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// LEGAL CHALLENGE TO €20 PLANNING FEE
The Minister for the Environment, Martin Cullen, is required to appear before the High Court and defend the €20 planning fee introduced under the Planning Act 2000.
The environmental network Friends of the Irish Environment and one of its Directors, Tony Lowes, have issued a Plenary Summons against the Minister for the Environment and the Attorney General seeking a declaration from the Courts that the requirement for a fee is 'null and void' for projects falling under the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive.
The environmentalists claim that Ireland has failed to make 'adequate provision to foster and encourage public participation in the environmental impact assessment process' and in fact has 'actively discouraged such public participation by requiring the payment of a fee', which it claims is contrary to the scheme and purpose of the Directive.
The legal action cites a submission by the organisation to Galway County Council in respect of a development at Monivea, County Galway which was rejected by Galway County Council last year as no fee accompanied the application.
While the legal action does not seek to judicially review the decision of Galway County Council, the Council is cited in the Plenary Summons.
The action directly questions the constitutionality of the fee, given that European law is enshrined in the Irish constitution.
FIE organised a compliant to the EU about the fee in 2000 on behalf of more than 60 community and environmental groups. The European Commission issued a Reasoned Opinion in January, 2002, finding the 'participation fee' infringed the EIA Directive. A Reasoned Opinion is the last stage before the Commission brings a case before the European Court of Justice.
A spokesman for the organisation said that they had accessed the submissions to the Minister for the Environment at the time of the introduction of the planning fee and that fourteen local authorities, including the General Council of County Councils, passed motions to request that the fee would not be implemented. These motions highlighted the poorer decisions that would result as 'members of the public had consistently supplied these authorities with information that was useful and relevant'.
The Heritage Council noted: "The introduction of a fee is not in line with one of the key principles of sustainable development, that of public participation. Given the current lack of specialised expertise amongst planning authorities in relation to a number of areas of sustainable development, the submissions of observations from third parties provides an invaluable service to planning authorities in their attempts to assess applications in a comprehensive manner."
While the Local Authorities do not keep records of the number of objections before the fee was introduced, there are suggestions that the fee has resulted in a decrease of more than 50% of the objections received.
Verification and comment: Tony Lowes 087 2176316
Irish Language: David Healy; 01 832 4087 / 087 6178852