Sunday 17 June 2012

Planning review finds no corruption in councils

There will be significant reform of the planning system despite a Department of Environment review finding no criminality or corruption across seven local authorities.

An external inspector will now oversee recommendations from the report which include altering guidelines for planning, and improving the transparency of decisions made by city and county councils.

Housing Minister Jan O’Sullivan yesterday published the review. She said planning systems needed to serve communities, not developers, but said the review " did not find any prima facie evidence of malfeasance in any of the seven local authorities subject to inquiry".

Former environment minister John Gormley initiated the review in mid-2010 in the cities of Dublin and Cork and counties of Cork, Carlow, Galway, Meath, and Donegal.

The department has said a panel of six external firms identified later to do the review would have been too costly for the taxpayer. Instead, its own officials examined complaints about the seven local authorities and completed the report.

Of particular concern were planning issues identified in Carlow, the constituency of Phil Hogan, the senior minister at the department.

There were "significant irregular practices and administrative deficiencies" at the authority, it found. These partially related to ineffective enforcement by Carlow, variations in rules on development contributions as well as concerns about planning permissions.

Other concerns cited in the report related to planning for high buildings in the Dublin 4 area and ambiguity surrounding pre-planning meetings with officials in Cork City.

The report makes 12 main recommendations, including that planning permissions which contravene a local authority’s development plan should go to An Bord Pleanála for final consideration. Development management guidelines for councils will also be revised.

An external reviewer — still to be hired — will oversee the review recommendations, report back to Ms O’Sullivan by December and also be given access to inspect the department’s actions, which were not reviewed for the report.

Ms O’Sullivan said she would initiate recommendations on changes to planning systems immediately.

This will involve changes in authorities for pre-planning meetings, local area plans, communication with communities, and legislation.

An Taisce welcomed the report but said it hoped measures would be put in place to appoint an independently planning regulator. The recommendations needed "urgent and detailed implementation" in law, it added.

Fianna Fáil claimed the report was nothing more than a "whitewash". The report had rowed back from the last government’s move to "instigate a series of time-limited and fully costed independent" probes.

The Green Party said the public would never know "what the real stories were in these and other councils because Fine Gael and Labour are in control of both local and central government".

Carlow Co Council 

* "Significant irregular practices and administrative deficiencies" existed at the authority. Over 120 recommendations on reform had already been made by a previous report before this review. Complainants had alleged that the council had "operated a system of nepotism towards favoured planning applicants", that it fast-tracked certain decisions and even facilitated "haphazard development" in areas lacking facilities.

* It was also alleged that decision-making for planning grants and refusals were "irrational and non-evidence based".

* The report found no evidence of wrongdoing. Concerns about administration and irregular practices are already being addressed through the previous report, it said. No independent investigation was needed.

* The county manager is expected to report to the minister about reforms by June.

Galway Co Council 

* The report upheld complaints by An Taisce that the authority was not adhering to legislative and policy obligations in granting planning permission in some cases.

Complaints related to 25 cases where planning decisions by the authority were overturned by An Bord Pleanála.

The permissions had related to one-off housing, developments, and commercial projects as well as windfarms. However, the report noted that this was not a huge number of appeals.

* It rejected claims that the authority had disregarded its own development plan.

* The county manager had considered EU obligations in originally deciding on the 25 planning cases, it added.

* The report says all future planning permissions granted that are contrary to a council’s development plan should be submitted to An Bord Pleanála.

Donegal Co Council 

* The main complaints came from a former employee with the council. Allegations were unclear and often lacking in specifics, it said. Unsubstantiated claims included that developments built were not in accordance with the permission granted, and that some invalid applications were actually validated.

* However, the report found the former employee had not produced evidence of wrongdoing. The allegations were "contrived and manufactured" to discredit certain officials and the authority’s planning department, it found.

Meath Co Council 

* It was claimed that landowners had brought forward their own action area plan for significant rezoning of lands.

* The complaints had been made in relation to a series of developments in Bryanstown, within the council’s area. The complainant had alleged that he had had an "understanding" to deliver a stadium for Drogheda United and that he would also provide a motorway M1/N1 link. In return, the Bryanstown land would be "rezoned residential".

* These claims though were not reflected, though, in the council’s own final area plan, the report said. If it had been adopted, the report said, it is likely that the south Drogheda area would have had many vacant and unsold properties. The report stated that Meath County Council had acted properly in the case.

* The report says the minister must examine whether it is appropriate in future that developers and landowners bring forward their own area plans.

* There was no indication that council staff or councillors did not act correctly, it added.

Cork Co Council 

* It was claimed that certain provisions under planning legislation were "systematically subverted" and that some decisions were "undocumented" and "hidden" through the role of a liaison officer. The claims were made by An Taisce mainly in relation to planning in the West Cork area.

* The report found that, under the current legislation, it was acceptable for a person with interest in land to consult with the planning authority.

* A report of the liaison officer was also made available for public inspection, it added.

* However, the role of such a liaison officer for a council in future cases needed "further scrutiny".

* There was scope for an independent planning consultant in Cork, it added.

Dublin City Council 

* Complaints centred around appeals to An Bord Pleanála regarding high buildings, mainly in the Dublin 4 area, and decisions made between 2006 and 2009 under the council’s development plan.

* The lack of clarity around height policy was addressed in the subsequent 2011-2017 development plan, the report said.

* The council now also say that concerns about the holding of pre-planning meeting records have been addressed. The city council did admit to complainants An Taisce that those records had been incomplete. nThe report added: "Properly maintained records of pre-application consultations are essential for the purposes of full transparency and accountability in the planning process."

* The report says that any decision by the authority which is overturned by An Bord Pleanála should be reviewed.

* There was no evidence to back claims that officials improperly encouraged applications which breached the development plan, it said.

Cork City Council 

* Concerns centred around the holding of pre-planning meetings with the authority.

* The complainant, a Green Party member, said files on such meetings were only made public after a planning decision was made.

* The council said it was happy that files on pre-consultation meetings were only released after a decision was made and that it had acted according to legislation. The case was shut after a probe by the ombudsman backed the council’s defence.

* However, there also remains confusion about differences of interpretation over the handling of such files according to legislation or development management guidelines.

Read the article @ The Irish Examiner

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