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Planning review finds deficiencies but no evidence of wrongdoing

The Green Party, whose former leader John Gormley announced the review in 2010, said it “beggars belief” that all seven councils came out of the report “squeaky clean”.

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ALTHOUGH A REVIEW published by junior minister Jan O’Sullivan today found a number of deficiencies in the planning system, it said there was no evidence of malfeasance in any of the seven local authorities subject to inquiry.

Speaking at the launch of the review into processes at seven county and city councils, O’Sullivan said that it identified areas of policy and procedure where “greater clarity, consistency and transparency” were required in order to improve the system as a whole.

The report sets out commitments for 12 actions to address the deficiencies identified with an aim to restore public confidence in the Irish planning system. Some of those were recommended with specific reference to various authorities, namely Carlow and Meath county councils and Dublin city council.

The recommendations include the prohibiting landowners or prospective developers from drafting local area plans, implementing consistent application of policy and correcting various applications of planning laws.

A letter will also be issued to planning authorities to remind them to regularly review planning decisions, particularly those that are overturned by An Bord Pleanála, and to take appropriate steps to amend and clarify the policies that governed them.

O’Sullivan also announced the planned appointment of an independent planning consultant who will be required to assess all actions contained in today’s report, as well as propose any additional measured deemed appropriate.

The Minister of State at the Environment Department said she believes these reforms – together with further reforms the Government will bring forward as part of its response to the Mahon Report – will “significantly improve the planning system” and “bring about increased transparency and consistency”.

Commenting on the lack of evidence of wrongdoing at local authority level, the Labour TD noted the ‘now-vindicated’ decision of her predecessor Willie Penrose not to “rush headlong into appointing seven external planning consultants to embark on costly, open-ended inquiries”.

The report was generally welcomed by the Irish Planning Institute, which represents professional planners in Ireland. However, it warned against any plans that would introduce a degree of informality between the appeals body, An Bord Pleanála, and local planning authorities.

The Institute also called for an examination of how planning authorities currently engage with the public and to look at mechanisms to improve the communication of how the planning system works.

Although welcoming the appointment of an independent planning expert and the 12 recommendations to be implemented immediately, An Taisce said the review still falls “far short” of the establishment of an Independent Planning Regulator as called for by the Mahon Tribunal.

The Green Party, whose former leader John Gormley announced the review in 2010, said it “beggars belief” that all seven councils came out of the report “squeaky clean”.

Spokesperson Tom Kivlehan said, “What we are seeing with this Government is no real reform, no transparency and a willingness to cover up past failings that make us fear for the future. Bad planning laid the foundations for our present economic woes and this Government is acting ostrich like and is prepared to learn nothing from past mistakes.”

Kivlehan claims the methodology by which the Department of the Environment seem to have come to the conclusion that there was no abuse of office was that officials from the Department visited senior officials in the Councils for a chat, they asked them a list of questions and that was the sum total of the inquiry.

At the launch, O’Sullivan noted that when this planning review process was initiated by then Minister Gormley he stated that ‘the purpose of the review is not to examine particular planning decisions but to assess the processes and systems that enable such decisions to be made’.

“The review I have published in full today achieves that goal,” she said. “It has assessed how a range of planning authorities dealt with a wide variety of planning issues, has identified current weaknesses in the system and proposed significant reforms that will be implemented. It has also proposed a further independent review of broader themes identified.”

Related: Action on planning inquiries ‘could help stop another property bubble’>

More: The 9 worst councils in Ireland’s planning system>

Read: An Taisce expects more problems in buildings ‘thrown up’ during Celtic Tiger>

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