Planning decisions in east Meath could occupy a team of investigators for several months – Frank Connolly
The conviction and jailing of former Dungarvan Fine Gael councillor, Fred Forsey (43), on corruption charges has been hailed as a great victory by the establishment although the party has maintained a dignified silence in the whole affair. And why wouldn’t they as the man from whom Forsey is accused of accepting an €80,000 bribe is another former Fine Gael councillor. Michael Ryan (60) is also the owner of Al Eile stud farm in Kilgobnet outside Dungarvan and of a famous race horse of the same name and is expected to appear on similar charges next year. He owned the land which Forsey convinced his fellow councillors to rezone so that Ryan could develop it for a tidy profit. It was only because he fell out with his wife that Forsey was rumbled and is now facing four years in Midland Prison. Former environment minister, John Gormley, stopped the re-zoning.
What is shocking is not that a Fine Gael councillor was found with his hand in the till – it is that dozens, if not more, have not been as successfully pursued by the Garda given what emerged of Frank Dunlop’s corrupt activities at the Mahon tribunal. While the disgraced lobbyist bribed his way across more than 15 controversial re-zonings in Dublin in the 1980s and 1990s on behalf of his various clients not one of them has been properly held to account while Dunlop served less than two years in jail. Developer, James Kennedy, former FG senator, Liam T. Cosgrave and a handful of other former councillors are awaiting trial based on Dunlop’s claims.
What is also disturbing is that an attempt by Gormley to deal with the ever-growing list of complaints about planning irregularities was effectively suppressed by the new government when it took office last year. A proposed inquiry into questionable planning decisions in no less than seven counties – Dublin city, Carlow, Cork city and county, Donegal, Galway and Meath – was underway before it was stifled by a combination of civil service intransigence and a lack of political enthusiasm on the part of the Government.
The story under review in Meath alone could occupy a team of investigators for several months as it is an intricate tale involving competing developers, planners, councillors, a leading soccer club and even national politicians that ends up covering no-one in glory.
It is rooted in a proposal in 2004 by Drogheda Borough Council, and Louth and Meath county councils, to establish a new conurbation south of Drogheda and inside the Meath county boundary, incorporating lands known as Bryanstown. A decision was also made that other lands on the Mornington Road closer to to Drogheda would remain reserved and would not be developed until long-term plans for the port in the town were completed.
Wicklow-based developer, Bill Doyle, recognised the potential of the Bryanstown site and began to assemble lands there after receiving what he claimed were assurances from Meath County manager, Tom Dowling, that the proposals by the three local authorities would proceed as envisaged. Doyle eventually purchased 124 acres and – in co-operation with other landowners – designed a major residential, retail and industrial new town on the site. He also assisted Drogheda United in securing new grounds on a 20-acre site adjoining the Bryanstown lands and close to the M1 motorway which was to give the successful soccer club a new lease of life. It was agreed after discussions involving Doyle, his professional advisers and the council management that a variation of the county development plan was the best way to achieve his objectives.
With millions borrowed from Anglo Irish Bank, Doyle was then shocked to learn that some councillors were objecting to the completion of the East Meath area plan, including the Bryanstown development unless the reservation on the lands on the Mornington Road was lifted.
These lands were controlled by Seamus Murphy, a local builder and quarry-owner and by Phil Reilly of Shannon Homes, a major house builder in the Louth and Meath area. Shannon Homes also developed a retail centre at Grange Rath south of Drogheda. Reilly was also a political supporter of local FF TD Thomas Byrne and his father Thomas Byrne senior, an auctioneer who sold the Shannon Homes properties over many years.
The objections of the three local councillors Jimmy Cudden (Ind), Pat Bushell (FF) and Thomas Kelly who was a member of the Green Party until it fell out with him out over his support for building houses on flood plains in county Meath, stalled the implementation of Doyle’s plan. An intervention by then minister Dick Roche in August 2008, who was connected through marriage to one of the Bryanstown landowners and who wrote to the county manager and minister Gormley, expressing his concerns, failed to break the deadlock.
Doyle was then shocked to learn that when the final plan was eventually published in 2008 some 80 acres of his land bank at Bryanstown had been de-zoned from residential to green space and industrial making it commercially unviable to proceed with the development. At the same time the views of the three local councillors had prevailed and the lands at the Mornington Road were freed up for development to the potential benefit of Phil Reilly and his business partners. According to council officials, the decision to allow development on Reilly’s site meant that the Drogheda sewerage scheme could not accommodate the scale of the Bryanstown proposal. With millions in bank debts, Doyle was eventually forced to drop the ambitious scheme while the plans by Drogheda FC for a new playing and training facilities in a modern stadium, surrounded by retail and other commercial ventures, also collapsed even though it had received planning permission from Meath County Council.
Coming so close to the banking collapse any plans by Shannon Homes to develop its lands also went by the wayside with the result that both sites are idle and unlikely to be developed any time soon. The Bryanstown debacle was not the first to invite controversy for Meath County Council and its management. Last year, it was given a severe reprimand by Judge Peter Kelly in the commercial court over its treatment of another developer in Ashbourne. The extraordinary decision to grant permission to a developer to build a hotel within the curtilage of historic Trim Castle in the early years of the last decade has also been the subject of much criticism. And it was exposed to significant costs , and a forceful reprimand in a High Court action a decade ago over its gross flouting of its own population targets in its development plan, where it prevailed only on a technicality. It is not surprising that there is little appetite for more official inquiries into planning and zoning given the length and cost of the Mahon tribunal but it remains the case that serious irregularities across many counties involving councillors from various parties and unelected officials at every level within the local authorities have been identified over many years.
The east Meath saga is replicated in other counties around Dublin where population growth around the capital dramatically increased demand for housing and associated facilities during the Celtic Tiger years. But the symptoms are also evident in other counties from Donegal to Cork where the Forsey scandal is clearly only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to planning
Frank Connolly is Head of Communications with SIPTU and has written extensively on planning corruption over many years