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Government covering up for pulling of planning inquiry.

By John Gormley.

I know how Tom Gilmartin  must have felt listening to Pádraig Flynn speaking on the Late Late. You’ll recall that this was the evening that Pee just couldn’t stop talking about how difficult it was to keep three luxury homes and in the process also ‘dissed’ the developer, Mr Gilmartin, who had given him money. Gilmartin, who was described by Flynn as being “out of sorts”, took umbrage and decided to spill the beans to the tribunal.  I can guess how Gilmartin felt because I had similar feelings of annoyance when a succession of government ministers decided to discredit my efforts to deal with the planning difficulties in this country. Claims that I hadn’t done “an ounce of work” on planning enquiries were repeated by Ministers Alan Kelly, Chief Whip Paul Keogh, Minister Phil Hogan and Minister Jan O’Sullivan, all of them perfectly on message, all of them equally misleading. Rather than let the sleeping dog lie, the government had decided to give this particular former minister an unmerciful kick.  Did they really believe I wouldn’t react in any way? Listening to Phil Hogan talking on the issue on Newstalk one morning I tweeted that Minister Hogan “was talking bull”. That’s not exactly a revelation, you might say – Phil regularly indulges his penchant for talking twaddle. But this was different even by his own egregious standards. To turn a story completely on its head takes some neck.

So, for the record, I’d like to list  what I had done as minister on the planning inquiries and what exactly Phil Hogan had in front of him on taking office.

When Minister Hogan took office he had:

a) an extensive dossier prepared by planning officials in the Department following an internal review of the complaints (Nov 2009)

b) a series of reports from the Managers in each of the local authorities submitted in response to a formal request from the Minister using his statutory powers under the Planning and Development Acts

c) terms of reference for a panel of planning consultants to carry out independent reviews in the seven local authorities

d) a completed tender process to select this panel of consultants

e) letters of appointment ready to be issued to the members of the panel

Below is a list of the issues to be examined; and a chronology:

Dublin City Council: Complaints from An Taisce that the City Council was not adhering to policies in its development plan, specifically in relation to tall buildings.

Carlow County Council: Report from the Local Government Auditors highlighted weaknesses in the procedures followed by the planning department.

Galway County Council: Complaints from An Taisce that the County Council was not adhering to policies in its development plan in granting planning permissions – a large proportion of permissions have been overturned on appeal to An Bord Pleanála.

Cork City Council: Procedures around the holding of pre-planning consultations have been highlighted by the Ombudsman.

Cork County Council: Complaints have questioned the appropriateness of a procedure of liaison between the planning department and councillors on specific planning applications.

Meath County Council: Complaints received concerning adherence to development plan policies.

Donegal County Council: Complaints received about processes followed in the planning department.

I think it’s pretty clear from the above account that practically everything that could have been done was done in relation to these inquiries. And yet the government’s mistruths continue. Village was told by the Department in June 2011 that the review was being downgraded to an “internal one”. We have been told by Éamon Gilmore and others that internal reviews were taking place. But the above chronology shows that these reviews had already been completed when the government took office. So what exactly was the government doing in the intervening 12 months? Perhaps they were seeking additional information for these ‘internal’ reviews? Not so, it would appear. According to RTE’s ‘Primetime’, not a single phonecall, email or any sort of communication was received by any of the local authorities from the Department of the Environment regarding the planning Inquiries since the new government took office.

It seems that Fine Gael and Labour were hoping that the planning inquiries, which Phil Hogan never supported in the first place, would quietly go away. And they would have got away with it had it not been for the publication of the Mahon Report. Mahon served to remind people and the media that planning malpractice went to the very heart of our housing bubble which in turn resulted in the financial meltdown. Minister Ciarán Lynch of the Labour Party downplayed any comparisons with Mahon when he appeared with Ciarán Cuffe of the Green party on ‘Prime Time’.  How could any government  seriously claim that the abuses of planning procedures that we witnessed in Mahon were somehow confined to the Dublin region? All of the complaints from members of the public suggested that there were widespread difficulties with planning in many parts of the country. Casting the net too wide would not have been very productive, practicable or affordable on the limited budgets.

It has been noted by some critics that the word ‘corruption’ has not been mentioned anywhere. True. And there’s an obvious reason for this. (A) we did not want to be flooded by lawyers’ writs for libel – which would have stalled the entire process and (B) we did not want in any way to be seen to prejudge the outcome  of the process. And prejudging the outcome is precisely what Minister Hogan now stands accused off. Remember it was he who, even before he took office, told Village that many of the accusations contained in the files were ‘spurious’. It was no surprise, therefore, when his junior Minster unceremoniously dropped the external, independent inquiries. And there was barely a murmur from the mainstream media. After all, this was a new government who would take a new broom to the Augean stables left by the previous administration – or so we were told. At this stage many people know that the  narrative was false, but what they find difficult to comprehend is that this government is actually worse in so  many ways than the previous government.

We’ve been told by Minister Phil Hogan that there’ll be a statement on the status of his internal ‘inquiries’ in May.  It will reveal much.

Chronology

2007-2009: Various complaints received about planning practices in a number of local authorities. No process existed in the Department for dealing with such complaints and they were usually referred back to the local authority in question.

2009: I asked the Department to examine the complaints with a view to developing a more robust system of dealing with information brought to my attention concerning planning practices.

September 2009: I requested a report from the Donegal County Manager under section 255 of the Planning and Development Acts, on foot of a complaint received.

November 2009: An internal review of complaints against 11 local authorities was completed by planning officials. A dossier containing the Department’s analysis of each complaint was provided to me, as Minister.

Late 2009/early 2010: I decided that further action was appropriate in a number of cases, including a review by independent consultants of planning practices in some of the local authorities. I then began work with Department officials to develop the most appropriate format for such reviews.

21 June 2010: I announced the commencement of the reviews. Using powers under section 255 of the Planning and Development Acts – for the very first time, I issued six local authorities with formal requests for reports on the issues raised: Dublin City Council, Carlow County Council, Galway County Council, Cork City Council, Cork County Council, Meath County Council

16 July 2010: Reports are received from the Managers of each local authority. It should be noted that a report had already been received from Donegal County Council on foot of earlier request.

24 September 2010: Invitation to tender is issued by the Department for the appointment to a panel of expert planners to carry out independent reviews in each of the seven local authorities.

22 October 2010: 40 tenders were received from a large number of expert planners seeking appointment to the panel.

November/December 2010: Department officials carried out assessment of tenders received.

12 January 2011: The Department recommended the appointment of 6 of the 40 applicants

17 January 2011: I approved the Department’s recommended panel and approved the issue of letters of appointment.

19 January 2011: The six successful bidders were informed of their appointment to the panel and asked to submit a tax clearance certificate.

22 January 2011: I resigned as Minister and the six successful bidders received no further correspondence from the Department.