Up to now, when Dublin City Councillors wanted to weigh in on a planning application, they could raise it a local council meeting.
But last week, they were told that in future they will have to pay the €20 fee to make an observation – just like everybody else.
“If we have to make their laws unworkable, then we should make their laws unworkable,” he said.
But there is also confusion over whether what they have been told is definite.
What’s This About?
Councillors play different roles in shaping what the city looks like, and what gets built where.
They set the overall rules for the city in the development plan, which sets rules for things like which areas should be used for housing or green space, or the maximum heights for buildings.
But they don’t get to decide whether or not planning applications for specific construction projects get the go-ahead. That’s an executive function, for civil servants at the council.
Local authorities had their planning powers reduced following the corruption and bribery in some councils uncovered by the Mahon Tribunal, says Councillor Daithi Doolan of Sinn Fein. “The response was to take away all the planning power from councillors,” he said.
Some might say that the clear separation of powers is necessary. As Doolan sees it, though, it has now gone to the other extreme and senior officials have all the power. Hence the Poolbeg waste-to-energy incinerator, which councillors opposed but managers at the council pressed ahead with anyway.
“In the UK, councillors have decision–making powers, but because we don’t have them here we tend to be very conservative in our development plans,” he says.
He points to height restrictions as an example of this. Councillors vote to keep the building heights relatively low in Dublin, as they fear that otherwise, tall buildings would be allowed in inappropriate places, he says.
“If a 20-storey building was proposed for somewhere totally unsuitable, councillors would have no say at that stage. So what do we do? We prevent all 20–storey buildings anywhere,” he says.
The regulations governing submissions on planning applications state that any person or body that wishes to make a submission to the planning authority must pay the €20 fee, unless they only wish to indicate approval or disapproval.
At a meeting last week of the council’s planning committee, Assistant Chief Executive Declan Wallace said that they hadn’t been following those regulations. “We were granting planning permissions … in a way that wasn’t in adherence with the regulations or the guidelines,” he said.
That’s because up to now, some councillors have always paid fees when making submissions, and others haven’t.
A practice has developed in Dublin and some other council areas where councillors have been allowed to make detailed submissions without paying the fee, says Montague, who chairs the planning committee.
As Montague’s Labour colleague Lacey sees it, the real issue is not that councillors have to pay €20, but the role of local councillors in the process.
“I shouldn’t have a decisive say in planning matters,” Lacey says. “But I should be able to bring my local knowledge to the table so that planners can hear it. And I should be able to ask questions in public, on a major piece of development that is planned for my area.”
Councillors can offer their input in ways other than through a detailed submission. Sometimes planning applications are put on the agenda of one of the council’s local area committees, for a discussion and a vote, and planners are invited to attend, says Montague.
Lacey says that’s happened when the planning application was of major significance, or when there was “such a degree of complexity about it that a public discussion would help”.
It’s unclear whether the council wants to start charging councillors for discussing a planning application in an area committee meeting, or individually making a detailed submission on a planning application – or both.
As well as debating the planning applications at meetings, councillors also have often made written submissions by letter or email without paying the fee, says Montague.
Lacey says he would previously have only paid the fee in circumstance where he knew he was “going all the way to An Bord Pleanala” with an issue.
Sinn Fein Councillor Gaye Fagan says she and her party colleague Janice Boylan have always paid the fee to submit an observation on a planning application.
“We always paid anyway – €20 the same as everyone else to put in an observation, ” she says. “Since there is two of us in Sinn Fein [in the Central Area], myself and Janice, we often do a joint submission so it is a tenner each.”
If she was concerned about an application she would pay the money, she says. “There is no point thinking you have a submission gone in and they might not have taken it. At least if you pay the €20 you know it has gone in.”
At the meeting last week, several councillors said they were unclear whether it was the legislation that prevented them from chipping in their insights for free, or the council’s interpretation of the legislation.
Assistant Chief Executive Declan Wallace said that the council’s interpretation is based on the regulations, which don’t seem to offer any wiggle room in relation to the fee. “It is absolutely black-and-white that it must be paid.”
If councillors don’t pay, then planning permissions that are granted might be left open to challenges, Wallace said.
But that’s not what a spokesperson for the Department of Housing said by email.
“The €20 fee does not apply at area and other official meetings. In relation to discussions on planning applications, councillors may oppose, support or reject applications. However, any specific observations/comments made by elected members do not open the planning application decision to legal challenge,” she said.
“The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016 provides for Regulations to be made to waive or reduce fees required in the making of observations on applications for planning permissions. It provides that elected members may pay a reduced fee or no fee for making such a submission on a planning application,” she said.
Councillors at the moment are trying to work out how, if they continue to discuss planning applications in meetings in the future, that might work.
“Do you all run up to the council to pay your €20 before the meeting?” says Lacey. “It’s all just bizarre.”
He says that the way it was done was transparent. “The item was on the agenda, councillors expressed their opinion and the planners had to answer questions in public,” says Lacey. “It’s a withdrawal of an opportunity to engage in public.”
Montague says it is unfair that councillors may be charged for representing the community.
In the past, he submitted concerns around plans for construction at Wadelai Green in Glasnevin, and told planners that the land there floods. They had to put in additional measures for drainage as a result, he says.
Should he submit that kind of information to them in the future, he will need to pay €20 to do so. “It is nonsensical,” he says.
Workers’ Party Councillor Eilis Ryan just thinks nobody should pay, as it weights the system. “It means that companies have a big advantage over residents,” she says.