This time last year, in the post Mahon Tribunal media frenzy, the news that the High Court had quashed part of the Internal Planning Review of alleged irregularities in six local authorities published by the Department of the Environment would be grabbing the headlines. Unfortunately, the lack of media and public interest speaks volumes as to how far down the political agenda that planning reform has fallen. Back then there seemed to be a keen consciousness of the central role that planning deregulation had played in the economic downfall of the State and the need for proper long-term planning as a path to recovery.

We have blogged a number of times on this saga (See here and here). The review was initially announced by former Minister John Gormley as an independent process to be undertaken by an external panel of experts under Section 255 of the Planning Acts. However, on coming into office the current government quickly downgraded the review to an internal investigation to be undertaken by departmental staff ostensibly on the grounds of cost. Criticisms of a whitewash were branded at the time by Minister Jan O’Sullivan as “a smokescreen created by the unholy alliance of a thoroughly discredited Fianna Fail party and the man mercifully released by the Irish electorate from his “asylum” into the political wilderness – John Gormley”.

The Department’s Internal Review predictably found that the allegations made by a number of parties, including An Taisce, did not amount to systemic corruption in the planning system. Now, almost three years later, we are back to square one as Mr. Gerard Convie, a former senior planner with Donegal County Council who had made a series of complaints in respect of alleged planning irregularities in the county, was successful in his application to the High Court in having the findings of the review in relation to County Donegal quashed. Mr Convie also won €25,000 damages, costs and an apology.

The present government was elected in part on a promise to address shortcomings in public administration and the political system – to change the way in which government operated. The final report of the Mahon Tribunal clearly pointed to the now largely self-evident fact that corruption, cronyism and malpractice permeated every aspect of the Irish planning system and was allowed to continue unabated. While recognising the continuing and ongoing important reforms of the planning system, the botched manner in which this review has been handled simply serves to highlight that, far from the election of this government being a ‘democratic revolution’, little, if anything, has changed.

The unfortunate reality is that, in light of this High Court case, the Internal Planning Review no longer has any credibility and should be withdrawn. The episode has also done nothing to assist in rebuilding public confidence in the planning system which is so badly needed. Minister O’Sullivan subsequently stated that “she was determined to uphold the integrity of the planning system” and “It is vital that scrutiny and evaluation of the planning process is not only fair and objective, but is also seen to be so by the public” . She also announced that a new independent review under Section 255, as originally proposed. And round and round we go.

Gavin Daly

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