Planning watchdog now unlikely to be appointed


ANALYSIS: Internal review fails to give a clean bill of health to planning system in Ireland

ONE OF the key recommendations of the Mahon tribunal’s report last March was that a new office of planning regulator should be established, to oversee the implementation of planning policy and investigate “possible systemic problems . . . including those raising corruption risks”.

Although Jan O’Sullivan, Minister of State with responsibility for planning, said at the time that the tribunal’s report would inform her thinking in bringing forward proposed reforms, the planning review she published yesterday would suggest that an independent planning regulator is unlikely to be appointed.

In response to a query from The Irish Times yesterday, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment said the Government “will bring forward its whole-of-Government response to Mahon, including the recommendation in relation to establishment of an independent planning regulator in the coming weeks”.

Yesterday’s report commits only to the engagement of an “external planning expert” to undertake a “thematic evaluation of the review and its associated proposed actions . . . and make further recommendations where appropriate”; he or she would not “re-examine complaints” or “investigate one or more planning authorities”.

The overall aim of the review, as it says, was to “identify measures to ensure consistency of approach in the implementation of planning legislation and guidelines across all planning authorities, and to improve the delivery of planning services generally, in the interests of proper planning and sustainable development”.

It was also intended to ensure “continued public confidence in the planning system” – something those who made complaints against seven local authorities clearly lacked.

Indeed, the department characterised their allegations as ranging from “serious to very serious” and said they had “received the fullest attention”.

Well, not quite. Former minister John Gormley intended to appoint independent

planning consultants to look

into the complaints but hadn’t done that before the Green

Party pulled out of government

in January 2011. Jan

O’Sullivan’s predecessor, Willie Penrose, decided three months later that an internal review would do.

The department now says that the process initiated by Mr Gormley “was not intended . . .as an investigation of specific alleged irregularity or impropriety on the part of particular planning authorities, [although] the scope of the review provided for the carrying out of such further actions as might be deemed necessary”.

Yet the lengthy report published yesterday concedes

that the complaints made against the seven local authorities, while falling short of alleging “systemic corruption”, raised “serious matters ranging from maladministration to inconsistency in application of planning policy or non-adherence to forward plans such as development plans”.

It is clear that there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the department and the city or county managers involved in relation to these allegations.

However, “the focus of the review was on general procedures and practices . . . rather than individual planning decisions by either the authorities themselves or An Bord Pleanála”.