A senior housing official has accused residents' associations of misrepresenting the views of neighbours and counting vacant homes and dead people to boost the size of their support.
Paul Hogan, chief planner at the Department of Housing, was defending proposed changes to the rules for taking legal challenges against planning decisions.
“Going back to my own experience in local authorities, it wasn’t uncommon for people to misrepresent the views of certain residents in some cases, to speak on their behalf when they wouldn’t necessarily agree,” he said.
“In other situations, to speak on behalf of vacant houses where it was understood that could be another person [who agreed with them]. Also deceased people, which caused great offence in some instances.
“This was not a one-off. This was a reasonably regular occurrence for very large-scale development that attracted multiple or significant concern.
“So it can get quite confusing as to who is talking on behalf of who, who is representing what people’s views and who is included.”
The proposed changes are in the Planning and Development Bill, which would create extra criteria for residents’ groups to meet before being able to seek judicial reviews in planning cases.
They would be required to form companies, have at least 10 members, be in existence for at least a year, be active on the issues at hand for that time and take a formal resolution in relation to the court action.
Alternatively, people would have to enter the court as individuals who could show they would be materially affected by the proposed development.
Mr Hogan told TDs and senators at the Oireachtas Housing Committee that the intention was not to deprive anyone of access to the courts but to clarify the legal standing of those taking cases.
He said this was because the bill would introduce a new provision for the State to pay the costs of groups and individuals taking challenges where their arguments were assessed as legitimate.
“In providing a costs scheme where everybody is guaranteed access to justice in terms of judicial review and to have their costs paid by the State, it’s necessary for those benefiting from that to be clearly identifiable and named,” he said.
The proposed changes have been criticised by residents and community groups, environmental organisations, the Law Society and the planning and environmental barristers committee group within the Bar Council.
Officials clarified for the committee that a group of individually named people from a residents’ group could take a judicial review without the group having to be formally constituted as a company.
They said they were also reviewing the requirement that a formal resolution be taken, because this could take 21 days under company law and cause delays.
Mary Jones, of the department’s planning legislation review group, said an alternative wording would be considered, such as requiring an assurance that proceedings were being taken with the knowledge or consent of the members.
The officials agreed to prepare a clear statement and flowchart setting out exactly what was proposed in terms of who could take a judicial review and how to prove legal standing.
“There is still a lot of confusion around this,” said chair Stephen Matthews.