The boot of the car was left open, the document sitting inside it. There were pens on hand, and wipes and masks and sanitiser. One by one, members of the community came along throughout the day, some on foot, others driving. They signed their names and left promptly in deference to the social restrictions. By the time the winter’s evening closed in and the boot was closed, nearly 100 signatures had been gathered.
So it went in a small rural community in Co Sligo at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The signatures went towards an objection to the erection of a telecommunications mast in their midst. There was nothing unusual in the people of Doonflin-Grangebeg resisting the imposition of a piece of infrastructure which they felt was totally inappropriate. What was different was the circumstances in which they were forced to organise their resistance, the physical restrictions on attempting to source the “meitheal” that bonds a small community. What was shocking about the whole affair was an outcome which appears to make a mockery of the whole basis for a democratic planning system.
“It’s too late for this mast,” Feile Butler, an architect who lives a stone’s throw from the site of the mast, says. “The works for this have started, it’s going to be built. We couldn’t go for a judicial review, it just wasn’t feasible. But we want to highlight that there is this idea that planning is democratic, and that people have a say, regular people, but the reality is that the authorities can agree with you the whole way along and then two people behind closed doors who are answerable to nobody can overturn a decision and there’s nothing that people like us can do about it.”
The N59 linking Sligo town to Ballina winds along at the foot of the Ox Mountains. It looks down on Donegal Bay and it is a designated visual amenity area. The community that makes up Doonflin-Grangebeg is about half an hour each way from the two big towns. This is rural country, sparsely populated with a high concentration of elderly people, mostly farmers. The area came to national prominence last January when a local, elderly man Tom Niland was assaulted in his home. Mr Niland has been in hospital since, in a serious condition.
Two years ago when the pandemic was raging, a planning notice went up next to a field that looks down on the N59. The field had been part of a holding owned by a widow who lived locally most of her life. She died in the early stages of the pandemic. Her grown-up children no longer live in the area. At first, little attention was paid to the notice.
Jim Fraher, an American who has lived in the area for 15 years, and had been a visitor for years before that, didn’t pay it much heed. “It was only when Feile told me and my wife what it was for that it really hit home,” he says.
Francis Hoban, who lives up the road from the site, thought likewise.
“The first few times I saw the site notice I thought it was to do up a house,” he says. “That’s the only type of notice you would expect. Then a neighbour up the road said that it was an application for a mast.”
The application was to site the mast in an open field, with easy access to the N59. There are no shielding trees and low hedgerows. General codes of practice for the siting of a mast is to locate them where the land can absorb it. From the developer’s point of view, the location is optimum. There is easy access to a trunk road and no carting of equipment far distances or having to make a temporary road if the mast was located, for example, up the Ox Mountains.
The planning application, from telecoms company Cignal, stated that the “proposed 24m monopole structure will allow operators to bring a significant improvement in voice and broadband services to the area, particularly along a section of the N59, 4km west and 3.5km east of the proposed site, and all surrounding regional roads, businesses, farms and housing. The proposed structure will allow multiple network operators to deploy 2G voice, 3G and high speed 4G broadband services.” The application also suggested that the mast will improve competition and lead to better options for people in the area.
Nobody disputes that a mast is required to improve coverage, but the chosen location had the local people up in arms.
The community mobilised as best it could. There were no meetings because of the restrictions. There were no Zoom gatherings, mainly because many in the community were not familiar with the service.
“We had to be careful doing house calls,” Butler says. “We met people strictly on a one-to-one basis. And the other mode of communication was through WhatsApp and that was also on a one-to-one basis.”
She and her partner co-ordinated the community response. Along with others, a submission was drawn up and prepared. Then they had to go about getting signatures at the height of the pandemic so somebody came up with the idea of the boot of the car.
Later that day, Feile Butler’s partner Colin drove around to a few of the elderly people who would not have wanted to, or been up to, coming out to sign up. One of the last houses he called to was that of Tom Niland, who had been a vocal supporter of the campaign.
As it was to turn out, the community was pushing an open door. The planning department in Sligo County Council rejected the application. Chief among the reasons for objection was the visual impact.
“Having regard to the scale and height of the proposed development and its proposed location in proximity to the national road N -59, which is a designated scenic route afforded scenic views of the Ox Mountains with their designated visually vulnerable ridge lines, it is considered that the proposed development would form an obtrusive and incongruous feature on the landscape at this location, which would seriously injure the visual amenity and scenic quality of the area. The proposed development would, therefore, be contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.”
Cignal appealed to An Bord Pleanála. One concession the company was willing to offer in its appeal was a reduction in the height of the mast from 24m to 21m. As per procedure, An Bord Pleanála assigned an inspector to visit the site, correlate all the relevant information, and prepare a report.
The inspector on the case was Paul Caprani, one of the most senior and experienced planning inspectors in An Bord Pleanála. He cited the same evidence as the council, referencing the scenic route and the impact that the structure would have on the surrounding area. Also, as with the original ruling, the inspector pointed out that as per Sligo County Council’s P-Tel-1 policy “areas of significant landscape importance” must be protected “from the visual intrusion of largescale telecommunications infrastructure”. Mr Caprani’s report is dated April 28, 2021.
Within five weeks, the subcommittee of the board met to decide on the appeal and Paul Hyde signed off on an order granting the appeal from Cignal. The decision to grant the appeal was in complete conflict with the assessments of both the local authority and the board’s own planning inspector. Mr Hyde and his colleagues are duty-bound to take their own counsel in making decisions, and they are obliged to factor in national planning guidelines.
However, in circumstances in which they are effectively over-ruling both the local authority and their own inspector, both of whom are familiar with the site, in particular, it might be expected that the ruling would be reasoned and cogently laid out. It was nothing of the sort.
The board, Mr Hyde ruled, had regard to “the objectives of the Sligo County Development Plan”. There was no explanation as to how the board saw the proposed mast as in keeping with the plan and why the local authority which devised the plan decreed the opposite to be the case.
The Hyde-led decision referenced “the nature and scale of the proposed replacement telecoms monopole”. It was not a replacement. There had been no pre-existing mast on the site. If there had been, it might have given some ballast to the board’s controversial decision but it was entirely inaccurate and misleading to suggest there had already been a mast on the site. This was a virgin site.
The ruling also didn’t reduce 24m to 21m as offered by the developer. And the decision noted that the proposed mast “would not seriously injure the amenities of the area and would not contravene policy P-Tel-1.
Feile Butler says that the community was shocked when the details of the ruling came out.
“How can a planner who came to the site, and then an inspector who came out, both say that the proposal is in contravention of P-Tel-1 and then it be decided that it isn’t? He [Mr Hyde] wasn’t even near the place, yet he can just say that. He didn’t even have to give a reason. There is no accountability and the ruling was so sloppy that they didn’t even realise that it is a virgin mast and not a replacement.”
The circumstances suggest that any challenge to the Bord Pleanála ruling would have, at the very least, a good chance of success. Such a challenge would require a trip to the High Court and the retention of lawyers.
Feile Butler says that such a campaign is not feasible.
“That’s a possibility for people in an urban area or where there might be some money. Half of the population around here would consist of retired farmers. We have a great community spirit but the people who live around here are not wealthy.”
Francis Hoban says they examined the possibility of pursuing a judicial review.
“It just wasn’t on. According to our figures, it would have cost at least €2,000 each and I don’t think that would have been possible.”
Work on the site began in May, ironically around the same time that An Bord Pleanála came under the spotlight over decisions that have been made, principally by Paul Hyde. He has since stepped aside from his role as vice-chair of the board until investigations are completed.
In May, Cianan Brennan reported in the voted to override his own planning inspectors in the vast majority of applications for telecommunications licences since September 2020. In 31 of 36 applications, he had granted planning, going against the inspectors’ recommendations to refuse.that Mr Hyde had
The community in Doonflin-Grangebeg accept that their battle is over and they lost. They remain perplexed at the process that evolved, particularly in relation to accountability.
“These companies who want to put up masts can wear you down financially,” Jim Fraher says. “Maybe more responsibility should be put on the local authorities. Why don’t they preplan and set aside specific locations where the masts can be built, or even, when they reject an application as they did in this case, why don’t they actually suggest somewhere else?"
Francis Hoban agrees. “These companies who want to build know how to play the system and the system isn’t robust enough to push back.”
For Feile Butler, the whole planning process requires serious review. “It’s supposed to be democratic,” she says. “As an architect, I’m proud that that is the way it is designed. But when people at the very top can ignore the rest of the process and come to their own decisions in a way that is not accountable, there is something fundamentally wrong.”