There is a groundswell of opposition to the factory plan in Skibbereen, writes Noel Baker.
Children in a classroom in Union Hall Primary School, where Brendan McCarthy is principal, recently debated the whys and wherefores of plastics and whether or not a proposed plastics factory earmarked for nearby Skibbereen should go ahead.
They found against it.
Mr McCarthy, a father of four, is quick to state that he didn’t oversee the debate, but he certainly agrees with the prevailing mood.
His home at Poundlick, off the Baltimore Roa in the West Cork town, is right across from the site of the proposed factory which, earlier this month, was granted planning permission by An Bord Pleanála.
In the kitchen, the usual Lego bricks and Darth Vader action figures you’d expect in any similar home are present and correct but the unthinkable has loomed into view: Selling up, moving on.
“Anybody would be doing what I am doing if they were living in this house,” he says. “I am not going to be living here if that factory is across the road.”
Daly Products Ltd, owned by American-based parent company RTP, was granted permission after An Bord Pleanála upheld a Cork County Council decision. The approval is subject to 28 conditions. One point which has exercised campaigners is that in doing so, the planning board went against its own inspector, Hugh Morrison. It was, reportedly, also a close-run thing — the board decided by a majority of 2:1 to grant permission.
Initial planning permission was granted by the council a year ago for establishment of a thermoplastic compounds production facility on the site. It would comprise single and two-storey buildings with a total floor space of 4,831 sq m.
Bord Pleanála said: “The applicant stated that the total annual production capacity of the facility for all products would be 4,700 tonnes and that only a small fraction of this total would comprise thermoplastic elastomers [thermoplastic rubbers].”
It all comes after the current greenfield site was rezoned from greenbelt to light industrial. A council spokesperson defended the granting of the initial planning permission and added: “An Bord Pleanála’s grant of planning permission confirms the decision of Cork County Council — the conditions imposed by An Bord Pleanála supercede those originally imposed by Cork County Council.”
Mr McCarthy, meanwhile, refers to the reaction around town as an “outcry” and “disbelief and shock”. Discussing it with a shopper, a cashier in Field’s SuperValu referred to “people power”. A groundswell of opposition has built up and was represented on Thursday night when hundreds of people packed into a function room of the West Cork Hotel.
According to West Cork Independent TD Michael Collins, it was a far cry from the turnout at the first meeting, when around 15 people showed up.
The mood at the meeting was a mix of anger and optimism. Mr McCarthy and fellow campaigner Brendan McCormack confirmed a judicial review will be lodged regarding the Bord Pleanála decision and the Save Our Skibbereen campaign will need to raise an initial €15,000 to foot the bill.
One of those centrally involved, former solicitor Harry Sexton, captured the mood when he said: “I have never been involved in a community group before and would not consider myself an environmentalist.”
But he knew “this wasn’t a crank group or anti-capitalism”. As for the plan, Mr Sexton said: “This is a crazy development.”
People at the meeting referred to the possibility of noise and air pollution, the potential traffic issues, the need to transport materials in and out of the area from afar, and whether the number of jobs that would be created was in the order of 40 or 50, or way fewer.
In his planning appeal, Mr McCarthy had pointed out that within a 400m radius of the centre of the site, there are at least 22 dwellings, a 50-bed nursing home, and 28 retirement homes. A possible fire risk was also cited, the inspector’s report referencing appellant claims that “no details of any evacuation plan have been submitted and no information is available as to the capabilities of the local fire service to handle any such eventuality”. As campaigners point out, a fire broke out just before midnight at the RTP facility in Beaune-Vignoles in France on October 28. There were no injuries, but it took 50 firefighters to respond.
West Cork Fianna Fáil councillor Christopher O’Sullivan, seeking to explain the context for the rezoning by the local authority, had probably misread the room by the time he was referencing his membership of Birdwatch Ireland (“Bully for you,” was one response), but, as another speaker, said: “At least he had the guts to show up.”
Despite Mr McCormack reiterating that it is not a political campaign, Sinn Féin councillor Paul Hayes and Mr Collins have been long-time supporters, the latter telling the meeting he would happily act as a conduit if any talks between the company and the Save Our Skibbereen campaign took place.
As film director David Puttnam told the meeting, we are only a few months out from local elections.
“This is not going to be an issue in May,” he said. “This is going to be the issue in May.”
Mr Puttnam, who sits in Britain’s House of Lords and resides in Skibbereen, referred to the factory plan as “an advertiser’s nightmare”, given the funding that had gone into the Wild Atlantic Way brand. He delivered a personal message from actor Jeremy Irons, another local resident but currently filming in the US.
“I’ve already spoken about the hopeless misjudgment of inflicting the development of a plastics factory on the people of West Cork — most particularly on our children and grandchildren,” wrote the Oscar-winning actor.
“I’ll continue to do all I can to fight what can only become a blight on the face of one of the last few truly sustainable places on earth.”
The planner with An Bord Pleanála had noted that “the proposal, as an example of employment-generating economic development, would be welcome, in principle, within Skibbereen”.
He concluded: “Based on the submitted information, particularly with respect to noise and air quality, the applicant has failed to demonstrate that the proposal would be compatible with these amenities and the wider public health of those residing in the area and so, in these circumstances, it would be premature for the board to conclude that the proposed use constitutes a light industrial use.”
He said the proposal could be “contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area”.
However, the Bord Pleanála decision issued this month stated: “In deciding not to accept the inspector’s recommendation to refuse permission, the board was satisfied, based on its location, nature, and scale, the proposed development would be compatible with the zoning objective for the site and existing pattern of development in the area.”
A spokesman for the planning appeals body said it was not that unusual for the board to go against the decision of its inspector, and that this typically occurred in 13% to 14% of cases each year. He also stressed that “it’s not just the inspector’s report that is taken into account” and cited the huge number of cases dealt with by Bord Pleanála each month — some 390 decisions were made in November alone.
That is of little solace to those opposed to the factory, some of whom used the public meeting on Thursday to query whether pressure could be applied on some of the other players involved, including the IDA.
Responding to the Irish Examiner, the IDA said: “RTP was introduced to Ireland through the ‘Succeed in Ireland’ programme and identified the IDA Business Park in Skibbereen as their preferred location for its planned facility.
“The site was rezoned for industrial use by Cork County Council and, in April 2016, IDA Ireland approved the leasehold sale of the site at IDA Skibbereen Business Park, Co Cork, to RTP Company.”
The IDA stressed that it is “charged with winning jobs for Ireland”. The spokesperson said: “A sub-sector of the engineering division is plastics and packaging of which IDA Ireland has several client companies across the country.”
Just this year, Cork County Council was appointed lead authority of the Climate Action Regional Office for the Atlantic Seaboard South Region. The local authority spokesperson said: “Cork Council is satisfied there is no conflict between the decision of the planning authority following a detailed assessment of this particular planning application and the effective discharge of its duties as the Climate Action Regional Office for the Atlantic Seaboard South Region.”
The Irish Examiner has sought a response from RTP and offered the company the opportunity to outline its views on the benefits the factory might have for the area but, so far, no response has been forthcoming. It is understood that RTP has a family connection with West Cork. Almost exactly a year ago, the company held an event at the Ludgate Hub in town to meet with local people. Since then, there has been hardly a word.
Back in the McCarthy family kitchen, Brendan McCormack was left pondering whether this is really what anybody thought of when the sentiment of “giving something back” was first aired.
He summed it up in a question. “Do they want others to move like they did?”