Thursday 19 April 2018

Doonbeg planning row: Government seeks to ban debate on planning in council meetings

Taoiseach visits United States of America
Taoiseach visits United States of America
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

COUNCILLORS have been ordered not to discuss planning applications at council meetings as it could "undermine due process and exert undue influence".

The Department of Housing has told local authorities that discussions around proposed developments could "undermine" the planning process, and mislead the public into believing that elected members, and not officials, decide on whether schemes are approved.

It has ordered a ban on applications being discussed which has led to disquiet among councillors, particularly after it emerged that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made representations on behalf of US President Donald Trump in relation to a proposed wind farm in Co Clare.

"You have to look at this in the context of a department which has consistently tried to destroy local government," Dublin City Labour councillor Dermot Lacey says. "Leo's situation with Donald Trump was a private phone call. We're looking for a public discussion. I believe we should have a policy of no co-operation with this."

The letter, issued last week, comes amid moves by the Government to restrict planning objections for certain projects, such as data centres, to people with "sufficient interest", such as local residents. But Mr Varadkar's actions have also raised concerns about whether there are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure the planning system is protected from interference, particularly in light of our chequered planning history.

While there are excellent examples of town and city planning like Westport in Co Mayo, the country is festooned with sprawling housing developments with little or no public facilities. That's why it's so important, particularly in the wake of the Mahon Tribunal, that the system is open to scrutiny.

While Government TDs insist Mr Varadkar was not attempting to influence policy, his actions were inappropriate. The planning file, which is on public record, sets out the status of an application, and could have been consulted. Of course, having sat on Fingal County Council for three years from 2004 he should have known how the system worked.

Despite being approved by Government in March 2013, we still don't have a planning regulator. In the meantime, the argument over building heights continues, housing applications are approved despite not complying with regulations around density, and just this week we learn an application to build homes near St Anne's Park, Raheny, is being opposed by Dublin City Council because the site's zoning doesn't allow housing and the development could affect geese - yet permission has been sought under a fast-track process.

While only 2pc of the country's land mass is under settlement, it's vital to ensure what we build is appropriate.

It's easy to say build homes in a housing crisis, but it should not be at any cost. It's all the more reason why the planning system should be robust and transparent, with no back doors for those in positions of power.

Irish Independent

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