Sunday, 4 January 2009

Committee likely to seek limits on Gormley powers

AN OIREACHTAS committee is expected to call for new controls to be placed on the Minister for the Environment, limiting his power to overturn local authority decisions on county development plans.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, which has investigated a clash between John Gormley and Mayo County Council over its controversial development plan, is due to issue a report on the matter next month.

This follows the Minister’s decision to reject county development plans in Mayo and a number of other local authority areas.

Mr Gormley told The Irish Times earlier this week that he planned to publish new legislation which would put an end to “opportunist” rezoning of land by county councillors.

The Planning and Development Bill 2009 will no longer permit excessive zoning of development land, a phenomenon that has become a “major problem” in recent years, Mr Gormley said.

But Oireachtas committee chairman Sean Fleming TD (FF) suggested Mr Gormley already had too much power in the area, saying: “As it currently stands, a Minister can issue a directive out of the blue and from behind closed doors and the council has no choice but to implement it in full. The legislation is seriously deficient in that it gives no room for compromise or proper consultation after the directive has been issued.”

Mr Fleming said that instead of the Minister issuing a directive, he should issue a draft directive that would allow for compromise to be made between the Minister and the council in question. “I don’t hope – I expect that this change will be made to the legislation by the Oireachtas in the new year.”

The 2000 Planning and Development Act gave environment ministers new powers in directing local authorities to amend their development plans if they breached national policy.

Before Mr Gormley assumed office in June 2007, the special powers were used by his predecessors on two occasions in six years.

Since Mr Gormley became the State’s first Green Party Minister for the Environment, he has issued directions against four separate councils in 18 months, with a fifth likely against Clare Co Council.

Fine Gael whip on Mayo Co Council, Cllr Paddy McGuinness, said: “The figures speak for themselves and the number of interventions Minister Gormley has made is worrying. The Minister has assumed an infallibility in the area of planning and it is unfair. His approach is ‘my way or no way’.”

In his direction last July to amend the adopted Mayo plan, Mr Gormley said it had failed to set out an overall strategy for the proper development of Mayo and – by advocating a flexible policy on single-house developments – failed to take proper account of the national spatial strategy.

Mr McGuinness said representatives from Mayo County Council are to meet department officials early in the new year in a bid to reach a compromise. Other councils told to amend their development plans by Mr Gormley are Monaghan County Council, Waterford County Council and Castlebar Town Council.

The two directions made before Mr Gormley took office were against Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in 2003, for not zoning sufficient land for housing, and against Laois County Council in 2006, directing the authority to dezone significant lands.

Clare councillors last month ignored the Minister’s recommendations to dezone large tracts of lands, and instead of tightening restrictions on one-off housing, they loosened the rules.

Irish Times

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