Comment: Seeking planning permission for anything is a daunting task in Ireland

There are numerous signs that every step in the climate mitigation process will be opposed by some.
Comment: Seeking planning permission for anything is a daunting task in Ireland

A wind turbine park and solar farm in Germany. Sometimes a complex like this also has a biogas plant, all contributing to the country’s 56% of electricity from renewable sources. Could planning permission for such a climate-friendly complex be achieved in Ireland?

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan has said it is critical to have the people with us, if we are to win the battle against climate change.

Unfortunately, there are numerous signs that every step in the climate mitigation process will be opposed by some.

In a country where seeking planning permission for anything is a daunting task, it is hard to envisage a landscape with new forests, new wind and solar farms and other sources of renewable electricity, greenways, park-and-rides, international energy interconnectors, new wetlands, municipal compost systems, new wastewater infrastructure, and recycling plants.

All of these feature in the Programme for Government as requirements for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 51% from 2021 to 2030.

But there are already signs that such developments will be opposed by objectors, who may not want them in Ireland, or maybe do not want them “in their backyards”.

For example, forestry as we know it is not wanted by those behind a surge in appeals against licences for planting or harvesting trees, or for forest roads.

Just as the Programme for Government committed to developing a new strategy to expand afforestation, appeals against licences have become a major disincentive, at least for the farmers and sawmills involved in the industrial side of forestry.

Nearly 2,400 felling licence applications are delayed by appeals.

The appeals, mostly linked to environmental regulations, are in the vast majority of cases shot down by the Forestry Appeals Committee, albeit with great delay, and with the volume of appeals received making it difficult to clear the backlog.

Covid-19 restrictions have slowed the process.

Despite the delays, 2019 was a record year for issuing of felling licences, totalling 4,100, up 16%, and about 280 afforestation licences and 180 forest road works licences have issued in 2020 up to mid-June.

In 2019, there were 489 appeals against 311 forestry licences, more than double the total of 231 in 2017 and 2018.

It is relatively easy to make an appeal, you don’t have to live near the location of the proposed licence, and there is no fee. You can submit multiple appeals per day.

In 2020, appeals are received by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (the licensing authority) at an average rate of 12 per week.

The forestry situation illustrates the potential to hinder the Programme for Government’s role for forestry in their decarbonising plans.

There are numerous objections around the country to planning permissions sought for biogas plants, solar farms, wastewater treatment plants, and wind farms.

These include an objection lodged with An Bord Pleanála against the recently granted planning permission for a plant near Mitchelstown, Co Cork, where biomethane from farm materials would be injected into the national gas grid.

Wind farm developers have arguably been the heroes in decarbonising Ireland, with their installations generating 85% of Ireland’s renewable electricity and 30% of our total electricity demand.

In the Programme for Government, the emphasis is on offshore wind farms, but developing this is falling at the first hurdle — planning — according to Irish Wind Energy Association CEO David Connolly.

“For someone to build an off-shore wind farm right now, they are really stuck at the very beginning because you can’t get planning permission to proceed with a project.”

He credits the previous government with Fianna Fáil and the Green Party for putting in place the planning permission framework, electricity grid connections, and funding on which the wind success story is built.

However, he says costs could be cut 10% by giving planning permission for the up to 30 years life of a turbine, rather than the normal 20 years.

That seems a remote possibility, bearing in mind the apparent dislike of many people for wind farms, reflected in over 30 submissions received before Longford County Council recently refused planning permission sought by a local business for a single turbine.

There were over 300 submissions to Galway County Council before it recently refused permission for a biogas plant at Gort; the developers have appealed the decision to An Bord Pleanála.

Renewable gas production from anaerobic digesters has powerful backers, and it is environmentally sustainable and reduces greenhouse gasses, but it could be a non-starter due to planning difficulties, in contrast to its success in Northern Ireland.

It is hard to blame people for objecting to new developments.

Why should rural people turn a blind eye to projects, even if they are claimed to be in the interests of the common good (such as climate mitigation), when they can’t get permission themselves for their children to build residences next door, or for any development in the special areas of conservation, which Ireland is under orders from Brussels to expand.

The Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association warns that this expansion will leave huge areas of the countryside “sterilised” of farming, residential, or business activity — but also of public infrastructure.

How can the government resolve planning difficulties to allow the huge changes proposed in its programme go ahead?

Eyebrows were raised at climate mitigation being separated from planning functions in the Department headed up by Minister Eamon Ryan. However, there is a separate section in the Programme for Government on Planning and Reform, which promises establishment of an Environmental and Planning Law Court, a beefed-up Planning Regulator, and reform and consolidation of Compulsory Purchase Order laws.

There’s a commitment to an informed and proactive engagement approach in the planning system, involving communities at an early stage and instilling the concept of community gain.

These tasks could yet prove to be among the most difficult in the Programme for Government.

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