20 Jul 2007

There are so many stories it’s hard to know where to begin. But we’ll give it a shot.

About two years ago a development team led by Len Dineen and Thomas Healy, two businessman of repute who operate in the Midwest, purchased a structure on the outskirts of Ennis. After two (what Len and Tom then believed) successful pre-planning consultations, it looked like their proposal to demolish an ordinary, 1970s era house and replace it with a mixed use development including crèche, health centre, supermarket and other community facilities would be approved as a matter of course.

But, naturally, things like this never go according to plan: a very last minute request for further information arrived on Len’s desk seeking greater detail on items which should have been obvious from the drawings. A bit of a nuisance, but so far so par-for-the-course. The requested information was submitted.

Then, at the very last minute before the Council was due to issue its decision one way or the other, it issued another request for information. Now, this is something Council’s are not supposed to do: they can only get one shot at a Request for Information after which they’re supposed to make their decision. (Now, planners, before you start emailing me, I know you’re allowed seek a ‘clarification’ after a ‘request’, but don’t even think about it. Also, according to press reports there were actually THREE requests issued in the course of the application, which would make matters worse.)

Things were made more complicated by the fact that the second Request for Information was sent to the wrong address where it was accepted by one of Len’s neighbours hours after the statutory deadline had expired. Technically, this meant that Len had received ‘planning approval by default’.

Len and Tom considered the situation before consulting David Keane, the foremost planning lawyer in the country. David confirmed for them what they already suspected: that is, that because the Council had failed to make a decision within the allowed time, they could assume they had their planning. (I managed to get a copy of David’s letter and have reprinted it in full below.)

A bad story, but it’s about to get badder.

In his representations on behalf of Len and Tom, planning expert Dave Keane was quite sharp in his criticism of Clare County Council’s handling of the application, inferring at one point in a report that council officials didn’t appear to ‘have any idea what a planning application is’ The document which contained the criticism would, under normal conditions, have made its way to the planning file.

However, when the relentless Cllr PJ Kelly requested to see the file, Keane’s report was not to be found. Not put off by council excuses (‘sensitive legal documents aren’t usually included on planning files, in case they jeopardise the applicant’s blah, blah, blah’), Kelly found the report and raised it at a Council meeting.  

Now this is really, really serious. First of all, every practising architect out there knows that planning authorities all over the country are abusing the regulations regarding requests for information. Second and third requests (euphemistically referred to as ‘clarifications’) are now routinely issued as a means of dragging planning applications on indefinitely.

Secondly, is does now seem that local authorities are (allegedly, etc.) messing around with public files to show themselves in a certain light.

The rest of us (applicants, architects, etc.) don’t have this luxury. Lately, one of our most talented young architects received a letter from a local authority to the effect that his wonderful proposal was considered ‘poorly designed’ by someone in the planning department. This letter remains on the public file – the architect is powerless to do anything about it.

And five years ago, I personally received a letter from the then Dúchas (allegedly, etc.) accusing me of in some way contributing to the demise of a listed building. The letter was one of the most poorly written documents I’d read, by which I don’t mean that it was shrill, hysterical, repetitive, inaccurate, false and libellous (which it was) but that it was almost not in English. I considered taking legal action but decided not to bother. The letter however, remains on a public file.

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