Tuesday, 12 June 2012
Private Members' Business
Independent Inquiries into Planning Irregularities: Motion
That Dáil Éireann:
- rejects the Government's decision to terminate independent inquiries into planning irregularities in seven local authorities in June 2011;
- denies the Government's excuse that no work had been done on progressing the inquiries;
- accepts that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government inherited a completed tendering process for the selection of an external panel and letters of appointment ready to be issued to members of the panel;
- dismisses the Government's claim that an internal review process would be more effective given that internal reviews by county managers had already been completed in response to ministerial requests;
- strongly disagrees with comments that the claims involved in the planning inquiries were 'spurious, mostly';
- notes with concern planning irregularities in other local authority areas not covered in the original inquiries such as Waterford as outlined in the recent High Court corruption case against a former Fine Gael councillor;
- regrets the failure of the Government to progress these reports over their 15 months in office;
- notes that all of these councils under review, with the exception of Donegal, are primarily controlled by Fine Gael and the Labour Party;
- acknowledges and regrets the findings of the Mahon tribunal into certain planning matters;
- recognises the need, in view of the Moriarty and Mahon tribunals, to re-build public confidence in the planning and political systems; and
- calls on the Government to re-open independent inquiries into planning irregularities in the local authorities in question.
There have been major changes since this morning on this issue, which I welcome. I understand that at 6.45 p.m. today, the Government published the internal report.
Well, it was not available. We only got it at 6.45 p.m. The report must have been sent all around the world; we were looking for it all afternoon but could not find it. It became available on the Internet only at 6.45 p.m.
I welcome the publication of the report. Above all else, we need to have confidence, and the public needs to have confidence, in the planning system. Anything that undermines this confidence does no service to the State.
During the term of the last Government, the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government set up an internal review into planning in six local authority areas - to which I understand Donegal was later added - where complaints of irregularities were reported. When the internal reviews were completed, it was decided to have an external examination of the case based on the internal report so that the conclusions from the internal report would be externally validated. The previous Government had gone a long way down the road to appointing the external panel, with the tendering process complete and letters of appointment ready to issue to members of the panel. I know the Minister of State has not been in the job long, so I will not hold her personally responsible for what happened, but it seems that when the Government came into power it sat on the issue. It never appointed the external panel; in fact, it did not really do anything about the investigation at all. Thankfully for all concerned, Fianna Fáil continued to pursue the issue and has forced the Government into action by raising it regularly, particularly in today's motion.
A year and a quarter after coming into power, and two years since this process started, we have at last received the report, at 6.45 p.m. today. It is now 7.30 p.m. and, as the Minister of State will appreciate, I have not had an opportunity to peruse the report, which I understand is quite a lengthy one. I am glad the Minister took the decision to publish the report. However, if it were not for the tenacity of Fianna Fáil on this matter, it would not have been published today. In fact, it might never have been published.
There is a saying that we should take into account more in this country, across Government areas and in administration in general: justice delayed is justice denied. Two years was more than adequate to produce this report, and I believe justice was delayed in this case. The Minister of State might nod her head to indicate whether I am right in understanding that no malfeasance was found by the Department and that the local authorities have been cleared of any serious wrongdoing. Is that correct?
I also understand a whole series of recommendations has been issued, some specific to certain local authorities and some general. I commend this, and I look forward to having an opportunity to read the report. As a Deputy and former county councillor from Galway, I have always felt the planning procedures followed by Galway County Council were good, but I will read with interest what the report has to say about Galway County Council. If the complaints by An Taisce about Galway County Council related to the rate of turning over of planning permissions for one-off houses by An Bord Pleanála, I believe - I am sure the Ceann Comhairle would agree - that the judgment and the procedures followed by the county council are more consistent than those of An Bord Pleanála. However, as I said, I will read the report with great interest.
I would like to make a suggestion to the Minister of State. If the Government was able to make recommendations to local authorities, the report must have been ready for some time. This report should now be forwarded to the Joint Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht for further consideration and so that it can make recommendations on foot of it. For nearly two years, a cloud has hung over local authorities, as people did believe there could have been malfeasance. It is important that Departments realise that when issues such as this arise, they should be investigated and a report issued as speedily as possible. Prevarication is a bad thing, and it is never excusable. I hope that when the Minister of State comes to speak on this motion, she will give a full explanation to the House of the reasons for the delay and dithering in dealing with this issue. I hope she will cover the term of office of the Minister's predecessor, and that she will outline the role, if any, of the senior Minister in pushing - or not pushing - for this matter to be brought to a speedy conclusion.
Many people were wondering whether there was a reluctance to bring the matter to a conclusion. Why was there such seeming hesitancy about this? If it was because the Government just could not be bothered, that is a grave injustice to the people who are under examination. It is also important to ask whether, with all the reform and new governance we talked about, it is possible for Departments to carry out examinations such as this in an expeditious manner. Given the relationship between the Department and local authorities, an independent review would be better, particularly as there were previous internal reports, including one, I understand, in 2010. I ask the Minister to consider external validation of the report, as that would add to public confidence on this matter.
Under the previous Government, I served on the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, which did two exceptional things. One was its production of the review of energy; on a subject that caused more slagging than enlightenment, we achieved clarity and managed to agree on a coherent position. The other instance in which the committee performed well was in its consideration of the Carragher report into RTE. It is not a committee's role to establish the facts. Having received a report on the facts, however, committees can play an extraordinary role in examining a report, bringing in witnesses, which in this case would include An Taisce and the local authorities, and making recommendations to the relevant Minister on the actions that should ensue. If the Oireachtas is serious about committees and the work they can do, it might consult the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Communications, Natural Resource and Agriculture, Deputy Doyle, who did exceptional work in getting the committee to examine issues in depth and come up with balanced and reasonable conclusions. If such work is done in the public forum of a committee, we will increase the public's confidence in the ability of the Oireachtas to look coldly at the facts and reach consensus in a non-partisan manner. Rather than take a confrontational approach we should hold robust debates with a view to agreeing a solution which appears to be the obvious conclusion after examination and debate. By referring reports to a committee for open and fair examination, we would also help the public to understand the issues raised.
This approach would benefit the two Government parties in particular because six of the seven councils in question are dominated by Fine Gael and the Labour Party. There are those who believe the Government's reluctance to deal with this issue is connected to that dominance.
Apparently that belief has been blown out of the water by the report. It was in the Government's interest to bring the matter to a conclusion. If, as I hope, the report proves that politicians were not central to the events described, it is time we knew that. I have pride in our role as politicians. We have been much maligned and, as the Government is now starting to learn, the suspicion of politicians is not directed solely at Deputies on this side of the House. The criticism of politicians by other politicians, as if the vast majority of us do not do a genuine day's, and in many cases night's, work on behalf of the people, does our profession no service. By publishing this report and allowing a robust debate that examines all the issues, we can clear the air and enhance the role of politicians in this country.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this motion and I commend Deputy Niall Collins and others for bringing it before the House. In June 2010 the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley, announced an independent inquiry into planning irregularities in six local authorities. In January 2011, six planning consultants were selected to carry out inquiries into the alleged planning irregularities. The consultants were independent and were to carry out a full review. In June 2011, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, stood down the consultants and downgraded the inquiry to an internal review.
This was done even though internal reviews by departmental officials had been carried out in November 2009. The abandonment of the external process despite the fact that a framework had already been put in place indicates that he had an ulterior motive for his actions. I had hoped he would be in the Chamber to explain his decision but the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, is more than capable of addressing the issue and I hope she will provide an explanation. The most appropriate way to investigate these issues is by means of an independent review because there are close links between the Department and local authorities. The appointment of senior positions in local authorities, such as county managers, have to be sanctioned by the Minister. It is not good practice to allow people from within the system to carry out reviews but clearly the Minister believed otherwise.
The Minister of State published the Department's internal report today. She appears to have decided to make a pre-emptive strike given that the motion was coming before the House tonight. Its publication was clearly rushed in an effort to spare the blushes of Government backbenchers when it came time to vote against an effort to restore public faith in the planning process.
From what we have seen of the report thus far, it is clearly another whitewash. It was initiated with the sole purpose of rolling back on the proper scrutiny offered by a series of time limited and fully costed independent investigations. Internal reviews were carried out by the Department in 2009 and 2010 on foot of complaints about planning practices in local authorities. While other local authorities may also merit investigation the then Minister, Deputy Gormley, sought internal reviews into six and subsequently ordered independent investigations on the basis of the findings of the reviews.
I look forward to hearing the Minister of State outline what new information may have come from the reviews. It is also important that we know who carried them out, who acted as liaison between the Department and local authorities and who supplied the information to the Department.
The departure from the previous reports which prompted Mr. Gormley to initiate independent reviews and the lack of hard findings indicate that the internal report cannot be taken seriously. It sets out 12 recommendations which will be overseen by a consultant hired by the Minister of State. Clearly she believes her Department is capable of carrying out a sensitive internal review of councils which are dominated by Government parties and have been unable to implement reform. Why is she not in favour of independent experts? She defends the recommendations as representing a comprehensive programme of reform but in reality they are shallow and cosmetic changes. For example, the Department issued a circular letter to every local authority reminding it of the law. The planners and the director of planning in my county are aware of the law and how they should operate within the law. I wonder why the Minister is sending out circulars to remind them of the law. If we had an independent inquiry, we might have a different response from the Minister and the Government but the Minister thought differently.
Another shallow recommendation is that there should be a meeting once a year between the Minister and the County and City Managers Association. From my time on local authorities and from hearing about it in recent years, I know every Minister meets city and county managers on a regular basis. There is nothing new about it. The county and city managers meeting with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government does not constitute comprehensive reform. It is a good idea that Ministers and county and city managers meet on a regular basis because the majority of work in local authorities is handed down from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, as is the money. One expects a two-way process between the Minister and his officials, and the local authorities.
It was not the irregularities in planning but incompetence during the boom years. During the Celtic tiger era, up to 6,000 planning applications were dealt with by Wexford County Council. I doubt the council had the planning staff to deal with the applications in a comprehensive way. The council had to make planning decisions within eight weeks unless it sought an extension of time. It was under pressure to ensure planning decisions were made quickly and that the best decision was made.
Local authorities refused planning permission on the grounds of local knowledge, the environment and on the grounds that the development was not suitable to the area before An Bord Pleanála overruled the decisions of local authorities. It is regarded as an independent body but in overruling the refusals of local authorities and granting permission it left much to be desired. An Taisce did not want one-off rural housing built and objected strenuously in Wexford and elsewhere to one-off houses on environmental grounds and on any grounds on which they could object. They wanted to drive everyone into the urban centres and to downgrade rural communities. It caused major problems with the lack of population in rural communities.
The Minister of State should consider reverting to independent reviews to be carried out by consultants in an independent manner. The report carried out by the Department is not independent or comprehensive and it does nothing to bring about expertise or methods so that people believe planning is being carried out in the correct way. The report is a whitewash. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan, is responsible and should leave this report to one side and carry out the local authority reports initiated by John Gormley. The report is not in the best interests of planning for the future in the country.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and I compliment Deputy Niall Collins for formulating this Private Members' motion. It is a matter of fundamental importance to the House. We have seen the negative effects of planning decisions taken for the wrong reasons over the past decades. We have seen the impact on the built environment and the way in which politics is viewed by many citizens. It is of fundamental importance that the work of this House or a Government, of whatever hue or background, is done in a way to regain the trust and confidence of the Irish people in the planning process. That might require the Minister of State going a step further than she would have wanted or a step further than necessary. If that is what it takes to remove the perception of a culture of corruption or the potential for corruption, poor planning and lack of adherence to standards, it is a step worth taking. The Minister of State is constrained by Government decisions and her position in the Department but she must fight her colleagues to ensure the perception is no longer the prevailing belief by the end of her time in office.
I do not stand here as part of a party that is whiter than white. We have all had councillors and people within our parties-----
Perhaps not all but some. The entire process of planning has been fundamentally undermined and we must all raise the bar well above what is necessary in order to rebuild trust. It does not suggest we must throw snowballs across the House but if we work collectively and constructively and move away from political bickering, we can do it in a manner that will serve us well. That is why I am disappointed that, on 28 June 2011, the Minister abandoned independent inquiries into planning irregularities-----
-----in the councils of Dublin, Cork city, Carlow, County Cork, Galway and Donegal. I refer to the perception created by the bundling of the announcement with other announcements. The other reports related to the amalgamation of Limerick County Council and Limerick City Council and Tipperary North County Council and Tipperary South County Council. The effect of the decision to abandon independent inquiries was overshadowed by the shift in local government structures but the impact was no less profound. It reminds me of one the spin doctors associated with the Clinton era. In his memoirs, he said the policy of the Clinton White House was to put out bad news on Thursday. They packaged all the rubbish together and hoped it would get lost. For a process as fundamental and important to the State as the planning process, and one that is totally debased, it was a poor decision by the Government and the Minister to try to camouflage what appears to be putting to one side thorough investigations into irregularities identified over a period of time. It was a cynical move by what - it could be argued - is a cynical Government to bury a story it did not want to emerge.
Once again, the Government replicated its tactics with the cynical ploy to spare the backbenchers the embarrassment of exposing hollow promises on cleaning up politics. The report appears to be rushed. I ask the Minister of State to help me.
The only reason the report appeared today is because the motion was tabled. It would have been helpful if the Government accepted the situation and used the time available to respond to the motion to put the report before the House. The Government took the opportunity to hold a press conference today and share it with the media in order to undermine the motion.
I have no problem in principle with that. This Government was going to do things differently, with a far greater level of transparency and it was going to clean up the act. However, it is politics as usual from where I am sitting. Instead of independent inquiries carried out by external experts with no vested interest in the structures involved, the Government decided on a structure of internal departmental inquiries. These inquiries were undertaken on seven local authorities, six of which were under the control of Fine Gael and Labour.
These were internal inquiries carried out by a Government on local authorities controlled by the Government parties. This allows for a perception to continue which undermines the confidence in the very process. I am not suggesting that the Minister of State does not wish to ensure that the prevailing view of planning is less than what it should be. I accept her bona fides in this regard. However, if there is to be a shift in culture then the Minister of State will need to do things differently from how they were done in the past.
I accept that. However, if we are to get to the bottom of the problem in a collective manner and if we are to move on from the corrosive manner of dealing with planning in the past, we must turn over a new leaf and do things differently.
I suggest that the Minister of State's Government is not supporting her in her desire to do so. How are members of the public to place their faith in an internal inquiry into local authorities controlled by the Government parties? One cannot but think that the Government, which had declared that the matters involved were "spurious mostly", as the Minister, Deputy Hogan, said, had already come to a decision before the reviews were launched. Furthermore, the Government has conducted another internal review on top of the previous internal reviews which had been ordered by the former Minister, John Gormley. There are reviews on top of reviews. Why not go with the process set out by the previous Government? I do not think there is anyone in this House or outside who has anything but the height of respect for the integrity of John Gormley and his party with regard to this issue. For that reason I would have thought that there was a file or a series of files in place to allow the Minister of State to take the high moral ground, if that is what she wished to do. It would certainly have levelled the concerns and would have dealt with the perception to which I referred.
It was on the back of these internal reviews of the problems in the planning system that the Minister felt it was necessary for an independent review staffed by external experts to identify the systematic problems and put forward recommendations. What was different about this internal review from the ones that had been completed in 2010? Why did the then Minister feel that their findings were serious enough to merit an external review while this review did not?
Another lie peddled by the Government is that the previous Government had done nothing to progress the creation of an independent planning inquiry. This view has been coming from backbenchers in an effort to support the position of the Minister, Deputy Hogan. In my view, in today's report the Government misleadingly states that the panel was not formally established. On "Prime Time" last March, the Minister of State, Deputy Alan Kelly, stated that then Minister, John Gormley, had done nothing to progress the external reviews. In reality, the Government had made significant progress in setting up the panel of independent external experts to probe the planning complaints. By January 2011, a panel of experts had undertaken a thorough tendering process and the Department had written to six planning experts to notify them of their appointment.
The excuse that nothing had been done is completely refuted by the freedom of information material which my party has uncovered. It was a lazy excuse by a Government looking to cover up its own efforts to avoid the issue and to kick it to touch. This is disappointing. The matters dealt with by the inquiries were spurious, as the Minister, Deputy Hogan, put it at the time. Deputy Joanna Tuffy was the environment spokesperson for the Labour Party and she stated it was unclear what Mr. Gormley had hoped to achieve by carrying out the review of planning policy in the six councils. Taking into consideration the matters involved it is clear what an independent review hoped to achieve. The results of poor planning decisions are visible across the country in ghost estates and flood plains. I say this in the acceptance that much of this is not associated with the Minister of State's party but rather is a combination of a whole series of mishaps across the political process. It is a fact that Fianna Fáil has not controlled too many local authorities over the past 20 years and certainly over the past 15 years, when many of the decisions were taken.
There is plenty of evidence. There are plenty of people living in houses built on flood plains and in areas without proper transport links. Poor planning decisions arose as a result of land holders going to councillors and demanding rezoning of their land. This is quite apart from those cases where it has been proven that money changed hands. Much of the time it was done on a whim, on the basis of an approach from a landowner. In many cases there were no corrupt payments, rather these were poor planning decisions and the decisions made by planners were overturned. If the Minister is saying that Fine Gael councillors have a clean slate with regard to the particular issues I have raised, then we would need to spend a lot of time teasing out the issue, location by location.
I think the House can agree on a number of issues in this motion. Planning and development issues coming before local authority members is the root cause of most of the headaches for many years since housing and economic development took off. Striking the balance between public representation and good decision-making in planning is always a significant challenge. Even allowing for the most suitably crafted area development plans in the world, there is still pressure on the system and on the elected members to grant planning permission here, there and the other place-----
-----and to grant planning permission for development. Any of these decisions taken in isolation may seem fine but if they are to fit into a particular development framework in a county, a local authority area or a town council area, the elements that need to be considered are what constitutes good planning and this is when the difficulties arise.
The core of the problem is that once the asset value of land is changed from agricultural to developmental use, then the decision, whether under section 4 or section 140 or a decision to be taken by the membership of the council when reviewing the county development plan, will inevitably result in trouble.
I hope we can learn from the experience of the past 20 years so that in the future we will have a decision-making process to deal with these issues and which will strike a reasonable balance between the obligations of the public representative on one hand and what constitutes good planning on the other hand. However, we must learn from the mistakes of the past. If there were irregularities in six or seven local authorities in this instance - I am not immediately familiar with any of them - or varying degrees of irregularities, these need to be examined and there must be openness and transparency. We must tell the world and its wife exactly what went on in these places.
When the Minister comes to review this general area, he must be able to learn from the bad experiences of the past in order to ensure that we avoid those pitfalls in the future.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Dail Eireann" and substitute the following:
— the planning review to assess the application of planning legislation, policy and guidance within the development plan and development management systems at local level and to inform further policy development in these areas has been finalised and its findings have now been published in full;
— the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government with special responsibility for housing and planning has made clear her commitment to implement the actions recommended in the review report including independent expert assessment of the report itself and its findings; and
— the review was not, at any point, terminated by the Government, therefore the question of its reinstatement did not arise;
commends the Government's initiative to instruct the Department to undertake the comprehensive planning review, rather than pursue the lengthy and costly route of appointing seven independent consultants to undertake the same task as contemplated by the previous Government;
is confident that the actions recommended in the planning review report will improve the planning system, ensuring greater transparency and consistency across all planning authorities;
welcomes the intention to appoint an independent consultant to review the recommendations contained in the planning review report, and also to consider the broader themes identified in the report and to report to the Minister with additional recommendations as appropriate;
acknowledges the Government's commitment to restoring public confidence in the planning system and to undoing the damage done to the reputation of the planning system by past actions and incidents of corruption; and
supports the Government's commitment to implement the recommendations contained in the planning review report and also welcomes the Government's commitment to act comprehensively on the recommendations contained in the report of the Mahon tribunal."
As the Minister of State with responsibility for planning and housing, I am pleased to discuss this important issue. First, I wish to respond to some of the issues that have already been raised. I think the Fianna Fáil Party has been misinformed about what has been published today. I am appointing an independent planning expert to review the 12 recommendations that were published today, as well as to examine six further themes. That independent planning expert will be free to go back to any of the issues that are in this report. There is, therefore, a misunderstanding in relation to that, because I am appointing an independent expert.
Second, a number of Fianna Fáil speakers referred to the seven local authorities as being controlled by Fine Gael and Labour. It is extraordinary to hear Fianna Fáil people coming out in relation to planning in view of the Mahon report and all that has happened. I know my colleagues will address this in more detail. To be clear, it was the former Minister, John Gormley, who selected those seven local authorities. We are completing the review that was intended by Mr. Gormley.
Having announced that he was going to have reviews in June 2010, Mr. Gormley requested additional information on 19 January 2011 from the six prospective consultants. He left office on 23 January 2011 when Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív took over that portfolio. Deputy Ó Cuív has just initiated this debate, yet he does not seem to remember that he was the Minister who could have moved those investigations forward. Deputy Ó Cuív was the Minister from 23 January to 9 March 2011, but he did absolutely nothing.
For the record, the subsequent decision was taken by the Minister of State for housing and planning, Deputy Penrose. His decision was initially to have a review by departmental officials, which was carried out as quickly as possible. I will go into the timescale of this in more detail later on, but I wanted to put that on the record first.
This extensive report runs to over 900 pages. In addition to the report, I am also publishing the complaints that formed the basis for Mr. Gormley initiating the concept that he would carry out a review, even though he never actually initiated one, as such. I am also publishing the responses from the various local authorities. It will all be in the public record so Deputies can examine it and I have no problem with the report going to the relevant committee, as Deputy Ó Cuív suggested.
I got the report at the end of last week and we intended to publish it on Thursday. However, in deference to this House, which was going to spend three hours debating the issue, we felt it was important to have the report out in time for this debate, rather than after it had concluded. Therefore, while the intention was to publish it on Thursday, I published the report of the planning review this afternoon.
The report is a robust and thorough analysis of various aspects of the planning system in Ireland. Together with the appendices, it comes to nearly 1,000 pages. Importantly, this rigorous review proposes action across a number of fronts and I am committed to implementing the proposed reforms. First, having examined planning practice in seven local authorities, the report sets forth 12 actions at both departmental and local authority level. I will immediately begin to implement those 12 actions which will enhance transparency, improve consistency and provide greater public confidence in our planning system nationwide.
In addition to accepting these 12 areas for reform I also announced today my intention to appoint an independent planning expert. The task for that planning expert will be twofold: first, to examine the entire review and specifically the 12 actions arising from its recommendations, and to suggest additional measures if deemed appropriate; and, second, to examine six substantial themes that emerged from the review, which would benefit from additional independent consideration, and to report back to me by December 2012 in relation to additional measures necessary to address issues.
Taken together the actions flowing from this review represent significant body of reform. It is by no means a panacea for restoring public trust in a planning system that has been devalued by the criminal and corrupt actions of a minority. However, it will complement the whole-of-government response to the Mahon tribunal, which my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Hogan, will publish in the coming weeks.
The issues in the Mahon tribunal are extremely substantial. The idea that the Deputies opposite would consider that a motion on planning was appropriate, given what is in the Mahon report, beggars belief. The whole issue of trust in politics being raised is-----
I stand over what I said.
There has been a lot of speculation and misinformation around the planning review, the report of which I published this afternoon. The motion put down by Fianna Fáil is timely therefore and I hope that our debate tonight and tomorrow night will allow some much needed clarity to be shone on the report itself, its background, the nature of the issues under review and the next steps in the process.
I would like to provide the House with some of the background to the review. In June 2010, the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley, announced the initiation of a planning review. The announcement published at that time stated that the purpose of the review was to assess the application of planning legislation, policy and guidance within the development plan and development management systems at local level, with the aim of identifying measures to ensure consistency of approach to these issues across all planning authorities, and to improve the delivery of planning services generally. It is important to recognise what Mr. Gormley actually intended.
The process was not intended at any stage as an investigation of any specific alleged irregularity or impropriety on the part of particular planning authorities. Nevertheless, the scope of the review provided for the carrying out of such further actions as might be deemed necessary on foot of the review. Mr. Gormley's announcement followed consideration of a number of sample complaints and concerns referred to the Minister by a mix of stakeholder groups and individuals. These were broad-ranging relating to such issues as the preparation of development plan policies that accord with national and regional priorities, the application of such policies in the consideration of specific planning applications, and certain aspects of the decision-making process itself.
The complaints were spread across seven planning authorities: Dublin and Cork city councils, and Carlow, Galway, Cork, Meath and Donegal county councils. It was felt that these represented a broad geographical spread of both urban and rural areas, as well as both large and small authorities. It is important to note that in a given year hundreds of representations are made to the Minister and the Department in respect of planning matters. A large proportion of these are complaints from individuals or organisations regarding some aspect of forward planning, development management or enforcement. For example, correspondence might be received from an unsuccessful applicant for planning permission, or appellant of grant of permission, alleging that the decision reached on particular case by a planning authority was unfair or irrational. This is not so surprising in my view. The planning system touches the lives of every citizen of this country on a daily basis and it is an emotive subject for many people. In other cases, individuals may make allegations of unauthorised development, seeking the intervention of the Minister or the Department. Section 30 of the Act specifically bars the Minister from involvement in any case with which a planning authority or the board is or may be involved, so in many instances a complainant will be referred either to the relevant planning authority or An Bord Pleanála.
Given the separation of responsibilities between the Department and Minister on the one hand and planning authorities on the other, the focus of the review was on general procedures and practices within planning authorities rather than individual planning decisions by either the authorities themselves or An Bord Pleanála. Mr. Gormley wrote to the seven councils involved, seeking a report on each of the issues raised and these reports were received in the Department in July 2010. Subsequently, the Department prepared and issued an open request for tender in September 2010, seeking external planning experts with the necessary competencies and skills, to be included on a panel of experts to undertake these reviews. It was intended that such proposed appointments could be made under section 255(3) of the Planning Act, which states: "The Minister may appoint a person or body, not being the planning authority concerned, to carry out a review in accordance with sub-section (2)."
Some 40 eligible submissions were received by the closing date for receipt of tenders on 22 October 2010. The tenders were evaluated and a panel of six individuals or firms was provisionally selected to carry out the reviews, pending the receipt of further information by the Department. It was made clear in the tender documents that selection to the panel did not guarantee allocation of specific reviews. Ultimately, however, the panel was not formally established. The recent suggestion, therefore, that Mr. Gormley had launched any independent investigation is clearly not correct. To be clear, his proposed investigation had not been commenced, no contract had been awarded, and no preferred tenderer had been selected. Mr. Gormley's successor as Minister for the Environment, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, did not progress the matter during his period as Minister. The question of reinstating the reviews does not arise, therefore, because they were never cancelled in the first place.
In April 2011, the then Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning, Deputy Willie Penrose, outlined to the Dáil that the resources of his Department would be directed primarily towards supporting the implementation of the Government's commitments in these areas and that he was currently reviewing in detail a number of specific complaints, following the initiation of the process by former Minister, Mr. Gormley. He also stated that when the review was completed he would issue a public statement outlining the complaints at issue, his response and any appropriate actions to be pursued in regard to further policy development and guidance in line with commitments in the programme for Government.
In July 2011, a preliminary commentary from the Department on the complaints was received by the then Minister of State, Deputy Penrose. Noting the preliminary commentary, he asked in September 2011 that a further report be furnished to him dealing with the issues arising from the original files, the planning authorities' responses, an evaluation of the responses and recommendations for any further action. On taking up office, I accepted the course recommended by former Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, and in April my officials carried out site visits to each of the seven planning authorities. During these visits in-depth discussions were held with senior officials on the issues involved. Each of the authorities was then asked to respond to a series of specific written queries from the Department. The authorities were also invited to make recommendations for the enhancement of the planning system, including in regard to any actions taken by them on foot of lessons that may have been learned in the cases in question.
The report I have published today has, therefore, been informed by the initial complaints received, the responses provided by the relevant planning authorities in 2010, the Department's preliminary analysis, structured site visits to each of the planning authorities and further formal responses from planning authorities. With regard to the findings of the review, in the case of each of the seven planning authorities I consider that the allegations made range from serious to very serious. They deserve and have received the fullest attention. My Department's rigorous analysis has found that the allegations do not relate to systemic corruption in the planning system. Similarly, the review did not find any prima facie evidence of malfeasance in any of the seven local authorities subject to inquiry. This, after all that has come to light through the work of the Mahon tribunal, is very welcome. Nonetheless, each case has raised serious matters. These range from maladministration to inconsistency in application of planning policy or non-adherence to forward plans such as development plans.
A key issue arising in respect of several of the cases reviewed is the fact that the development management process involves, of necessity, an element of interpretation or discretion on the part of the final decision-maker. Decisions on planning applications - and particularly so in the case of complex applications - involve the weighing up of various factors, which may sometimes be conflicting. It may be simplistic to assume that there is always a right or wrong answer in the development management process. It is, therefore, important that allegations which compare the decisions of a planning authority and of An Bord Pleanála are considered in their proper context. For instance, it is important to examine not just a selected sample of cases but to consider the full volume of planning applications received by a particular planning authority in a given year, the number of decisions by a planning authority appealed to An Bord Pleanála and, within this, the rate of overturn of planning authority decisions by the board on appeal. Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that because a planning authority and An Bord Pleanála arrive at different judgments on the same application, this is not necessarily a reflection on the abilities or competence of the staff of the planning authority nor does it necessarily signify a disregard for the council's planning policies.
In the case of six of the seven authorities, the review has identified areas of policy and procedure where greater clarity, consistency and transparency will improve the planning system. It also vindicates the decision of my predecessor, former Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, not to rush headlong into appointing seven external planning consultants to embark on costly, open-ended inquiries.
As I mentioned earlier, the report contains 12 actions, all of which I am committed to implementing. These actions will entail legislative change and consolidation, revised non-statutory guidelines and improved management systems in planning authorities. It is a comprehensive programme of reform, which I intend to implement. I believe that these measures, together with the further reforms the Government will bring forward as part of its response to the report of the Mahon tribunal, will significantly improve the planning system, bring about increased transparency and consistency and enhance public confidence.
In the case of the seventh authority, Carlow County Council, the review accepts fully the findings of the Quinlivan report. In that case, the former Louth County Manager carried out an on-site, in-depth analysis of the corporate governance structures relating to the administration of planning in Carlow county. He identified irregular practices and administrative deficiencies and provided the Carlow county manager with more than 120 recommendations to address these. These recommendations are now all at various stages of implementation.
Members are all too aware that over recent decades the planning system has suffered serious reputational damage. During my time as Minister of State, I want to do all that I can to restore the reputation of Ireland's planning system. As part of this, I fully recognise and appreciate the need for the absolute maximum level of transparency. I am conscious that whatever the outcomes of this review, there will be some who will view the process and the report with scepticism. I want, therefore, to do all that I can to ensure that the process, the report and its findings stand up to independent scrutiny. For this reason, while I have accepted fully the review completed by my Department, all actions and recommendations and the full review on which they are based are to be considered by an independent planning expert who will undertake a thematic evaluation of the review and its associated proposed actions. The themes to be considered are communication of planning policy, availability of preplanning application records, the local area plan process, the means by which related socioeconomic considerations can be factored into the decision-making process, the role for structured dialogue between planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála and remaining gaps in the existing package of statutory planning guidelines. In addition, this expert will be invited to suggest further actions and make any further recommendations deemed appropriate. Crucially, this process will be time-bound and concise. The last thing the planning system needs is for this process to become another running sore. It will be a condition of contract that the evaluation is completed within three months of appointment.
I want to be clear in what I am saying to the House. This review did not find any prima facie evidence of malfeasance in any of the seven local authorities subject to inquiry. Having said that, the conclusions and recommendations made should not be read as criticisms of the entire planning system nor should the report be read as giving a clean bill of health to planning in Ireland. Undoing the damage done to the reputation of the planning system by past actions and incidents of corruption is a process to which I and the Government are collectively committed. It will not be achieved overnight. However, I believe that this review process, its openness, the transparency of the report, the extensive list of actions and the next stage of external, independent assessment, provide a starting point of sorts.
We cannot, however, ignore just how damning was the report of the Mahon tribunal. This review should be seen as a precursor to the publication of a comprehensive whole-of-Government response to the Mahon tribunal report within the coming weeks. I am not going to prejudge the Government's overall approach, but I am confident that it will, in tandem with the actions arising from this review, significantly improve the planning system, bring about increased transparency and consistency and enhance public confidence. We badly need this.
I commend the amendment to the House.
The signatories listed below this motion are, for the most part, people who for many years supported a Taoiseach whose financial affairs were to any person with a modicum of reason or understanding, of a highly questionable nature. Some of these Members, with mustache a quivering, were highly vocal supporters of former Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, and acted as attack dogs on any investigation into planning matters in this country and on Mr. Ahern's probity. That such persons have the brass neck to sign a motion like this is evidence of shamelessness that exists within certain political parties in this House.
The Mahon tribunal report is littered with the names of Fianna Fáil members and makes hundreds of references to that party. Fianna Fáil is constantly referenced in the report, which bears testimony to the corrosive and destructive nature of Irish politics as a consequence of the effect that Fianna Fail has had on Irish politics down through the years. This rampant corruption of many of Fianna Fáil's members and public representatives is part of the philosophy of tolerance that existed within that party.
The Mahon tribunal was disgracefully and scurrilously attacked by some of the persons whose names appear beneath this motion. I have yet to hear any of those persons withdraw their comments or apologise to this House for those scurrilous attacks.
One can only wonder if they still stand over the statements they made prior to publication of that report or during the investigation. The inquiries to which this motion refers was a political act by former Minister, Mr. Gormley which was, I believe, designed to cause damage to Labour and Fine Gael in an effort to throw up political smoke in the defence of the Green Party's then coalition partner, Fianna Fáil. Former Minister Gormley did little, if anything, to advance those inquiries and did not allocate one cent towards them. Even after he was replaced by Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív, no effort was made to advance the process. Yet Fianna Fáil now wishes to cry foul on this issue. Deputy Willie Penrose dealt with this matter when he took office, having had to take account at the time of the dire fiscal restraints placed on the Government as a consequence of the ruination visited on the economy by the outgoing Fianna Fáil Government. He initiated a full internal review of the complaints with a view to determining what further actions would be required. The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, has published the review and taken into account all actions required. All of this was known before Fianna Fáil placed the motion before the House, yet it still engaged in what can be best described as a waste of the House's time for political point scoring.
If Fianna Fáil members have information on planning corruption in local authorities I ask them please to report it to the Garda Síochána. I am aware they failed to do so in the past when it concerned members of the party but such a course of action would be a first and important step in the recovery of the honour of the political party.
Fianna Fáil has attempted to cast aspersions on the Labour Party in this respect but we have an honourable record in local authorities, and the only mentions of the Labour Party in the Mahon report concern a member whom the party removed and expelled immediately; the efforts of our deputy leader, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, to raise concerns about planning corruption; and acknowledgement that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, returned a cheque.
The reference to councils under review being controlled by the Labour Party seeks to cast a shadow on the reputation of our political party and is without cause. Rather than cast such aspirations, it is appropriate that Fianna Fáil follows good example. If its members have evidence of planning corruption please go to the Garda Síochána and report it to the statutory authorities.
I reject this motion as simply an act of shameless political opportunism. I commend the Government's work in this area and I commend the amendment to the House.
I welcome the comprehensive announcement and publication today by the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, of the planning review. It was quite correct to publish the review so it can inform this debate. The review has taken too long and I agree with previous speakers who made this point. I would have much preferred if the review had been conducted in a much more speedy fashion.
I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív that confidence in the planning system has been undermined. He is quite right; it was undermined by Fianna Fáil. Tonight's motion tabled by Fianna Fáil is wrong on several points. It is incredible that Fianna Fáil should try to mix up political control by the Labour Party with incorrect or bad planning decisions made by planning departments. What brought on people's scorn of planning is what Fianna Fáil got involved in with regard to zonings which was absolutely despicable. However, there is no mention of this in the motion. I had some hope after the general election that we might see a Fianna Fáil nua but unfortunately I do not think we will. What we are seeing tonight is nothing more than an attempt by Fianna Fáil to smear my party with its manure-----
-----to cover up its disgraceful record in planning and development.
I welcome the fact the report proposes 12 concrete actions to address the problems documented in the planning process. I also welcome the decision by the Minister of State to back up the review with an independent review by an independent planning expert. It is important to note that according to the original terms announced by the then Minister, Mr. Gormley, in 2010 it was a review and not an inquiry but this seems to be mixed up this evening. According to his press release, the purpose of the review was not to examine particular planning decisions but to assess the process and the system that enabled such decisions to be made. This is exactly what has been done and the report contains a detailed examination of each council and proposes clear solutions.
Let us examine the proposals made by Fianna Fáil in the motion. No independent inquiry had been started prior to the general election so it could not have been terminated by the Government. No planning consultant had been appointed by the previous Government so how could the current Government stifle progression of this? The tender process was not completed.
The outline of a review by an independent consultant could not be established and no funding was provided. It was a Fianna Fáil Minister at the time. Deputy Ó Cuív was in the position. He did not process it, he did not appoint consultants and he did not provide funding for it.
Deputy Dooley is very good at interruptions but the problem is that he has not been able to change the Fianna Fáil Party and it is still in the same mode. Come on lads, the country has moved on and Fianna Fáil needs to move on with us.
The case in Waterford concerns clear corruption which was reported to the Garda as it should be. If Fianna Fáil members believe corruption is occurring in local authorities they should list the examples and make complaints to the Garda, and God knows they should know who it is.
Fianna Fáil tabled this motion but its motives are suspect. It is trying to implicate the Labour Party in bad planning decisions which is hypocritical. Deputy Dooley knows the record. I accept it was a minority of his party but the party took no action. Fianna Fáil will be indicted for this for decades to come. The country would be a far better place if action had been taken much earlier on corrupt rezonings and if the ringleaders had been identified and reported to the Garda. The vast majority were members of Fianna Fáil.
I welcome the fact that three of the 12 recommendations address issues relating to Dublin City Council. I look forward to their speedy implementation. They relate to a specific type of planning. There must be clarity on this. Councillors do not have a role in planning.
They have a role in development plans and zoning. This is where it went on and Deputy Dooley should speak for his own party. I can speak very clearly for my party because we have had a very honourable and praiseworthy position over the past decades which is something Deputy Dooley cannot say about his party.
I welcome this opportunity to speak on the motion. However, it is only proper to point out the irony of the motion's origin and the irony of pointing the finger of blame at the current Government for planning irregularities. The public would be excused for forgetting there was a change of government last year and that we had a government led by Fianna Fáil. The question is whether we can distinguish the current Government from the previous one. We can go back over history, but recent history has shown the term of the previous Government was good for developers-----
-----but a total disaster for communities and good planning. In council chambers throughout the country the motto of officials and elected representatives was that developers were good, large development was good and community participation was bad. During that time I was a councillor and huge pressure was put on all of us to rezone and pass material contraventions. Some of these were good and some were terrible. It is worth bearing in mind that most councillors I saw were very honest and had the interests of their community at heart. However, there was undue influence from developers and that lobby. Any councillor who raised concerns about over-development was considered to be backward looking, anti-progress and anti-jobs, whereas in reality he or she was in favour of sustainable development, and for good jobs and progress. Following the general election, the parties coming into government promised a new type of politics and that things would be different from now on. Unfortunately for the public little has changed. Within weeks of taking office the Minister of State decided to terminate the independent inquiries into planning irregularities in the seven local authorities-----
----- and instead decided to carry out yet another review. The Government claimed that an internal review process would replace the independent inquiries. However, we know that when it comes to policing planning and politics, internal reviews are synonymous with cover-ups and not getting to the truth.
The local authorities concerned were Dublin City Council, Carlow County Council, Galway County Council, Cork City Council, Cork County Council, Meath County Council and Donegal County Council. All these councils, bar Donegal, are controlled by the parties in government. Many communities in these local authority areas and others have been victims of bad planning and they deserve to have the causes of bad planning dealt with in a public fashion.
We need to restore confidence in politics and reform local government. It must involve reform of the planning process and we need to move forward from where we are. Local authority reform over the past 20 to 30 years has been used as an excuse to undermine local authorities. Democracy has been eroded with increasing powers residing with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, and unelected city and county managers and their officials, who remain unaccountable. I look forward to changes in that area.
Some of the worst decisions regarding the standards of developments were made once a certain amount of power was taken from local authorities. We should consider the disaster of what happened with self-regulation over building standards, leading to disasters such as Priory Hall and hundreds of others throughout the country. We have a legacy of 18,000 empty houses and more than 2,000 unfinished housing developments. I welcome the progress made on finishing some of those estates. The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, is in the House. I hope she continues the good work commenced by the former Minister of State, Deputy Penrose.
When the report of the Mahon tribunal was published, Sinn Féin put on record our view that political corruption did not start or finish with Mahon. The attempt by the Government to bury the inquiries into planning irregularities is further evidence of this and is the wrong way to go. We propose to reform the planning process. This reform must be radical and solution-based. Good planning makes all the difference for community and family life. Responsible ethical and sustainable planning underpinned by equality considerations is the right of all. Property developers must never again be allowed to build new housing developments without taking into account the need for the provision of basic facilities and amenities. Developments must be economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. To thrive and be sustainable all communities require physical and social infrastructure. Sinn Féin has developed sustainable community criteria based on meeting the economic and social needs of communities. All planning decisions must meet these criteria before earning the support of local authorities. These include a sufficient supply of social and affordable housing, safe water supply, adequate sewerage, access to public transport, employment, health care, child-care centres and schools. They also include reasonable access to local amenities, such as shopping, public areas, recreational facilities, social centres and cultural amenities.
I raised the proposed reform of local government on the Order of Business today. I suspect the Minister has gone a long way down the process of local government reform and local authority members are only now being consulted. I say this in a constructive way. Many have yet to be consulted. I checked this afternoon and found some town clerks who did not yet know about this even though it is supposed to be returned by Friday. I appeal to the Minister to give them an additional week. Local authority members of all parties, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and others take their job seriously and we should give them at least ten days to get those questionnaires back. The views of those people who work on the ground are very important regardless of the parties they represent. It is important that they have some input into the shape of local government in coming years. If the Government wants to break the legacy of the past, it requires serious reform of local government with power devolved, decisions that are transparent and local authorities that are accountable. I hope we can move forward with that.
One thing is beyond debate and beyond doubt when we consider the Irish planning and development process. We went through a decade of madness, badness or both in planning and development. That madness or badness has brought the nation to its knees. I welcome tonight's Private Members' motion. It is extremely hypocritical that it was moved by Fianna Fáil given that the ink is not yet dry on the Mahon tribunal report, outlining the relationship between members of Fianna Fáil and property developers. However, that should not detract from the central issue we are debating. As a member of Leitrim County Council I was among the first people to stand up and ask a very simple question: "Who will live in all these houses and apartments that are being built around us?" No new jobs or major industries were coming in, but houses were being built with nobody to live in them. At the time I was vilified and ridiculed, and accused of being anti-development because I asked that very simple question. If I speak to developers now, they acknowledge that if they knew then what they know now, they would have studied the question much more closely.
Throughout Sligo and Leitrim the scars of these bad planning decisions remain. It is not just about numbers because people are living in unfinished or half-occupied estates with their homes in negative equity and still heading south with mortgages for over-priced houses that they cannot afford to repay. The Government's decision in June 2011 to terminate the independent inquiry into planning irregularities in seven local authorities shows that very little has changed.
It is important to note that all the local authorities, bar Donegal, where investigations were to take place are controlled by Fine Gael and Labour, the Government parties. This action is symptomatic of the culture under which Fianna Fáil operated during its period in government. In February 2011 the people were promised a change in the political culture when they elected this Government. It is clear from the decision to terminate the inquiries-----
If councillors had the power to challenge the decisions that were made, there might have been a greater chance that some of the more disastrous decisions on planning would not have been made. However, councils are now controlled by county managers and decisions are increasingly being reverted centrally to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. If there is to be real accountability, there must be a far greater level of democracy at local level and co-operation between democratic local government and the Department.
Real local government should be able to make democratic decisions that best suit the local areas. This should be combined with a level of oversight at national level. Ultimately, it is imperative that the Government reverses its decision to terminate this independent inquiry into planning irregularities.
In conclusion, those hundreds and thousands who are living in overpriced houses in half finished estates and every man, woman and child who is paying the cost of the failure of our regulatory system deserve open and honest answers. There can be no hiding place for incompetence or for crooks who are benefiting from the pain of Irish people.
It is rather opportune that we are having this discussion. Last week I raised a topical issue, with Deputy Kevin Humphreys, regarding the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. The Minister was not present for that, and it would have been great if she had been. What happened in that development offers strong lessons about what went wrong in this country. One can see the disease in respect of land, whether it was buying it, speculating on it, planning it or building on it. It amounted to a serious abuse of the planning regulations.
I referred in that debate to a parliamentary question which the late Tony Gregory put to the then Minister, former Deputy Dick Roche, on 4 November 2004, in which he asked about the conflict of interest which would inhibit the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, DDDA, from making balanced planning decisions in the docklands. The Minister's answer was that the board members had a wide range of experience and that it was difficult, in a relatively small city, to select people with the talent and time and who were willing to give service to the public through these boards. We know the type of service those people gave. The recent report was damning about it. It outlined the various issues, including the shortcomings in financial management, planning functions and the management of board business, not to mention the Irish Glass Bottle site which was valued at €220 million but was sold for €431 million.
What emerged clearly in the reply to Tony Gregory's question was that the board was effectively the planning authority. There were people sitting on the board who were seeking planning permission but they were also the people who were making the decisions on the planning applications. Some of those people were also members of the Anglo Irish Bank, which was funding the development. We use the phrase "something rotten in the state of Denmark" but there was certainly something very rotten at that time. There are other examples of it. The then Minister said that there was a relatively small pool of people from which to select people, but what happened was appalling.
I wish to emphasise the positive aspects of the docklands as well. The current chairperson of the authority is doing great work. However, it was battle after battle for the communities in the docklands areas for their survival. The developers were arriving with brown envelopes and other incentives to get people to move out of communities in which their families had lived for generations. There were many David and Goliath battles. The development plans are drawn up and it is a question of economics and drawings on paper, with no account taken of the impact and effect on people's lives or of facilities, infrastructure, community life and green space. The Minister is winding down the DDDA but there are still two vacancies on it for community representatives. It is vital that they are appointed and that when the new authority goes to Dublin City Council, community is at the heart of any type of development there.
Another planning issue about which I feel strongly, and I have spoken about it previously, is the way in which planning has allowed some of our vital heritage and historical sites to be taken over by developers. The prime example is the Moore Street area, a place associated with one of the most historic moments in our city. It has been given to a developer for a shopping mall. That is just one example. Other heritage sites are also at risk from extremely bad planning. So much of this could have been avoided. I gave the example from 2004. In 1974 the Kenny report was produced. If that had been implemented, much that was wrong with planning in this country might never have occurred.
With regard to the motion, it is a case of what the previous Minister, former Deputy John Gormley, did or did not do and what exactly happened. Recently, I read an article he wrote. In it he spoke about what he had left in the area of planning before this Government took over. He says he left an extensive dossier prepared by planning officials following the internal review, that he had reports from managers in which each of the local authorities responded to that request from him, that there were terms of reference for a panel of planning consultants to carry out an independent review in the six local authorities, there was a completed tender process to select the panel and that the letters of appointment issued. All the preparatory work had been done and it was ready to go. I note the Minister refers in the amendment to an internal review. I have just returned from my constituency so I did not hear all the Minister of State's speech and what her plans are. However, the central issue is the independent planning regulator and I support the call from An Taisce in that regard.
I am from a docklands community. My family are from there and I live there. It is awful to see what went wrong. However, this is an opportunity for the Government and, being an optimist, I hope that we get it right eventually.