Minister Phil Hogan has promised to review the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010 (PDAA), passed into legislation by the Greens in the last government.  The main thing he seems to want to change is the executive power of his own office.  As reported in the Irish Times, Minister Hogan said: “Giving enormous powers to the minister of the day is unhealthy and not the way to deal with planning matters. Each region has different strengths. Centralisation of powers and planning functions in the Custom House is not the way to exploit that potential.”  This seems to follow directly from the programme for government, where it is stated: “We will make the planning process more democratic by amending the 2010 Planning and Development Act to allow for detailed public submissions on zoning, and to rebalance power towards elected representatives.”  That programme of government also states that it wants to abolish the position of County Manager and replace it with that of Chief Executive, with a limited range of executive functions. The primary function of the Chief Executive will be to facilitate the implementation of democratically decided policy.

Without seeing a fuller, more detailed statement on the new government’s intentions with regards to changes to the PDAA 2010 one can only surmise what the logic is here.  At first glance, it looks progressive, placing decision making into a more democratic frame – removing powers from the Minister and County Managers and placing them into the hands of democratically elected officials.  I would be all for such a move if: (1) I felt that the officials understood their obligations and responsibilities with respect to the planning system, (2) they had a competency in basic planning principles and the legal framework guiding their decisions, (3) there was adequate oversight and regulation in the system to stop planning localism, cronyism and clientelism by elected officials, (4) that I felt I could trust councillors to act in the best interests of their counties and country and not follow a path purely designed to get them re-elected and be damned the wider consequences.

A cynic would suggest that the new Ministerial powers were unpopular at the local level because they were used to stop councillors undertaking excessive zoning and giving inappropriate permissions (the result of which led to way too much zoned land and an excess of housing, offices, hotels and retail space).  Local councillors and local TDs want such powers removed so they can get back to business as usual – planning decision making is a key part of their power.  Of course, the Minister could choose not to exercise his executive power, but to leave it on the books in case it is ever needed.  If power is placed back into the hands of councillors without adequate oversights, especially if county managers are going to be simply executive officers and the Custom’s House can’t intervene into poor planning praxis (i.e. two elements of regulation and enforcement are removed), it almost certainly will be needed. There is little to suggest that the system won’t just revert to its former state and practices if oversight is removed, unless other measures are introduced.  And let’s be realistic – it’s a relatively good system on paper, but not in it’s implementation (otherwise we wouldn’t have all the planning issues we presently have with regards to unfinished estates, floodplain development, groundwater pollution, etc).  It’ll be interesting to see if Minister Hogan also cancels the six planning reviews commission by John Gormley presently being undertaken by the Department of suspect planning decisions (as far as I’m aware they have not yet been reported) – the need for such reviews suggest that ministerial powers have value.

He has also said that he is going to introduce a Climate Change Act, which would be very different to that being proposed by the Greens, and also delay any direct elections for Dublin mayor until 2014.

Rob Kitchin