A fiercely fought decision by Wicklow County Council officials to buy and demolish an Edwardian house in central Bray for 45 car spaces raises questions about the power of local authorities.
The house, inhabited until now, was torn down on 12-13 April. Residents suspect that spending at least€1.3m to buy and replace it constitutes an indirect public subsidy to Paddy McKillen’s Oakmount/Navybrook. Oakmount is erecting the Florentine retail centre nearby, for which Wicklow council reduced the number of car spaces required compared to previous plans.
Officials snubbed a last-minute appeal by local TD and Minister for Health Simon Harris who supported the residents’ call for independent legal advice before proceeding with, as Harris put it, “the irreversible action of demolishing this heritage house”.
Minister Simon Harris TD and Sinn Féin’s John Brady TD, as well as the Green Party, An Taisce, Bray Cualann Historical Society and many local residents (including this writer) have objected to demolition. But a coalition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors held firm and rejected calls by fourteen councillors for an independent legal opinion on the process followed.
And the Office of the Information Commissioner has now informed residents that it has identified more than thirty records relating to St Paul’s Lodge that the council did not previously disclose to it on foot of a continuing Freedom of Information appeal by residents.
Wrecking St Paul’s Lodge during a housing shortage is the latest in a series of controversies involving Wick- low County Council. Last year it was strongly criticised by a High Court judge.
The Council was originally poised also to buy and demolish for more spaces at the same location a second house, occupied by Wicklow’s former county manager.
Although the Council assured An Bord Pleanála that the planned Florentine centre included enough car spaces, it now claims that new spaces are needed elsewhere “urgently” and at public expense. Critics point out that at least double the number of spaces planned to replace St Paul’s Lodge are empty daily in the car park under the Council’s own civic offices on Bray’s Main Street, and objectors have also identified other alternatives.
For some time critics have called on the minister for the environment to initiate an enquiry into how Wicklow Council does business. The management of Bray’s fire services and of related matters following the death of two firemen there, the presence of an illegal dump in West Wicklow that may cost the state tens of millions to clean up, the status of land near Greystones, and the sale of public properties on Bray seafront and elsewhere have given rise to concerns.
It is remarkable (and not widely appreciated) that, when endorsed by a majority of councillors, plans to demolish or build on council-owned properties cannot be appealed even to An Bord Pleanála. The absence of any right to appeal may be unconstitutional.
John Ryan, the Fine Gael councillor most prominently supporting demolition, recently filed a form declaring his interest in a contract to provide services to Wicklow County Council staff. But he did not inform or withdraw from meetings about St Paul’s at which councillors had to adjudicate between council staff and objectors. Nor did Fianna Fáil’s Pat Vance, who owns commercial properties facing the Florentine site.
Eight of 32 Wicklow councillors represent Bray, with just one each from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (elected last and second-last respectively). Fianna Fáil’s Bray councillor is Pat Vance, currently deputy chair of Wicklow council. Fine Gael’s is John Ryan. Most independent councillors in Wicklow, especially retired garda Brendan Thornhill, along with Green Party and Sinn Féin councillors have strongly resisted the demolition of St Paul’s Lodge.
Protesting councillors convened a special meeting of Wicklow County Council in March to question the way in which the decision to demolish St Paul’s Lodge has been taken. That meeting lasted over two hours but the large Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael bloc largely remained silent before voting against a proposal to take independent legal advice. It was backed by Bray District Chairman, Councillor Christopher Fox.
Councillors from these two parties in Wicklow generally support one another, with implications for resources. Three trips abroad during the St Paul’s controversy cost the Council over €6,500 and saw Council chairman Edward Timmins in New York with the county CEO, while deputy chair Pat Vance and a Council official went to Dublin, California (twinned with Bray). With residents against the demolition of St Paul’s refused permission to address the full Council, and their requests to meet officials rebuffed since last June, such trips exacerbate a sense of exclusion.
The Council told residents last June that it was examining all options for parking. In fact, as its appeal to the Office of the Information Commissioner has already revealed, the Council had earlier decided to try and purchase both St Paul’s Lodge and an adjacent house. No record has been discovered that reflects any consideration of options beyond Herbert Road.
Nor have records been uncovered that record any authorising decision early last year to buy two houses, or that might reveal who inside or outside the Council first suggested this, or what budget was allocated for the transaction. The Council eventually spent well above its initial valuer’s estimate of €765,000 buying St Paul’s Lodge, and even covered the cost of the vendor’s auctioneer, solicitor and furniture removal to Spain.
Residents would have campaigned earlier to stop demolition had they been frankly informed when they first enquired. They object especially to the fact that council officials closed the purchase of St Paul’s unconditionally before the necessary statutory ‘Part 8’ consultation was even commenced, and question the point of that consultation, in which 150 parties including An Taisce made submissions.
The Council admits that it did not ask its own heritage officer for her opinion. Submissions opposing demolition were also not circulated to councillors but were instead dismissed in a report presented by the Council official who had directed the purchase of St Paul’s Lodge. Most of the undisclosed records now uncovered (but not yet seen by residents) are in the email file of this official, who is about to retire from the public sector.
As seen in Wicklow in recent years, councils can dip as deep as they want into the public purse to fight legal challenges which residents or councillors can only dare to mount at enormous financial risk to their families. In effect it is justice denied, especially where no appeal process exists against Council decisions.
The wrecking of St Paul’s in the face of widespread local opposition raises questions about the oppressive power of local authorities in respect of planning. But the politics of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael at local level are also at issue.
Bray people need to worry about their town’s fate in a largely rural county that appears to regard it as a cash-cow, where local opinion has counted for little in this case. Residents who had not opposed the Florentine Centre have had their good will taken for granted and will now be more alert.
On a national level, Wicklow’s Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael bloc serves as a warning that when these parties get together they can ride roughshod over minorities. However, for his part, minister Simon Harris is said to want an official investigation into various serious complaints about how Wicklow County Council does business.
In contrast, Fianna Fáil’s Stephen Donnelly TD, who joined that party only after being elected first as an independent voice, failed to let local residents know where he stood on the demolition of St Paul’s Lodge, despite promises to get back to them. Some residents see his recent appointment as Fianna Fáil spokesperson on health as a cynical exercise in “marking” local Minister for Health Simon Harris in the Wicklow constituency rather than as an indication of Donnelly’s suitability for the job or desire for that crucial health portfolio.