Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien has been accused of “wilfully misleading” the Seanad in asking for its help to fast-track legislation about An Bord Pleanála through the Dáil next week.
Sinn Féin housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin has also accused Mr O’Brien of treating the Oireachtas housing committee with “utter contempt” after the minister wrote to the leader of the Seanad, Regina Doherty, on Tuesday and told her that his officials had liaised with the committee about the matter.
In that letter, Mr O’Brien said that “my officials have engaged with the joint Oireachtas committee on the matter and I will address the issues raised by the pre-legislative scrutiny interaction during the Oireachtas process”.
Mr Ó Broin said there had been “no prior engagement” with the committee in terms of Mr O’Brien’s plans to pass the wide-ranging legislation next week, adding that the first the committee members had heard of that plan was when the minister’s letter was forwarded to them on Wednesday, the day after it was sent to the Seanad.
“It is wholly unacceptable to mislead the Seanad leaders in this manner, and it is wholly unacceptable to treat an Oireachtas committee with such utter contempt,” Mr Ó Broin said.
"It is also unacceptable that the minister is seeking to yet again rush complex legislation through the Oireachtas in the final days of term. That is not a good way to make law. It will have all sorts of unintended consequences."
Last July Mr O’Brien used the guillotine to rush through legislation to amend judicial review laws, making it more difficult for members of the public to use the courts to object to planning permissions they disagree with.
That legislation was passed amid heightened controversy over An Bord Pleanála’s decision-making processes and in light of the news that the planning authority’s legal bills had skyrocketed after a ramping-up in the number of successful challenges to large-scale strategic housing planning applications.
The Department of Housing, asked for its response to Mr Ó Broin’s statements, said: “The reference in the correspondence, regarding official engagement with the joint Oireachtas committee, was to pre-legislative scrutiny which took place on November 9."
Mr Ó Broin dismissed this explanation, however, stating that it is “clear” from the letter that the minister “was seeking to give the impression that his officials had engaged with the Oireachtas housing committee on his plan to seek early introduction of the Bill in the Seanad before our committee had completed pre-legislative scrutiny”.
"To suggest otherwise is simply adding insult to injury. He is now treating the Oireachtas like idiots."
In his letter, Mr O’Brien had told Ms Doherty that fast-tracking the legislation was necessary in order to expedite “urgently-required changes” to An Bord Pleanála — such as amending the numeric strength of the board and the processes for nominating new members — and introduce “emergency planning power provisions to help address the housing crisis”.
The latter could see “in exceptional circumstances” the accelerated delivery of social housing on local authority lands” without normal planning prerequisites such as environmental impact assessments.
The minister said that this is necessary due to “the extraordinary pressure on our broader housing system”, adding that the issues addressed in the draft legislation are “a matter of immediate priority for the Government”.