A royal tragedy

Meath County Council and its Management are out of their depth in planning and ignore their own plans

The termination of the rail line at Pace Interchange, where the new motorway winds off into the landscape towards Navan serves as a powerful metaphor for transportation priorities in Ireland. “Ruin is the destination towards which all men rush, each pursuing their own private interests, in a world that believes in the freedom of the commons”, wrote Gareth Hardin in his seminal 1968 essay – a must-read for all policy-makers with a role in land-use planning in Ireland. The recent decision by An Bord Pleanála to refuse planning permission for the development of a ‘SMART Park’ in an eighteenth century woodland within the demesne walls of Carton House two kilometres from Maynooth is the latest admonishment by the appellate body of a long series of flawed planning decisions by the much and justifiably maligned Meath County Council. The decision also vividly exposes the institutional bias in how planning applications that have the potential to generate commercial rates revenue for the local authority are assessed. In short, local authorities have a significant direct economic interest in many development proposals submitted to them for their consideration. This inherent prejudice is skewing land-use patterns in favour of large out-of-town, car-dependent development, particularly adjacent to administrative boundaries adjoining larger cities and towns.

Nowhere in Ireland has this fetish with rates been more evident than in County Meath. A trip along the old N3 to Navan reveals a depressing picture of how land-use planning policy in the Royal County has been steered over successive years. Snaking alongside, the great white hope of economic development within the county, the much criticised and delayed M3 motorway, is nearing completion. Also alongside but less evident is the Clonsilla-to-Pace rail line, also known as ‘Phase 1’ of the Dublin-to-Navan rail line, which is also approaching completion. The termination of the rail line at Pace, with the new motorway winding off into the landscape towards Navan, serves as a powerful metaphor for transportation priorities in Ireland. Cynics could not fail to observe the curved outline of the brand new toll booths being constructed just before motorists reach the planned new 2,000 space park-and-ride facility. With the State over a barrel for any shortfall in toll revenue from the M3 Public Private Partnership, it is evident that there will be little incentive for the completion of the rail line.

The ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom saw the whole region of southeast Meath transformed into a giant amorphous dormitory suburb. With half-reluctant young buyers lured from Dublin by cheaper house prices, villages such as Ratoath, Dunshaughlin and Ashbourne mushroomed into large commuter towns. In their zeal for new development and in their inability to withstand the unrelenting lobbying by landowners, Meath County Councillors zoned countless thousands of acres for new housing development. The true extent of over zoning was subsequently laid bare in the now infamous and, in hindsight, regrettable judgment of the High Court in McEvoy v Meath County Council. In taking the case the plaintiffs were presciently only too aware of the long-term implications of malleable land use regulation. Having regard to national and regional planning policy certainly does not mean comply. However, it equally does not mean disregard. And disregard is the favoured position of the parochialists in Meath County Council.

With the promised arrival of the new M3 and with new residents weary with the daily commute to Dublin which, with the hopeless traffic congestion, could take up to three hours in both directions, the beady eye of the Council turned to employment generation and enterprise development. Dangerously dependent on development contribution levies for income, with no commercial rates base to speak of and with one of the lowest jobs-to-population ratios in the Greater Dublin Area, new initiatives were belatedly introduced to entice commuters to seek employment opportunities within the county. Variable message signs along the N3 directed worn-out or narcoleptic car commuters to websites like www.workinmeath.com. Yet few jobs existed and with the development of the major county town of Navan forsaken in favour of a diffusion of market-driven amorphous sprawl in the southeast of the county, no settlement offered the critical mass of population and infrastructure capable of attracting foreign direct investment and high quality jobs into the county.

With little option, the local authority turned once more to the market which, at the time, was driving industrial and logistics warehousing out of the Dublin metropolitan area due to inflated land values. Warehouses and big boxes had the potential to pay bounteous commercial rates to the Council’s coffers.

The first major planning application was by Royal Gateway Holdings for 123,000 sq.m. of speculative office and warehousing development on unzoned lands at Piercetown, Dunboyne. The site, which included the ostentatious mock Georgian classical house made ‘famous’ in the movie Eat the Peach, was at the time an unzoned rural area immediately adjacent to the proposed M3 corridor, two and a half kilometres from Dunboyne. The Council’s Planner in a comprehensive report strongly recommended refusal due to the speculative and car-dependent nature of the proposed development, and non-compliance with the Regional Planning Guidelines and the Council’s own County Development Plan. The County Manager and the Elected Members of the Council however, disagreed. Jobs and commercial rates were potentially at stake and where they were located was incidental.

Unanimously the Council voted to permit the development by way of a material contravention motion. A third-party appeal to An Bord Pleanála by An Taisce was upheld. To the bemusement of the members of the Council, the Board issued a damning decision comprehensively refusing permission noting, “Having regard to the location of the proposed development circa 2.5km to the north-east of Dunboyne, at a remove from the proposed multi-modal public transport interchange at Pace approximately 1km to the south of the site, and the nature of the employment uses proposed, including a significant office use, it is considered that the proposed development, which would be principally dependent on the private car, would lead to the creation of an unsustainable car dependent development, would contravene the policies of the Regional Planning Guidelines for the Greater Dublin Area and the strategic aim of the current County Development Plan”. (It is noteworthy that in 2009 the Council subsequently saw it appropriate to zone this site for employment use).

Brazenly undeterred by the County Development Plan, which of course it drew up itself, the Council pressed on. If they could only get rid of those pesky appellants and ‘do-gooders’ and avoid an appeal to the Board they would surely get their way. In March 2008 the Council granted permission for 25,500 sq.m. of warehousing at Barstown, Dunboyne. Once more the proposed was located on unzoned rural site remote from any urban settlement. However, on this occasion, notwithstanding the fact that the application included an environmental impact statement and was located proximate to an archaeological feature, the Council deemed it unnecessary to notify An Taisce. Furthermore, material contravention proceedings were not invoked. A tip-off from a local resident allowed An Taisce to lodge an application to the Board for leave to appeal, which was duly granted. The application was ultimately refused by the Board for almost identical reasons to the previous decision in respect of the application by Royal Gateway Holdings. Once more the cries of indignation and incredulity rang out from the elected members and the bold columns of local newspapers widely vilified the Board and the self-righteous appellants who were charged with sinking thousands of potential jobs.

At this point, logic would dictate that as George W Bush once famously mused, “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on …. err…”. Indeed perhaps it did – the Council were not for turning and just a few months later, in June 2008, a similar application by Robin Rennicks for 22,000 sq.m of warehousing on unzoned lands was granted planning permission. This time the location of the proposed development in the tiny isolated rural crossroads of Kilbride was even more remarkable. It was like shooting fish in a barrel for the appellants and again, predictably, on appeal the Board refused planning permission with the Inspector, his patience clearly waning, even noting, “In my view the opportunistic approach to the proposed development by the planning authority is unacceptable given the clear plan-led approach defined in both national, regional and local guidelines, policies and objectives”. (Again, after this decision in 2009 the Council saw it appropriate to zone these lands for employment use.)

It is worth noting at this point that in issuing its decision on each appeal the Board gave very lengthy, logical, and considered reasons for refusal which went consistently unheeded by the Council. Meanwhile the county’s main settlement and the only town which could realistically achieve a critical mass of population to support new high-quality jobs, Navan, was embroiled in ongoing planning controversy, disagreement and delay which has left the flagship Strategic Development Zone at Clonmagadden, designed to fast-track the integrated development of new communities without, to this day, a sod turned. If ever there was a testament to haphazard ‘planning’ Navan is it. A town full of soulless commuter housing estates, choked with traffic and every manner of design-free commercial development.

Nevertheless the show had to be kept on the road and the granting of, by now almost farcical, planning decisions continued. A further application by Creative Homes, the company behind Sheomra Village, on unzoned lands at Rathregan, Batterstown was duly appealed to the Board. By this time, the decision was a foregone conclusion. Recognising this, the applicant at least tried to put up a fight arguing that their business justified a rural greenfield location to show their products in their best light! This tenuous argument found little favour with the Board who considered that the proposal did not have any requirements that could only be accommodated in a rural location and that it would be more appropriately located within zoned and serviced lands. According to Kevin Stewart, Director of Services of the Economic Development Department with the Council, as of the 10th of October 2009, Meath has 1,600 acres of land zoned for employment-development in designated settlements.

The final act in the farce (tragedy?) was the much-publicised refusal at Carton Demesne. Carton House is the former seat of the Fitzgerald family, Dukes of Leinster and one of Ireland’s four or five most important country houses. The proposed development by Glashrooneen Ltd for a ‘SMART Park’ – including 18,000 sq.m of commercial floorspace, a neighbourhood centre, 130 residential units, and 735 car parking spaces – was lodged with the Council in June 2008. The proposal was ostensibly a synergistic development with the National University of Ireland Maynooth to be located in eighteenth century woodland within 400m of the front door of the main house at Carton. Conveniently for the Council this is also just immediately inside their administrative boundary with County Kildare. Bingo.

Champing at the bit to bag the potential rate revenue the Council, the penny starting to drop, needed to minimise the risk of an appeal to the Board. A request for further information was (conveniently) issued to the applicant and while awaiting a response a local area plan (LAP) was hastily drawn up and adopted. The LAP, which allowed precisely for the applicant’s development proposal was, despite protestations from Kildare County Council and the Dublin Transportation Office, duly adopted in April 2009. By the time the appeal was lodged by a number of appellants, including a local business interest, the zoning context for the site had been regularised.

The Board however was clearly not impressed with this slapdash approach to development planning and the post-regularisation of live planning applications. By an overwhelming majority of eight to one the Board refused permission. That decision is a significant precedent since the Board not only raised serious concerns as to the impact of the proposed development, but also raised – in a significant first – questions as to the appropriateness of the land-use zoning; the LAP, upon which the decision to give the go-ahead to the development by the Council was based. The Board noted that the LAP was contrary to the Development Plan Guidelines for Planning Authorities issued by the Department of the Environment which recommend that a logical sequential approach should be taken to the development of the land, with lands closest to the core of town centres and public transport routes being given preference.

This was the fifth major refusal in a row for almost identical reasons. Once again the decision drew the fury of the Elected Members of the Council with the zealous Councillor Brian Fitzgerald hurriedly arranging a special meeting of no less than sixteen members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment to discuss the decision. Deputy Damien English said he was very surprised that planning permission had not been approved by the Board, “The land in question is also zoned appropriately for this type of project. After walking around the site, I am even more disappointed with the decision as I believe that the 1,100-acre Carton Estate is both a perfect location and setting for a SMART Park campus to be developed in an appropriate manner”, he said.