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Demands for ‘go away’ money for not objecting to property developments to become a crime

Amendments to law part of sweeping overhaul of planning legislation

It will become a crime to demand “go away” money for not lodging appeals against property developments under steps being taken by the Government to strengthen planning law.

The move by Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien comes amid concern about objectors exploiting legal loopholes by seeking payments from developers to withdraw actual or threatened appeals against housing and other building schemes.

The Revenue Commissioners are known to be examining whether tax was paid on certain large payments linked to alleged planning abuses.

The introduction of a new offence suggests the practice of serial objectors demanding money to stop appeals was not unlawful, as some objectors have claimed.

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A new ban on “spurious planning submissions and appeals” will make it an offence to demand money or any other form of consideration in return for not taking a local authority planning appeal. It will also become an offence to demand money for not proceeding with a judicial review action in the High Court against a decision by An Bord Pleanála.

The prohibition will cover the seeking of money in return for not making formal observations on a planning application to local authorities or An Bord Pleanála.

Draft planning law will be changed to empower any developers who are asked for money to seek a High Court direction requiring the dismissal of an appeal to a local authority or An Bord Pleanála, it is understood.

They will have the right to seek a similar High Court direction requiring the dismissal of judicial review proceedings before the court.

Mr O’Brien is seeking Cabinet approval on Tuesday to introduce the changes through amendments to the Planning and Development Bill of 2023, a sweeping overhaul of planning legislation whose passage through Oireachtas is well advanced.

Another change would introduce measures to stop the clock on the duration of planning permission if the consent is subject to a judicial review challenge. The objective is to avoid situations where time-limited permission is whittled away while lengthy court proceedings are under way.

Further changes to the Bill will impose a requirement on objectors submitting observations or appeals to make a statutory declaration stating that such actions are not being undertaken for financial self-interest or for delaying a development.

Similar declarations will be required when initiating or withdrawing a judicial review action against a project.

“It’s a new gateway in the process,” said a person briefed on Mr O’Brien’s plans. “The idea is to put in an extra hurdle or barrier for people seeking to manipulate the system for their own benefit.”

The Minister aims to introduce the amendments in the report and final stage Dáil debate in a fortnight, in advance of the Seanad debate he hopes to conclude before the houses rise in July for the summer recess. The Bill would then go to President Michael D Higgins for enactment.

Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) had pressed Mr O’Brien to grant it special concessions as the draft law is finalised. The Minister has spurned DAA’s request for infrastructure exemptions in the legislation and new rights to bypass council planners for projects with no aircraft noise implications.

The Bill was cast to streamline planning by setting limits on court challenges amid anxiety about big housing projects being delayed by lengthy appeals and a backlog of cases at An Bord Pleanála.

After prolonged turmoil over alleged impropriety in An Bord Pleanála decision-making, the new law will rename the planning appeals body An Coimisiún Pleanála and separate its corporate, decision-making and governance functions.

The authority’s deputy chairman, Paul Hyde, received a suspended prison sentence last year for failing to declare certain property interests, after pleading guilty to two charges.

Meanwhile, Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys is expected to bring a memo to Cabinet on Tuesday about a Pathways to Work strategy which is focused on bringing long-term unemployed people back into the workforce.

The Minister is expected to tell Cabinet that her department is focusing on getting unemployed people into the workforce through further education, training and work placement schemes including signing up 50,000 people on the live register to “personal progression” plans where they will be required to meet Intreo Employment Advisors fortnightly.

Separately, Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman is expected to update Cabinet on the implementation of the action plan for Mother and Baby Home Survivors.

More than 10,000 people have now received information through the Birth Information and Tracing Act. First payments have also now begun to issue to survivors as part of the recently opened redress scheme.

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley is Current Affairs Editor of The Irish Times

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times