Calls for Minister to reopen inquiries

Mon, Mar 26, 2012, 01:00

PLANNING IRREGULARITIES:MINISTER FOR the Environment Phil Hogan is coming under pressure to reopen inquiries into planning irregularities in six local authorities, in light of the Mahon tribunal’s recommendation that continuous oversight was needed to prevent abuses in the system.

Fianna Fáil environment spokesman Niall Collins TD said the inquiries involving Dublin and Cork city councils, and Carlow, Cork, Galway and Meath county councils, had been “cancelled without explanation by the Minister . . . within just a few months of taking up office”.

In a statement, Mr Collins said: “I am calling on the Minister to reconsider this decision in light of the very serious findings of the Mahon report. Where there are questions over the planning process in any part of this country, those questions must be answered.”

An Taisce noted the Mahon tribunal’s recommendation that a new office of planning regulator, free from political influence, should be established to enforce compliance with planning policy and undertake inquiries into the planning functions of local authorities.

“In light of the tribunal’s findings, the decision by the current Minister not to proceed with the independent planning inquiry initiated by the previous government is a retrograde step,” it said.

In January 2011, six planning consultants were selected to carry out inquiries into alleged planning irregularities in the six local authorities, but they were “stood down” last June.

Instead, there was to be an internal review by the Department of the Environment.

Before the February 2011 general election, former minister Eamon Ryan said Mr Hogan appeared to prejudge the issue by characterising the allegations of planning irregularities as “spurious, mostly”. But in Carlow, in his own constituency, there was a “shocking litany of failures”, Mr Ryan said.

Carlow, Cork, Galway and Meath county councils and Cork and Dublin city councils were to be subjected by former minister John Gormley to independent scrutiny after he had received “substantial complaints” from An Taisce and others about their planning practices.

The only change, said a spokesman for Mr Hogan, was that instead of appointing external consultants “at substantial cost to the exchequer”, officials would review the “considerable work and analysis” already undertaken by the department’s planning division.

He said this information had been compiled “in collaboration with the local authorities concerned” and the officials had been told to provide a report to then minister of state for planning Willie Penrose “as soon as possible, with recommendations on any further actions required”.

“In the current budgetary circumstances, this is a more cost-effective and appropriate process, which does not compromise in any way the quality of the outcomes and one that [the] officials are carrying out objectively and with the co-operation of the local authorities.”

In response to questions in the Dáil, Mr Penrose said he wanted to conclude the review as quickly as possible.

“He will then consider the matter in the coming weeks and decide the appropriate actions to be taken, including the need for further analysis of specific issues.”

The spokesman said this might also involve “new policy development and guidance in line with commitments in the programme for government”. This included a pledge of better co-ordination of policy “instead of the current system that favours developer-led planning”.

The Mahon tribunal proposed that an independent planning regulator would have an oversight role in relation to enforcing planning policy and also the power to investigate “possible systemic problems” in the planning system, “including those raising corruption risks”.

Jan O’Sullivan, who replaced Mr Penrose as Minister of State for planning, said she was “adamant that no ambiguity can be allowed to exist” regarding the roles of the Minister or local councillors, and the tribunal’s recommendations would inform her thinking on reforms.