Findings of planning investigation
Sir, – On June 12th, Minister of State for Housing and Planning Jan O’Sullivan published the findings of the planning review report.
It was encouraging that this investigation did not contain evidence of widespread or systemic corruption in the Irish planning system.
However, we were surprised that the Minister’s review did not deal more comprehensively with what appears to be an unusual approach to the application of national and county-level planning policy in relation to applications for rural housing.
In its investigation into alleged practices in Cork County Council, the review concluded that the local authority had not acted outside the law by assigning “liaison officers” to address certain planning applications, although it did indicate that this practice merited further scrutiny.
The Cork county manager’s response to the Minister’s original communication on this matter stated that liaison officers had been assigned “to ensure that policy is being applied consistently, fairly and appropriately” and that they had been a feature of the planning process in Cork county since 2001.
However, the manager’s response seems to indicate that this particular arrangement relates solely to cases where the council’s own professional planning or engineering staff had recommended refusal of planning permission in the case of rural one-off houses.
This admission, that council management assigned personnel to review its own professional planning officers’ recommendations, is puzzling and raises a number of important questions.
First, when Cork County Council already employs professionally qualified and experienced planning officers to assess planning applications, within the context of its own legally established development plan and the relevant planning legislation, why is additional advice sought from other staff apparently untrained in planning, or without democratic mandate?
Second, the review reported that the “liaison officer” specifically identifies the socioeconomic aspects of these particular applications. Does the management in Cork County Council consider its own planning staff are unable to fully consider such social and economic matters?
Third, why is this level of oversight in the application of planning policy reserved solely to applications for one-off housing where planners have recommended refusal?
Although Cork County Council’s decision to use “liaison officers” is not ultra vires, the decision to administer certain planning applications in this way suggests a selective application of planning policy that undermines the public interest by affording certain applications a level of consideration that is apparently not available for all applications.
We understand that one-off housing is a challenging issue for planning authorities such as Cork County Council to deal with, and that individual applicants’ circumstances are often a relevant consideration as part of the decision making process.
However, we also believe that Cork County Council should have confidence in the professional judgment and experience of its own planning staff and in their ability to consider in a balanced way the environmental, social and economic dimensions of all planning applications.
The Minister’s review and the recently published Mahon report both revealed that the planning profession has largely operated in a way that was at all times proper, open and accountable.
When public confidence in the planning system needs to be re-established, any practices within local authorities which suggest that judgments of professional planners are compromised should be avoided in the interest of the common good. – Yours, etc,