Planning the demise of rural Ireland

County View

County View
John Healy

Given what is coming down the tracks about wrongdoing in An Bord Pleanála, the planning authority could hardly have chosen a less opportune time to pick a fight with members of Mayo County Council.
It started with news that the former ABP deputy chairman, Paul Hyde, was forced to step down while a senior barrister conducted a report on his activities – a report that has now been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
This revelation was followed by news of a separate, internal review into further allegations of wrongdoing connected to the Hyde case.
There is little doubt but that confidence in ABP has been severely dented, whatever may be proved against the stewardship of Mr Hyde.
The integrity of the board has been damaged. But this will be cold comfort to those who, over the years, found themselves on the wrong side of bizarre planning decisions made by ABP, which – except for those with deep pockets and a watertight case – were the last, uncontestable word. The Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien, has made it clear that even when dubious past decisions are uncovered, there will be no revising of the results.
All of this will come into sharp focus in the looming stand off between the central planners in Dublin and the elected members of Mayo County Council.
In summary, the council has recently ratified the county development plan for the coming six years, in which the contentious issue of house building in rural areas was addressed. The council has long held the view that rural dwellers should be allowed the freedom to set up homes on their own lands, just as their families have done for generations. But this is a view which runs counter to the ABP vision of what rural development should look like, as enshrined in a plethora of statutory rules and regulations.
As a result, the Planning Regulator has refused to accept the county development plan as ratified by Mayo County Council and has directed the responsible Minister of State, Peter Burke, to demand that the council change the plan to conform to national guidelines. The Minister is now issuing a draft directive to the council, which is certain to be resisted but which, at the same time, the council seems to have little choice but to comply with.
Stripped of its verbiage, the ministerial directive comes down to a number of specific issues that, according to the regulator, are contrary to the requirements of the Planning Acts. The most controversial of those is a ruling that planning along any local roads that, in turn, are linked to national routes is not permissible. This is a ruling that has already caused outrage among many rural dwellers, whose cases have been highlighted in this paper on several occasions in the recent past.
To put that ruling into perspective, as outlined by council member Al McDonnell, it would mean that no house could be built on any of the myriad of access roads that lead on to, say, the N59, which runs from Leenane through Westport and Newport to Mulrany, Crossmolina and Ballina. It is a decree so preposterous that, if implemented, would signal the death knell of rural communities and a rural way of life.
The crunch will come when the minister must choose between listening to the voice of the councillors, who speak for the people, or capitulating to the planners, who exist in a different universe.
There is a widening chasm between central and local government in Ireland. The minister’s response to the planning issue will tell us much about how wide that chasm is becoming.