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The tame, interrupted and unpublished ‘Planning Reviews’

The Department of the Environment (DoE) has been ‘investigating’ or rather ‘reviewing’ bad planning in a number of local authorities. In June 2013 the Department agreed to a High Court order overturning its own findings of no evidence of wrongdoing in the planning department of Donegal County Council on dates mostly in the 1990s. It apologised to former senior planner, Gerard Convie, who had made those claims and paid him €25,000 damages, for findings in the Department’s report put before the Dáil in June 2012 dismissing allegations by him of irregular planning decisions within the Council.

It recently [2015] appointed a senior counsel to look into the allegations on a non-statutory ie makey-uppy basis. There is no commitment to publish this report.

The review reached conclusions on the other Counties as long ago as July 2015 but they have not been published.

Here’s what happened:

In 2009/2010 An Taisce requested that the DoE conduct investigations into planning practices in three councils – County Cork, Dublin City and County Galway. Taking An Taisce’s material together with other complaints, the then Minister John Gormley sanctioned independent investigations into six councils in early 2011.In late 2011 – the Department acting through former Minister of State Willie Penrose rejected the option of proper investigation in favour of a shallow in-house ‘internal review’.

The result was a report with no credibility issued in June 2012. The Department then retained an external consultant (Mr Henk van der Kamp) in late 2012 to undertake further study but with no more investigation than the original internal review. And with just as little credibility behind it, the van der Kamp report must now also be withdrawn. In June the Convie case exposed the shallowness of the Department’s surface ‘investigations’ and ‘findings’. There will now be an outside investigation.

Here’s what it will look at:

Carlow County Council

The allegations concern, to a very significant degree, Seamus (or Jimmy) O’Connor, the then Carlow Director of Planning. In a report into the allegations by former Louth County Manager, John Quinlivan, published in Oct 2010, O’Connor was described as having broken the law for failing to keep notes of meetings with developers, and for engaging in the “unacceptable practice” of meeting such developers alone, unaccompanied by other Council officials. However, there has been no real examination of the consequences of O’Connor’s actions, and in the wake of the Quinlivan report, O’Connor was merely shifted sideways within Carlow County Council, retaining the same very comfortable salary as a Director of Services as before.

Cork City

The main complaints with regard to Cork City Council’s planning stem from the ‘closed’ nature of its pre-planning meetings. First, many of the meetings were not classified as pre-planning meetings. Classification of such meetings is highly important because notes of meetings between Council officials and developers must be published by the Council in
the event a planning application is later submitted after the Council has made its decision on the proposal. In order words, pre-planning meetings ultimately become part of the public record, whereas meetings deemed not to be pre-planning don’t. Essentially, the DoE found that attempts to play fast and loose with the classification of meetings were outside the legislation. In a common theme, however, no-one was held accountable and the consequences of failing to categorise meetings as pre-planning meetings was never properly examined.

Cork County

The main complaints with regard to Cork City Council’s planning stem from the ‘closed’ nature of its pre-planning meetings. First, many of the meetings were not classified as pre-planning meetings. Classification of such meetings is highly important because notes of meetings between Council officials and developers must be published by the Council in
the event a planning application is later submitted after the Council has made its decision on the proposal. In order words, pre-planning meetings ultimately become part of the public record, whereas meetings deemed not to be pre-planning don’t. Essentially, the DoE found that attempts to play fast and loose with the classification of meetings were outside the legislation. In a common theme, however, no-one was held accountable and the consequences of failing to categorise meetings as pre-planning meetings was never properly examined.

Cork County

The allegation is that so-called ‘liaison officers’ were appointed as go-betweens on planning applications, feeding back news of ‘progress’ or ‘resistance’ on individual planning application to interested councillors. The practice had or has no statutory basis but it appears Cork County Council defended it unreservedly to the DoE. In rather weak language, the DoE told Cork County Council to discontinue. Again, however, no-one was found responsible for putting in place an unlawful system nor was there any investigation into the consequences of many years of ‘liaison’.

Donegal County

Senior Planner Gerry Convie who controlled planning in Donegal for 20 years claimed that there was bullying and intimidation within the council of planners who sought to make decisions based exclusively on the planning merits of particular applications. Convie was suspended in 1999, allegedly for not following procedures in relation to his involvement in a parcel of land at Magheroarty, near Bloody Foreland. Convie has a list of 10 “suspect cases” in the county and said there was a “cess pit” in the county’s planning. After he won his High Court case in June 2013, the Department conceded that his allegations were never really investigated, and covered all his legal costs estimated at several hundred thousand euro.

Dublin City

The allegations concern city officials who – during the property bubble – encouraged developers to apply for buildings far higher than allowed under the city development plan. An Taisce has published a considerable volume of material to substantiate the allegations, but to date officialdom has been in denial. Regarding the years 2005 – 2009, Dublin City also
stands accused of the same jiggery-pokery in relation to pre-planning meetings as Cork City.

Meath County

The allegations against Meath County Council relate to rezoning decisions contrary to the Council’s own development plan. According to An Taisce and others, the public interest was subverted in favour of lobbyists, interested parties and the preferential treatment of certain landowners.

Galway County

Galway County Council is accused of systematic disregard not only for its own development plan, but also for environmental impacts on protected sites, nature reserves, failure to observe recommendations from the National Road Authority, and even ignoring Bord Pleanála decisions.

Not a corruption investigation, a planning review…
After all the abortive and revived effort, this is what the Department of the Environment is pursuing:
“An independent planning review to assess the application of planning, legislation, policy and guidance within the development plan and development management systems at local level in Republic of Ireland (using as ‘a key input’ issues in Carlow, Cork, Galway and Meath County Councils, and Cork and Dublin City Councils). The planning review is to consider what measures may be required to ensure a consistent approach to these issues across all planning authorities, and to improve the delivery of planning services generally”.

The focus is on procedures and practices within planning authorities rather than individual planning decisions by either the authorities themselves or An Bord Pleanála.

James Nix is a former Policy Director of An Taisce.

This is an updated version of an article published in Village Magazine in August 2013