Monday, 15 October 2012

Reforms will stop councillors overturning planning decisions

THE POWER of councillors to overturn the decisions of planning officials will be abolished in a massive overhaul of local government to be announced tomorrow.

The biggest reform of local government since the current system was instituted in 1898 is due to be unveiled by the Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan.

The decision to curtail the planning powers of local councillors has been taken in the light of evidence given to the Mahon tribunal regarding corruption in the planning process.

As part of the reform package, section 140 of the Local Government Act will be abolished so that councillors will no longer be allowed to direct officials in respect of planning functions.

The planning system has been bedevilled for decades by the ability of councillors to override planning decisions made by the professional planners in local authorities.

The practice has been more common in some counties than in others and has been the source of continuing controversy.

The Mahon tribunal, which investigated planning corruption in Dublin during the early 1990s, uncovered an elaborate system of payments and political donations made to councillors during the planning process.

It is believed the reforms to be announced tomorrow will take account of the tribunal recommendations and are designed to ensure that similar problems do not arise in the future.
It is also expected that the reform package will involve the abandonment of plans to have a directly elected mayor for the greater Dublin area similar to the office of London mayor.

The plan was the brainchild of the former minister for the environment and Green Party leader, John Gormley.

However, the Government parties have maintained since before taking office that the creation of a Dublin mayor would cost €8 million a year and was not justified in current economic circumstances.
The nub of the reform plan, which has already been flagged by Mr Hogan, will be a substantial cut in the number of councillors and a reduction in the number of local authorities.

It is expected that some local authorities will be merged, but it is not yet clear if smaller town councils will be abolished as originally planned.

The household charge introduced by Mr Hogan at the beginning of the year will be replaced by a fully fledged property tax next year but the Government remains committed to the principle that the money will be ring-fenced for use by local authorities.

Despite the controversy and the slow start to the collection process, the Department of the Environment now believes that the compliance rate will be close to 75 per cent by the end of the year.
Responsibility for collecting the property tax has been passed to the Revenue Commissioners, who will also be responsible for collecting the household charge arrears.

Speaking at the MacGill summer school in Glenties last July, the Minister said that he had been mandated by a “reforming Government to drag the system of local government into the 21st century” so that it delivered more to the community and put people first.

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