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Councillors hit out at ‘anti-rural’ housing policy

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CRITICISM Cllr Al McDonnell


Oisín McGovern


TENSIONS rose last week between elected and executive members of Mayo County Council over planning laws at last week’s meeting of the council’s Strategic Policy Committee on Economic Development, Enterprise Support, Planning and Marine.
Cllrs Al McDonnell and Paul McNamara strongly criticised national Government policy on housing, which Cllr McDonnell claimed had ‘a sinister anti-rural movement’ at its heart.
The discussion was prompted by a motion proposed by Cllr McNamara to defer progress on the proposed county development plan until clarity is given on changes to national planning laws. The Achill councillor expressed several reservations with the draft county development plan, and argued that the proposed planning regulations for rural housing were too restrictive.
Cllr McNamara said that the rural Ireland had been ‘thrown a lifeline’ by the pandemic. He said that the rise in remote working could allow rural counties entice young people to return to live and work in those areas.  
The Fianna Fáil councillor added: “If those obstacles [to housing] were not addressed in the new updated version for rural housing guidelines, we will have missed the opportunity to allow people to come back and work from home in rural areas.”

‘Secret meetings’
His proposal received the support of other councillors at the meeting, which took place online.
Cllr Ger Deere said that regulations refusing planning permission to people with no family affiliation to an area was potentially ‘unconstitutional’.
Moorehall-based Cllr McDonnell claimed that people applying for planning are being urged by planning office staff to do so before the adaptation of the latest county development plan.
The former Cathaoirleach said that it would be harder to get planning permission after the adoption of the plan, which he claimed is at odds with what elected members had been told at public meetings.
Cllr McDonnell questioned if ‘secret meetings’ were taking place regarding changes to planning laws under the plan, which is to be adopted before the end of the year.
The councillor’s allegations drew an interjection from Director of Services Catherine McConnell, who described the councillor’s comments as ‘unfair, unsubstantiated and unfounded’.
Cllr McDonnell clarified that he was referring to the drafting of national policy, which he claimed was influencing local planners in Mayo.
The Fianna Fáil councillor said: “One of the most upsetting experiences I’ve had in my years in local government is to see the demise of rural Ireland, and I think the planning institutions, both nationally and locally, have played a very significant part in that.”
Cllr McDonnell did say that he was ‘encouraged’ by recent announcements from Ministers Heather Humphries and Dara O’Brien regarding rural Ireland, adding that some local planners were ‘sympathetic towards rural Ireland’.
Mrs McConnell said: “I would not like anyone to go away with the impression that there was any sort of double speak in Mayo County Council. We have been open and clear with the members and any member of the public that engages with us.”
She added that the council is obliged to adhere to national policy with regards to planning laws.
Senior planner with Mayo County Council John McMyler said that previous county development plans were faithfully implemented by the council and that the council would, likewise, implement the final draft of the new proposed plan.