August 2011        

Local planning stinks!

For years we have believed that planning at the local government level has been riddled with bad practice, cronyism, dodgy dealing, and downright corruption. And in recent years a steady exposé of such practices has given proof to that conviction and examples of the methods employed.
     These include claims from home-owners that they were “encouraged” to make payments in the region of €10,000 to corrupt councillors to obtain planning permission for one-off housing, with the payment being distributed among a small circle of politicians and planners. It has also been reported that in some cases planning decisions are made by a small group of planners, with little or no record of these meetings and the loss of some records where these were said to exist.
     And take the case of planning permissions being granted by non-action.
     These concern the case of developers seeking to undertake controversial developments. Despite possible and actual objections, some developers have been fortunate enough to obtain default planning permission. This happens when a council neglects to attend to a planning application within the time limit. Then the High Court can be asked to grant permission—which it typically does—and this becomes known as a default permission. Where a default arises there is no chance of appeal at the national level, no recourse to An Bord Pleanála, and so a local decision cannot be overturned.
     Such default permission was obtained recently in Carlow to redevelop the Royal Hotel after its demolition and replace it with a multi-storey car park. The original developer of the site, Tom McNamara, sold the site to a prominent developer, Stephen Murphy of Milltown Engineering. After a delay, default planning permission was granted by the High Court in 2008 with effect from 23 April 2007.
     The result for the developer was the green light to proceed with the car park, and the bonus tax breaks that came with it. For the people of Carlow the result was the loss of a landmark central hotel with easy access, used by all, including community and campaign groups, the loss of local jobs, and the destruction of part of the centre of the town as it gradually gave way to super-pubs and night-clubs, contributing to the destruction of the local community. The needs of speculative capital came before the needs of the ordinary people.
     The matter was touched on by the Quinlivan Report in November 2010, which noted that Carlow County Council had conceded the error and that a resolution was being sought. Needless to say, such a resolution did not include rebuilding the hotel.
     In most cases the blame for these default planning permissions was dumped on student or trainee planners.
     Last year, before the general election, the outgoing minister for the environment, John Gormley, ordered a parallel report to Quinlivan. As usual, Gormley was late in acting, as his colleague Mary White seemed well aware of events in Carlow. When first elected to Carlow County Council in 1999 she raised—for what is believed to be the first (and last) time—the spectre of local council corruption, albeit in housing, to cries of “shame!” and ritual condemnation and gestures of shock and horror from fellow-councillors.
     However, this parallel review was recently scuppered by the present minister, Phil Hogan, who represents Carlow-Kilkenny. Instead he merely ordered an internal review: the council gets to investigate itself.
     One local activist remarked: “It seems that the only leaks Hogan is interested in plugging are those that expose the dirt in council planning.”

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