Minister for Planning & Housing sets the Record Straight on Planning Investigations
The furore over planning investigations is a smokescreen created by the unholy alliance of a thoroughly discredited Fianna Fail party and the man mercifully released by the Irish electorate from his “asylum” into the political wilderness – John Gormley. So said Jan O’Sullivan, Minister for Housing & Planning today (29 March, 2012) as she set the record straight on the matter.
John Gormley announced independent inquiries into seven local authorities in June 2010.
When he left office more than seven months later, he had still not commenced these. What he had done was issue a request for tenders for the carrying out of a review and issue letters to potential panellists regarding provisional appointment to a panel of planning experts pending confirmation of certain conditions.
Mr. Gormley issued these letters on 19 January 2011 seeking various additional pieces of information by 26 January 2011 – one week later. However, Minister Gormley’s final day in office was 23 January. He had therefore left office before the date set for receipt of the additional information he had sought.
So a suggestion that Mr. Gormley had launched any independent investigation is clearly not correct.
• His proposed investigation had not been commenced.
• No contract had been awarded.
• No preferred tenderer had been selected and Minister Gormley’s successor as Minister for the Environment, Deputy Eamon O Cuív, did not progress the matter during his period as Minister.
Now the Fianna Fail party are calling on the Minister to reinstate inquiries which their own party did not advance before it left office.
These are the facts and I am prepared to open the file as regards the sequence of events in January 2011.
After taking up the reins as Minister for Housing and Planning in the new government, Minister Penrose considered that the very considerable cost of retaining consultants to conduct these inquiries required some further examination. He instructed officials instead to conduct an internal review and to report to him on what further actions might be warranted. The Minister wanted to ensure that the response to the complaints raised was proportionate.
In other words, this approach would allow that where the internal reviews found issues of substance requiring full independent investigation, this could proceed. Similarly, where the internal reviews might legitimately conclude that the complaints made were without substance, the further follow up could be reconsidered and the taxpayer would not be charged for unnecessary consultancy fees.
There has never been at any stage a question of the review not being completed – this suggestion is untrue. Similarly, it is far wide of the mark to suggest that, sitting now on my desk in the Custom House, there is a fully completed internal review or comprehensive dossier that is being suppressed for some sinister purpose.
Work has been done by officials in the Department, but there was no final internal review completed. A preliminary report was received by Minister Penrose in July of 2011, and that is the work that is now being finalised and which will serve as the basis of the report.
On completion of the review, I will publish – in full – the findings and will issue a public statement. This statement will include any appropriate actions to be taken. These further actions might include changes to legislation, new regulations, or further guidance on a range of issues in the operation of the planning system in local authorities or targeted follow up independent investigations.
It is important to note that the findings of the internal review are not prejudged and it was always the case that some further investigations, including independent inquiries, may form part of these outcomes.
I want now to draw a line under this issue so that the work of completing the report can be progressed and we can establish exactly what went on in each of the cases being examined and identify the further actions that may be necessary to put things right.
Annex 1 Chronology of events
Oct/Nov 2009 Representations and submissions on various planning issues received from NGOs and members of the public in respect of which a sample of 7 planning authorities were selected for examination, representing urban as well as rural areas, which are both large and small, covering different planning procedures.
27 Mar 2010 Minister Gormley publicly indicates plans to use his powers under the Planning Act to launch investigations (section 255).
22 June 2010 Minister Gormley issues a press release outlining the initiation of a review of how planning laws and policy are being implemented by a sample cross-section of local authorities around the country based on representations and submissions on various planning issues which were received from NGOs and members of the public to shape the review; also outlining his plans to write to the authorities seeking their views on the issues and once the reports were received the Minister undertook to appoint independent planning experts to review the replies.
23 June 2010 The Department issued letters to planning authorities stating that the Minister requests under section 255 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 that the authority examine the correspondence received by him and to provide a detailed response (including a response to specific questions) by 16 July 2010.
16 July 2010 All responses from planning authorities had been duly received.
24 Sept 2010 The Department issued a request for tender seeking external planning experts.
22 Oct 2010 A total of 40 eligible submissions were received by this closing date.
By Jan 2011 The Department’s Tender Evaluation Team, established following the closing date for receipt of tenders, concluded the evaluation by early January 2011.
12 Jan 2011 A submission was made to the Minister on the evaluation of tenders and recommendations concerning the appointment of 6 successful tenders.
17 Jan 2011 Minister Gormley approved the submission in respect of putting in place a panel of prospective consultants.
19 Jan 2011 Six letters issue under the Minister’s signature advising successful tenderers of having been provisionally appointed to the panel pending confirmation of certain conditions by 26 January 2011 (i.e. provision of Tax Clearance Certificate, declaration of non-conflict of interest etc.) while also stating that further correspondence would outline the process in allocating the reviews while reminding potential panellists that inclusion on the panel did not guarantee engagement by the Department.
22/23 Jan 2011 On the final days of the Minister being in office no further correspondence issued (successful tenderers were given until 26 January 2011 to confirm certain conditions as outlined above).
6 April 2011 Minister Penrose outlined to the Dáil (Priority Question No. 7) that the resources of his Department will be directed primarily towards supporting the implementation of the Government’s commitments in these areas and that he was currently reviewing in detail a number of specific complaints, following the initiating of the process by former Minister Gormley. Minister Penrose further outlined that when the review was completed he will issue a public statement outlining the complaints at issue, his response and any appropriate actions to be pursued in regard to further policy development and guidance, in line with commitments in the Programme for Government. In supplementary response the Minister outlined, inter alia, that the local authorities have replied to the various specific issues and in conjunction with his Department he would review those replies after which he would publish that statement and the report. If any recommendations along such lines were to arise, he noted that opting for an independent review would necessitate considerable expenditure.
July 2011 A preliminary commentary from the Department on the complaints was received by Minister Penrose in July of 2011.
September 2011 Minister Penrose noted the preliminary commentary and asked that a further report be furnished to him dealing with the issues arising from the original files, the planning authorities’ responses, an evaluation of the responses and recommendations for any further action.
To date This has and continues to be the position of both Minister Hogan and more recently Minister O’Sullivan, as outlined to the House in various responses to Parliamentary Questions.
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