keywords: corruption planning bribery rezoning political Dublin politics urban Ireland councillors politicians development plan political clientelism electoral clientelism brokerage housing Irish electoral local elections Dublin County Council Dublin Corporation networks


©  Lee Komito
Promise and Performance: Irish Environmental Policies Analysed, John Blackwell and Frank Convery (eds). Dublin: Resource and Environmental Policy Centre; University College, Dublin, 1983. pp. 293-302.

[note: scanning has resulted in some formatting changes and errors]


Rezonings and section four motions have made planning an issue for public discussion, media publicity, and professional conferences, but debates have tended to focus on planning problems, such as proper land use, future rezoning requirements, financing local services, and so on. Rezonings are not so much a planning problem, as a political problem. The real issues are the political pressures behind planning decisions and the role of community opinion in determining planning policy. In this context, politicians are not necessarily villains; they too are victims of the Irish political system and voter's expectations.

... the rezonings are being pushed through by a coalition of ... councillors ...
All rezonings are opposed by the professional and technical staff of the Council.

Vast profits are being made out of the rezonings by very few people.[2]

This statement illustrates the common public perception of the current review of the County Dublin Development Plan. Councillors are making dubious decisions, professional planners are being overruled, the public is being ignored, and individuals are making personal profit from state planning decisions. Planning has been an issue in some constituencies during recent elections, and some politicians have suffered loss of reputation, votes, and even elected office. Yet this is not the first time that planning has aroused controversy. The first County Dublin Development Plan caused disquiet and police investigations. Individual planning decisions, and appeals against those decisions have caused public outcry and the present Planning Appeals Board is being reconstituted.

Clearly, planning procedures seem to produce unsatisfactory results. It is more than a question of individual politicians making questionable decisions about individual cases. The problem lies in the very structure of planning in Ireland, and such controversies are an inevitable result. In a recent book on local authority law, Mr. Justice Keane commented that the management system was created because

... it was recognized that entrusting the elected councils with responsibilities now exercised by managers would have encouraged the bringing to bear of pressures of every kind on councillors (Keane, 1982, p. x)

Yet this is precisely what has happened in planning; through both design and accident, politicians make the decisions normally entrusted to officials. Inevitably councillors become subject to various pressures which they may find difficult to resist. The Irish electoral and political system makes councillors particularly vulnerable to local demands. Councillors may find themselves more dependent on the support of individual party activists and potential campaign supporters than on the votes of community groups, and the result may not be in the best interests of the community as a whole. An examination of procedures, combined with examples from research carried out in County Dublin, will show how this has come about and whether any alternatives can be suggested. Related references are Bax (1976), Chubb (1982), Garvin (1974) and Sacks (1976).

Planning and Development

The 1963 Local Government ,Planning and Development) Act was designed to fulfil a number of important objectives. One of them was the mandatory creation of Development Plans for all local authorities. Future developments would then be judged within the context of existing planning policy.

Planning was to be a local matter, decided by local elected representatives. In this, it continued the practice of previous planning acts (e.g., Town and Regional Planning Acts, 1934 and 1939). Planning was seen as a local community responsibility, and the Dáil debates illustrate the assumption that policy should be decided by those accountable to the people through elections. Fearing that local officials might be given too much power, Deputy James Tully argued that

. . . when the local authority is empowered to do something, that should mean the elected representatives. [3]

Only local councillors had the right to determine policy for the community; professionals and officials were there to advise and then administer.

The Minister for Local Government, Mr. Neil Blaney noted that community participation was to be dependent on the willingness of the elected representatives to listen:

... these planning authorities ... should in all cases try to ensure that the views of all local organised groups will be obtained and listened to in the preparation of these plans... [4]

The public was formally invited to participate in policy decisions only when the draft plan was presented for public inspection. Even here, the elected representatives were to be the focus for the expression of community opinion:

I am quite sure that the publication of the intended plan . . . will invoke representations to the councils and that they will raise the objections on behalf of those who have approached them. These could not be better set out than by local councillors (Minister for Local Government, Mr. Neil Blaney).[5]

The image of local councillors as perfect mirrors of community opinion is one which we will return to later; for the moment, it should be noted that this assumes that there is no conflict within a community about planning policy. Recent controversies effectively counter such an assumption.

Once policy was determined, it was the County Manager who judged planning applications in the context of the overall plan:

... in dealing with any such application the planning authority shall be restricted to considering the proper planning and development of the area . . . regard being had to the provisions of the development plan, . . .[6]

Councillors, having no power over individual decisions, were thus isolated from individual demands for special treatment by voters.

This is in accordance with the legal distinction between reserved and executive functions. Since 1942, when the County Management Act, 1940, came into force, local authority functions have been divided between elected representatives and County Managers. Some functions were reserved for councillors, and all others were executive functions to be exercised by the Manager. In effect, overall policy was reserved for politicians, while the day to day execution of policy was transferred to officials. In the event of dissatisfaction, it is open to the applicant, the local authority, or a third party to appeal local decisions. Appeals originally were to the Minister of Local Government, and now to An Bord Pleanála. While councillors determined overall policy, they did not alienate voters by making unfavourable decisions on individual cases. Such procedures were aimed at removing any suspicion or concern that those with the best political connections would have an advantage over everyone else when applying for State services.

Policy versus Administration

Why, then, should planning be such a source of controversy? Simply put, the legal separation of reserved and executive functions has been obliterated. In theory, the County Manager is the only person with the power to make planning decisions on individual applications, although he must do so in the context of the existing development plan. In practice, councillors can require that County Managers make particular decisions. Inevitably, once councillors were seen to have influence over individual decisions, they became subject to the pressures and abuses which the County Manager system was supposed to avoid. Even the Development Plan is seen by interested parties as merely another means of obtaining special treatment on individual cases. This state of affairs should come as no surprise; in the original Dáil debates, the Minister for Local Government reassured politicians by remarking that

it is, of course, open to the elected representatives to exercise their powers under the County Management Acts. [7]

There are numerous ways by which councillors can influence particular planning decisions. The easiest method has become somewhat notorious; this is the "section four" motion. According to Section four of the City and County Management (Amendment) Act, 1955, councillors can require the Manager to carry out a particular action. Section four motions take precedence over all other Council business at the monthly council meetings. While a section four motion could relate to many matters, they are often used to require the Manager to grant planning permission for an application already denied. Sometimes, Managers might grant a permission simply to avoid the inevitable section four motion.

When an application contravenes the development plan (e.g., a proposal to build houses on land zoned for agriculture), the Manager must reject it. The planning authority can, however, change the development plan to permit the proposed change of use. Notice of the proposed material contravention must be published in at least one daily newspaper, and objections must be considered. The final decision rests with the councillors, however. As with a "section four" motion a material contravention lets elected representatives exercise the Manager's executive function in individual cases.

During the course of the five yearly revision of the County Development Plan, it has become clear that this too has become merely another means by which councillors can facilitate individuals with specific interests. Whatever policy functions are being exercised during the Review, there are also pieces of land being rezoned without reference to overall plans. When councillors change the zoning of particular pieces of land, it is often on the basis of representations by those who own the land. After such a rezoning, the Manager would have little choice but to approve planning applications which accord with the new use.

Thus, a Manager's refusal to grant planning permission can be overruled by the councillors on the basis of a "section four", a material contravention, or a zoning change during the Development Plan Review. Interestingly, it has been suggested that the section four was never meant for such a purpose, and, when used in planning, might contravene the legal distinction between reserved and executive functions. In his recent book on local authority law, Mr. Justice Keane noted that "it could undoubtedly be urged with some plausibility that the enactment has wholly misfired". He contented himself with the remark that the relationship between the planning Acts and "section four" motions is "obscure and unsatisfactory" (Keane, 1982, pp. 181-2).

Political Pressures

The blurring of a legal distinction might be of only passing interest, unless such a blurring is detrimental to the community. Is there anything wrong with councillors exercising such power? One indication that such power was considered undesirable is the provision, in the 1970 Health Act, that only the Chief Executive Officer shall determine eligibility for medical benefits. Councillors, nominated to the Health Boards by local authorities, were not given the power to intrude. The 4,500 people who objected to the recent County Dublin Development Plan suggests that people considered political intrusion worrisome or suspicious in the case of planning as well.

It can be argued that councillors' right to decide planning issues rests of three points. First, planning decisions should have a community dimension, and should reflected more than simply the technical expertise of planners. Second, councillors know community opinion and so can express community values in planning policy and enforcement. Finally, councillors are elected by the people and are therefore accountable to the electorate for their planning decisions (unlike voluntary groups). However, there are alternative points as well. Political pressures and demands may make them less than perfect mirrors of community opinion. If they are dependent on some individuals more than others, then elected office does not automatically ensure equal representation on conflicting views. Furthermore, given the potential financial gain resulting from some planning decisions, any political or community intervention in planning could be subject to pressure from interested parties.

The Irish political and electoral system imposes certain pressure on politicians. Proportional representation in multi-seat constituencies permits voters to support both political parties and individual politicians. Often, politicians must compete with fellow party politicians for the voters of loyal party supporters. Since party candidates are bound by a common political policy, rivals compete on the basis of personality or community service.

There is little security for a politician in the Irish system; he is at risk every time there is an election. Voters are always being offered a choice between him and other politicians who are also members of the same party; people can remain loyal to a party and yet transfer voting support from one politician to another. Politicians must work constantly to maintain their position against potential rivals or threats. To do this, they carefully cultivate party activists whose support will enable a politician to deny a nomination to potential rivals. Activists also keep him in touch with local groups, and feed him with information about local complaints. Politicians lacking such support may find themselves losing their reputation in the community, may find themselves without canvassers at election time, and could even find themselves facing a powerful rival who will get more first preference votes and thus elected office.

Funds and other support made available by the party are not intended for personal campaigns, yet in all elections, personal canvassing is wide-spread. The assistance of personal supporters is crucial, because politicians need private resources to surpass their rivals in publicity and canvassing. Financial contributions, material support (such as cars), canvassers, or just the donation of personal influence can all help secure the politician's re-election.

Therefore, politicians must be especially sensitive to the requests of party activists and personal supporters; their future support is crucial. Politicians' efforts of their behalf is worthwhile, because their certifiable repayment, at election time, is sufficient reward. In contrast, politicians' efforts on behalf of other voters are not necessarily so rewarding. Other issues and other loyalties may determine the votes of community groups or resident's associations, despite politicians' efforts of their behalf. In any event, there is no means by which a politician can compel anonymous voters to repay him for previous services. Thus politicians are not simply generally accountable to the general electorate at the polls, they are especially dependent on the support of a restricted number of individuals.

The special vulnerability of politicians to some individuals might affect their decisions, to the detriment of the community which elected them. In modern urban society, it is unrealistic to expect that the interests of different sections of the community will always coincide. Disputes between developers and home owners are just one example of the conflicting interests which divide communities. Councillors' dependency on individual party activists and potential supporters may limit their freedom to express broader community opinion, if those individuals' interest conflict with community interests (such as resident's groups, business groups, and so on).

This is particularly worrisome in the area of planning because planning decisions have become a valuable political resource. Planning permissions are "cheap": they cost councillors nothing and there is an unlimited supply available. Unlike expensive State benefits like housing, schools, or roads, politicians do not need to compete over planning permissions. Instead, they co-operate to get permissions for each other's clients. The financial benefit to the successful applicant transforms him into a grateful supporter (or so the politician hopes), and the cost to the politician has been minimal.

Even in terms of votes, politicians really have little to gain by ignoring rezoning requests. Some councillors see their task as simply helping voters to obtain Government assistance. When landowners ask for help in rezoning, it is provided; but when community groups ask for help to rescind the rezoning, the politician finds himself caught in the middle. On the whole, the politician benefits by listening to individual landowner rather than the community groups. If he rejects the rezoning request, he loses a potential supporter, and gains no community support, because no one even knows that he was approached.

Even if he publicly rejects particular planning representations, his loss still out weighs his gain. A few community activists might be grateful, but how many them are supporters of his party, and how many will remember the issue when voting in three or four years time? He has only gained the undependable support of a diffuse group. On the other hand when he assists an individual with a planning problem, he obtains a dependable supporter. Such supporters will remember his help and now have the resources to return the good turn at the next election. Anyway, he can always regain the support of the community groups another day.

So, in balancing conflicting community demands, the politician benefits by listening to the individual, who will remember the favour and who will be in a position to return it later, and not the group, which might well forget (or not find out about) the politician's actions. In the light of this, he will inevitably tend to look after the interests of the few, and neglect the interests of the many. There is good reason to suspect that councillors frequently take little notice of community groups. During the Dublin County Development Review, councillors sometimes made statements about community opinion for which they had little evidence and disregarded community views on planning policy. In the final speeches, one councillor was reported to have claimed that, in the public exhibition,

only about half of the 4,500 representations received were genuine and ... some of the objections were 'really a laugh'. [8]

It would seem that some politicians' respect for local opinion is as questionable their concern for planning policy and enforcement.

Official Power

In the recent planning debates, officials and planners have, by default, emerged as heroes. It is they who came up with sound advice which politicians ignored. It is they who seem concerned about the future welfare of the entire community, while politicians are concerned only with short-term individual gain. One consequence of recent disquiet may be the shift in the balance of power to officials, leaving politicians with little influence over enforcement or policy. This would be unfortunate and also unfair; the planning procedures followed by officials and planners are as much to blame for the current public dissatisfaction as the rezoning activities of councillors.

Bureaucratic procedures have tended to restrict community participation in planning, and have made councillors the only avenue of access to planners. Examples of restricted public participation are often not so much a case of denying access as simply not facilitating that access. Residents' groups can, if alert, monitor newspapers for planning notices and even receive weekly reports of pending planning applications. Yet, in many areas, planning applications are decided without local people knowing a decision was even being made. Local groups may find planning decisions were made on issues which had been thought to be settled. After one rezoning decision, an opposing councillor commented that

the people of Lucan would be up in arms if they heard that [the councillors] were going to allow housing to be built there after all the controversy in the past.
. . .[The] people of Lucan thought the matter was dead and gone and over with. If they knew that it was coming up again they would have had much more objections in. [9]

For that matter, interested parties are not notified if a rejected applicant is appealing against the decisions to An Bord Pleanála. Their opinions may not be heard simply because they did not know the issue was under debate.

This lack of public knowledge suits officials as much as councillors. By and large, officials tend to regard local groups as obstructive because they are seen to put their own local interests before the wider community good. Therefore, officials see little point in consulting with local groups and usually prefer to depend on councillors for community opinion. The public, deprived of positive consultation, can only object to decisions made by others when the Development Plan is exhibited. This, in turn, confirms the officials' view that community groups can only be obstructive and negative. If the present public dissatisfaction results in a system which deprives people of even a second or third hand involvement, would the outcome be any better?

Planning is not merely a technical matter, it requires community acceptance. People feel that the allocation of scarce resources amongst competing needs is a matter for the public, not officials or planners. Officials would be capable of pursuing technically correct policies based on the professional training of planners. Local authority officials freed from political and community pressure, could easily become less accessible to citizens, looking only to themselves and technical planners. Yet, technically correct plans have sometimes been socially devastating; since the community bears the burden of mistakes, should they not participate in the making of them? The present abuses should be rectified, but not at the cost of all community participation in planning.


There are a number of possible solutions to the dangers of political influence. A simple solution would be to merely restrict politicians' interventions in individual cases. If individual planning decisions were seen to be a purely administrative function, councillors would cease to be pressured from all sides regarding individual applications. Section four motions, material contraventions, and development plan reviews should not be avenues for the political determination of individual cases. If such avenues were closed, councillors would be freed to consider policy. They would still be consulted by County Managers who would welcome their knowledge of local conditions and so could still articulate community opinion. Since the legal basis for such political intrusions into the Manager's activities seems questionable anyway, this would solve some of the problems.

However, the distinction between policy and individual cases is not always so clear in practice. One of the problems in the Development Plan Review has been to distinguish between overall policy and special treatment for individuals. The ideal distinction would be difficult to apply, unless councillors were stripped of all power over policy as well as enforcement. In any event, officials are not immune, either from those trying to obtain preferential treatment; anyone who makes such decisions can become the object of representations. The most effective solution, freeing both politicians and officials from pressure or the threat of pressure, would be the removal of the profit motive from planning. If the potential profits were less, the pressures from interested parties would also decrease. Various strategies have been proposed to achieve this, but it is clear that the political will has been lacking. The people continue to believe that the rights of private individuals take priority over the needs of the community, and few politicians will support legislation which might alienate those gaining from such a priority.

The two previous suggestions would solve some immediate problems, but there is doubt that they would be implemented. They also leave unresolved other issues raised in this paper; particularly, the role of the politician in expressing community opinion. It is clear that the political and electoral system makes politicians more responsive to individual interests than to the community as a whole. One solution would be to reduce the politician's vulnerability to party activists and potential campaign supporters. If councillors were salaried and received proper administrative support, outside financial assistance would be less crucial.

An additional benefit would be more representative local government. Since councillors receive no salary, many must retain their nine to five regular jobs. Since many Council meetings take place during the day, many councillors may be unable to attend because they cannot get away from work. This was especially true of Development Plan meetings, where only a portion of councillors were able to attend the many morning and afternoon meetings. Council policy was determined by those who could afford to be there, and some locales were effectively disenfranchised because their elected representative was unable to attend policy meetings.

Decreased constituency sizes would also decrease political rivalries. Politicians might be less dependent on political activists to maintain their position, and politicians would also be able to build closer links with specific communities. Certainly the present voter:councillor ratio of 7,152:1 in County Dublin and 8,087:1 in Dublin Corporation is quite out of proportion to the rest of the country. Some Counties have as low a ratio as 940:1, and many as low as 1,500: 1 (Roche, 1982). If the number of councillors in the Greater Dublin area were increased, the politician's electoral risk would be diminished.

Another option would be to acknowledge that councillors are not, simply by virtue of election, the only accurate representatives of community opinion. Community councils, residents' groups, voluntary organizations, and local business also articulate community opinion. The planning Acts envisaged informal consultation with such groups, but this may be insufficient. Perhaps a more formal role in the process would dilute the pressure directed against councillors; such groups certainly have the commitment and knowledge to contribute constructively.

In the end, however, some of the problems raised in this paper are not problems that will go away. Planners and officials have one perspective, politicians another, and the community yet another. The present local government system assumes that citizens have shared interests and that politicians should simply reflect those interests. Planning disputes in County Dublin cast doubt on the validity of both assumptions. Different segments of the community have competing interests, and will seek to influence their elected representatives. Politicians must be free to represent all interests, instead of being vulnerable to pressures from a few. Disputes will be inevitable, but there is no reason to believe that such conflict is necessarily harmful. It should still be possible to create procedures that involve dialogue between officials and politicians, instead of the open or covert warfare that now characterizes some local authorities on issues such as planning. Technical expertise combined with a knowledge of local conditions is still the desirable method to determine planning policy. The alternative would be an inertia and inflexibility not well suited to rapidly changing conditions.


[1] Material on Dublin local politics was part of Ph.D. research, Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania

[2] Gary O'Callaghan, In Dublin, 24 June 1982.

[3] Dáil Debates, 22 January 1963, Vol. 199, Col. 149.

[4] Dáil Debates, 6 February 1963, Vol. 199, Col. 1117.

[5] Dáil Debates, 9 May 1963, Vol. 202, Col. 1233.

[6] Local Government (Planning and Development) Act, 1963, Section 26.

[7] Dáil Debates, 6 February 1963, Vol. 199, Col. 1128.

[8] The Irish Times, 1 April 1983

[9] Irish Times, 3 March 1982.


Bax, Mart, 1976. Harpstrings and Confessions: Machine-Style Politics in the Irish Republic, Amsterdam: Van Gorcum and Co.

Chubb, Basil, 1982. The Government and Politics of Ireland, 2nd Edition, London: Longman

Garvin, Tom, 1974. "Political Cleavages, Party Politics and Urbanization in Ireland: the case of the periphery-dominated centre" European Journal of Political Research, Vol. 2, 307-327.

Keane, Ronan, 1982. The Law of Local Government in the Republic of Ireland, Dublin: Incorporated Law Society of Ireland.

Roche, Desmond, 1982. Local Government in Ireland, Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.

Sacks, Paul, 1976. Donegal Mafia: An Irish Political Machine, New Haven: Yale University Press.