December 20th, 2019
Pressure from environmental groups, opposition politicians, and members of the Housing Committee has forced the Minister for Housing to extend public consultation on proposed legislation that critics argue will dramatically curtail citizens’ rights to challenge poor planning decisions.
Eoghan Murphy launched a public consultation on the Heads of the Housing and Planning Development Bill on 9 December 2019 with little fanfare. The public consultation deadline was originally set for 13 January, giving the public just 23 working days to air their views.
If passed, the Bill would introduce a new cost regime and change standing rules for citizens and environmental groups to take legal challenges over a whole range of environmental decisions.
Critics, including various civil society groups and legal experts, argue that the proposals would unfairly limit access to justice rights for citizens and environmental groups.
The proposed legislation, for example, would make it harder for environmental groups to bring a legal case by mandating that they must be in existence for at least three years and have over 100 members.
Attracta Uí Bhroin, the Environmental Law Officer at the Irish Environmental Network, said that the “appalling scheduling” of the consultation over the Christmas holidays was “steam-rolling over public participation duties” stemming from the Aarhus Convention.
Ms Uí Bhroin sent an email to Mr Murphy last week urging him to extend the consultation that she said proposes an “extermination of environmental democracy and oversight”.
“The proposed Frankenstein-like monster legislation would kill off access to justice in Ireland, drawing from the worst practices elsewhere and putting them all together in a bid to obstruct the rights of citizens and concerned NGOs to challenge bad and unlawful planning decisions,” she said.
Great ’cause for concern’
On Wesnesday, the Minister’s private secretary informed Ms Uí Bhroin that the consultation will now be extended until 27 January.
Ms Uí Bhroin reserved praise for members of the Oireachtas Committee, Deputy Catherine Murphy, Senator Alice Mary Higgins, and Clare Daly MEP who all advocated for an extension.
Speaking to The Green News, Ms Daly said that the proposals put forward by Mr Murphy were “extremely worrying”, slating the Government for “sneakily try[ing] to disempower citizens and deny them meaningful consultation”.
“This should be a cause of concern for the [European] Commission and we will be certainly drawing their attention to it,” she added.
Sinn Fein’s Eoin Ó Broin, who sits on the Housing Committee, said that, while he was very concerned by the legislative proposals put forward, he was “not surprised” by the move.
He added his opinion that the Minister “increasingly wants to centralise planning decisions and reduce the ability of third parties to try and ensure that planning decisions are in the best interest of the wider community”.
Mr Ó Broin told The Green News that the Heads of the Bill must be “fully scrutinised” and that the Committee has sought advice from the Oireachtas’ legal service as to whether it is potentially in conflict with the Aarhus Convention or EU law.
The Aarhus Convention is an international agreement that gives a number of rights to the public with regard to the environment, including the right to access to justice that is fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive.