As reported in today’s Irish Times, a judgement in the Commercial Court has found that Minister Gormley acted outside his legislative powers when he intervened in a land-use zoning case in Dun-Laoghaire Rathdown. In April 2009, the County Council voted to rezone a ‘neighbourhood centre’ in Carrickmines to the status of ‘District Centre’ to facilitate the ambitious retail development plans of Tristor developments and developer Michael Cotter, against the advice of the County Manager. In March of this year Minister Gormley directed this rezoning to overturned, arguing that the draft development plan failed to provide an’overall strategy for the proper planning and sustainable development of the area’as required by the Planning and Development Act, 2000.
The court judgement found that the Minister was not entitled to impose his own views on the proper planning and development of a local area. In effect it clearly establishes that local councillors retain significant decision-making powers on planning matters. Whatever about the merits or otherwise of the land-use zonings in question, from the point of view of local democracy and politcal accountability this must be seen as a positive judgement. It would set a poor precedent if the Minister could intervene in any planning issues without a clear case being made that a local decision was in breach of the planning legislation.
It is through Court cases like this that the full implications of the 2010 Planning and Development (Ammendment) Act will be tested. There may a considerable grey area between what is considered a signficant and clear-cut breach of the National Spatial Strategy, Ministerial Guidelines or Regional Planning Guidelines and what is just about acceptable. In practice, political decision-making at the local level will continue to be a significant element of the planning system. Part of living in a democratic society includes accepting the power of elected representatives to make decisions on the behalf of the citizens they represent. There is of course also a responsibility on elected representatives to make informed decisions which fall within the parameters set by legislation and policy and serve the public interest, but that is another story.