Posted on May 13, 2015 7:32 PM   |   Permanent Link   

Speaking on Private Members Business in the Dáil

Before I was re-elected to the Dail in February 2011, I was a Dublin Councillor for over 30 years. A lot of what went on in the Dublin Councils in the 1980's and early 1990's and which was later reported on by the Mahon Tribunal, was caused by greed, corruption and unregulated lobbying which lead to unsafe planning decisions.

I spoke in the first Dail debate on the Mahon Report when it was published. It was of special interest to me as the Baldoyle, Cloghran/Cargobridge, and Drumnigh/Portmarnock Mahon Report modules referred to the 1993 re-zonings took place in my Dublin North East constituency and where Judge Mahon found that corrupt payments were made to some Councillors. In March of 2012, I then called on the Director of Public Prosecutions to consider the Mahon Tribunal findings. In Chapter 9, the Tribunal has found that Mr. Frank Dunlop paid six Councillors, named in the Mahon Report, sums of IR£1000 each for their support for the 1993 Baldoyle lands rezoning motions. Another Councillor received a payment of £IR1000 from Mr. Dunlop, at that time, which the Councillor told the Mahon Tribunal was a donation to his January 1993 Senate election campaign after he lost his Dail seat. This was the period when the dual mandate was allowed for Dail Deputies.

All of this greed, corruption and unregulated lobbying led to, as I have just said, to unsafe planning decisions that triggered the property bubble a decade later. In my Dublin North East constituency, the estates built on the rezoned Baldoyle Racecourse lands were left unfinished and are only now being completed thanks to initiatives by this Government.

In nearby Donaghmede, the death trap apartment complex of Priory Hall built by cowboy builder Tom McFeeley was easily the worst planning disaster of the Celtic Tiger property boom. The property boom unfortunately attracted cowboys like McFeeley. I don't think any of the SF speakers in this debate have referred to the Tom McFeely/Priory Hall saga so far and I stand to be corrected on that.

I always held the view that Priory Hall should be demolished, and I welcome the fact that Dublin City Council have now commenced rebuilding Priory Hall with government funding provided to Dublin City Council.

I thought of the comparison with Priory Hall when it was reported recently that six houses in the Millfield Manor estate in Newbridge, Co. Kildare, were completely gutted by a fire.

Many new homes in North Dublin built during the Celtic property boom were infected with pyrite. Homeowners struggling with mortgage payments and negative equity did not need the pyrite problem on top of that. This government through the setting up of the Pyrite Resolution Board put a mechanism in place to deal with this planning failure and I'm glad that homes in Clongriffin in Donaghmede and The Coast estate in Baldoyle had their pyrite issues dealt with to their satisfaction. There are still homes in Belmayne in Balgriffin where a resolution to the pyrite problem is still unresolved. The difficulty in Belmayne arises because of a decision by the insurance company involved not to cover the cost incurred by the home owner who has to engage qualified professionals to prove the presence of pyrite in their homes in the first place. The cost of this can mount up to €3K. As I said already the Insurance company, very unfairly in my view, will not reimburse the homeowner for this additional cost for which they are painfully out of pocket.

Many of these planning, building control, and compliance failures happened because of the light touch regulation regimes that were then in place. These have now have been reformed and strengthened by this government and I am glad that I was part of that reform. In June of 2012 I welcomed the legislation on lobbying that was introduced at that time and I said then that this government was keen to create more transparency over Government decision making, and to that effect was enacting legislation dealing with the issue. For first time the public would be able to view information on the contacts that are made between lobbyists and the government - and how intensely lobbyists push for something. This is a critically important issue, and it needs to be highlighted, that these are moves to legislate on the basis of the recommendations of the Mahon report, for far greater transparency over the role of lobbyists.

In the Planning No. 2 Bill, which is currently being developed to go before this House, the core function of the new Regulator will relate to the evaluation and assessment of local plans and regional strategies, including land zonings, and will make recommendations to the Minister on these matters. Where the Minister agrees with the recommendations of the Regulator, the Minister will issue appropriate directions/ instructions to the relevant local authority on the steps that should be taken in relation to the revision of the relevant plan or strategy. However where the Minister does not agree with the recommendations of the Regulator, the Minister will be required to explain the reasons for such disagreement, and lay such reasons before the Houses of the Oireachtas and also place them on the Department's website in the interests of increased transparency.

The Mahon Report focussed on events in Dublin, but we must not forget that there are concerns regarding planning decisions in the rest of the country.

That is why independent consultants, MacCabe Durney Barnes have been appointed, on a statutory basis, to conduct a review of the application of planning practices and procedures in six of the seven local authorities (Carlow, Cork, Galway and Meath County Councils and Cork as well as the Dublin Councils) included in the Planning Review Report prepared in June 2012. The consultants are currently at an advanced stage of finalising their independent planning review which involves consultation with each of the original complainants and all the planning authorities concerned in preparing their report. In addition, the Minister is currently finalising arrangements for the imminent appointment of a Senior Counsel, on a non-statutory basis, nominated by the Attorney General, to prepare a report in relation to planning matters in respect of Donegal County Council.

The Minister intends that the Review being undertaken by Mac Cabe Durney Barnes will take precedence over his Department's own Review completed in 2012 and he will carefully consider and implement any further recommendations that emerge from this independent review report which he expects to receive from the consultants inclusive of relevant consultations by the end of June. The Minister will issue a public statement, including any appropriate actions to be pursued in regard to further policy development and guidance while also taking account of the need to develop wider proposals for improving the transparency and openness of the planning system as recommended in the report of the Mahon Tribunal Report.

I regard the Mahon Tribunal Report as a fundamental point of departure from the inadequate standards of the past and a beginning of a new approach to planning in this country and I know that the Government is determined to continue to act on the findings and planning recommendations of the Mahon Tribunal and ensure that our planning system is never again allowed to be exploited as it was in the past. Instead, our planning system will be redesigned and operated properly, to ensure that it is a properly functioning, effective, responsive, transparent and publicly accountable planning system.

This is not only a fundamental requirement but a prerequisite for a modern successful society that is committed to learning from past mistakes as well as building on the strengths of Ireland's planning process in leading the way forward in developing our planning process.