Last Friday, a landmark judgment in the case of Cork County Council v. the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Attorney General and the Planning Regulator laid bare the rot that exists at the heart of the planning system. I preface my remarks by saying that this is not a criticism of the Office of the Planning Regulator as distinct from the manner in which the current officeholder has made recommendations to the Minister's office, which displays a fundamental lack of understanding of the relevant planning law. The action of the Minister to reverse the decision of Cork County Council on foot of the advice of the regulator was something that would offend a first-year law student.
Cork County Council had no alternative but to judicially review the decision of the Minister. The point to be decided was one that had been decided more times than most law students care to forget. This case should never have darkened the door of the courthouse. The judgment confirmed, as so many other judgments had confirmed previously, that local authorities must have regard to general ministerial guidelines. They are not required to follow them slavishly. It was implied by the regulator that these guidelines were mandatory. Knowing this was wrong was the equivalent of knowing that one plus one equals two. Mr. Justice Humphreys filleted the Office of the Planning Regulator and the Department. An eminent planning senior counsel has described this planning judgment as one of the most accurate and scathing he has seen. What is striking about the judgment is the frustration of the judge at the obvious fundamental lack of knowledge of the Planning Regulator of the basic principles of planning law.
Issues with the Department's planning policy department are not new. For example, I have put parliamentary questions to the Minister and a reply I received was intentionally, Jesuitically misleading. Subsequently, the Wexford county manager's report relied unlawfully on that reply to recommend an unlawful, inappropriate measure to the councillors in County Wexford. On the basis of this judgment, we can no longer trust the responses that Deputies receive from the planning section of the Department. We can no longer have confidence in the assistant secretary who is responsible for planning policy and who allowed the Minister to pursue an unlawful attempt to reverse the decision of the elected members of Cork County Council. We can no longer have confidence in the Planning Regulator. As Mr. Justice Humphreys pointed out in paragraph 70 of his judgment, the basic lack of legal knowledge displayed would have been sufficient grounds for the judicial review.
The Minister is now on notice that he has a significant problem in both the Office of the Planning Regulator and the planning policy section. It is clear that the head of the Office of the Planning Regulator has not got the legal planning knowledge or the skill set to maintain his position. He has had his homework corrected by the High Court and received no grade, NG. The defence offered by him is that this case was the equivalent of "the dog ate my homework". The regulator occupies a quasi legal position and his continuing in his current position undermines the Office of the Planning Regulator and the performance of its functions. It removes certainty from the planning system generally. I say, with regret, that the Planning Regulator is not fit for his position. The Minister must appoint somebody who has the skill set for the position. If he does not, I fear the contamination effect might reach his office. As a result of this landmark judgment the following question arises: who regulates the regulator? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? I ask the Minister of State to make a statement.