Dublin city councillors have called on Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy to withdraw a "gagging order" blocking councillors from discussing planning applications.
A direction was issued last week to local authorities by the Department of Housing and Planning that planning applications “should not be discussed” at council meetings before a decision has been made. It also said the participation of officials “in any such discussions is not appropriate”.
Terry Sheridan, head of planning policy with the department, said he issued the letter on the directions of Mr Murphy due to concerns the public may have "an erroneous impression" of the role of elected representatives in deciding on planning applications.
The direction came ahead of an admission this week by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that he had intervened on behalf of Donald Trump in relation to a planning application.
The Taoiseach told an audience in Washington that when he was minister for tourism the businessman called him to complain about a planned windfarm near his Doonbeg golf resort in Co Clare and Mr Varadkar subsequently called the council about it. Permission for the windfarm was refused.
City councillors will next week hold an emergency meeting to seek the withdrawal of the direction.
“In a week where Mr Varadkar has made a craven attempt to pretend that planning is in the gift of politicians this gagging order is ironic and deeply hypocritical,” Fianna Fáil councillor Paul McAuliffe said.
Planners attended council meetings so councillors could have “technical details” of an application explained, to allow them assist their constituents in making “informed submissions” on applications, he said.
Labour councillor Dermot Lacey said presentations by planning officials and the discussion of applications had been always been a normal part of local area council meetings. "This diktat is an extremely serious intervention by Mr Murphy and is further evidence of this department's systematic dismantling of local government."
The discussion of planning applications was purely an information gathering process, Mr Lacey said. “This takes place in public and is completely transparent – entirely the opposite of the secretive activities of Mr Varadkar.”
Fine Gael councillor Ray McAdam said the views expressed at council meetings were not taken into account as part of the planning process.
“I don’t see what has changed for the department to issue a circular restricting or preventing councillors from discussing planning applications at council meetings. This decision does not make sense and I believe the circular and advice contained within it, should be withdrawn by Minister Murphy.”
Labour councillor Rebecca Moynihan said local authority planners were professionals who wouldn't be swayed by comments made at council meetings. "It's a bizarre circular and should be withdrawn."
Green Party councillor Ciarán Cuffe said he would like to know what had prompted the letter. “I think it would be useful if Mr Murphy put the reasons for sending it into the public domain.”