The Supreme Court is to hear an appeal against the High Court ruling to grant the government a stay in the proceedings brought by an environmental group against the 20 Euro fee to object to planning applications. The High Court granted the stay to the Minister for the Environment and the Attorney General on the grounds that the matter was the subject of proceedings in the European Court.
In their appeal, Friends of the Irish Environment and a Director, Tony Lowes, have claimed that the High Court's ruling was unconstitutional and frustrated them of their rights as European citizens to seek justice in their own national court.
'Just because the European Union has begun to bring a defaulting nation into line does not remove an individual's right to protect specific legal rights that derive from community law', said a spokesman for the organisation.
'The EU has made it clear that it is contrary to the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive to make comment by the public subject to a "participation fee". Ireland is the only EU member state to have required the payment of a fee for considering the public's opinion.
It is established Community Law that no charge can be made for a service by public officials which is in the public interest.
The 20 euro fee is entirely contrary to the polluter pays principle.
The case against Ireland taken by the Commission follows a complaint brought by FIE on behalf of 67 community and environmental groups in 2002.
'There is no doubt that the €20 fee will be ruled illegal in the end - the Irish Courts are only delaying judgement day at the expense of citizen's rights to be heard in our own open courts', the spokesman concluded.
Further information: Tony Lowes 027 73131 / 087 2176316
The Reasoned Opinion preceding this case, which is available on FIE's website, quotes extensively from submissions made to the Minister for the Environment during the public consultation over the Planning Act. This dossier was obtained by FIE under the Freedom of Information Act and provided to the Commission's Legal Affairs Division in support of the complaint.
The General County of County Councils and 14 local authorities passed resolutions opposing the fee.
The Irish General Council of County Councils asked why a resident, faced with a proposed pig farm across the road, "should be forced into any expense, no matter how minimal, because of a third party's unsolicited proposals". The Reasoned Opinion quotes from Anglers Groups, The Georgian Society, The Irish Planning Institute, the Royal Town Planning Institute, and An Taisce.
The Commission also noted that the fee reversed the purpose of the polluter pays principal, in that a financial burden was placed on the person who was likely to be most affected.
The Commission noted from the submissions provided that the planning fees paid by developers do not properly reflect the administrative costs and that as a consequence local authorities are discouraged from engaging the professional expertise that is needed to consider such proposals.
In this context information is especially important when it comes from non-Governmental organisation, "given that many Irish decision-making bodies lack specific expertise to judge environmental impacts." These organisation may have to make many submissions. The Commission also refered to its Reasoned Opinion on Ballymun, where project splitting meant that residents were faced with over twelve applications at each stage of the "Regeneration".
Dail report, 21 February, 2002
Mr. Cuffe: On the same matter, now that the European Commission has ruled that the €20 planning fee is illegal, will the Minister for the Environment and Local Government be refunding those who paid the fee? Will he introduce regulations to ensure that members of the public will not have to pay this draconian fee in order to participate in the planning process?
The Taoiseach: I understand that the European Commission has given a reasoned opinion but I do not think it has made any statement about the legality of the situation. Obviously, the Minister will now have to examine the judgment.