December 6, 2022
Business News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Time we told An Taisce to mind its own business

Ireland’s planning system is cumbersome and costly. Local authorities make decisions, Bord Pleanála may overrule them and the dispute can end up in court. Sometimes the verdict will be appealed to a higher court, as happened with the proposal for a cheese plant at Belview, in south Kilkenny.

The process can take years , two years in the case of the Belview plant, during which time work is left undone but bills may still roll in.

Sometimes the applicant gives up, as happened in 2108 when Apple abandoned plans for  an €850 million centre in Athenry. That proposal which, like the Belview plan, had strong local support, had been bouncing around the system for almost three years. “Despite our best efforts, delays in the approval process forced us to make other plans,” the company said.

When it announced the Athenry plan, Apple also sought permission for a data centre in Denmark. There, permission was granted and the centre completed in the time it took the Irish application to move from approval to appeal and then into the courts.

Difficulties with Ireland’s labyrinthine system are further complicated by folk who won’t mind their own business. Objections to a proposal can be lodged by people who have nothing to do with the development and who live, or are based, nowhere near it.

Objectors to the Athenry plant included an eco group from Co Meath and the objection to the Belview plan was driven by An Taisce, the national trust.

An Taisce didn’t object to the factory itself. It had no problem with the things most of regard as relevant to a planning application: the design of the plant, its shape, its size, or how it fitted with its surroundings.

An Taisce’s issue was with damage to the Irish environment in general. It argued  that Irish farmers should not be encouraged  to supply  milk for the cheese that Glanbia and Dutch company Royal A-Ware intend to make at Belview.

The problem was the “perilous state of Ireland’s carbon and pollution footprint”, according to An Taisce’s Natural Environment Officer, Dr Elaine McGoff . The Belview development “would just tip us over the edge,” she told RTÉ.

An Taisce will claim that this is its business. According to the trust’s website, its “original mission [was the]  protection of built and natural heritage” but it has moved to “a more encompassing vision including a focus on ecosystem resilience and biodiversity enhancement.”

Who asked An Taisce to take this change of direction? The body is largely funded by the Irish taxpayer through a number of Government departments. I don’t recall us ever being consulted on the issue.

But even if “ecosystem resilience and biodiversity ” is a legitimate crusading issue for An Taisce, it is not the business of the planning process.

The amount of milk our farms produce is a matter for farmers, the Government and the EU. Planning permission should be about structural safety and the impact of a development on the locality; whether, for instance, it adds to traffic problems or creates difficulties for local residents.

An Taisce has been trying to extend the planning rules to include matters of national policy which should be left to elected representatives. It took its fight against the Belview plant through Kilkenny County Council, An Bord Pleanála, the High Court and finally the Supreme Court, which has ruled that the factory can go ahead.

The bill for this legal wrangling will be footed mainly by the taxpayer, whether it is paid directly by An Taisce or , through the awarding of costs, by the Department of Justice.

The Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae, has called for an end to all State funding for An Taisce. I wouldn’t like to see that happen but there is a real risk that it will if the trust continues to meddle in planning matters in this way .

An Taisce is perfectly entitled to lobby on national policy and equally entitled to raise planning objections on legitimate local issues. When it conflates the two, it is treading on dangerous ground.

 

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