The planning regulator has hit out at claims he is engaged in a Stalinist assault on local democracy, saying such attacks smack of a “darker era” of systemic failure in the planning system.
Niall Cussen dismissed as "unhelpful and inaccurate" criticism by Independent TD Verona Murphy, who has claimed in the Dáil that he was "out of control" and was making recommendations to councils that would ruin rural areas.
Mr Cussen, who took office in 2019 to provide independent oversight of the planning process, was speaking on Tuesday to the Oireachtas housing committee. One of his functions is to assess the preparation of local authority development plans to ensure they properly apply national policies.
A series of recommendations he has made on the draft plan for Wexford prompted heavy criticism from Ms Murphy, who represents the county and is concerned that his requirements will increase housing density.
Last month she called on Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien to remove Mr Cussen, saying the recommendations would shut rural areas and ghettoise towns. “This is a power grab by the regulator against every rural constituency in Ireland,” she told the Dáil.
“The last great Stalinist sentence in his missive requires the CEO [of the county council] to confirm his recommendations and respond within five working days, an outrageous demand and an assault on rural democracy.”
Mr Cussen did not refer by name to Ms Murphy at the committee but said there were “many errors” in the Dáil debate on April 1st in which she spoke.
“There seems to be a pattern in that and other subsequent commentary seeking to suggest our statutory role in the plan-making process is attempting to restrict rural development. Far from it,” Mr Cussen said.
His office was bound by law to ensure local authorities implemented national and regional policy. Any proper reading of its submissions would show it took its lead from Government policy and sought to encourage a plan-led approach to rural development.
“What is more striking about the commentary, however, is that it seems to be harking back to a previous and darker era of planning in this country,” he said.
“This was an era where there was absolutely no oversight of the quality, effectiveness or cohesion of the roles of local elected members in determining local authority planning policy.
“And we know what that gave rise to. Systemic failures and establishment of the Mahon tribunal and ultimately the [office of the planning regulator] to give back to the public a confidence in the quality of the operation of the planning process.”
By establishing the regulator’s office, the Oireachtas had decided that local authorities would have some “but not a limitless” discretion on planning policy.
Ms Murphy said her remarks stand. Asked if she was standing by her criticism, she said: “I most certainly am.”
She added: “The policies that they’re advocating will have the effect [of] dragging low-income earners into high density settings... You essentially create the ghettos of the future.”