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The planning regulator – fudge or fumigate?

'Corruption, and in particular political corruption, is a deeply corrosive and destructive force." That is the first sentence of the first recommendation of The Mahon Tribunal, established to investigate planning corruption. This month the Cabinet approved proposals to establish a new Planning Regulator, starting a balancing act of political power leading to either a fudging of Mahon's recommendations – or a fumigation of our planning system.

Mahon's hard-hitting recommendations include a radical transfer of power from politicians to the planning regulator. The tribunal is "concerned at the extent of the Minister's powers in the planning system as a whole."

"The Minister for the Environment's enforcement powers should be transferred to an independent Planning Regulator who should be charged with carrying out investigations into systemic problems in the planning system."

Mahon suggests that recent changes in the planning system have over-centralised power in the hands of the Minister for the Environment, which is not subject to checks and balances. He goes as far as to say: "The Regulator should have sufficient powers to carry out their work effectively, including power to question witnesses and compel production of documents."

However, the early indications are that the "outline of the general plan" approved by Cabinet falls short of that recommended by Mahon.

Minister Phil Hogan said that the regulator's role will be to review and assess all forward planning functions by local authorities such as the drafting of city and county development plans. The regulator will have the power to advise the minister to reject or overturn part or all of a plan. The final decision on whether to act will rest with the minister.

Whilst Mahon recommends that the regulator would have a role in reviewing specific planning applications and decisions, the Department, stressing the early stage of the proposals, told me that whilst "the regulator will have the power to investigate matters of wider public interest relating to the performance of planning authorities, this will not be in a way that opens another avenue for examining specific planning decisions".

It's hard to square all that with Minister for Housing and Planning Jan O'Sullivan's statement that the Government has given its commitment to implement Mahon's recommendations.

But perhaps the politicians are right to keep much of the power in the realm of elected representatives? I suspect that they are.

It's frustrating that one of the reasons for establishing the regulator is the failure to implement existing laws and, given the breathtaking scale of planning corruption, very little jail time has been served. Instead of criminals being brought to account the issue is partly fudged by establishing yet another quango.

I agree with the department that the regulator should not become another level in the planning application process. There is a system in place with a right of appeal to An Bord Pleanala and it would cause chaos if decisions could be subjected to a further review.

A practical issue is the plan to resource the new Office of the Property Regulator (O.P.R.) with staff on secondment from An Bord Pleanala. Pleanala currently has about 145 staff of which about 55 are planning professionals.

An Bord Pleanala's workload is down about 30pc since 2007, but following a European Court judgment they are currently reviewing the planning and environmental status of over 300 quarries in Ireland.

The O.P.R. has been welcomed by the Irish Planning Institute, particularly the requirement to carry out independent planning research, lacking since the demise of An Foras Forbartha. Michael Cleary of the chartered surveyors sees the regulator as a welcome watchdog over local authority plans which will increase public confidence.

The best system will be a transparent one with a balance of power between planning officials and politicians representing the citizens.

The new regime can be a fumigation of our planning system. On the otherhand, if the politicians want to fudge it, they can restrict the regulator's powers, under-resource it with staff on secondment and bury it in research projects.

info@paulmcneive.com

Irish Independent