3 Apr 2007

Interesting letter from Tom Byrne of Byrne O’Donnell Scully Architects and Architectural Technicians in Ennis, County Clare, who says that in 1999, out of total frustration with how the planning system was working, he and some colleagues set up the ALG (Agents Liaison Group) so that private practitioners and council officials could meet from time to time to iron out problems and ensure a more efficient planning application system. It was, Tom tells me, lauded by the Minister of the time (Noel Dempsey, I think) as a ‘model’ to be copied elsewhere. But, Tom continues.   

‘… It ended abruptly when our group decided that it really was a talking shop (in the worst sense of the phrase) and we let our frustrations be known in a missive to the Acting Director of Services, which was copied to all the Councillors and the County Manager. It was leaked to the Press (not by us I hasten to add) before it even arrived on the DOS's desk. To say it was taken badly is an understatement… (council officials) didn't like what we were saying (the truth!) and despite writing to the Minister to ask his opinion (seeing as he had lauded our example), we never even got a reply…

 

I feel we have to try (to reform the ALG) for our collective sanities. I could write a tome or two about the farcical and incredulous decisions and lack of communication/pre-planning/ validation/lack of response to telephone calls, emails etc etc etc but I can feel my blood boiling even at the thought…’

Well, Tom, this is interesting. In 1999, sharing (I’m sure) exactly the same sense of frustration you and your colleagues were then enduring, I made contact with the then Junior Minister at the Department of the Environment, Bobby Molloy (who’s absence from political life has, in my view, created some moral/ethical void which will never be filled). Bobby was interested and concerned with the issues I had raised. He put me in immediate contact with (then Tanaiste) Mary Harney’s adviser who sat down with me for the best part of a day as I went through the usual stuff about how difficult it was dealing with the planning authorities on routine matters. After a very good meeting, the adviser suggested I contact some senior people at Minister Dempsey’s office. 

And then, well… you can guess the rest. 

Despite a recommendation from the Tanaiste’s senior adviser, Minister Dempsey was too busy to meet. Then his advisers were too busy to meet. The assistants to these advisers were too busy to meet. And then the junior assistant advisors to the most junior assistant desk clerks in the Motor Tax renewal office were to busy to meet. 

Finally (with the helpful intervention of the Tanaiste’s adviser) someone in the Department suggested that I attend a conference in Cork which was due to be addressed by the Minister (on the occasion of launch of the new Planning Bill, in 1999) where, if I introduced myself, I was told he would give me a few minutes of his time. 

I went along. The Minister arrived. He spoke for ten minutes. And left. 

I ended up talking to some mid ranking Department official who, after a few moments, gruffly interrupted me before I gotten into my flow to suggest that the points I was making to help improve the planning system (I remember one of them being that if we printed more original planning application forms from a computer rather than making photocopies of photocopies of something first printed in1963 to the point it was no longer legible, this might help), but was told that these ideas (direct quote) ‘… were not really relevant in the Irish context…’

Anyway, my point is, Tom, that at that time you and I were obviously talking to the very same people. You would think that if they were serious about entering into some kind of meaningful dialogue about the planning situation they might have, at least, mentioned that I (living in Killaloe) might do well to contact you (a stone’s throw away in Ennis) to see if we could work together. They didn’t. And I’m sure it’s not because it didn’t occur to them. 

And it leads me onto this...  If we can’t get the attention of the Ministers, Department Officials, party chatterboxes, and Local Authority tyrants one way, we may have to try another. 

Shortly after Christmas, I was approached by a Dublin based group comprising an independent County Councilor and some of his colleagues (well known, influential, professional, capable and well-connected people) who wondered if I might be interested in running for Dail Eireann on a ‘planning’ ticket in the upcoming election.

Amongst all the other stuff you can imagine we discussed at our meetings, it seemed obvious that County Clare would be an excellent place for someone like me to run. For one thing, I live in Clare. Then, It’s my experience that (for reasons I can’t explain, but I suspect are related to the high profile around here of Jim Connolly and the Irish Rural Dwellers Association) the average people of Clare are more motivated by planning matters than anywhere else in the country, which means there’s a ready made market for the message. It’s a four seat constituency with no star performers. Factor in that Sile de Valera won’t be running for re-election and that the other sitting Fianna Fail TD, Tony Killeen is no shoo in after ‘dodgy-representationsgate’ and which looks set to dog him when the campaign gets going. This leaves Fianna Fail trying to retain two seats with one candidate with a bit of previous and another not blessed with the last name of De Valera. The quota in Clare is, I think, around ten thousand but Fine Gael managed to pick up their single seat in the last election with only 4,500 first preference votes and a bunch of transfers. 

Now, I can think of at least 4,500 people living in County Clare with a grievance about the planning system. So, in other words, I think it’s doable.  

I have to tell you, Tom, I’m quite serious when I say that I’m thinking about having a run. With the general election coming, there’s no better time to put the planning issue (by which I mean the planning issue the ordinary people of Ireland understand, not the ‘Ireland keeps failing to comply with European Directives on the Environment’ agenda peddled by D4 based, professional conference attendees). If there’s a constituency to run in, Clare’s the one. If it’s not me, I’d be delighted to get behind someone else.

So, I suppose what I’m suggesting to you, Tom, is that maybe you convene another meeting of the ALG and add this matter to the agenda? 4,500 first preferences and some decent transfers is all it would take. Manageable, I think, if you consider all the architects, engineers, planners (in private practice) builders, homeowners and developers across the county who’d easily provide a match for the big party organisations. Not to mention a local media which seems a) eager to report on all planning matters and b) more informed than local newspapers in other parts of the country in understanding the nitty gritty of what’s going wrong with the system. 

Drop me a line and I’ll see what we can pull together.  

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