Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Martina Devlin: Big Phil must risk opening can of worms on planning

AS you read this, you may be living in a house built because a developer handed over some brown envelopes to councillors -- containing either bribes or money dressed up as political donations.

That house could be in a development with inadequate facilities, located miles from anywhere -- and the negative-equity trap may also mean that you can't move away.

Even if you don't live in one of those properties, it's quite possible that you have a ghost estate on your doorstep, an eyesore that poses a danger to anybody wandering into it.

I expect you'd like to know why and how such housing developments were allowed to spring up, what pressures were brought to bear on councillors to approve them and whether inducements were offered to sway their votes.

The Mahon Report confirmed widespread suspicions that bribery was a tried and tested way for developers to get the decisions they wanted. Councillors don't have a great deal of power under the Irish local-government system, but one they do hold is the ability to rezone land. And what a lucrative income stream that proved, for some, during the boom.

In parts of the country, land was changed from agricultural to residential use, regardless of whether sufficient housing already existed. Some local authorities also appear to have flouted their own development plans in granting certain permissions.

Look around. The consequences are visible. And the taxpayer, via NAMA, is now the reluctant owner of many of these empty houses and ghost estates.

Mahon lays bare how our democracy was subverted by an unhealthy -- and in some cases corrupt -- relationship between politics and business.

It was endemic, was not restricted to one party and there is no evidence that the culture has changed significantly. The only difference is that the property bubble has burst with a vengeance.

Several years before the Mahon judges reached their conclusions, John Gormley tried to investigate alleged planning irregularities.

The Green Party minister instructed officials in the Department of Environment to study complaints about a number of councils and the managers of those authorities were ordered to compile reports.

After reviewing the dossier, Mr Gormley narrowed the field to six councils, where further inquiry was needed. A seventh, Donegal County Council, had already been marked for examination. Issues at stake included whether councils zoned too much land for development.

Seven independent planning consultants were chosen to head these probes and were on the point of being allocated a council to inspect. The other local authorities in question were Dublin and Cork city councils and Donegal, Carlow, Galway, Meath and Cork county councils. Incidentally, Cork has the highest number of ghost estates in the State.

Then the general election intervened and Mr Gormley was replaced as Environment Minister by Phil Hogan. Within a few months of taking office, Big Phil had closed down the independent inquiries.

It was a baffling move, since appointing independent inspectors to run the rule over questionable planning decisions is a straightforward and transparent way to deal with the issue.

Instead, the inspectors were replaced by an internal Department of Environment review, which has still not reported. Mr Hogan promises that its conclusions will be shared with us in May.

But an internal review had already taken place as far back as 2009 under Mr Gormley's stewardship. It was at that point that seven councils were identified with questions to answer.

So why turn back the clock? And why downgrade the investigations?

Perhaps Big Phil feared that a can of worms might be opened. His decision looks particularly inappropriate in the context of Carlow County Council, which is located in his own constituency.

But he nearly pulled it off. Last year, the significance of shutting down those inquiries provoked little comment. Planning wasn't high on the agenda.

Mahon is the only reason we're paying attention now to Big Phil's odd -- some might say anti-democratic -- move, because Mahon reminds us of the ripple effect throughout society from corruption in the planning process.

It's understood that some of the issues that independent inspectors would have examined include liaison between planners and councillors on specific planning applications in Cork County Council; a report from the local government auditors, highlighting weaknesses in planning procedures in Carlow; An Taisce criticism that Dublin was not adhering to its own policies regarding tall buildings; complaints that Galway and Meath were not abiding by their own policies in granting planning permissions; complaints about processes followed in Donegal's planning department; and procedures concerning pre-planning consultations in Cork City Council.

In the aftermath of the investigations being halted, various members of the Government bleated about the expense of independent consultants.

However, I doubt if seven inspectors with a clearly defined job of work would break the bank. On the contrary, their reports might even have given value for money.

As for Big Phil, he has waffled away in the Dail about how we've learned from past mistakes and how the planning system is no longer developer-led. But where is the transparency?

He has also seized the opportunity to take a swipe at his predecessor, saying words to the effect that Mr Gormley sat on his hands on the matter. This is misleading.

Mr Gormley had made considerable progress, between using his formal powers to order reports from councils, identifying authorities where further investigation was needed and completing a tender process for independent inspectors. In fact, the reports of those consultants would be in the public domain by now -- carrying considerably more weight than internal Department of Environment findings.

FINE Gael pledged transparent government last year when it was chasing votes. Big Phil's decision to pull the plug on his predecessor's review of planning decisions in seven local authorities does nothing to promote openness. An internal inquiry lacks the confidence-building impact of an independent scrutiny.

Besides, how independent can this internal examination be when Mr Hogan is already on the record telling 'Village' magazine -- before he had even taken office -- that allegations about planning irregularities in Carlow were "spurious, mostly"?

Surely it's for independent experts to decide if they are spurious, not the minister -- especially in the case of a council in his own constituency.

Martina Devlin tweets @DevlinMartina

Read the article @ The Irish Independent


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