Under new guidelines issued by the Department of Transport, the council shall no longer do public consultations before trialling things like cycle lanes, or filtered permeability systems, Dublin City Council’s transport chief says.
“The trial is the consultation,” Brendan O’Brien told councillors on the transport committee on Wednesday 8 November.
Green Party Councillor Janet Horner spoke in support of the change, saying it would make room for evidenced-based policy, based on actual outcomes of changes to city streets, rather than expected – or feared – outcomes.
“Let’s not be led by what has happened up to this point which has been what’s popular and ultimately what has been deadly for people on our streets,” Horner said. “That needs to end.”
But Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey denounced the measure, saying it was an attack on local democracy. “I saw this report last Thursday and I was shocked beyond belief,” Lacey said.
“What this circular does is enhances the power of the executive, removes power from local communities, removes powers from councillors, gives the authority to the executive,” he said.
“Either we believe in local government or we don’t,” Lacey said. “Either we believe in ensuring that local communities and local councillors can determine local actions or we don’t.”
Old law, new guidelines
O’Brien, the council’s transport head, gave a presentation to the councillors about what he called “a major new guideline” from the Department of Transport, led by Green Party TD Eamon Ryan.
Dublin City Council is the roads authority for the city, and has the power to make all kinds of changes to the roads.
Depending on the size and type of changes, there are different procedures the council must follow, O’Brien said.
Very small ones, they can just do, he said. Like putting those bollards that look like pencils in front of a school to keep cars a little away from the entrance.
A bit bigger, they fall under the Road Traffic Act’s Section 38 – the subject of the new guidelines he was presenting to the councillors.
If the whole project takes place within the road boundaries (including footpaths) then it can be done within Section 38, O’Brien said.
That might be something like putting in a “filtered permeability” system, basically putting bollards up across a road to block through traffic by cars – and open it up more to cycling and walking.
If a project is even bigger and involves road widening, it should go through the so-called “part 8” process, where the council applies to itself for planning permission, O’Brien said.
Even bigger, and requiring an environmental impact statement, and the roads project goes to An Bord Pleanála for approval.
But the focus at the meeting was projects that can be done under Section 38.
The recommended process
The process the new guidelines recommends starts with determining that the proposed project can be done under Section 38, O’Brien said.
Then the council managers decide how long the trial will last, up to a maximum of 18 months, he said. They consult with the guards, and emergency services if necessary, he said.
Then they put a notice on the council website and tell councillors they’re going to do the trial, O’Brien said. Once the changes have been made, the council has to engage with local residents and businesses about any issues that may arise, he said.
As the trial winds up, council staff should draw up a report on how it went, with a recommendation on whether to make it permanent, he said. Then council managers determine what to do, taking into account this recommendation, he said.
“This determination is an Executive function,” O’Brien said, meaning it is a decision for council managers, not elected councillors, “and it must be formally recorded in a Managers Order.”
Further public consultation is not required, O’Brien said. “The guidelines now set out that the public consultation process is the trial itself and that a separate consultation process prior to the implementation of the trial should not take place.”
“I’m very pleased to see them [the new guidelines] published and that we can now get on with progressing even quicker the transformation that’s happening in Dublin city,” said Green Party Councillor Donna Cooney after O’Brien finished his presentation.
Her party colleague Councillor Michael Pidgeon welcomed the new guidelines too. But he also said that public consultations can be helpful, pointing to feedback the council got on plans for the James’s Walk section of the Suir Road to Thomas Street cycle lane it’s now putting in.
“So I presume we’re not prevented from doing a non-statutory consultation before the beginning of a trial,” he said, in a question-y kind of way.
Interesting question, O’Brien responded. But “The guidelines are kind of clear that the trial is the consultation.”
Then Lacey voiced his disappointment in the Green Party councillors, and the guidelines.
“It’s really hard to credit the comments from Councillor Cooney and Councillor Pidgeon,” Lacey said.
He said he had often given a number 2 preference to Green Party candidates in elections over the years, because “they were a party that shared my passion for local government reform and for enhancing the powers of local councillors”.
But these guidelines do the opposite, Lacey said. ”What this circular does is enhances the power of the executive, removes power from local communities, removes powers from councillors, gives the authority to the executive,” he said.
“I absolutely find it incredible, I just find it extraordinary, that the Green Party, in pursuit of one agenda, which is the active travel one, have totally abandoned, totally abandoned, their commitment to local government,” he said.
Fine Gael Councillor Anne Feeney also spoke against the change.
“I too, like councillor Lacey, I find this document very worrying really in terms of that things can plow ahead without councillors having a say in it and also without local communities having a say in it,” Feeney said.
She said she supported trials in general, “but a trial of 18 months that could cause mayhem on local roads, I have a real problem with, and particularly if there is no need to consult with the local community”.
Then Horner, the Green Party councillor, spoke in defence of her party colleagues and the new guidelines.
“One of the other core beliefs of Greens, as well as decision making at the lowest possible level, is around evidence-based policy making, and we’ve had a complete absence of evidence-based policy making around our roads and around our traffic in recent years,” Horner said.
Instead, policy has been made based on what’s popular, Horner said. “That has been damaging for Dublin city transport overall.”
“It has damaged the vast majority of Dubliners, who are suffering with congestion, who are suffering with poor air quality, and who are suffering at a very basic level with the number of injuries and number deaths on our roads which is just horrendous,” Horner said. “We need to do something different.”