O’Brien backs Fine Gael plans to overhaul planning process as Greens oppose it

Peter Burke wants to see crackdown on judicial reviews

Housing Minister Darragh O'Brien. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Hugh O’Connell

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has insisted controversial planning reforms proposed by a Fine Gael junior minister “will happen and we are going to make them happen”, despite opposition from his Green Party coalition partners.

Mr Varadkar told the Fine Gael parliamentary party last night that judicial reviews were “too frequent” and “holding up” many housing and infrastructure projects, referring to an “industry” built around legal objections to planning decisions.

He was speaking after the Irish Independent revealed that the Green Party is opposing the overhaul of planning laws being proposed by Minister of State Peter Burke, who has said housing delivery could be accelerated by a crackdown on what he labelled an “industry” of judicial reviews.

The Fine Gael minister wants to reduce the stages at which a court review can be sought, place limits on the types of entities that can take legal challenges, and introduce new cost-capping arrangement.

Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien has backed the Fine Gael plans to cut down on legal red tape around planning. He has asked the Oireachtas Housing Committee to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny on amendments to planning law that would reform the judicial review process.

But Environment and Transport Minister Eamon Ryan does not support the plans, with the Green Party chair of the Oireachtas Housing Committee Steven Matthews describing them as “unacceptable”.

Mr Matthews claimed the measures would “exclude people from seeking justice” in the planning process.

In a letter to Mr Matthews last week, Mr O’Brien said he would be “grateful” if pre-legislative scrutiny could be initiated on the General Scheme of Housing and Planning and Development Bill 2019 (Judicial Review Reform).

The Fianna Fáil minister said he was open to reconsidering certain aspects of the legislation, which was first proposed by Fine Gael in the last minority government, including proposed limits on environmental non-governmental organisations taking court challenges and the caps on legal costs.

“Further to the pre-legislative scrutiny phase, I would hope to progress to priority drafting and publication of the bill in the next Oireachtas session with a view to enactment by the summer,” Mr O’Brien wrote.

He believes there are potential efficiencies in the planning process that need to be examined, but wants to find a balance with the right of people to object to planning decisions.

A Fianna Fáil source said Mr Burke’s interview with the Irish Independent on Monday in which he outlined his plans was “not helpful” because of “sensitivities that we had been managing quite well that became more difficult when this came out”.

Fine Gael sources claim the Greens, through Mr Matthews, have been delaying consideration of the bill by the Housing Committee for several months – a claim Mr Matthews has denied.

The Greens have argued that Ireland’s planning laws as currently constituted already work against those objecting to projects on environmental grounds. A Green Party source referred to comments by senior EU environmental official Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea last week that Ireland is the most expensive member state in which to take an environmental legal challenge and criticism of an “increasingly aggressive stance” taken against environmental campaigners.

Mr Matthews said: “I don’t think it’s acceptable to deny people access to justice or the legal system.”

Mr Ryan has said reforms to the judicial review process should be considered as part of the Attorney-General’s comprehensive review of planning laws which is due in September.

Elsewhere, Mr Varadkar has asked officials to look at eight road projects that have stalled due to a lack of funding. He told the Oireachtas Enterprise Committee he wanted to determine which roads should be prioritised for economic reasons before engaging with Mr Ryan on the issue.

It comes after reported tensions in Fine Gael over Mr Ryan’s decision to exclude the roads from funding announced before Christmas.

Some TDs at a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, including Cork East TD David Stanton,questioned why they should continue to support the Government.