When the incinerator proposed for Cork Harbour in 2001 was granted planning permission by An Bord Pleanála (ABP) last week it raised many questions, some deeply troubling, about the transparency of our planning process.
The questions are so germane to the credibility of public administration that they must be, one way or another, answered.
Approval was granted despite negative reports from three ABP inspectors over 15 years. The incinerator was also opposed by politicians — Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who opposed the location but not incineration, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and his colleague Micheal McGrath. Those public interest objections did not carry enough weight and, as we said last week, it must be asked whose interests were served if the views of politicians and public watchdog inspectors can be so emphatically set aside. Those politicians were not the only public representatives to recently express disappointment with our planning process.
Early last month, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys, days after tech giant Apple cancelled a much-trumpeted plan to build an €850m data centre in Athenry, Co Galway, over years of planning delays, said the loss underlined the need for planning processes to be more efficient. She said a review was under way.
Another event last week suggests that review might be widened. Last Wednesday, on foot of a High Court order delivered after more than a decade of litigation, Michael and Rose Murray were to demolish the house they built in Meath in defiance of planning authorities. The case has been considered by the the local planning department, An Bord Pleanála, the Supreme Court, and the European Court of Justice.
There are many strands to this story but the core issue — the integrity of planning laws — overrides them all, an position recognised in the High Court judgement which ran to almost 40 pages. “To have constructed the size and scale of the structure which they did is, in such circumstances, difficult to comprehend. A more reckless disregard for the rule of law is difficult to discern,” said the judges.
It is hard to reconcile the idea planning retention, nothing more than a swizz to outflank the rules, with best behaviour. That feeling is exacerbated as neither the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government or the Central Statistics Office, could provide figures on retention. That, for example, Cork County Council granted retention in 1,558 cases between 2014 and 2016, with just 46 refusals, a success rate of 97% for those who use this route, seems at best questionable. That Dublin City Council said retention applications succeeded in up to 85% of cases adds to that concern.
Not only must Government explain why ABP inspectors’ reports and can be ignored, why applications can take so very long to finalise, they must also explain why the chancers’ charter we call retention is tolerated. Would it be too cynical to point out that, just as our refusal to dramatically reduce waste made the incinerator decision inevitable, our inept planning system needs a safety valve like the retention process? Sadly, it does not and what a price that failure exacts.