Sunday 20 June 2010

Council denies conflict over planning guarantees on land for sale

DUBLIN City Council has been accused of a conflict of interest by selling land at prices which are agreed strictly on condition that it then grants planning permission for development. In the unusual event that planning is rejected, the would-be purchaser can pull out.

Critics of the practice claim it skews the planning system and leads to a situation where people objecting to the planning application are not aware that the council has a vested interest in granting permission.

The issue is due to be debated at an upcoming council meeting, which will discuss a motion from independent councillor Damian O'Farrell seeking clarity on the system and assurances that it is not open to abuse.

The Sunday Tribune has seen two examples where small sites were offered to private residents for €30,000 and €40,000 on the basis that the council could also provide planning permission. The values would be significantly lower without permission.

Planners are aware of such agreements but the council insists its professional judgement is not influenced.

Further concerns that third parties objecting to planning applications are not aware of such deals were dismissed by the council, which said that decisions are ultimately judged by An Bord Pleanála, the planning appeals authority.

However, in a letter to management last November, O'Farrell highlighted the self-serving role of the council in such sales. "I absolutely fully appreciate that DCC is in a very poor financial position at the moment to say the least… and that these very small plots of land can generate much-needed income," he wrote.

"Without [planning] permission, DCC would receive a lot less or nothing. I am against these types of contracts no matter what the circumstances or reason."

While there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing regarding planning decisions, O'Farrell believes the system must be "fireproof" and transparent.

Defending the system, Declan Wallace, executive manager in charge of economic development, said that if the council did not seek to maximise the land value ahead of its sale, it could be accused of exactly the opposite, undervaluing public property at a cost to the taxpayer.

"The city council as a land owner can't disadvantage itself by virtue of the fact that it's also the planning authority," he said.

"If someone said there was a conflict of interest that you sell the land and also grant planning, then following on from that [logic] would be that we sell land with no thought of what could go on it or for its development potential, which would be a huge waste of public resources."

Asked whether or not a third-party planning system would be prudent in such cases, Wallace said: "We would say that third party is An Bord Pleanála."

Sunday Tribune

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