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Councillors were surprised recently to learn that, without their knowledge, council management had included more than 200 rezonings in a proposed new development plan for the city – including one affecting a proposal to build 657 homes near St Anne’s Park.
Deciding on the zoning of the city – meaning what land can be used for what purpose – is one of Dublin city councillors’ main responsibilities.
“There needs to be scrutiny. There needs to be transparency,” said independent Councillor Damian O’Farrell. “Trust has been damaged.”
The draft zoning maps for the new development plan were set to go out to public consultation soon, following a meeting next week, but councillors agreed an emergency motion at their November monthly meeting on Monday, calling on the council’s CEO to clarify all the changes.
The motion, proposed by O’Farrell, independent Councillor Cieran Perry, Fine Gael Councillor Naoise Ó Muirí and Fianna Fáil Councillor Deirdre Heney, called on the council’s chief executive to provide a list of management’s proposed zoning changes, the reasons for them, and who had proposed them.
It also asked the chief executive, Owen Keegan, to clarify that councillors had not agreed to all the proposed rezoning on the draft maps.
Several councillors said they were shocked that the council managers had made major changes to the zoning maps of the city without their knowledge or agreement. One councillor said it was an attack on democracy.
Keegan apologised at the meeting for the “oversight”, which he said was “a very, very unfortunate development that can’t be defended on any basis”.
Why Does It Matter?
Every five years, councillors and officials draw up a new city development plan. It is the planning rulebook for the city, and one of the main things councillors are elected to do.
Each patch of land in the city has a designated zoning, which stipulates if it should be developed mostly for homes, say, or industry, parks, shops, education and so on, or a mix of those things.
For councillors to make a change to zoning is a big deal, says O’Farrell. They have to make a case for it and put forward a valid planning reason. (For landowners, whose land may leap in value with a rezoning, it is too.)
But council managers wanting to do around 220 changes, simply redrew the maps without providing reasons, says O’Farrell.
A few weeks ago, O’Farrell discovered changes that, he says, were opposed to councillors’ instructions. After that, O’Farrell started to zoom in more on the maps and was surprised to notice more changes.
Some of the changes they made are really positive, he says. But others appear to be slipped in while no one was looking. “There is no way councillors would agree to the St Anne’s one,” he says.
The St Paul’s playing pitches site, beside St Anne’s Park in Clontarf is owned by the developer Marlet, which in August 2020 was granted planning permission by An Bord Pleanála for 657 homes there.
Last May, that decision was overturned in the High Court, when the judge ruled that the zoning of the site as “institutional land” didn’t allow for the proposed residential development.
In the new draft zoning maps, O’Farrell discovered that most of that site was to be rezoned to Z1 “residential” which he says went against the instructions of local councillors.
At the council meeting on Monday night, Social Democrats Councillor Catherine Stocker said that she had understood from a June meeting about the development plan that the zoning of the St Paul’s site was to be altered to strengthen its community use.
Yet she said the council managers had done the opposite, and instead rezoned much of that site as Z1 residential. “This is an attempt to slip this past us,” she said. “No one would have agreed to it.”
Independent Councillor Cieran Perry asked at the meeting what discussions had taken place between Dublin City Council managers and the owners of that St Paul’s site.
Neither Marlet nor Dublin City Council responded to queries sent last week about whether they had corresponded in about the site.
The city development plan process “certainly isn’t councillor-led as is constantly stated”, said Perry.
But the draft plan that goes out to public consultation is supposed to be the councillors’ plan, says O’Farrell.
On Tuesday, O’Farrell said that council managers have now confirmed that they made around 220 changes to zonings in the maps.
A More Accessible Process
Some simple changes would make the city development plan process more accessible for all councillors, and especially for those who are doing it for the first time, says O’Farrell.
Each change to zoning proposed by council management should be logged, together with a reason for the change, he says, and an index should be provided so that councillors can easily find the relevant map for their local area.
In the last development plan, 2016 to 2022, there was more information in the maps about what each zoning means, he says.
A council spokesperson says the maps are exactly the same. “The maps have been produced in exactly the same format as the 2016 maps,” they said.
(They haven’t been, the new ones have less information.)
The quality of the maps was also better the last time, says O’Farrell. “The maps are particularly poor this time.”
“The colours are vague and the maps are difficult to read,” said Green Party Councillor Donna Cooney, at Monday’s full council meeting.
The process is also too rushed, says O’Farrell. In one evening last June, councillors heard a thousand motions, he says.
“It was farcical,” says O’Farrell. “I’m an experienced councillor and I hadn’t a clue what was going on.”
They were told not to talk about zoning at that June meeting, he says. “At this stage of the plan making process, submissions relating to the zoning of land are not considered,” says a report for the meeting.
That stage was about “high level, big picture issues based around a number of key themes”, says the report.
Then on 16 September councillors got the draft report together with the maps. They did not receive a list of changes or any information about the extensive rezonings, says O’Farrell.
Councillors had two weeks, up to 1 October, to submit motions on the draft plan. Many councillors didn’t realise that the maps contained changes, says O’Farrell.
However, Cooney, the Green Party councillor, did spot some changes. She asked for a list of them in her area but that request was refused.
Less Than Transparent
There are many more stages to the process before the final city development plan will be signed off next year.
Still, many councillors expressed shock that a draft plan was set to go out to public consultation without them having agreed to it.
“It was indicated to us that the written statements, the appendices and the maps were at the directions of councillors,” said O’Farrell at the meeting.
Assistant Chief Executive Richard Shakespeare said that, “While there is no statutory requirement to highlight the proposed changes on the draft maps, I appreciate that elected members should be aware of substantive rezonings.”
He apologised for what he said was “an oversight on my behalf”, and he circulated a spreadsheet of the proposed rezonings on Monday before the meeting.
The council will need to make changes to zonings to allow for all the homes the city needs and the infrastructure that goes with that, said Shakespeare.
He proposed rezoning the St Paul’s playing pitches site from Z15, which is for institutional lands, because only the school to the west of the site is currently an institutional use, he said.
Rezoning half of that site for Z9, open space, and the other half Z1, residential, “would provide a reasonable balance between the need to provide for open space, biodiversity and tree protection while providing for housing in accordance with the core strategy”, said Shakespeare.
Said Fianna Fáil Councillor Deirdre Heney: “The process is less than transparent.”
Putting the maps out to public consultation would imply to the public that the councillors had agreed to the changes, she said. In relation to St Paul’s playing pitches that is “quite simply shocking considering the history of this site”, said Heney.
Fine Gael Councillor Naoise Ó Muirí said that council officials should provide “a valid planning reason” for each of their proposed changes.
Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan said that the attempt to change the zonings without councillors consent was “an attack on democracy itself”.
The chief executive of Dublin City Council, Owen Keegan, said he was very concerned that the issue could damage confidence in the city development plan. He committed to “undo the damage that has been done”.
“On this occasion, we have just dropped the ball,” he said. He will provide councillors with all the information and an opportunity to make decisions in relation to the proposed rezonings, he said.
The emergency motion was agreed without a vote and the full council is due to meet again to discuss the city development plan, next Monday 8 November.
A draft plan has to go out to public consultation by 25 November, according to a timeline that councillors received.
Shakespeare said councillors should put forward motions by the following Monday if they wanted to change any of the new zonings, ahead of the public consultation.
Labour Party Councillor Joe Costello, the deputy lord mayor, said the proposed timeline doesn’t allow councillors sufficient time to examine all the changes and table motions.
Dublin City Council press office didn’t respond to questions sent last Thursday about the role of councillors in the draft city development plan.