THERE was a lot of anger in the council chamber last week (April 29) until councillors learned that plans to restrict their personal access to planners would have to wait until after the local elections.
Even in the last full meeting before the dissolution of this council party politics was put aside – at least on this issue – as they voted unanimously to suspend standing orders and demand a clarification on this proposed further diminution of their powers.
It all came to light in a paragraph in the County Manager’s monthly report in which the Director of Services at Planning Peter Minnock suggested a streamlining of his over-stretched department.
“What I’m trying to avoid is the last-minute situation, [having] to do a ‘Solomon’,” he pointed out.
(As was highlighted in recent issues of the Kildare Nationalist, Kildare has the fourth-highest number of planning applications amongst the 36 local authorities nationwide, and its planning department is also hamstrung by the number of as yet undelivered Local Area Plans.)
Mr Minnock simply sought to limit councillors’ access to just the five-week consultation window at the beginning of a planning application, rather than continuing with their long-standing habit of dropping in unannounced. But they were not having it.
“This is an erosion of power,” thundered Cllr Brendan Weld.
“Nobody has ever abused this,” he continued.
“The Manager said this would be sorted out, but it hasn’t,” he said.
Cllr Thomas Redmond believed: “it is important that people are on the record for talking to planners”, whereas Cllr Martin Miley Jnr felt that “with the housing crisis the way it is, it’s important to see positive planning outcomes”.
“I don’t see the issue with a cordial conversation. I know you have a lot to deal with at the moment, but it’s important that the elected representatives’ issue is dealt with. This should be revoked immediately,” he added.
Cllr Ivan Keatley felt that “communication with the Planning Department is absolutely critical” but that turnover of staff at the department was a “huge issue” which led to some difficulties.
He mentioned a case in Galway in which an eventual award-winning design had earlier had ‘inappropriate’ put in its file by a previous member of staff.
County Manager Peter Carey seemed sympathetic with the councillors when he addressed the meeting.
“We should work with elected representatives. Valuable information comes in this way,” he said.
“We’ve built a culture and climate of trust around this, and we’ve no intention of trying to exclude anyone, and I want that on the record,” he declared.
However, he pointed out that there had been some accusations of favouritism towards certain councillors.
“How do we standardize this? Planners are better off when information comes in at the start of the process rather than during the process. We’re looking for consistency,” he said.
“If a planner is getting information at the 11th hour, surely it’s better this info is given on Day 1?” asked Mr Minnock.
“It’s always good to find a ‘dead duck’ case early rather than wasting all that time before discovering this,” he pointed out.
He told the meeting he would still take councillors’ calls, along with his senior planner on issues still arising, and called for a “structured, transparent treatment”.
“What I’m trying to avoid is the last-minute situation, trying to do a ‘Solomon’ at the last minute,” he said.
He then agreed with Cllr Fiona McLoughlin-Healy that “unrecorded verbal submissions will no longer be considered as part of the assessment”.
“Is this policy or legislation?” asked Cllr Brian Weld.
“Yes,” answered Mr Minnock enigmatically to a roomful of laughter, before it was agreed to “re-visit” the issue after the May 24 election.