A “Constitutional Crisis”
An Bord Pleanála decided in March to grant Cekav Trading permission to build 104 houses and 432 apartments in Raheny, near St Anne’s Park, and several councillors worried at their monthly meeting on Monday at City Hall that this undermined the council’s role and authority.
In the Dublin City Development Plan 2016-2022, which councillors spent many weeks refining, based on consultations with local residents, and their own views, the site is zoned Z15, meant for “institutional and community” use (although the plan says residential uses are also “open for review”).
But in 2016, as part of its effort to get more homes built faster, the national government introduced a new fast-track planning procedure, allowing developers proposing to build more than 100 homes to bypass their local authority – in this case Dublin City Council – and go directly to An Bord Pleanála for a decision.
That’s what this developer did: it went over Dublin City Council’s head to get permission, and some councillors don’t like that, and want to fight it.
In response to councillors’ concerns, at a special council meeting on 24 April, the council’s chief executive agreed to get legal advice on whether it’s worthwhile to seek a judicial review of the board’s March decision granting permission to the project.
On Monday, council management got back the requested legal opinion, and distributed it to councillors. The advice? “[I]t is not open to Dublin City Council to seek to challenge the validity of the decision … to grant planning permission pursuant to the 2016 Act by way of application for judicial review.”
Said independent Councillor Mannix Flynn: “If Dublin City Council had a constitution, this would be a constitutional crisis.”
City Manager Owen Keegan told councillors that he didn’t think An Bord Pleanála should have granted permission for the development in Raheny, but he said that the 2016 legislation gave it to the power to do so – and as a result reduced the power of local authorities, including Dublin City Council.
Several councillors at Monday’s meeting urged council management to seek judicial review despite the legal opinion. “We need to defend our development plan, it’s one of the few powers we have left,” said People Before Profit Councillor John Lyons.
The council has until 22 May to decide. According to the legal opinion presented to council on Monday, that decision lies with the chief executive, Owen Keegan.
Kerbs and Guide Dogs
Councillors at the meeting also voted on whether to advance a plan put together by council management to revamp two small roads that connect O’Connell Street and Marlborough Street in the city centre.
The plan was to spruce up Sackville Place and Cathedral Street by removing and replacing the “existing asphalt and concrete road surfaces with a new paved granite carriageway”, and adding “loading bays, disabled parking and taxi ranks”, among other things.
But some disability advocates had raised issues with the council’s design – in particular that the lack of kerbs separating the roadway from the footpaths, which they said create a danger for visually impaired people, including those who use guide dogs, which are usually trained to stop at kerbs.
At Monday’s meeting, a council executive said the council was prepared to work on the design further. “It is now our desire and wish to have these streets available for universal access. We are prepared to put in the time to discuss and to work with the relevant organisations in order to achieve that,” he said.
But councillors weren’t convinced. They voted against advancing the plan through the process towards construction: 32 against, 20 for and 4 abstentions.
Who Gets Priority on the Social-Housing List?
Councillors also voted on a new system for deciding, when a social home is available, who will get it, and who will have to wait a bit longer. This is an issue that councillors have been working on at committee level for some time.
This new “scheme of lettings” that councillors voted on Monday evening to approve says that the council “will no longer prioritise offers of social housing to homeless families ahead of other households who have prior dates of application”.
The idea appears to be to push more homeless families into renting in the private sector, using the Homeless Housing Assistance Payment (Homeless HAP) scheme to help cover their rent – rather than having them waiting in emergency accommodation until they can get into social housing.
“While it might seem counter-intuitive to cease prioritising homeless families for social housing as in the current Scheme, it is with a view to encouraging shorter stays in emergency accommodation and supporting families to rent independently with enhanced financial and social support,” the report says.
Part of this effort will be to “significantly increasing the level of allocations to Homeless HAP on Band 1 of the Transfer List”. The intended result appears to be to make it a bit harder for people in emergency accommodation (such as a hotel room the council is paying for) to get social housing, and a bit easier for people in private rental accommodation who are on the Homeless HAP scheme to get social housing.
The council says that in the end, the same number of homeless families will get into social housing, they’ll just end up waiting in HAP-supported private rental accommodation, rather than a hotel room or homeless “hub”.
“In 2017, just over 20% (318) of all lettings made by Dublin City Council were to Homeless families,” the council’s report on the scheme says. “Dublin City Council will maintain a target allocation of 21% of lettings to Homeless Families (including this year 2018.)”
Public Funds and the Referendum
Towards the end of the meeting, a group of councillors proposed an “emergency motion” calling on council management to “reinstate” the event “The Question of the Eighth“, which was to be held at the International Literature Festival Dublin on 21 May.
The event was to feature the book Repeal the 8th and editor Una Mullally, and others. But it was cancelled because of concerns among council managers. (The festival is a programme of the Dublin City Arts Office, part of the Culture, Recreation & Economic Services Department of Dublin City Council.)
Assistant Chief Executive Richard Shakespeare told councillors the issue was that public money cannot legally be spent to promote a particular point of view in a referendum. “My primary concern is that the city council is protected and that it does not interfere with the referendum, or be perceived to interfere in the referendum,” he said.
When the motion – proposed by councillors John Lyons (People Before Profit), Damian O’Farrell (independent), Pat Dunne (Independents 4 Change), Michael O’Brien (Solidarity), Tina MacVeigh (People Before Profit), Dermot Lacey (Labour), Cieran Perry (independent) and Daithí Doolan (Sinn Féin) came up – there were just minutes left to vote on it.
The motion noted “the unanimous decision of Dublin City Council’s Arts Strategic Policy Committee today to instruct city council officials to reverse its recent decision to cancel the literary event”. It then asked “city council management to acknowledge and respect the unanimous vote of the members”.
Lord Mayor Michaél MacDonncha (Sinn Féin) called for an immediate vote, without any debate, explaining that if time ran out, the motion would automatically fail. All the councillors in the chamber went (relatively) quiet except Fine Gael’s Kieran Binchy. He demanded that he be given two minutes to state his point of view before the vote.
MacDonncha said this would effectively kill the motion, and characterised what Binchy was doing as a “filibuster”. Binchy took exception to that: “I am not filibustering. I just want my two minutes to explain why I am voting no.”
Binchy said he was in favour of repealing the 8th amendment, in favour of people writing books about it, and in favour of having events about those books. “But I’m also in favour of the ‘McKenna amendment’, which says we can’t spend public money to support one side in a referendum,” Binchy said.
While he was speaking, the clock ran out on the motion. The room descended into a chaos of shouting and recriminations. Somehow, in the midst of all the noise, someone proposed suspending the rules (the “standing orders”) to allow more time. In a roll-call vote, councillors agreed to this.
At that point, the room calmed down a bit, and councillors took a few minutes to discuss the motion, before voting on it.
“I think the legal decision was extremely cautious, which was erring on the side of not getting any bad press and was not warranted,” said Workers’ Party Councillor Éilis Ryan.
The final roll call vote was 24 for, 12 against, and 5 abstentions. However, the assistant chief executive was unswayed by the will of the councillors. “I will not be in a position to change my stance,” said Shakespeare.