Taking corruption out of planning
THE DOGS in the street have known about corruption in the planning process for decades but lengthy hearings by the Mahon tribunal and the bursting of a property bubble were required to bring about remedial action. Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan is due today to provide details of what reforms are proposed but, on the basis of indications, legislative change may fall short of what is required.
The abolition of section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001 will remove the power that allows councillors to direct officials and planners to take certain decisions in relation to the rezoning of land and the granting of planning permissions. The abuse of this provision by corrupt councillors during the Celtic Tiger years has left a legacy of inappropriate urban developments, ghost estates, and a rash of one-off housing.
Corruption and abuse within the planning process was not, however, confined to local councillors. TDs and ministers were also involved, as were council officials and planners. Apart from the straightforward bribery of individuals, there was pressure from government on local authorities to do what developers demanded to raise necessary cash. A 2010 study by NUI Maynooth concluded that while greed, speculation and excessive lending formed the basis for the property crash, it could not have happened without rezoning and planning permissions. Government tax breaks in the Upper Shannon Region caused a 50 per cent increase in the vacant housing stock there while local councillors rezoned land for a further 50,000 homes.
Rezoning flood plains for housing was just one of the dreadful practices of those years. Voting by councillors, however, involved a public process, while the bribery of more senior politicians, planners and developers took place behind closed doors. Having witnessed the effective breakdown and corruption of the planning process in those years, it would be wrong for the Government to confine its reforms to a sticking plaster for the activities of councillors. Weaknesses within the planning system run far deeper, requiring invasive surgery.
Local government structures and the planning process are antiquated and unfit for purpose. Before he left office, former minister for the environment John Gormley commissioned a number of reports on possible ways forward. Apart from amalgamating city and county councils; reducing the status of urban councils and cutting numbers in order to save money, proposals were made for more rigorous and robust planning procedures. These are separate but equally important issues and should be dealt with by individual pieces of legislation. If they are taken together, there is a danger both may suffer from inadequate attention.
Mr Hogan has an opportunity to deliver the kind of transformative change that has been talked about for years. Cleaning up local government will be difficult. Greater transparency and accountability in decision-taking will be key requirements. New funding mechanisms and administrative structures should, however, ease the process.