When it comes to scripted drama, RTÉ remains years off the pace. However, as a source of riveting current affairs programming, it often delivers knockout viewing. One such example is the latest RTÉ Investigates (RTÉ One, Monday), which looks at claims that two individuals were lodging environmental appeals against planning developments and then withdrawing them for financial gain. “Two men are starting to gain quite a reputation as serial objectors,” says reporter Barry O’Kelly. “Multimillion euro projects have been put on hold.”
There is a lot of intrigue in a documentary that unfolds like a cross between a planning hearing and a spy movie shot on a micro-budget. One developer secretly films a meeting at which he asks what he would have to do for the planning appeal to be withdrawn. The answer is not immediately clear: the other individual says it is up to the builder to come up with “a proposal”.
The episode will have made for emotive viewing given the fraught state of the housing market and the struggles many face attempting to gain a foothold on the property ladder. There is, of course, the wider concern that many of these developments are in the commuter belt – leading to increased dependency on cars – but this is a problem beyond the remit of the RTÉ film.
Experts express their dismay at what has been caught on camera. “It’s outrageous ... to causally demand €100,000 is just remarkable,” says one. “Environmental concerns don’t just evaporate,” says planner Sorcha Turnbull. “They don’t evaporate because you have withdrawn your appeal.”
If the claims made in the film are true, then the implications for the planning system are worrying – although RTÉ accepts that nothing is alleged to have happened that is in any way illegal. The inference is that it is possible to game the regulations and that environmental objections to developments may be spurious, thus eroding trust in a system already creaking as the housing crisis rumbles on.
“Transparency is one of the bottom lines,” says Dr Geraint Ellis, a professor in the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University Belfast. “Everybody involved in the process needs that.”