28 May 2007

Until recently I had no idea that long before I’d even thought of putting out the Dispatch, the architectural community of County Clare had banded together to fight the good fight against the local authority. The following is a letter composed by Tom Byrne but signed by just about everyone who is anyone in the Ennis building game on behalf of an organisation called the Agents Liaison Group which was initially formed to improve relations, smooth out procedures, etc., between architects and local authority officials. I needn’t say more – the letter explains it all.

Agents Liaison Group
c/o Siobán Mulcahy,
Affick, Tulla,
Co. Clare
+353 65 6835217

Mr. Liam Conneally
Acting Director of ServicesPlanning and Economic Development
Clare County Council
Unit 1 Westgate Business Park
Kilrush Road
Ennis
Co. Clare

6th December 2005

Dear Sir

Following the last meeting of the Agents Liaison Group (ALG) on September 21st and Mr. Graham Webb’s letter seeking our response, we have had discussions regarding the future of the ALG and our role in it. As you recall the ALG was established in early 2000 with the intended purpose of holding quarterly meetings between representatives of the Planning Department of Clare County Council and members of professions in the private sector who have ongoing dealings with the planning authority on behalf of their clients.

This was an effort to encourage dialogue and identify and overcome some of the difficulties which are experienced by both sides in the operation of the planning system.

We were hopeful that these exchanges of views would lead to a better operation of the system and a better understanding of the difficulties which arise, however we are disappointed that this has not been fruitful.

Whilst we are fully aware of the legal framework of the planning system within which we all work, we are concerned about the lack of dialogue and heavy handed manner in which the legal framework is being used to frustrate development in the County. From our point of view we have made every effort to make the ALG work.

We must preface our comments below by pointing out that we do not speak on behalf of ‘Agents’ in Clare, nor can we. There are over 130 agents who handle planning applications on behalf of others, with no regulation as to their qualifications or professional status. The comments herein are solely those of the undersigned who are all qualified professionals, and are based upon our own direct experiences in working with the Planning Department in County Clare.

Inconsistency in the requirements and approach of individual planners. This leads to frustration where discussions and agreements reached on developments are overturned by subsequent planners who take over a file, (and this is frequent due to the high turnover of planning personnel) and by more senior planners within the Authority. Planners are consistently failing to minute meetings where it has been agreed at ALG that they would do so, minutes should be taken, countersigned and placed on file, otherwise this makes nonsense of the pre-planning process.

Lack of communication between departments: Technical reports from other departments are frequently contradictory and are issued in requests for Further Information without planners making any value judgment on their order of priority. 

Lack of consistency within other departments: Even within Road Traffic Design, Conservation Environment and Sanitary services there are conflicting opinions expressed by different specialists and in frequent instances the ‘specialist’ opinions that inform a planning decision do not emanate from these departments at all, but from local Area Engineers or other sources. We are not being given a clear guideline regarding who will make decisions on technical aspects of an application and with whom we are expected to consult

Mistakes in technical reports: Decisions to refuse permission can be based upon incorrect internal reports from the specialist departments and there is no opportunity given to correct these without going through the appeal process, and going to considerable expense to commission independent technical response.

Misinterpretation of policies: Decisions for refusal or requests for Further Information which are based on an inaccurate or skewed interpretation of policies laid down in the Council’s own development plans.

Use of third party observations as grounds for requests for Further Information without any assessment by planners as to their worth or validity.

Lack of respect for client investment: overturning agreements reached, or lengthening the process with repeated requests for Further Information and then issuing refusals is involving both clients and professionals in considerable expenditure, with consequent loss of investment at the conclusion. There is also concern over requests for Further Information which are unnecessary (i.e. as they could be easily dealt with through conditioning), or which are disproportionate to the scale of development.

Lack of respect for professional qualifications and experience: Most of us have over 20 years of experience and are qualified professionals working in the design and construction industry in this County. There is little recognition of this by planners, some of whom display little knowledge of the County, have no design or construction experience or qualifications and who make judgments on applications based upon their own unqualified, subjective opinions. Design statements are frequently ignored.

Difficulties in meeting planners and others involved in the planning process: It may take weeks to get an appointment as planners make their own appointments with no secretarial backup, and can only be contacted by telephone at very specific times (generally one morning each week). Planners have a policy of not meeting an agent or client before a decision has been reached or a request for Further Information issued, will not meet before the expiry of the appeal period, and will not meet until the expiry of an extension of time. This rules out any opportunity for dialogue on an application and is leading to an impossible working relationship between professionals and planners.

Delays in the issuing of Grants of Permission (green forms): This document is the required outcome of any successful application, however developers are experiencing significant delays in the commencement of works due to a failure to issue these in a timely manner. Similar delays are being experienced due to the Council’s failure to address pre-construction compliance submissions on planning conditions in a prompt fashion.

Unflagged refusals or conditions attached to grants of permission, where items are raised for the first time when the only recourse will be through the appeal process, despite any opportunity which existed during the process to raise these matters for discussion.

Refusal for Planning Permission on zoned land: Development plans set out zoning for development for all areas both urban and rural and are (and should be) the basis for purchase of land by developers. However developers are being prevented from developing due to lack of infrastructure or requirements of outside bodies (eg NRA). Whilst we are aware that legally the onus is on a purchaser of land to research its status, zoning which has been designated without consultation with relevant departments within the Authority and with other bodies, or without qualification regarding facts which might hinder development, are misleading the public and causing serious financial losses.

We can provide many planning histories of specific applications which will demonstrate all of the above points and which will show that these are not isolated incidents but, sadly, the norm. Many of us have worked with Planning Departments within other Local Authorities and it is our experience that the above-outlined difficulties are particularly acute within Clare County Council. In conclusion, we are concerned about the inability to give professional advice to clients, as we cannot get any clear and consistent guidance from Planners, Technical Departments or the Development Plan.

We are totally frustrated by lack of consistency, poor management structure, lack of productive dialogue, poor communication, and absence of a rational, coherent, consistent and commonsense approach to planning within the planning authority, with resultant waste of time and money to ourselves and the people we represent. We therefore see little point in continuing to hold “Agent Liaison Group” meetings with the Planning Department until there has been a significant and tangible overhaul of the present system which, in our view, is clearly not working.

Yours sincerely,

Tom Byrne

Paul Conway

Michael Corey 

Joe Hanrahan

Michael Leahy

Victor Leyden

Ritchie McAllister

Dermot Merry

Siobhan Mulcahy

John Neylon

Eillis O Nuallain

Cyril O'Reilly

John O'Reilly

Noel Scanlon

Paul Stafford

Kostas Wootis

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