21 Sep 2007

Minister Gormley at a recent Shannon rally telling people who rely on the Heathrow connection that he was planning a special high speed cycling lane to London which would work even better if everyone would only give it a chance. 

 

I’ve taken my argument with the DoE about their appeal to An Bord Planala on a project I was working on as far as it will go. Just a quick recap: you might remember from Dispatch 10 I told you about a very good proposal by a decent bunch of architects to renovate/restore a Protected Structure in one of our larger cities. The City Council approved it and none of the usual objectors objected. But we were shocked when the Minister for the Environment Heritage and Local Government decided to appeal the decision. Once that happened, An Bord Rubberstampala had no option but to do the Minister’s bidding.

In the course of trying to figure out what motivated the Minister to make the appeal I discovered that the official acting on his behalf hadn’t even visited the site. (S)he claimed on the phone that objecting to planning applications on conservation grounds was quite routine with ‘hundreds’ of similar actions taking place every year. Turns out this mightn’t be quite the case. Apparently the Minister rarely appeals planning decisions. 

I know this might seem rather small and petty to everyone else, but to me this kind of thing is serious. It goes right to the heart of what’s wrong with our planning system: arbitrary, secretive, unexpected, inconsistent, inexplicable… Easy to see, for example how a Department official could take advantage of a situation like this to target an applicant (not saying they do...)

The other reason why I know it really is a serious matter is because when I said I was going to write about the situation on the blog, the project architect and client both asked me to make sure that they couldn’t be identified from anything I said because they didn’t want to be targeted by the local Council or the Minister on future applications. In this free country of ours. In 2007.  

My first attempt at getting some kind of explanation was a total failure (Dispatches 10 and 15). I whisked off a sharply worded letter demanding a better effort after 15. And I received the following reply.

 

This second letter says absolutely nothing at all. Which is to say it speaks volumes. The crux of my question to the Minister, you might remembers, was what criteria are used to determine whether planning applications will be appealed to An Bord Planala. The civil servant writing back to me takes a page and a half to wind up to the answer which is that there are no real criteria: decisions to proceed are made by our ‘… experienced qualified conservation professionals…’ who run their comments under the Minister’s nose. No explanation offered about how the Minister himself signs off on a recommendation although I know he must use some sort of criteria because he (not John Gormley, a predecessor) on at least one occasion that I know of refused to issue a recommendation by one of his conservation advisors on a much more serious matter. I have to assume it was for political reasons. 

The other thing I find interesting about the letter is that it doesn’t say something like ‘thanks for pointing out to us that an important step in our procedure on whether to take an appeal to an Board is lacking a system of checks and balances. We’ll review our procedures and revert to you at our earliest etc etc…’ In other words, you point out a flaw in their procedures they know they’d have to change if you ever took them to court about it, but unless you’re actually prepared to take them to court, they just couldn’t be bothered. A big fudge. 

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