Reform of local government

 

Sir, – There has been much comment on the proposal to delete Section 140 of the Planning Acts and remove the power of councillors to overturn planning decisions made by the “experts”. In my 20 years as a member, Dublin City Council has never passed such a motion.

I wish there had been at least half as much comment about the occasions (at least six in recent years) , on which I, as a councillor submitted and paid for, appeals to An Bord Pleanála, to seek to overturn disgraceful decisions made by the “expert planners” in defiance of good planning and in some cases at least the democratically adopted development plans.

Incidentally in all such cases – I won. Maybe the commentators would also find space to comment on the over €90 million that has already been spent by the “experts” on the Poolbeg Incinerator, again in defiance of the expressed wishes of the democratically elected councillors – and not a sod turned to date. – Yours, etc,

Cllr DERMOT LACEY,

Beech Hill Drive,

Donnybrook, Dublin 4.

Sir, – I was disappointed to see The Irish Times publish an inaccurate and misleading account of both the role of the planning profession in corruption and the process regarding zoning and planning (Editorial, October 16th).

The final report of the Mahon tribunal is a highly detailed investigation of planning corruption. It is very significant that the tribunal report does not make any single finding of corruption involving a professional planner or a member of the Irish Planning Institute. This is all the more significant given the findings of widespread corruption at a political level in planning. Therefore, it is difficult to understand on what basis the Editorial states there was corruption among professional planners and we request that this statement be retracted.

The Editorial also incorrectly refers to the powers currently available to elected local authority members to direct a local authority manager under Section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001. Section 140 is not used in the zoning process and the changes announced by the Government do not change the role of councillors in zoning decisions. Section 140 has most commonly been used to permit developments, in particular one-off rural houses, against planners’ advice. It is therefore untrue to suggest that Section 140 is responsible for overzoning across the country. For many years the institute has supported the removal of section 140 provision and we welcome this announcement. Our planning system also allows for any third party to appeal the decision to An Bord Pleanála and independent appeals body.

Since its introduction in 1963, the Irish planning system has always been based on a separation of responsibilities between those who are given the responsibility to make policy decisions (ie the locally elected representatives) and those who are given the responsibility to provide expert advice (ie the professional planners). Planning is there to serve the common good and not to serve private individuals or sectoral interests. While the members are not bound to accept any recommendation offered by the executive, councillors are required to act reasonably, and must have a basis on which to lawfully reject the expert advice given to them by the authority. They must have regard to the matters set out in the Planning Act; it is not possible to consider matters other than those relating to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.

Overall we welcome Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan’s reforms which have the promise of creating a more joined-up local government system. The Irish Planning Institute has consistently held that the planning system must be one that is plan-led, not developer-driven – which has been the main failing of the planning system in the past.

Accountability and transparency in our planning system are key if we are to restore public confidence. The announced local government reforms may go some way to delivering this, but there is a knowledge deficit in how the local government and planning system works.

As president of the institute, I am working to raise public awareness of how the planning system works and to encourage and establish initiatives to raise awareness of why people should actively engage in the planning system. The publication of factually incorrect accounts of the powers of actors in the planning system and the role of professional planners in corruption undermines public understanding of planning and is unhelpful and extremely regrettable. – Yours, etc,

JOANNA KELLY MIPI,

President,

Irish Planning Institute,

Great Strand Street, Dublin 1.

Article 140 allows councillors to instruct council management to rezone land for housing. –Ed IT

Sir, – I welcome the local government reforms announced this week by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan. However, I am worried by the lack of meaningful devolution of power to the local level.

Irish local government is much weaker than in many other EU countries, especially in relation to provision of services such as health care and education. These services are the responsibility of central government. The announcement of these reforms reminded me of the government’s abysmal attempts at decentralisation during the Noughties, a plan which was doomed from the start and ultimately wasted taxpayers’ money. Ireland needs a meaningful level of local and regional government, not just a few re-located offices.

The Government needs to look elsewhere; it needs to review models of decentralisation that have worked for other similar countries (eg New Zealand). Cutting public spending is the number one priority for the Government right now, and this is, in my opinion is the main objective behind these reforms. Keep the EU and the troika happy.

Money and time were wasted during the boom years on failed decentralisation plans, and now, money needs to be saved wherever possible. The reforms announced by Mr Hogan will achieve this, but they will not provide this country with the meaningful and important level of local government that it needs. – Yours, etc,

LAURA SHANNON,

Belturbet, Co Cavan.