
The council planners had refused permission for one-off houses in Donegal town and in Killybegs. The house in Donegal town would have constituted a traffic hazard, the planners said, while the proposed site of the Killybegs house would have been unsuitable for sewage treatment.
Earlier this week councillors voted overwhelmingly to overturn the refusal invoking section 140 of the Local Government Act. Rarely used outside Donegal, Kerry and Galway, this section allows councillors to direct the county manager to perform a particular action, or make a particular decision, as long as it is lawful. However, if there is any subsequent legal action arising out of their use of this power, the councillors are personally liable for legal costs.
Use of this section of the Act is almost unheard of in Dublin. When planning permission was granted for the Dublin Corporation (now Dublin City Council) buildings at Wood Quay in the 1980s, Dublin councillors, concerned about the destruction of the city's Viking heritage, attempted to use section 140 to overturn the permission. However, on learning that they could be liable for all the cost of the project to date, they decided not to use the power.
Donegal's director of planning Francie Coyle is considering whether or not the councillors' motions to overturn the permissions can be allowed to stand. At last Monday's council meeting, Mr Coyle had "strongly urged" councillors not to invoke the act.
He warned councillors that they must give "reasons of an expert or reasoned judgment as to why the advice of the council's expert has been overruled" and that if they failed to provide justification for their actions, he could decide to refuse permission.
If the councillors' decision is adopted and permission is granted, that permission can be appealed to An Bord Pleanála. The planning board said that in such cases, the file prepared by the planning department of the local authority is considered as part of the review.
Olivia Kelly and Cronan Scanlon
The Irish Times