21 Sep 2007

Because Ireland is now a model of governmental transparency, an organisation called the Local Government Management Services Board publishes an annual report on how well our local authorities are performing in the delivery of the various services they’re supposed to provide. You’ll find the 2006 report on the Services Board website which has lovely, carefully set up, soft focus photographs of young, good-looking local authority professionals spontaneously caught in the act of not being on extended sick leave as they enthusiastically kick some issue into touch.

‘Service Indicators in Local Authorities 2006’ is a reassuringly thick and detailed document which spares no effort in not misleading the public, which is the last thing the Services Board would ever want to do.

I’m drawn to the middle pages – columns and columns of wonderfully cross referenced and footnoted breakdowns on everything you could possibly want to know about every planning application made in the whole country during 2006.

Garry heaven. 

So let me see now… Page 77, Table 29: Statistics on Pre Planning Consultations (PPCs). PPCs are the meetings which planners are supposed to arrange for you so that you can get a feel for their thinking about your plans for your lovely new dream home before you go spending a fortune on lodging a full planning application. According to the Service Indicators Report, I should only have to wait thirteen days on average for a meeting with a planner.

Bringing focus, as they say, on the situation in County Cork I discover that in 2006 I should have had my meeting in a better-than-average ten days. Didn’t they do well! But I have one little question: if I want to obtain an appointment for a Pre Planning Consultation in County Cork I’m limited to calling the planning office between 9.30 and 10.30 on Monday and Wednesday mornings. No other time is allowed. If, as is invariably the case, I don’t get through the scramble of calls from other architects who are desperate for an appointment and I end up speed-dialling County Hall on consecutive Mondays and Wednesdays until several frustrating weeks have gone by before I’m lucky enough to get the voice of a planner at the other end of the line, is this delay calculated in the ‘ten day’ figure?

Alas, no. If I’d read the fine print beforehand I would have noticed that the Services Board were very up front about saying that the average wait is ‘from the time the appointment is made’, not how long it takes to make the appointment. (If I were in mischievous mood, I might go looking in the report for stats on how many of the 28,000 or so would-be applicants who attended Pre Planning Consultations in Ireland last year actually found them in the slightest bit useful? The answer is ‘fewer than 28,000’, but that’s a discussion for a whole nuther article.)

Maybe, I hear you say, I’m being a little bit hard on the Services Board about their PPC statistics. Maybe PPCs are not their strong suit. Okay, I’ll try something else instead.

Section 57 Declarations.

Section 57s affect you if you own an historic building which is included on the ‘Record of Protected Structures’. If you want to know exactly what you can and can’t do in your Protected Structure without having to make a planning application, you apply to the local authority who are obliged by law to send you out a report – a Section 57 Declaration – which lists the things which are allowed as well as a list of the things which are strictly forbidden to be carried out in your building. According to the planning legislation the Declaration must be issued to you by the local authority within three months of their receiving the request.

I’m flicking through the 170-odd page Services Board report but – how odd -  I’m not finding the section which says how well Local Authorities did last year in meeting their three month deadline for issuing Declarations...

That’s because it it’s not there. And the reason it’s not there is because if it were there it would have to somehow account for the fact that in some parts of the country you might be waiting FOUR YEARS to receive as much as an acknowledgement from the planners that they’ve received your request.

I promise you, I’m not being overly critical about the way the Services Board presents its stats. Any architect, engineer or planning consultant with a modicum of experience dealing with the Irish planning system could go through the 2006 report and pick a serious hole in just about any figure quoted.

Although it might like us to think otherwise, the Local Government Management Services Board’s report is not an independent audit of how local councils are handling planning applications: it’s just a piece of bureaucratic boosterism who’s real function is to bombard an uninformed media with oodles of scientific-ish sounding numbers so that tough questions which need to be asked about the Irish planning system will remain unasked and the Irish people will be led to believe that everything in the local authority system is good and getting better.

If you don’t get my train of thought already, I guess I’m saying these guys aren’t being straight with us. They’re taking us for fools.

Before I leave you, let’s go back to the Services Board web site. You’ll notice that every time you visit their homepage a new little factoid pops up in the top right had corner – a little amuse bouche - that’s supposed to make you feel all good about the Irish local government system. One of the factoids reads as follows:

‘Did You Know?

Prior to the Local Government (Ireland) act 1898 the administration of local affairs in Ireland was undemocratic and in a state of chaos with policy decisions made at a distance in London, mostly serving the interests of landowners.’

What, I ask you, are we supposed to take from this?

That in 2007 the undemocratic state of chaos is now administered in Dublin?

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