A new RTÉ Investigates documentary will reveal how how two individuals, operating as self-styled environmental non-governmental organisations, are systematically objecting to planning applications to extract money from developers.
When it comes to the planning process in Ireland the two men are gaining a reputation as "serial objectors". They have lodged multiple objections to residential and commercial developments across the country, and multimillion euro projects are being put on hold.
RTÉ Investigates follows the journeys of several developers who have come up against these men "and found themselves out of time, out of options and out of pocket".
The programme will air on RTÉ One on Monday night, and will "identify the two men and feature substantial covert video and audio recordings".
Professor Geraint Ellis, lecturer in planning, Queens University, told RTÉ Investigates: "There's been rumours that these things happen. But to see evidence of this and such high amounts of money is fairly shocking."
In a time of a national housing crisis, an increasing number of developers say they are being held up by highly questionable appeals, which can take up to a year to be heard. People say they are being held to ransom by mischievous planning objections that claim to be about protecting the environment.
An Bord Pleanála, the planning appeals board has powers to dismiss financially motivated appeals. Following Freedom of Information requests, RTÉ Investigates "can reveal there has not been a single appeal dismissed on the grounds of being financially motivated, although the board has the power to dismiss such appeals under the Planning and Development Act 2000".
In November 2022, developer David Hogan was granted planning permission to build 74 houses, allowing him to expand his development Watergrasshill in Cork, where there is big demand for such starter homes.
The brothers submitted an appeal under the name of an environmental group called An Lucht Inbhuanaithe, “The Sustainable People". The development in Cork is located 290 kilometres away from Kells, Co Meath where one brother lives, and over 300 kilometres away from Westport, Co. Mayo where the other brother lives.
David Hogan had concerns about the group’s motivations. At a meeting with one of the individuals, Mr Hogan tried to address the environmental issues raised in the appeal, but the conversation turned from environmental concerns to money.
David Hogan said one of the men told him: "In the event of the appeal being withdrawn, what about my costs? And he says, if you have a proposal to make, I will be happy to listen. I had said to him that I would wait, I could afford to wait. And he kind of leaned in towards me and he said, well, you're in a lot better position than most of the guys I'm dealing with."
It is now almost 11 months since his planning permission to build 74 houses here in Cork was appealed by the two men. Mr Hogan has plenty of potential buyers for his development, but he is continuing to refuse to pay the two men to withdraw their appeal, so he must wait for the planning appeals board to adjudicate on the case.
The appeals board has a statutory objective to decide cases within 18 weeks. However, 70 per cent of live cases before An Bord Pleanála at present have not been decided inside this time limit according to a freedom of information request supplied to RTÉ Investigates.
The two brothers have been increasingly prolific in submitting planning objections to housing and commercial developments around the country. These objections have been described as mischievous and financially motivated by several planning experts.
RTÉ Investigates has discovered another case where a developer paid them and was also asked by them for sites in that development, in return for them withdrawing their appeal against a significant residential development.
The agreement gives one of the men an option to buy sites in the housing development for just €1,000 each when the sites were considered to be worth up to €50,000 each at the time.
The documentary shows how RTÉ also uncovered further payments by other developers – including a fourth one for over €50,000 which was paid to them in return for a planning appeal being withdrawn.
Viewers will also see tonight how in secretly recorded footage, one of the men revealed how the withdrawal of appeals typically involves confidential deals with developers.
Another property developer featured on the programme told RTÉ Investigates: "I want to expose the fact that people are abusing the planning system for nothing other than personal gain. It's a silent cancer. It's not spoken about."
The brothers frequently describe themselves as environmental consultants with NGOs (non-governmental organisations) which are typically not-for-profit advocacy groups .
RTÉ Investigates could find no record of them being registered with the charities regulator or the companies registration office. Nor could they find any online presence explaining the group’s goals. As there are no state regulations for NGOs at present, there is no obligation for them to do any of these things.
Sadhbh O’Neill, environmental lecturer and activist, said: "What makes me so angry is that I know all the organisations that I've worked with who put so much time and effort and voluntary hours into building their organisations, establishing codes of governance and practise, and complying with all of those rules in order to be able to present themselves as legitimate environmental organisations representing the public interest. And these individuals claim to have environmental concerns, but these are clearly nothing to do with what's going on."