24 February 2000 Edition
The Planning Bill - Restricting citizens' rights
Friends of the Irish Environment hosted a press conference earlier this month to protest the Planning Bill, which is currently under discussion in the Dáil, and to announce their formal complaint to the European Commission that the statutory provisions proposed in the Bill restrict the right of citizens to participate in the planning process and are illegal under European law.
``As it is, Ireland's application for European structural funds is seriously threatened by the disgraceful record on meeting EU environmental regulations, says Green Party MEP Patricia McKenna. ``This bill makes the situation worse.''
Speakers at the conference dealt with some of the provisions of the bill that conflict with EU law, which serve to restrict the citizen's right to participation in planning. These include the proposed fee to be imposed on anyone who wishes to comment on a planning application, the requirement to have previously paid and made application locally before an appeal can be lodged with An Bord Pleanála, and the new stipulation that a person cannot seek a judicial review of a planning decision unless they have a `substantial' interest in the planning decision.
The bill, which is an extremely complex piece of legislation, has already passed the Senate, and the government is attempting to rush it through its remaining stages before Easter. The bill hit the headlines because it includes the much discussed provisions on affordable housing, whereby the local authority must in its development plan allocate 20 percent of land zoned for housing to be made available for social and affordable housing.
An orchestrated campaign of resistance to this provision, no doubt emanating from developers, questioned whether any formulation could survive a constitutional challenge. The general understanding was that we'd all have to wait and see. Meanwhile, many other provisions in the bill, which seriously weaken democratic control of the planning process, have gone unremarked.
Strategic Development Zones
The bill also introduces the concept of Strategic Development Zones, which are ``sites selected for development of strategic importance to the national economy which can be afforded to internationally mobile companies with a much greater degree of certainty in securing planning permission''. In these zones ``the major planning issues will be disposed of before an individual project is identified''.
This means that blanket planning permission for a zone may be given, which could, for example, allow a chemical company or an incineration project to come in without any further planning considerations. It makes a nonsense of any public participation in the planning process or of the citizen's democratic right to object, if objections are only allowed in advance of identification of the individual project.
The bill also gives the minister new powers to ``appoint a commissioner to take over the functions of either the manager or the elected councillors, or both, where he has reason to believe that the planning process, so vital to social and economic progress, is not being carried out effectively or efficiently''.
It is extremely doubtful that this provision is simply intended to deal with situations of `impropriety' such as arose in the Dublin County and Corporation planning departments through George Redmond's misdemeanours. Dublin County Council and Dublin City Corporation had, after all, other means at its disposal to deal with these `aberrations'. The fact that they didn't use them is quite another matter.
This new provision allows the minister, in law, to bypass local government and elected representatives altogether, where the minister believes the planning process is not `effective' or `efficient'. It is clearly the view of most people, especially those developers who look for and wait for planning permission, that it is currently neither. Waiting, after all, costs money.
Guidelines to enforce windfarms, masts
Furthermore, Department of the Environment guidelines, on for example, wind farms, housing densities, and telecommunications masts, which have been opposed by local people all over the country, are in the bill being given statutory recognition. Planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála ``will have to have regard to these guidelines.'' Far from hoping that such issues as erection of the mobile phone masts may, under the new legislation, enable environmental and health issues at last to be taken into account by local authorities and An Bord Pleanála in planning decisions, there is now provision for the minister, ex officio, to rule them out.
This was the very issue that Mrs. Goonery from Kinnegad raised in court last year. Her case relied on the contention that at present neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor the local authorities or An Bord Pleanála have jurisdiction over substantive environmental considerations. The planning authorities decide issues concerning provision of services and the EPA then imposes conditions on the project which it assess are necessary to meet environmental standards of best practice. No authority assesses whether the project in itself, no matter what EPA conditions are imposed, should be allowed to go ahead.
People in Kilcock or Campile don't want an incinerator, no matter what, because they say it introuces toxic chemicals into the air. The people all over the country who have opposed telecommunications masts, whether in Achill, in Berkely, or Ballinamore, opposed the erection of masts on their doorsteps because people fear they are a health hazard and that the radio waves emitted are carcinogenic.
Mrs Goonery was concerned about a concrete manufacturing plant on her doorstep, but it might have been any environmental polluter objected to by a local community. The decision by the High Court that Mrs Goonery's complaint was `vexatious' went to the very heart of environmentalist concerns.
Regional authorities' power
Finally and most disturbing for the South East Region, the majority of whose councils have agreed to the regional plan for incineration, the new bill makes provision for Environment Minister Noel Dempsey ``to require compliance with the guidelines drawn up by the regional authority in consultation with local planning authorities''. The majority of county councils in the South East Region accepted the policy of an incinerator for the region, except Wexford, because it was rumoured the incinerator would be at Campile, near New Ross. Does the requirement in the new planning bill mean that the minister can enforce compliance with the majority decision on the regional authority?
``The bill runs a cart and horses not only through peoples' democratic rights to participate in planning decisions,'' says Sinn Féin's environmental spokesperson, Sean MacManus, from Sligo, ``but it seems to remove entirely some of the powers of local authorities and elected representatives to participate in the good government of their areas. Insttead, we are being foisted with the minister's new ex officio powers, exercised in the interests of economic progress, big business, and multinationals. The bill is a very disturbing piece of legislation indeed.''
Shutting out the light on Dublin's North Wall
David v Goliath fight over Spencer Dock development
BY ROISIN DE ROSA
City planning and with it the question of high rise moved centre stage this week as the Spencer Dock Development oral hearing of Bord Pleanála's appeal tribunal which opened in the Gresham Hotel on Tuesday. The Spencer Dock Development Company (SDDC) wants to build a new city on the 52-acre site between the IFSC and the Point Depot.
The proposed development is valued at the astronomical figure of £1.2 billion. The plan includes two hotels, eleven apartment blocks with 3,012 units (2.35 million square feet), nine office buildings, some of which would be as high as 95 metres with 22 storeys (giving a total of 2.03 million square feet), retail units, a 15-storey Technology Centre, a seven-storey National Conference Centre, an underground railway station plus 6,805 car parking spaces.
``The project is massive,'' says Sinn Féin Councillor Christy Burke. ``It would dwarf Liberty Hall, which is 59 metres high. The big business financiers and developers have come in over the heads of the Dublin Docklands Authority (DDA) with a project worth over a thousand million pounds and have trampled over the rights of local people to have a say in the development of their area. We don't want high rise development here in this city.''
``The fact that a few developers can assemble a finance package of this size doesn't give them the right to dictate to the people who have lived here in generations. Dublin people don't want Manhattan,'' says Christy.
Last August, Dublin Corporation gave partial planning permission for the conference centre and one office block but only outline planning permission for the rest of the development, which means that SDDC would have to submit new plans. This is the decision which SDDC is contesting at the oral hearing.
Behind the SDDC are Treasury Holdings, the multi-millionaire developers Johnny Ronan, Richard Barrett and Harry Crosbie, along with CIE, which owns the 52-acre site.
Ranged against SDDC at the tribunal are local communities including the East Wall Residents Association, and the Docklands Community Against High Rise, as well as An Taisce, The Georgian Society and two councillors, Ciaran Cuffe (Green Party) and Gerry Breen (Fine Gael).
The only appellant against SDDC who is backed by big finance is another developer, Dermot Desmond, the main instigator of the IFSC development next door, who says, no doubt correctly, that the size of the proposed development ``is driven purely by economic considerations of maximising commercial floor space within the site''.
Community groups protested at the opening of the tribunal against the inequalities in the planning system. Gerry Fay, spokesperson for the North Wall Community Association, says ``it is communities like ours, whose very existence is threatened, who have no funds to mount an appeal or employ expensive consultants to give evidence on our behalf''. As it is, the association has been doing bob-a-job fundraising to pay for professional representation at the tribunal.
SDDC, on the other hand, is expected to call between 20 and 25 different consultancy firms from around the world to present evidence in support of its case. ``It is grossly unfair,'' says Fay. ``The voice of the community is at an extreme disadvantage even before we start.''
As Sinn Féin Councillor Nicky Kehoe says: ``The new planning bill, instead of charging people money to appeal development decisions, should make provision to fund them. It is, after all, in everyone's interest that planning decisions should take account of local peoples' interests. It is quite unjust that local people should be penalised for objecting to multi-million pound projects which will destroy their environment and their living conditions. Local people can't afford to take on these developers. And why was the Dublin Docklands Authority ever set up if the plans they drew up for the area can be ignored?''
Marie O'Reilly, chair of the North Port Dwellers Residents Association, who lives in one of a row of houses in Manor Street at the very edge of the SDDC site, told a public meeting at the end of last year how the people in her street had been offered money by SDDC to encourage them to support the development. When this was refused, the consortium had simply ignored them.
``It's not that we are against development of the area,'' she says. ``We supported the DDA master plan, which proposed a 3.5 million square foot development, not the 6 million square foot development with which SDDC says it hopes to leave the tribunal. With their plans our street will end up as a wind tunnel, a thoroughfare, a parking lot, all in the dark shadow of high rise. Its not what we want for our community.''
A lot of people will be watching the result of the tribunal. Not least of them will be the people in the Docklands area, right across the river from the SDDC site, who are strongly opposed to the high rise developments proposed for their area and who have won major victories at George's Quay, Thorncastle Street and Barrow Street.
``When An Bord Pleanála rejected the George's Quay Development, they stated as a reason that it would detrimentally affect the historic precincts of the Custom House, Trinity College and the Liffey Quays. Yet Trinity College, on 22 September, approached Dublin Corporation looking themselves for planning permission for an 80-metre high hotel on the former An Post site at Westland Row and Pearse Street,'' Alan Curtis, Co-ordinator of the South East Network, which represents community and youth organisations, residents and resource centres in the South East Inner City, says. The South East Network called on Trinity College to drop these plans, and promised to fight the proposed development.
Another developer who will be watching the tribunal closely will be David Mackey of Flag Properties, formerly of the Sean Quinn Group. His Cavan-based consortium bought a half-acre site directly opposite the IFSC on City Quay last week for the outrageous price of £8 million, the equivalent of £17 million per acre, for office development. ``They couldn't make money on this site unless they are allowed to build a high rise, ``says Sinn Féin's Daithí Doolan.
``Ultimately,'' says Doolan, who has been an active campaigner against high rise in the Docklands, ``it will be down to the government and the Department of the Environment, with their new Planning Bill, to decide guidelines for building density. And where does that leave councillors, who are supposed to have authority over planning decisions? And where does it leave the communities that councillors are supposed to represent?''
Meanwhile, there is a great deal of money swilling around looking for profitable investment in development, and plenty of developers who can well afford to fight the councillors and people every square foot of the way. There is a lot of money riding the high rise development horse. The next weeks at the tribunal will tell whether that horse comes in.