The Planning Bill - Restricting citizens' rights
Friends of the Irish Environment hosted a press conference earlier this month to protest the Planning Bill, which is currently under discussion in the Dáil, and to announce their formal complaint to the European Commission that the statutory provisions proposed in the Bill restrict the right of citizens to participate in the planning process and are illegal under European law.
``As it is, Ireland's application for European structural funds is seriously threatened by the disgraceful record on meeting EU environmental regulations, says Green Party MEP Patricia McKenna. ``This bill makes the situation worse.''
Speakers at the conference dealt with some of the provisions of the bill that conflict with EU law, which serve to restrict the citizen's right to participation in planning. These include the proposed fee to be imposed on anyone who wishes to comment on a planning application, the requirement to have previously paid and made application locally before an appeal can be lodged with An Bord Pleanála, and the new stipulation that a person cannot seek a judicial review of a planning decision unless they have a `substantial' interest in the planning decision.
The bill, which is an extremely complex piece of legislation, has already passed the Senate, and the government is attempting to rush it through its remaining stages before Easter. The bill hit the headlines because it includes the much discussed provisions on affordable housing, whereby the local authority must in its development plan allocate 20 percent of land zoned for housing to be made available for social and affordable housing.
orchestrated campaign of resistance to this provision, no doubt emanating from developers, questioned whether any formulation could survive a constitutional challenge. The general understanding was that we'd all have to wait and see. Meanwhile, many other provisions in the bill, which seriously weaken democratic control of the planning process, have gone unremarked.
Strategic Development Zones
The bill also introduces the concept of Strategic Development Zones, which are ``sites selected for development of strategic importance to the national economy which can be afforded to internationally mobile companies with a much greater degree of certainty in securing planning permission''. In these zones ``the major planning issues will be disposed of before an individual project is identified''.
This means that blanket planning permission for a zone may be given, which could, for example, allow a chemical company or an incineration project to come in without any further planning considerations. It makes a nonsense of any public participation in the planning process or of the citizen's democratic right to object, if objections are only allowed in advance of identification of the individual project.
The bill also gives the minister new powers to ``appoint a commissioner to take over the functions of either the manager or the elected councillors, or both, where he has reason to believe that the planning process, so vital to social and economic progress, is not being carried out effectively or efficiently''.
It is extremely doubtful that this provision is simply intended to deal with situations of `impropriety' such as arose in the Dublin County and Corporation planning departments through George Redmond's misdemeanours. Dublin County Council and Dublin City Corporation had, after all, other means at its disposal to deal with these `aberrations'. The fact that they didn't use them is quite another matter.
This new provision allows the minister, in law, to bypass local government and elected representatives altogether, where the minister believes the planning process is not `effective' or `efficient'. It is clearly the view of most people, especially those developers who look for and wait for planning permission, that it is currently neither. Waiting, after all, costs money.
Guidelines to enforce windfarms, masts
Furthermore, Department of the Environment guidelines, on for example, wind farms, housing densities, and telecommunications masts, which have been opposed by local people all over the country, are in the bill being given statutory recognition. Planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála ``will have to have regard to these guidelines.'' Far from hoping that such issues as erection of the mobile phone masts may, under the new legislation, enable environmental and health issues at last to be taken into account by local authorities and An Bord Pleanála in planning decisions, there is now provision for the minister, ex officio, to rule them out.
This was the very issue that Mrs. Goonery from Kinnegad raised in court last year. Her case relied on the contention that at present neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor the local authorities or An Bord Pleanála have jurisdiction over substantive environmental considerations. The planning authorities decide issues concerning provision of services and the EPA then imposes conditions on the project which it assess are necessary to meet environmental standards of best practice. No authority assesses whether the project in itself, no matter what EPA conditions are imposed, should be allowed to go ahead.
People in Kilcock or Campile don't want an incinerator, no matter what, because they say it introuces toxic chemicals into the air. The people all over the country who have opposed telecommunications masts, whether in Achill, in Berkely, or Ballinamore, opposed the erection of masts on their doorsteps because people fear they are a health hazard and that the radio waves emitted are carcinogenic.
Mrs Goonery was concerned about a concrete manufacturing plant on her doorstep, but it might have been any environmental polluter objected to by a local community. The decision by the High Court that Mrs Goonery's complaint was `vexatious' went to the very heart of environmentalist concerns.
Regional authorities' power
Finally and most disturbing for the South East Region, the majority of whose councils have agreed to the regional plan for incineration, the new bill makes provision for Environment Minister Noel Dempsey ``to require compliance with the guidelines drawn up by the regional authority in consultation with local planning authorities''. The majority of county councils in the South East Region accepted the policy of an incinerator for the region, except Wexford, because it was rumoured the incinerator would be at Campile, near New Ross. Does the requirement in the new planning bill mean that the minister can enforce compliance with the majority decision on the regional authority?
``The bill runs a cart and horses not only through peoples' democratic rights to participate in planning decisions,'' says Sinn Féin's environmental spokesperson, Sean MacManus, from Sligo, ``but it seems to remove entirely some of the powers of local authorities and elected representatives to participate in the good government of their areas. Insttead, we are being foisted with the minister's new ex officio powers, exercised in the interests of economic progress, big business, and multinationals. The bill is a very disturbing piece of legislation indeed.''