International investigators are being brought in to probe planning practices at six local authorities around the country, it was revealed today.
The high-level inquiry ordered by Environment Minister John Gormley will examine “major” complaints against planners who rubber-stamped controversial developments during the boom.
Dublin City Council, Carlow County Council, Galway County Council, Cork City Council, Cork County Council and Meath County Council have been fingered for scrutiny.
Mr Gormley refused to speculate on the outcome of the investigation but the law allows him to remove planning powers from local authorities.
“If there is impropriety in any way that would be a serious matter, but let’s give the people an opportunity to respond in detail to these matters,” he said.
The minister signalled Dublin City Council has come under the spotlight because of its approval for a number of tall buildings in the capital.
In recent years, heritage campaigners An Taisce accused authorities of ignoring city plans by granting permission for tower blocks outside designated high-rise districts.
Carlow’s County Council has denied any planning irregularities after an investigation by the Department of the Environment’s local government auditors.
The probe highlighted concerns about corporate governance within the planning department, the use of special development contributions and the extension of planning time at quarries.
The council also attracted attention over an €11m settlement for a tiny parcel of land needed to complete the Carlow eastern bypass and planning permission for developments on flood-plains.
Tom Barry, Carlow County Manager, said he was confident there was no wrongdoing.
“I’m not going to pre-empt what the review might find, but I am very confident that Carlow planning authority dealt very comprehensively, very fairly and in a professional way with all the applications that came before it,” Mr Barry said.
He said he has ordered an internal review into its planning processes which has already begun.
It is believed controversy around permission for a new Drogheda United football stadium at Bryanstown, Beymore in Co Meath, could be linked to the inclusion of Meath County Council in the Government-ordered inquiry.
The go-ahead for the 68-bedroom Trim Castle Hotel in the shadow of Trim Castle, the most important Anglo-Norman fort in Ireland, also sparked concerns.
Mr Gormley said he receives around 8,000 planning complaints a year, mainly from An Taisce, as well as NGOs, representative organisations, planners themselves and individuals.
Department officials said the bulk of these in recent years have focused on the six local authorities under investigation.
The authorities have four weeks to explain their processes and respond to allegations that they may have deviated from official planning policies.
The independent panel will then examine the responses before Mr Gormley decides what, if any, action is necessary, under the Planning Act.
The law allows him to appoint a commissioner to take over planning powers.
A Galway County Council spokeswoman said it has not yet received details of the concerns over its planning procedures.
“We will of course be co-operating fully with any review,” she said.
A Dublin City Council spokesman said it would fully cooperate with the review.
While Mr Gormley said the authorities were informed last week of the impending investigation, Martin Riordan, Cork County Manager, said he was “surprised and disappointed” to learn about it this morning.
Mr Riordan said he was confident the review will show his council’s planning system is one of the most transparent processes in the public service.