O’Brien backs Fine Gael plan to overhaul planning process as Greens oppose

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has insisted that controversial planning reforms proposed by a young Fine Gael minister “will happen and we are going to deliver them”, despite opposition from his Green Party coalition partners.

r Varadkar told the Fine Gael parliamentary party last night that judicial reviews were ‘too frequent’ and ‘blocked’ many housing and infrastructure projects, referring to an ‘industry’ built around legal objections to decisions by planning.

He spoke after Irish Independent revealed that the Green Party opposes the overhaul of planning laws proposed by Minister of State Peter Burke, who has said housing delivery could be accelerated by a crackdown on what he has referred to as the “industry” of judicial reviews.

The Fine Gael minister wants to reduce the steps at which judicial review can be sought, impose limits on the types of entities that can bring legal action and introduce a new cost cap scheme.

Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien has backed Fine Gael plans to cut planning red tape. He asked the Oireachtas Housing Committee to conduct a pre-legislative review of amendments to the Planning Act that would reform the judicial review process.

But Environment and Transport Minister Eamon Ryan does not support the plans, with Green Party chairman of the Oireachtas housing committee Steven Matthews describing them as “unacceptable”.

Mr Matthews claimed the measures would ‘prevent people from seeking justice’ in the planning process.

In a letter to Mr Matthews last week, Mr O’Brien said he would be ‘grateful’ if a pre-legislative review could be launched on the General Housing, Services Bill 2019 planning and development (reform of judicial control).

The Fianna Fáil minister has said he is ready to reconsider some aspects of the legislation, first proposed by Fine Gael in the last minority government, including proposed limits on environmental non-governmental organizations challenging the courts; and caps on legal fees.

“Following the pre-legislative review phase, I hope to be able to move on to priority drafting and publication of the bill at the next session of the Oireachtas with a view to enactment by the summer. “, Mr. O’Brien wrote.

He believes there are potential efficiencies in the planning process that need to be considered, but wants to balance it with people’s right to veto planning decisions.

A Fianna Fáil source said Mr Burke’s interview with the Irish Independent Monday in which he described his plans was “not helpful” due to “sensitivities which we were managing quite well and which became more difficult when this came out”.

Fine Gael sources claim the Greens, through Mr Matthews, delayed consideration of the Bill by the housing commission for several months – a claim Mr Matthews has denied.

The Greens have argued that Ireland’s planning laws, as they currently stand, already run counter to those who oppose projects on environmental grounds. A Green Party source referred to comments by senior EU environment chief Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea last week that Ireland is the most expensive member state to challenge environmental justice and criticism of an “increasingly aggressive stance” taken against environmental activists.

Mr. Matthews said“I don’t think it’s okay to deny people access to justice or the legal system.”

Ryan said reforms to the judicial review process should be considered as part of the attorney general’s comprehensive review of planning laws, due in September.

Elsewhere, Mr Varadkar told officials to review eight road projects that have stalled due to a lack of funding.
He told the Oireachtas works council he wanted to work out which routes should be prioritized for economic reasons before engaging with Mr Ryan on the issue.

It comes after reported tensions at Fine Gael over Mr Ryan’s decision to exclude roads from funding announced before Christmas.

Some TDs at a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, including Cork Easwondered why they should continue to support the government.

Louisa R. Loomis