SOME of the detail in the Fred Forsey case beggars belief. If anything, it shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same when it comes to corruption in the planning process. And once again, a bright, shining exhibit for proper reform has been shoved into the public square.
Forsey is a former town councillor for Dungarvan, Co Waterford. He once served as deputy mayor of the town. Yesterday, he was sentenced to six years in prison, with two years suspended following his conviction for receiving €80,000 in corrupt payments in 2006. The case related to a 32-hectare site outside the town which a developer wanted rezoned. His plans included an industrial park and a development of 30 houses.
Let’s look at what the case tells us about how things are still done in this country. It dates from 2006. By then, the planning tribunal had been under way for nine years. Numerous tales of corruption had been aired in Dublin Castle. Former luminaries of public life, such as Frank Dunlop and George Redmond, had been publicly exposed as crooks. Others, such as Pee Flynn and the late Liam Lawlor, were in disgrace for pocketing large sums from developers pursuing rezoning.
We were assured from on high that the mere workings of the tribunal acted as a deterrent to corruption. Who would risk exposure these days by slipping a politician a bribe?
Yet that’s precisely what was done in the Forsey case. And done in the most brazen manner. The developer merely deposited €60,000 in Forsey’s account on Aug 25, 2006, in a local bank. There was no effort at disguising the payment. The money was not paid in cash, which leaves no trace. If you didn’t know better, you might think the payer and the recipient were unaware of the hullabaloo that had been kicked up over the previous years as the extent of planning corruption came to the fore.
There were two other payments of €10,000, handed over in a similar manner. That’s €80,000 a developer felt it was worth his while to give to a town councillor. If that’s the kind of money a developer can drop on impulse in pursuit of a rezoning, what’s the whole deal worth? Quite obviously a huge multiple of that.
The sums which are available in a rezoning, a process which turns muck into gold overnight, could be glimpsed in some of the detail about the Quarryvale case.
The developer Owen O’Callaghan paid lobbyist Frank Dunlop over €1m in fees in pursuit of the rezoning for that project. O’Callaghan claims he didn’t know Dunlop was bribing councillors with the money, but the Mahon Report rejected that assertion. In any event, it’s an astronomical sum to spend on lobbying for rezoning and illustrates the corresponding sums that can be made once local politicians give the nod.
In the case of Forsey, the bribe wasn’t even for a vote. Forsey, as a town councillor, didn’t have a vote on the rezoning, as the land was outside the town’s boundary. So the money was merely to leverage him to use his influence with colleagues in the county council to push through the rezoning.
Then we have the matter of discovery. Fred Forsey was nabbed because of his extramarital carry-on. Hell hath no fury like a scorned wife who has something juicy on her wayward husband. Jenny Forsey had seen her 36-year-old husband leave her for a 20-year-old girlfriend. Emotions were on fire. The two women had engaged in a form of fisticuffs. Six months after the first payment, Jenny Forsey brought her “suspicions” to Fine Gael TD John Deasy, who in turn brought her to the cops. What if poor Fred had reconciled himself with his wife, and returned to the family home? Would the case have surfaced at all? Would Forsey now be on his way to prison?
Scorn was also behind the big planning corruption scandals that emerged over the last decade or so. James Gogarty felt scorn towards his ex-employer over a failure to provide him with a proper pension. His decision to spill the beans led to the setting up of the planning tribunal.
Tom Gilmartin felt scorn towards the Dublin establishment, particularly Lawlor, Redmond, Flynn, and Fianna Fáil in general. His decision to get matters off his chest led all the way to Bertie Ahern’s resignation. In both cases, would anything have come to light if either man had not felt the hot urge to serve up some revenge?
That in turn begs the question how much of it actually went on that has never come to the surface. The planning tribunal concentrated on Dublin, and unearthed material that came from two individuals. Are we expected to believe this was the extent of corruption? That the same thing wasn’t going on beyond the Pale?
Equally, how much is still going on.
More than anything, the Forsey case once again highlights the lunacy of the power vested in local politicians. Elected members of local authorities are, by and large, part-time. They are often drawn into politics through involvement in local community activity, such as a business or sporting organisation. In the normal run of things they have absolutely no knowledge of what is involved in planning.
Yet under the current system, these councillors effectively have the power to turn a landowner or developer into an overnight millionaire. In Fred Forsey’s case it was merely his proximity to the power rather than the power itself which found him the recipient of a huge sum of money.
This power, and its misuse, has been the main element behind not just corruption, but the appalling planning which was a feature of the bubble years. Most politicians wouldn’t dream of accepting a bribe for their votes. Yet most of them in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in particular find themselves backing any rezonings promoted by a developer, irrespective of the professional advice.
This is presented to the wider public as nothing more than a confluence of interests. The developer has a business to run, the politician wants to see jobs.
It is now nearly 40 years since a commission chaired by a High Court judge saw the futility of such a system and recommended some fundamental changes. John Kenny chaired the body that looked into the price of building land and reported in 1974. The group recommended that rezoning land be priced at the agricultural value plus 25%, thus removing the ludicrous power vested in councillors.
Successive governments have shied away from any interference in what is loosely termed as the free market. None have had the gumption or guts to recognise that planning is a social function as much as an economic one. And besides, those who own and develop the lands are such zealots for funding the democratic process, who would fill the gap if they had less reason to throw money at it.
There are small signs that the reality is getting through to the fringes of the body politic at the very least.
On the day that Forsey was convicted, Fine Gael councillor and former lord mayor of Dublin Gerry Breen made a statement on corruption.
“When will we learn that corruption will continue as long as there is a significant gain for zoning decisions relating to granting development status to agricultural land?” he said.
“Our countryside is populated with examples of how development is driven by the financial gain of rezoning agricultural land. Many towns are now elongated with car-dependent retail developments damaging the heart of the town and villages populated with ghost estates built on the promise of financial gain through zoning decisions. It is ruining planning in this country. Justice Kenny published in 1974 a proposal to deal with this... 38 years on and nothing has been done to resolve this. Expect more corruption.”
Amen to that. Fred Forsey will serve his sentence, his former colleagues will tut, and then everything will get back to normal. As you were, boys.