If only they'd heeded Kenny report

 

So we're back to square one. Three decades after the Kenny report recommended that building land should be compulsorily acquired by local authorities for 25 per cent more than its agricultural value, the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution says that's exactly what we should be doing, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Editor

Dr Garret FitzGerald, a member of the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition government that received Judge John Kenny's report in 1973, can't remember why it wasn't acted upon then. It just slid off the agenda and no government since did anything about its central recommendation.

Ostensibly, the reason for this was that Kenny - a constitutional lawyer himself - had proposed something that would be unconstitutional. But no attempt was made to test this in the courts, as happened more recently when Part V of the 2000 Planning Act was referred to the Supreme Court. Surprise, surprise - the highest judges in the land found that this provision, relating to the acquisition of land for social and affordable housing, was in line with the Constitution. So the all-party committee has concluded that implementing a "Kenny-type mechanism" was also likely to be upheld by the court.

Urban Ireland's loss is that this conclusion wasn't reached 30 years ago. As a result, the shape of our suburbs was determined by market forces rather than by planners; the local authorities simply had no control over the most important resource of all - land - other than the parcels they purchased for social housing.

What Kenny proposed was analogous to the long-established practice in England. The government decides that a new town is to be built. A Bill is introduced to establish a development commission, all of the land required is taken into public ownership, a master plan is prepared and parcels are then released for development.

In Ireland, however, it was a free-for-all. Land on the fringes of Dublin and other urban areas was bought up speculatively, often at not much more than its agricultural value, and the local authority was pressurised to rezone it. The massive increase in value, frequently a multiple of 10, was then pocketed by the speculators.

The very core of what the planning tribunal is inquiring into - corrupt payments to politicians to secure the rezoning of land - devolves from the abject failure of successive governments to implement Kenny. It is ironic, therefore, that the Taoiseach appeared before the tribunal yesterday prior to launching the report.

As for whether speculators are hoarding, or "stockpiling", development land, the all-party committee is unsure, but nonetheless recommends that a scheme of progressive charges should be devised to deter such practice. In any case, as it says, "the speculative fever surrounding development land would disappear" under a "Kenny-type" regime.

Coincidentally, as reported in The Irish Times yesterday, more than 1,400 hectares (3,360 acres) of land in the Fingal area of Dublin which was zoned for development in 1999 remains undeveloped five years later. At the higher residential densities now permitted, this volume of land would be sufficient to provide some 50,000 new homes.

Fingal County Council, like every other local authority, has no power to require the owners of this vast acreage of zoned building land to develop it, or, alternatively, release it for development by others. What it's planning to do is to zone a further 220 hectares (530 acres), which will make another batch of landowners very rich indeed.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the real reason why nothing was done to implement the Kenny Report was that the laissez-faire approach suited powerful vested interests that were politically well-connected and, like Mr Tom Gilmartin, the Bailey brothers and others, made generous contributions to politicians and their parties.

Apart from proposing that Kenny be implemented, however belatedly, the all-party committee has made a number of practical recommendations that would speed up the delivery of motorways and other major infrastructural projects - as well as endorsing the Government's proposal for a "fast-track" planning regime.

The most important relates to compulsory purchase orders. At present, the onus is on a local authority to identify all legal interests in the land to be acquired - a time-consuming process known as property referencing. In future, if the committee's report is adopted, affected landowners would be obliged to identify themselves.