Friday, December 11, 2015

Planning corruption rears its ugly head again

I sat through the RTE Prime Time programme last Monday night amazed at how far greed will drive individuals to engage in corrupt practices. The southern state has a long history of political corruption. Some Councillors, TDs, government Ministers and Taoisigh have exploited their political positions for self-gain.

Planning processes have been particularly favoured by them. Politicians received kick-backs for the ‘right’ decisions in planning processes that advantaged some developers. Land that was bought cheap suddenly skyrocketed in value when it was zoned for housing and business use. The ‘brown envelope’ culture was endemic in political life in the south for decades. It has been a key feature of a long-running and toxic political culture that also gave us the abuses of power that we have seen in the banks, in the health service, in charities and in church and State-run institutions.

It is part and parcel of a culture of golden circles and insiders which has so tarnished the political system in the 26 counties and so badly served our citizens. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which between them have wielded power in this State for the past 90 years, created, maintained and are completely mired in this corrupt political culture.

In my view, it is a consequence of the counter-revolutionary period which followed the 1916 Rising and the Tan War. This is the same political culture which ultimately resulted in the total collapse of the economy seven years ago.

But Monday nights RTE investigative programme lifted the lid again on corrupt planning practices. The investigative team undertook the considerable task of analysing the declarations of interest of every elected representative in the Irish state - 1,186 in total, including 949 Councillors, 60 Senators, 166 TDs and 11 MEPs.

It found that dozens of politicians had failed to include important details and financial interests in their declarations. Consequently the RTEs investigative unit specifically targeted three Councillors with what is a classic TV sting. The unit set up a fictitious company. It claimed to be developing a wind farm and a reporter contacted the three seeking assistance through the planning process.

The end result was a television documentary using hidden cameras and bugged phones that exposed the inappropriate behaviour of the three men. Unethical behaviour that most citizens thought had been consigned to history was aggain evident on our tv screens. At times the three Councillors acted out their roles with nods and winks, and gestures and laughter that had the blood boiling.

On Monday night after the programme was broadcast Fianna Fáil Sligo Councillor Joe Queenan announced his resignation from the party. Former Fine Gael Councillor Hugh McElvaney resigned several weeks ago shortly after he was challenged by RTE. Independent Donegal Councillor John O’Donnell told the RTE reporter that any money should be routed through a third party. "Politically there would be a backlash," he said, "you know the way people are … so many begrudgers out there."

The public response was predictable. Citizens were outraged and incensed. It was a reminder of other bad days. Eighteen years ago the Mahon Tribunal was established to examine allegations of corruption in planning processes and land rezoning issues in Dublin County Council area in the 1990’s.

After 18 years of investigation and millions of euro Mahon reported in 2012. The Tribunal made ten recommendations relating to planning. However, three years after its final report and five years after Fine Gael and Labour assumed office the Irish government has still not implemented the Tribunal’s recommendations.

Instead, the former Fine Gael Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan, infamously frustrated proper scrutiny of the planning process. In one of his first acts as Minister, Hogan, since promoted by the Taoiseach to the prestigious position of European Commissioner, shut down an inquiry initiated by his ministerial predecessor John Gormley.

This was an inquiry into alleged planning irregularities in several local authority areas, namely Dublin city, Cork city and counties Cork, Carlow, Meath, Galway and Donegal. Phil Hogan has never given a satisfactory explanation for doing this. There remain serious and unanswered questions around this decision. He actually said at one point that the allegations were spurious. How does he know they were spurious when they have not been investigated?

This action highlights the arrogance of the Government and its indifference to pursuing any genuine reform of the planning system. There is a deep suspicion that Phil Hogan was motivated by a desire not to rock the boat in local government because, at the time, Fine Gael and the Labour Party controlled many councils across the State, including some in which these irregularities allegedly occurred.

Subsequently, an internal review by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, which was presented as an alternative to the Gormley review, claimed there was no evidence of wrongdoing in planning.

However, Gerard Convie, a senior planner in Donegal County Council, provided evidence of planning irregularities and he went to the High Court. The court quashed the review's section on Donegal. The Department was forced to apologise to Gerard Convie. The internal review was discredited and had to be set aside.

Did the Government go back to the Mahon tribunal recommendations? No. Instead, it set up another review into six local authorities, this time to be carried out by a group of consultants. We have yet to see what that will come up with.

Central to the Mahon tribunal recommendations was the establishment of an independent planning regulator. When the report was published in March 2012, the then Minister for State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, promised the Government would make such an appointment. But what we have ended up with is a bland, ineffective Office of Planning Regulator that is not what Mahon proposed and is entirely subservient to the Minister.

If the Irish Government genuinely seeks to break with the corrupt political legacy of the past it must move to reform the planning process. The Government's amendment shows it has no intention of doing this.


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