On the doorsteps Rural Planning
With less than 100 days left to the anticipated date for Election 2007, the issues which are going to be debated at length on the doorsteps of the county are becoming more clearly defined.
Of course, the divisive issues which cause most debate differ from constituency to constituency but it is safe to assume as Mayo’s eleven declared candidates go knocking on doors in the rural areas of Mayo, from Belmullet to Shrule, they are sure to be quizzed on planning and the numerous contentious debates which have taken place over the last five years since the last election.
Figures released by Mayo County Council this year revealed that the number of planning applications in the county have more than doubled in the past ten years with planners receiving a whopping 3,909 submissions last year.
The Council were also glad to reveal that the majority of applications, a total of 89.3% of the applications, were granted in 2006 and from these figures everything would seem to be in tip-top shape in Mayo in relation to planning.
However, it is also clear that the candidates won’t have to knock on too many doors before they come across someone who has experienced real problems with regard to planning and is disillusioned with the system currently used to decide on planning applications.
One such man is Austin Mortimer, a native of Shrule, but who is now living in Dublin. Mr Mortimer recently purchased a property on the Main Street of his home village in south Mayo with a view to building some dwelling houses. He applied to build six houses and was granted permission for five by Mayo County Council. The decision was however appealed to An Bord Pleanála and after one of their own inspectors gave the development the thumbs up, it was eventually refused by the board of directors because Mr Mortimer planned to demolish two old buildings, which the board maintained ‘contributed to the attractiveness of the streetscape’.
“The whole process started for me almost two years ago but now I am firmly right back where I started. I purchased the property in April 2005 and because I wanted to make sure that everything was correct about the application, I didn’t lodged the application with the council until November 2005.”
Mr Mortimer’s application was granted permission by the Council with what he thought were reasonable conditions attached but the application ended up before An Bord Pleanála after an appeal was lodged by a neighbouring landowner.
“What I find very unfair about the whole system is that a lot of applications do not show up on An Bord Pleanála’s radar at all if there is no objection. My decision was overturned for reasons not brought up by the objectors. The board of directors went and found other reasons to a refuse an application which Mayo County Council and one of An Bord Pleanála own inspectors found perfectly acceptable.”
Mr Mortimer said the decision has left him ‘hugely frustrated’ and the only option now open to him was a judicial review.
“A board of directors, none of whom I know, make the final decision and decide that my application is not acceptable. Their say is final and that is that. All I wanted to do was offer the chance to three or four families to live in the village of Shrule, which it badly needs, but at the end of the day some faceless bureaucrat in Dublin can stop the development going ahead with the stroke of a pen, and I can guarantee you the people in question have never even set a foot in the village of Shrule.
“All people are looking for is consistency and a system where everyone is seen to be treated the same way. This does not seem to be happening at present, it seems to be a game of chance more than anything else,” stated Mr Mortimer.
With such contentious decisions still being made with regularity, it does seem likely that the whole issue of planning in rural Ireland will be one of the main issues which will be be debated at length in the coming weeks ahead of the election.
“Planning was a major issue in east Mayo but I did work hard during the last County Development Plan to try and get concessions for the area. A lot of areas in rural Mayo are under significant pressure in relation to numbers for schools and we have to encourage and allow people to build houses in these areas in particular. The occupancy clause is still applicable obviously but it is now being applied in a more sensible manner.”
“I think the Government identified that this issue was a big one and I believe the guidelines drawn up by Minister Dick Roche have worked very well. The County Council have also done their part by putting in place sewerage schemes in a lot of our towns and villages. These schemes are vital pieces of infrastructure and I am confident that they will allow our smaller villages and towns develop and maintain their population bases.”