Thursday 31 March 2011

Minister risks returning to bad old days of planning

Phil Hogan aims to “review” legislation that put a halt to councillors engaging in reckless land rezoning

WITHIN WEEKS of taking over as minister for the environment in 2002, Martin Cullen identified the urgent need – as he and the construction industry saw it – to amend the 2000 Planning Act by removing its most innovative provision: a requirement under Part V that up to 20 per cent of all new residential schemes was to be set aside for social and affordable housing.

At the behest of builders who believed their overpriced private houses and apartments would become unsaleable if “poor people” were going to live in the same place, Cullen eviscerated Part V to permit them to provide social and affordable housing elsewhere or, alternatively, make a financial contribution to the local authority. It was a shameless cave-in.

Now, just two weeks after taking charge of the Custom House as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local government, Phil Hogan wants to “review” key elements of the 2010 Planning Act – probably the principal achievement of the Green Party during its fraught period in Government with Fianna Fáil – with a view to removing some of its shackles.

A populist position, or so it might seem superficially. According to Hogan, as reported in The Irish Times last week, “giving enormous powers to the minister of the day is unhealthy and not the way to deal with planning matters. Each region has different strengths. Centralisation of powers and planning functions in the Custom House is not the way to exploit that potential”.

What the 2010 Planning Act set out to do was to ensure the reckless rezoning of land that inflated the property bubble and gave us so many ghost housing estates would become a thing of the past. It aimed to make “evidence-based planning” and responsible zoning a legal requirement for local authorities, consistent with regional planning guidelines and the national spatial strategy.

This was a bitter pill for Fianna Fáil to swallow. But the Bill was vigorously opposed by Fine Gael because it “essentially amounts to watering down the powers afforded to councillors in regard to planning”, as Lucinda Creighton TD (now Minister of State for European Affairs) complained. Indeed, it would alter these powers “fundamentally”, she said during the Dáil debate last year.

The fact is that Fine Gael was as guilty as Fianna Fáil in rezoning land against planning advice over the years, not just in the Dublin area but throughout the State. Indeed, it was Fine Gael councillors who led the charge in 2005 to rezone hundreds of acres of land on the outskirts of every village in Co Laois, prompting then minister for the environment Dick Roche to use his powers to put a halt to their gallop.

In Co Monaghan, his successor – Green Party leader John Gormley – had to intervene in 2007 after councillors there had rezoned hundreds of acres for residential development (some of them located in floodplains) because this was “unwarranted” by housing need. Hugh McElvaney, the council’s Fine Gael leader, huffed that the minister was “against the development of villages the way we want them”.

Two years later, Gormley singled out Fine Gael councillors, in particular, for helping to inflate the property bubble – alongside Fianna Fáil and others.

They had been “embroiled in rezoning controversies across the country, and have embarked on nothing short of a rezoning frenzy in some cases. Yet the party leadership has been utterly silent on this behaviour”. Enda Kenny had nothing to say.

It is no secret that Hogan sought the post of Minister for the Environment. He had been Fine Gael’s spokesman, without having any obvious convictions about the environment. More importantly, he was Kenny’s bovver-boy when his leadership of the party was challenged last June and was also the party’s very effective director of elections, earning kudos for helping it to win an unprecedented 76 seats.

Hogan wanted the Custom House, and got it. One wonders why. On his desk is a file recommending that independent inspectors should be appointed to investigate planning irregularities in six local authorities, including one (Carlow County Council) in his own constituency. Even before taking up his post, he described these cases as “spurious, mostly”. It seems unlikely, therefore, that the investigations will proceed.

Meanwhile, Gormley’s plan for Dublin to have a directly elected mayor has been pigeonholed until 2014, if not killed off altogether. The ban on stag-hunting may also be overturned. Neither of these outcomes is surprising given that Hogan represents Carlow-Kilkenny, and his Minister of State for Housing and Planning, Willie Penrose, has been a “vote-getter” for the Labour Party in Longford-Westmeath.

Clientelist politicians to their fingertips, both Hogan and Penrose may be expected to pay more attention to the concerns of rural lobbies than they will to the fate of Dublin and other cities. Whatever “review” they carry out of the 2010 Planning Act – and it is to be done jointly – will need to be watched closely to ensure that we don’t blindly revert to the utterly discredited status quo ante.

Ironically for a man who told the Moriarty tribunal that he couldn’t recall being at a meeting with Denis O’Brien in October 1995 when the State’s second mobile phone licence was up for grabs, Hogan will be in charge of framing new legislation to ban corporate donations to political parties. More crucial will be whether this will shine the light of transparency into that murky zone where business meets politics.

Irish Times

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