Why Did Phil Hogan Stop Six Separate Planning Inquiries?

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Frank McDonald (above), Irish Times Environment Correspondent, and Fine Gael junior Minister Alan Kelly on last night’s Frontline on RTE 1.

Pat Kenny: “Frank, you have written about [Environment Minister] Phil Hogan and what he did with five separate inquiries that were actually under way, into planning, which were then suspended.”

Frank McDonald: “Well, I mean, I think that that was a very serious matter. John Gormley, the former minister for the environment, had received detailed complaints and I know in the case of Carlow County Council they were very detailed indeed, of planning irregularities. And I’m not talking, we’re not talking about corruption here, we’re just talking about bizarre decision making and you know really shocking messing about.”

Kenny: “A lot of that can be simple stupidity, building on flooding plains and stuff like that.”

McDonald: “Yeah well, but not just stupidity, wilful, em, wrong..I mean making the wrong kind of decisions, you know, against planning advice and all of the rest of it. And that involved six local authorities, including Dublin City and Cork City Councils. And Carlow and Galway County Councils and a couple of others. And, you know, what happened was that inspectors were actually appointed and ready to start the inquiries by the time the new Government took over and within weeks if not, well, certainly within months of Phil Hogan taking over as Minister for the Environment, those inquiries were terminated and the inspectors were stood down. And even in advance of the general election, Phil Hogan had actually said that the allegations were spurious mostly. But how did he know that they were spurious when they weren’t even being investigated? And the termination of those investigations, it seems to me, runs exactly counter to one of the principle recommendations of the Mahon Tribunal which was, and is, that a planning regulator, and independent planning regulator, should be set up. Who would have powers to investigate that sort of stuff at every local authority.”

Kenny: “Frank, you would also know that with local councillors at least there is, in theory, some accountability. They can be dumped at the next opportunity at the ballot box. In the case of non-elected officials..I mean we know that George Redmond was the first person to be sanctioned, through jail. So it’s not to say that people who are professionally appointed rather than elected are going to be necessarily any better than elected officials.”

McDonald: “Well I think it’s fair to point out..that both the National Planning Institute and the Royal Town Planning Institute, southern Ireland branch, have both made this point. That no professional planner has been indicted by the tribunal, no professional planner has been found to be guilty in this respect at all. What has happened however is that various people in the administrative tier of local authorities, particularly in Dublin County Council and that applies to, as you said, George Redmond, the former city and county manager, who was in charge of county Dublin and who was on the take. I mean there’s absolutely no doubt about that. And I knew about that at the time but we couldn’t prove it. I mean how can you prove that money is changing hands unless you see it changing hands. You can smell it in the air but you don’t necessarily see it.”

Kenny: “But a belief that something is so is not enough for a court of law.”

McDonald: “No it’s not. And we have to go through..in journalism, we have to produce the equivalent of the kind of proof that would stand up in the High Court.”

[later Pat Kenny asks Fine Gael’s junior minister Alan Kelly]

Pat Kenny: “What would you like to happen on foot of this?”

Alan Kelly: “Well Pat, we can never ever let this happen again. The simple fact is Fianna Fail, and others, polluted this country with corruption for over 20 years. There is people at home tonight, talking about this programme, watching this programme, who are sitting in houses, that should never have been built. They shouldn’t be where they are tonight. They’re there and they don’t have the services they require, they don’t have the children facilities, they don’t have the libraries, they don’t have the swimming pools, in west county Dublin in particular. And they’re looking at this tonight. We need to act on this. And it needs to be acted upon in a very, very, very strong way.”

Kenny: “Will you be asking Minister Hogan, for example, to reinstate those inquiries into those five councils (sic) that have been stopped by him.”

Kelly: “Absolutely, in fact, the Government is at a very advanced stage in relation to the internal inquiries in those six areas that was previously mentioned and following on from that, direct action is going to be taken in relation to those councils.”

Kenny: “So why did Minister Hogan stop them?”

Kelly: “The reason that it was changed was simply because [former Enviornment] Minister [John] Gormley announced them and then for a year did nothing. So that was the reason that it had to be looked at by the new Government, because nothing happened in a year. So it has been looked at and now it’s going to be advanced and it has to be…”

[Later Pat Kenny invites Frank McDonald to speak again]

McDonald: “There is a huge difference between an internal review being carried out by the Department of the Environment of planning irregularities in the six local authorities involved and the idea of  appointing inspectors which is what was originally planned. And I think that Alan Kelly cannot get away with saying that an internal review is sufficient.”

Watch here

Last Thursday, after the Mahon Tribunal’s final report was released, Environment Minister Phil Hogan, who represents the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency,  spoke with RTE’s Bryan Dobson

Bryan Dobson: “One of the recommendations arises from what the tribunal describes as it’s concern that  recent changes in the planning system have resulted in over centralisation of power in the hands of the Minister for the Environment which is not, they say, subject to sufficient checks and balances and they’re recommending that the Minister for the Environment, that’s you at the moment, your ability to give directions to regional authorities and local planning authorities should be entrusted to a Planning Regulator. Is that a recommendation we’re likely to see carried through?”

Phil Hogan: “Yeah I pointed this out when Minister Gormley, whom I know that his heart was in the right place in relation to these matters, was centralising too much authority in the Minister of the Environment of the day. And I indicated at the time that that’s not healthy for democracy and I intend to look at that particular matter. But the theme of what’s been outlined in the recommendations of the report about greater oversight and an independent basis of planning decisions to ensure that they’re in compliance with local, regional and spatial strategies is something that I’m very interested in and will be looking at how we can implement that in a more practical way…”

Calls For Minister To Reopen Inquiries (Frank McDonald, Irish Times)