Independent probe ordered into planning in six counties
THE Government has ordered an independent probe into alleged poor planning practices in six local authorities.
The move comes after the High Court quashed a report into allegations of corruption in Donegal County Council, after a former planner said his claims had not been properly investigated.
Now, Planning Minister Jan O'Sullivan is to appoint outside experts to carry out an examination on how planning policies are enforced in six counties – Galway, Cork city and county, Dublin City, Carlow, and Meath.
Attorney General Maire Whelan has also been asked to advise on how corruption claims in Donegal can be investigated, and whether gardai or the Standards in Public Office Commission has a role to play.
Among the concerns raised in the local authorities is that developers were encouraged to produce masterplans setting out how areas were developed; that permission was granted for high-rise buildings which contravened planning policies; and that there was a failure to keep records of meetings.
It was also alleged that "irregular" practices were in place in some councils; that planners did not comply with planning policies; and that there was a lack of transparency on how decisions were made.
Details of the claims made against Donegal County Council cannot be revealed for legal reasons.
However, the Department of the Environment has confirmed that it has agreed to pay former planner Gerard Convie, who made the allegations, damages of €25,000 after acknowledging he had the right to a good name and had "sincerely-held concerns" in relation to planning matters in the county.
This is the second time that the allegations in the six councils will be investigated. An internal review by the Department of the Environment published last summer found no evidence of wrongdoing, but did make recommendations on improving the system.
The move to have an internal inquiry was sharply criticised at the time. The decision was made by former planning minister Willie Penrose.
Ms O'Sullivan last night admitted that costs were part of the reason why external independent experts were not employed to conduct the review last year.
"One of the concerns at the time was cost, but I wasn't part of the decision," she told the Irish Independent.
"Saving money was one part of it. The intention was to get as much information from departmental officials. At the time when Minister Penrose announced it, he said if anything required further review, it would warrant outside consideration. The quashing of the Donegal element of the report does require a response.
"The overall package will strengthen public confidence in the system, as planning is crucial to our recovery."
Experts will be sought in the coming weeks and it is hoped to have them in place by September. It is not clear if one person, or a number of experts, will be appointed. It is hoped to have the probe completed by early next year.
The department's internal inquiry, completed last year, was independently reviewed and a further series of recommendations made by planner Henk van der Kamp.
National heritage group An Taisce, which made complaints against Galway and Dublin City councils, said an independent expert should have been appointed to review the allegations at the beginning.
"It's what we called for all along," spokesman Charles Stanley-Smith said. "No one ever spoke to us during the review, or asked us to substantiate our findings.
"The first thing they need to do is speak to the people who made the complaints. We have a detailed background report and could provide a lot of information.
"The decision to do a proper review at which the complainants are heard and can meet the reviewers, and go through in detail what our complaint deals with, would make us happy."
Section 255 of the 2000 Planning and Development Act gives the minister powers to appoint an organisation or individual to carry out a review of how local authorities implement planning policies. This function will move to a new planning regulator, which is expected to be in place later this year.