Saturday, November 18, 2006

 

Where next for Inse Bay?

The decision by An Bord Pleanala to allow the development of almost 50 houses in Inse Bay, Laytown has caused heartache for local families and thrown the adopted East Meath Local Area Plan into a state of limbo.

Along with the Residents Association, I was one of the five people who made a submission to An Bord Pleanala, arguing against the development. My argument was that the development contravened the adopted East Meath Area Plan, since myself and the four local area councillors had zoned the sites of the houses as “public open space” last year. I made the point that the housing could only proceed if councillors voted to rezone the open space back to housing.

An Bord Pleanala’s inspector considered my submission, but rejected it. She said that the County Development Plan (2001) should take precedence over the East Meath Plan, and in the County Development Plan the land was zoned residential. She said that for my argument to hold then the council should have varied the County Development Plan last year to reflect the changes in the Local Area Plan. This is not what we were told by Council officials when we adopted the plan last year.

Now all hell has broken loose. To the outsider, who may not be familiar with how councils function and how plans are developed and adopted it looks like the council missed a trick. Coming on the back of the Laytown school crisis people are rightly annoyed.

When the original application was made people asked how a developer can build on ground that was advertised to residents in the sales brochure as their open space for the estate.

Part of the reason is that the Department of the Environment revised the residential density guidelines a few years back, which meant that developers could apply to build more houses on estates they had already completed. Seemingly the sales brochure can be just thrown out the window; it has no legal status, something that myself and the Labour Party intend to tighten up on in government (and something that the current government has done nothing about).

For information, here’s a summary of how the East Meath Local Area Plan developed. A Strategic Issues paper was published, which generated comments from a wide range of local individuals and groups. The planners considered all of these submissions and met with the Councillors on many occasions to go through each submission. We met with local groups, landowners and individuals to discuss the merits of each submissions (there were hundreds), consider whether they concurred with departmental advise (such as the Regional planning Guidelines etc.) and then we made a view on what land should be zoned in what way.

The planners and legal staff in the council then got to work, went through the 300 page Planning and Development Act legislation to come up with the required procedure for adopting the Plan and preparing the necessary legal paperwork to adopt the Plan.

Councillors were then asked to approve this. We went through each clause in the Plan to make sure we were happy with its purpose, but it wasn’t our role to consider the technical aspects of the legalities of the plan. This was clearly and 100% the role of the paid council officials (It’s rather like buying a house. An individual decides on the house they want, and instructs a solicitor to undertake all the necessary legal paperwork. You go through each clause before signing it but you don’t try and interpret which piece legislation affects which clause!).

I have spoken to one of the “top team” at County Hall to get his view on what has happened. He has read the Inspector’s report and is of the opinion that the Council Planners are RIGHT and An Bord Pleanala is WRONG. He has asked the Council solicitors, Regan McEntee, to prepare legal advice on this point. I have been told that this advice is expected to be available within the next two weeks and I will be pushing for it to be made public.

If Regan McEntee say that the Council is right then I will be pushing the County Manager to immediately challenge the decision of An Bord Pleanala through the Courts. I will argue that the Council needs to do this to defend the people of Inse bay and to ensure that the status of the East Meath Plan is protected.

If Regan McEntee say that the Council is wrong then there is always the possibility that an individual / group of residents brings a legal challenge. This would potentially cost money, especially since if they lose they could end up paying costs of Woodgreen builders. This is something that the residents association will no doubt consider.

If no challenge is brought to this decision or if a challenge is brought and lost, then these are the implications:

The development at Inse Bay will be allowed to proceed;
Anyone who has gone to court will be out of pocket for at least their own expenses and possibility the costs of the developer Woodgreen;
The status of the East Meath Local Area Plan will be compromised. The Council will need to review any recent decisions that may be affected and will probably have to make some immediate amendments to the County Development Plan;

But how has this happened? Who is to blame?

Well, if An Bord Pleanala are wrong then there is little that can be done to seek any redress, except of course that the houses aren’t built (which is a great result in itself)

If the houses proceed then the fault must lie firmly at the door of the council. What whose door? Is it the fault of the councillors or the officials? I think any fair-minded person would have to agree that councillors can only make decisions based on the legal and professional advice given to them by the officials. In this case we were not advised that a revision of the County Development Plan was necessary to ratify the zoning on Inse Bay. The officials are the full-time, paid experts in planning procedures and legislation. If they tell Councillors “Here’s how you achieve the objectives you want to achieve in the East Meath area” then we have to take them at face value and we have to believe what they tell us.

Election candidates who call for mass resignations of the council (12 Fianna Fail Councillors, 9 Fine Gael Councillors, Labour and others ALL voted through this plan) are plainly playing politics, which apart from being transparent, is unhelpful and childish and not something I think is right or proper bearing in mind the serious impact this decision has on the community of East Meath.

The fight against these houses isn’t over yet.

Meanwhile, Minister Roche is proposing to increase funding to Councils by just 2% over the coming year. Here are some thoughts on the matter:


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