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Probe into council's 'irregular' planning decisions

A MAJOR investigation will be launched into Carlow County Council after planning irregularities were uncovered during an official audit.

The Irish Independent can today reveal a number of complaints have been made to Environment Minister John Gormley about the council, which will be subjected to an in-depth probe in the coming weeks.

It is the first named council to be investigated under a fresh clampdown into planning issues.

The move follows an audit carried out last year, which identified "corporate governance issues" in the planning department, including the use of "special development contributions" and planning permissions being granted by default because they were not processed within the statutory eight weeks.

It also raised concerns about the use of planning enforcement powers and the disposal of council-owned land without a valuation being carried out.

The statutory audit, which was carried out by the Department of the Environment's Local Government Audit Service, raises major concerns about how the council complies with its legal obligations.

It also addressed a 2008 High Court settlement that the authority reached with a developer, which is having a "serious impact" on its finances.

The local authority ordered a building company to construct the Eastern Relief Road around part of the town, even though it did not own all of the required land. The last 1.5km of the main Carlow to Dublin road was left unfinished and dubbed the "road to nowhere".

Only after the developer, Nessleside Builders, sued the council was the matter settled and the road finally completed.

The audit shows:

  • The original agreement to build the road was never reviewed by the council's legal team.
  • Land was transferred to the company as part of the settlement without a valuation being carried out.
  • The cost of settling the case was €11.3m.
  • Auditors also raised concerns that the council had borrowed money to buy housing land during 2008 which could be worth less than the value of the loans.

Last night a spokesman for Mr Gormley confirmed that official complaints had been made and an investigation would be carried out.

The move comes after the minister announced at the Green Party conference last month that local authorities would be subject to inspections where concerns were raised.

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"Carlow is going to be one of the counties examined as part of the planning review announced by the minister," the spokesman said. "A group of outside experts will review a number of local authorities in relation to specific policies. The minister has received complaints about Carlow -- specifically in relation to planning."

The damning audit says that concerns were raised with management about the planning department.

"During the course of my audit I have identified corporate governance issues relating to the operation of the planning department," the auditor noted.

"These include referral of planning files to other directorates, the application of special development contributions, enforcement and safeguarding local authority assets, statutory referrals, extensions of time relating to quarries and default planning permissions. These matters have been specifically brought to the attention of management."

In reply, county manager Tom Barry told auditors a review would be immediately undertaken.

Carlow County Council was not available for comment.

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