Thursday 24 June 2010

Review fires warning shot in advance of Planning Bill

Six local authorities are under scrutiny not so much for their specific records as to ensure widespread co-operation with legislative changes

THE REVIEW announced yesterday by Minister for the Environment John Gormley into the planning practices of six county and city councils may not live up to the sum of its parts.

The announcement was certainly dramatic. The Minister made reference to serious and substantive complaints about irregularities. Unsurprisingly, the reaction of the managers of the named local authorities to a review of their planning practices ranged from nonplussed to apoplectic.

It is true that Gormley does have concerns about what he sees as possible problems or flaws in the planning process in the four county councils (Galway, Cork, Meath and Carlow) and two city councils (Dublin and Cork) named yesterday. But the rationale behind his decision is not based so much on those concerns as on the “dragging effect” they might have on one of his major projects.

What it relates to, in reality, is the Green Party leader’s Planning Bill which will become law by the time the Dáil goes into recess next month. Gormley sees this as his magnum opus in the planning area during his time in Government. But he is concerned that local authorities will not share his enthusiasm about the legislation and won’t move might and main to make sure that it works.

“There’s no point in having Rolls Royce planning legislation and a suite of new guidelines if he cannot be certain that they are going to be implemented on the ground,” says a source who is familiar with the process.

So, in a sense, what is happening is a piece of political “pretaliation”. The outcome of the review will have unmistakable political overtones. Therefore, it must be emphasised that Gormley is not launching a major investigation or inquiry into planning practices in local authorities. He is merely reviewing the planning processes and practices (but not any specific decisions taken) in six named local authorities.

The reason he has picked six is because his department accepts it would be impractical to review all 34 local authorities. Sure, the six chosen are the ones with problems (in other words, there have been substantive complaints). But they have also been chosen because there is a good geographical spread and also a mix between urban and rural councils. So that’s why “review” is a much more accurate description than “inquiry” or “probe”.

Ostensibly, Gormley is putting councils on notice that their practices will have to live up to the high principles of his new legislation. If they’re falling short of the mark now, he can make an example of them, so that he can emphasise to all 34 local authorities that certain ways of doing things will no longer be tolerated.

There won’t be an investigation into specific decisions. Nobody is going to walk the plank. It’s hard to second-guess a process that is only getting under way. But the indications are that the most serious sanctions will be a naming-and-shaming exercise.

Gormley has been thinking of such a review for some time. According to the department, the six councils have substantive issues with their planning process. It also said yesterday that numerous complaints and submissions had been received. It is certain that some came from An Taisce but the department also said there were correspondences and contacts from individuals, councillors and from other organisations.

The issues are different for each council. Questions over Carlow’s corporate governance have been in the public domain for some time, especially since a road project was abandoned after it emerged the council did not own the land. In Meath, the council has faced criticism for not following its own development plan. Galway County Council has had an unusually high number of planning permissions overturned on appeal to An Bord Pleanála.

In Dublin city, questions have been raised about whether or not decisions on high-rise buildings have complied with its development plan. Both councils in Cork, city and county, have faced criticisms over the planning process, namely that they have lacked transparency and consistency.

The first stage of the review will give each of the six local authorities four weeks to supply information on how they perform their planning functions. Specific questions will be asked of each about the substantive issues.

For example, where An Bord Pleanála reversed local authority decisions, certain councils are being asked to set out how their authority’s decision-making had regard to national and local planning policies.

When this information is supplied, a broader review will take place.

This will be conducted by a planning expert or experts. The person or persons will report to Gormley, who will then decide if further steps are warranted.

But no planning experts have been chosen as yet, though it’s likely they will come from abroad. Nor has the exact format for the panel’s work been chosen.

The Minister does intend to publish the findings of the review. Paradoxically, depending on the week that’s in it, the findings may struggle to have the same impact as the announcement had yesterday

Irish Times

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