As reported by RTE this afternoon, the independent review of planning irregularities in six local authorities, commissioned by former Minister of Environment, John Gormley, has been terminated by the Department of Environment and will be replaced by an internal review instead. The independent review was to be carried out by a panel of independently appointed reviewers (who have been recruited) and was due to focus on planning processes, systems and policies in Dublin and Cork City councils, as well as county councils in Carlow, Meath, Galway and Cork. The reason given by the Department is that the format for the review was considered ‘inappropriate’ by Minister for Environment, Phil Hogan TD and Minister of State for Housing and planning, Willie Penrose, TD.
By ‘inappropriate’ one presumes they mean ‘independent’ with a license to ask difficult and awkward questions. By downgrading the review to an internal process, the Department has left itself open to accusations that it is seeking to narrow the parameters, remit, autonomy, openness and transparency of any review. Whether such accusations are fair or not, presentation and process are important in creating trust, faith and confidence in the system of governance. Downgrading a review does not built such sentiment.
There have been many accusations that planning has not worked as effectively as it should in Ireland and that clientelism, cronyism and in some cases corruption has been at work in the system. An independent review seems entirely warranted to identify issues that need redress and reform. If planning had been working properly, neither the councils involved, nor the Department of Environment, should have anything to fear from such a review. Indeed, if that were the case, the review would highlight examples of best practice that other councils might learn from. The fact that such a review was sought by the last government suggests that this is far from the case. For an interesting account of planning irregulatories in Carlow, one of the councils that is due for review, see this article in The Village. Also, see this article in the Independent.
The present government were elected in part on a promise to address shortcomings in public administration and the political system – planning falls into the domain of both. Cancelling an independent review does not instil faith that such a mandate is being persued. Instead, it suggests that there are issues that need to be buried and glossed over. We got independent reviews into the banking sector. We need one with respect to the planning system to either identify and address shortcomings or to create confidence and faith in the planning system.