**Our councils are the foundations of our political system. It is where many of us cut our political teeth. I have the utmost respect for most of local councillors across the country.
That said, despite all that we have been through, the ghost estates, the unfinished office blocks and the deserted retail parks – all of which resulted from bad planning – some councillors are still engaging in crony capitalism. With business as usual in our council chambers, the noble words on reform and accountability by some political party leaders ring hollow.**
In the last month we saw an attempt by some councillors to assist a developer in re-zoning a swathe of land for a supermarket beside a motorway in South county Dublin.
A thin veneer of job creation claims are now being used to mask questionable rezoning motions. But let me be very clear about this.
This type of developer-led planning, the type that got us into this current mess, does not create jobs. It costs. It costs the environment, it costs taxpayers money and it costs jobs.
In this the South Dublin case, years of planning to create a new town centre in South Dublin, and €350 million of public and private investment into a new Luas line would have been undermined because one developer had other ideas and land elsewhere.
It is no surprise therefore that our planning bill, which seeks to end the crony capitalism approach to planning, but which still leaves zoning power in the hands of councillors, has been opposed tooth and nail by some opposition politicians.
A good planning system is an essential for economic recovery, to make sure we build the right things in the right places, where we put people before property developers, for once.
And we have a champion of this people-first approach. A champion who is now a Government minister, my colleague Ciarán Cuffe. As I have said, one of the many responsibilities Ciarán is taking on as Minister for State is the issue of planning.
We are lucky in this party, in this Government and in the Dáil to have someone of such knowledge and expertise, who will now being spearheading the reform of planning in Ireland.
I hope and expect that Ciarán will be introducing a series of amendments to the bill to strengthen it even further, to eliminate the scourge of dodgy planning retentions across the country, to close down illegal quarries, and to ensure that existing public rights of way can be protected.
Looking at our current difficulties as a society and economy, we should know that too often in the past, planning principles were put aside in the name of commercial and financial expediency and claims about creating and sustaining employment. Too often unfortunately, those claims rang hollow as either the jobs never came nor lasted and only developers and landowners gained.
Today, at a time of great economic challenge, the cry is again going out “planning restrictions or the Minister’s interventions are hitting jobs.” The danger is with us again that the lure of investment – at any cost – will cost our country more in the long run.
Going behind such claims or spin, it’s the old story of the jobs or the investment being promised as long as the landowners field is zoned or the development project approved. Have we learned nothing?
The barter of giving permission in return for the promise of investment is going back to the old style cronyism that got our country into its present difficulties.
Instead, we should stick by plans prepared under democratic mandate and public consultation and say to investors, yes, we have anticipated your needs, yes we have put in the infrastructure so come and invest in line with the people’s plan, not coming up with the developers’ plan. Again, proper planning and sustainable development creates jobs.
My friends, it was because of my concerns about perceived planning malpractices, that I commissioned reports about planning issues at Dublin Docklands. And it was I, as the Minister, who appointed Professor Niamh Brennan to tackle the problems of corporate governance at the Docklands.
For Fine Gael to accuse her now of a cover up is, quite frankly, disgraceful. They would be better off talking to their own councillors about their planning decisions.
This evening I want to announce to you, as Minister for the Environment, that because of complaints I have received on planning issues from around the country, I will very shortly announce a number of investigations using my powers under the planning legislation.
Friends, these issues are among the reasons many of you here this evening got involved in politics the very first day. These issues are among the reasons you have continued the uphill struggle of fighting to improve the world around us. They are why we refuse to give up the fight. In essence, these issues are a big part of the reason we are gathered here this evening in Waterford.