News Irish News

Sunday 20 August 2017

Council broke planning laws but Hogan still stopped probe

Treacy Hogan Environment Correspondent

ENVIRONMENT Minister Phil Hogan cancelled an inquiry into a local authority -- despite a report from a watchdog which confirmed planning breaches there, the Irish Independent has learned.

The Ombudsman found that Cork City Council didn't stick to planning laws when it failed to make details of key meetings between planners and developers publicly available.

However, despite the findings, Mr Hogan subsequently blocked a separate planned independent investigation into the Cork city issues that had been instigated by his predecessor as environment minister, John Gormley. Five others into other council areas were also shelved by Mr Hogan.

The Cork investigation, by Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, focused on complaints that minutes of pre-planning application meetings involving applicants and city council staff were not being made available to the public before final decisions were made.

This is a major element of transparency in planning.

Ms O'Reilly found that Cork City Council did not stick to the planning laws, but her report of two years ago was never published.

The disclosure of her findings puts further pressure on Mr Hogan to reopen the six cases, including one in his own Carlow constituency.

It was also blocked, despite a 2010 review which found that several practices were unacceptable and that these should be changed.

These included the ineffective enforcement of planning laws and a failure to record meetings between council planners and planning applicants.

A Department of the Environment spokesman said yesterday that Labour's Willie Penrose -- who was junior minister with responsibility for housing and planning before his resignation -- would have dealt with the Ombudsman's report when the decision to stop the six cases was taken.

When asked if Mr Hogan had been aware of the Ombudsman's report, his spokesman claimed it was not possible to ask the minister this as he was away this week.

The Cork city case related to meetings between developers and council planning staff prior to any formal planning applications being made. These meetings take place to enable potential applicants to learn if their development is feasible.

The Ombudsman found that Cork City Council's policy and procedures did not comply with planning law.

Her report, obtained by the Irish Independent, said the information should have been made available before a decision was made on any application, rather than after.

Cork City Council insisted that it had complied fully with the law. But the Ombudsman said the council's interpretation of the law was incorrect.

However, the council subsequently decided to put all pre-planning consultations on the public file.

In the wake of the Cork city case, the Ombudsman then decided to see if similar problems existed in other local authorities.

Breaches

A survey of nine city and county councils by her office found that different councils had different practices and procedures over making records of pre-planning meetings available to the public.

Some councils were not making the information available at all, while others were only releasing it after the decision had been made.

A meeting was held between the Ombudsman and then environment minister, John Gormley of the Green Party,on February 5, 2010.

Following this, an independent inquiry into the Cork City Council issue and alleged breaches of a different nature in five other councils -- Carlow, Dublin City, Galway County, Cork County, and Meath -- was ordered by Mr Gormley.

However, his successor Mr Hogan approved the decision to cancel the probes after taking office in March of last year.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News