Minister for Housing and Planning, Jan O’Sullivan, yesterday published the findings and recommendations of the internal review into allegations of serial malpractice by seven local authorities in administering the planning system. The report comes a full two years after an independent review was first announced by former Minister John Gormley.
The Department’s analysis found that the allegations did not amount to systemic corruption in the planning system. Contrast this to the findings of the independent Mahon Tribunal earlier this year, which found that the Irish planning system was systematically corrupt reaching the highest level of Government, and the complete lack of value of carrying out an internal review becomes blindingly clear. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is the line ministry with responsibility for local authorities in Ireland and it is inconceivable that a review by the Department would make serious findings against their colleagues in local authorities.
The review finds that there was “no basis in the claims against named planning authority personnel, given that such claims were not backed up by the evidence cited” and that there were “concerns regarding the quality, completeness and objectivity of the evidence provided”. While it is apparent that the Department met with senior local authority personnel to discuss each of the complaints made, it is also apparent from the report that the Department did not meet with each of the complainants. As a result, the review cannot be considered impartial. In fact, the choice of language used in the dismissal of some of the complaints borders on the derisory. It is also unclear as to why the report recommends the appointment of independent expert to review the recommendations in the report when clearly this is the remit of the Department.
The fact is that there is really nothing new in this review. According to Minister Gormley, this report was largely complete as far back as November 2009 and informed his decision to proceed with an independent review. While the current government has steadfastly insisted that the review was not shelved or downgraded upon their coming in to office, it is much more likely that the Government was jolted from passivity into action as a result of the furore that followed the publication of the Mahon Tribunal Report. This raises some serious questions as to the political priority attached to planning reform by the current Government.
In defence of the Department the review was never intended as a ‘witch-hunt’ but an evaluation of processes and procedures. It is also unclear as to the actual value of independent reviews given the experience of the Nyberg, Regling & Watson and Honohan reports on financial governance. These reports created considerable media interest, but little tangible action. However, the only independent planning review of a local authority to date, the Quinlivan Report in County Carlow, revealed some very serious instances of malpractice and cronyism and this is very unlikely to be unique to Carlow.
The Department places much greater emphasis on working within the existing structures to prompt incremental reform and, to be fair, major reforms of the planning system have been implemented in the past few years and significant unseen work is on-going. While each of the complaints are roundly rejected, the report concludes that they do they raise serious matters ranging from maladministration to inconsistency in application of planning policy or non-adherence to forward plans such as development plans. It is clear that there is, at the very least, a significant element of truth in each of the complaints as the report sets out twelve actions that are intended to address current deficiencies in the planning system including some important administrative and legislative reforms. Chief amongst these proposed reforms is the banning of the practice of local area plans being prepared by developers and the recommendation that all material contraventions of development plans by local authorities be vetted by An Bord Pleanála, further indicating a significant lack of trust in the decision making powers of local authority members. The report also recommends new procedures for achieving greater consistency between the decisions of local authorities and the independent An Bord Pleanála which, in many high profile cases, have been at considerable odds.
There can be no doubt that the dysfunctional nature of the Irish planning system over the past decade contributed enormously to the current fiscal, social and environmental problems of the State. The true value of this report may be simply to further strengthen in the consciousness of the public and policy makers of the need to maintain momentum for deepened planning reform. However, the key litmus test of the commitment of this Government will be the forthcoming White Paper on Local Government reform, property taxation and their response to the recommendations of the Mahon Tribunal, particularly the establishment of an independent planning regulator.