By Michael Smith.
Gerard Convie worked in Donegal County Council as a senior planner for nearly 24 years. He has claimed, in an affidavit opened in court, that during his tenure in the Council there was bullying of planners who sought to make decisions based exclusively on the planning merits of particular applications and that planning irregularities were perpetrated by named officials at the highest level in the Council – including by former Manager Michael McLoone, who has initiated defamation proceedings against Village magazine, as well as by named Councillors.
Convie had a list of more than 20 “suspect cases” in the county including that of a petrol station which operated for over 10 years despite never having secured planning permission and numerous cases of houses being permitted in scenic locations, in contravention of plans protecting local beauty, and sometimes for people who knew relevant officials in the Council. The allegations of planning impropriety date back to decisions made in the late 1990s.
A review into planning decisions made by the Council was ordered by former Environment Minister John Gormley in 2010 after Convie made representations to him. It also covered Counties Carlow, Cork, Galway and Meath; and Cork and Dublin Cities.
However, the review was cut short after the demise of the Fianna Fáil/Green Party government.
A report on the review in 2012 concluded that there was no evidence to back up the whistleblower’s claims on Donegal. Minister Jan O’Sullivan told the Dáil, that: “ … the complainant [Convie] has failed at any stage to produce evidence of wrong-doing in Donegal Council’s planning department”. But Mr Convie challenged the findings of the report in the High Court, which ruled in his favour. The whitewash report was withdrawn and the Department of the Environment apologised and paid Convie compensation.
Although six other counties were also part of the departmental review Convie’s Donegal allegations alone purport to give any evidence of actual impropriety, indeed ‘corruption’.
The Department was always therefore going to have to treat them differently. After advice from the Attorney General was first delayed and then finally digested the Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly has now finally announced that a senior counsel will go to Donegal to investigate the allegations.
Somewhat disconcertingly, Village, Convie and local newspapers including the Donegal Democrat were unable to confirm an Irish Independent report to this effect and it is not clear what the terms of reference for the senior counsel will be, or how wide ranging his powers – something that will partially depend on the terms of the Act under which he is appointed.
An [unsigned] recent document obtained under FOI, shows the Minister was considering options: “The Department wrote to the [Attorney General’s Office] on 28th May 2014, following the approval of both Ministers Hogan and O’Sullivan to seek advice on the option of appointment by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government of an authorised person under Section 224 of the Local Government Act 2001 in relation to the Donegal planning matters”.
This provides that: “The Minister may request an authorised person to prepare a report for the Minister in relation to the performance of any of the functions of one or more local authorities”. This is not at all clear or precise though it is possible that a “report” may be more stringent than a “review”.
Convie has written to Local Government Minister Paudie Coffey who is now handling the matter, demanding:
• the terms of reference for the investigation;
• the legislation, [Section etc] under which this person has been, or shall be, appointed;
• what powers this person shall have, not least in respect of being able to interview all relevant personnel;
• what penalties there shall be for persons who do not co-operate with this appointed Senior Counsel;
• that all the matters he has complained about to the Department shall be included in this investigation, including attempts to influence An Bord Pleanála, the conduct of named civil servants who dealt with his complaints and his complaints about planning in Letterkenny.
Meanwhile it is unclear what is happening with the independent report into the other six planning authorities that was expected in June 2014
to “be concluded soon”; or on the possible extension of the independent report into other counties, notably Wicklow.
The Department says a report by McCabe, Durney, Barnes Planning will be published shortly “after the Minister has considered its contents”.
The unsigned document does, however, seem to give some clues as to how the counties outside of Donegal may
be treated: Consideration should be “given to an initial Departmental or non-statutory independent appointment by
the Minister/Department to [help verify allegations made with supporting documentation] informing the
next steps including any terms of reference for a statutory appointment’’.
This suggests a preliminary fact-finding exercise may be intended.
It is likely the “planning reviews” proposed for these counties will address not impropriety but bad practice.
Whether the report, review or investigation into Donegal addresses impropriety will say much about this administration’s willingness to address probity in planning. •