Saturday 19 July 2008

Gormley Bill will limit councillors' rezoning powers

NEW PLANNING legislation which will limit the power of county and city councillors to rezone land is to be introduced by Minister for the Environment John Gormley this autumn.

The draft planning Bill, which will stop councillors from rezoning land for housing against the advice of county managers and planners, has angered councillors who claim that Mr Gormley is rowing back on commitments to give more power to local government.

The new measures will also stop developers from building without, or contrary to, planning permission and then applying to retain the unauthorised structure.

The power to rezone land is a reserved function of councillors. This means that even if a county manager tells the council that he has been advised by the senior planners and the council's law agent that the rezoning is contrary to national guidelines, councillors can still rezone.

The new legislation will remove this power. Under the Bill councillors will not be allowed to rezone land if this conflicts with central government plans such as the National Spatial Strategy and the National Development Plan.

Mr Gormley has said he is introducing the measures to stop councillors from ignoring national and regional policies and to prevent him having to intervene when a county development plan contravenes national guidelines.

This time last year Mr Gormley directed Monaghan County Council to rescind rezonings after councillors rezoned what he felt were excessive amounts of land for housing. The councillors had rezoned the land against the advice of the county manager.

Mr Gormley said he had intervened "very reluctantly" but had done so for the common good.

"The Bill will help to reduce the need for central government intervention in the local government development plan process," he said. He added that local government's mandate would be strengthened because the Bill would clarify "how planning authorities can and should better align their local policies and priorities with sound planning principles and with regional and national guidance".

Urban and rural councillors accused Mr Gormley of eroding democracy and rowing back on his commitments in his recent Green Paper on local government reform to give more power to councillors.

Monaghan county councillor Gary Carville (FG), who was county mayor last year when Mr Gormley quashed the council's rezonings, said the Minister lacked respect for local government.

"This is a backward move where local government reform is concerned, but it doesn't surprise me given John Gormley's track record in relation to decisions made lawfully by councillors."

Mr Gormley was going against his own Green Paper, he said. "How can you strengthen local democracy if you are taking away powers from local government?"

Dublin city councillor Dermot Lacey (Lab) said he was shocked and angered by the "further erosion" of local government powers.

"The Department of the Environment has some cheek, some neck. There isn't a single solitary reason why the Department of the Environment knows any better than local government."

The Bill has a provision to stop large developers from applying retrospectively for permission for unauthorised developments. This will apply to development requiring environmental impact assessments, not small domestic projects such as house extensions.

The Irish Planning Institute said that a greater consistency between local plans and national strategies would stop "overzoning".

The Irish Times

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