Monday, 28 June 2010

Planning permission sought for €2.5bn Dublin Dart underground system

Political Correspondent Iarnród Eireann will this week apply for permission to proceed with plans for its €2.5 billion Dart Underground project in Dublin.

The application to An Bord Pleanála is for a 7.6-kilometre underground tunnel which would have the capacity to treble numbers on the capital’s rail network to 100 million journeys annually.

The tunnel would connect lines coming into the city from the north of the county to the Kildare lines through underground stations at Spencer Dock, Pearse Street, St Stephen’s Green, Christ Church and Heuston. It will also include a new surface Dart station at Inchicore.

The ultimate plan is to link all rail systems - Dart, Commuter, Intercity, Luas and Metro - for an integrated transport network for Dublin.

In a business case for the project, Colin Buchanan & Partners , an international transport and economic consultancy, said it would generate 2.4 times more than it cost, and represented an investment in future economic development.

The wider benefits to business would increase GDP by some €450 million yearly by 2020, and it would remove 25 million kilometres in car journeys a year from Irish roads by 2030, according to the London consultancy firm.

Iarnród Eireann’s application for a Railway Order - the equivalent of planning permission - will be lodged this week, with a view to work starting in 2012 and completing in 2018.

The firm recently revealed the project would not be completed by its initial deadline of 2015, as planning applications had taken longer than expected.

The Dart Underground is to be built as a public private partnership, and firms have been invited to tender. Responses to the prequalification tender are due by July 20.

The successful bidder will be responsible for the design, construction, financing, commissioning, operation and maintenance of the tunnel, as well as stations and facilities over the PPP period to last between 25 and 35 years.

In return, the private partner will receive an annual payment.

Sunday Business Post

Planning approval slump hits builders

THERE has been another drastic slump in the number of new homes and extensions being approved countrywide.

The number of planning permissions granted for new homes has fallen by 61pc this year, with just 5,510 approvals in the first quarter compared to 14,177 for the same period of last year.

The number of houses receiving the green light fell by 65pc to 3,585, and 28pc of these were for one-off homes, compared to 19pc in the same period of 2009, new figures from the Central Statistics Office reveal.

The number of apartments given approval fell by a more modest 51pc to 1,925 units.

The planning department in Waterford city is having a particularly quiet time, with just two new homes approved, while in Limerick city there were just three given planning permission.

And house extensions are also on the wane nationwide, with 1,617 permissions granted in the period compared to 2,499 in the same period of 2009.

The official figures show that demand for planning permission peaked in early 2007, when almost 24,000 new homes were approved in just three months -- a drop of 77pc overall.


When commercial, government and farm buildings are included, the number of planning permissions granted has fallen by almost 40pc to 4,519.

Some 140,000 jobs have been lost in the building industry since 2007 and the Construction Industry Federation and trade unions this week called on the Government to go ahead with more infrastructure projects to stop further job losses.

They say that less than 10,000 homes will be built in Ireland this year putting Ireland at the bottom of the European construction chart.

Aideen Sheehan
Irish Independent

Wexford's controversial zoning hit county hard

IN EARLY 2002, four Wexford county councillors sat around a table to make crucial decisions about the future of Gorey. They had a draft local area plan in front of them, prepared by professional planners from the National Building Agency (NBA). But they apparently ignored it and proceeded to rezone hundreds of acres for residential development, writes FRANK McDONALD Environment Editor

Lorcan Allen, who served as a minister of state during the Haughey era, and his party colleague Joe Murphy, together with Michael D’Arcy (now a Fine Gael TD) and his party colleague Deirdre Bolger seemed to think they knew better than the planners did. Coincidentally, some of the land rezoned was owned by Allen’s mother and Bolger’s husband’s company.

It didn’t matter that the NBA’s planners had estimated that up to 70 per cent of the town’s new residents were Dubliners who commuted to work daily in the capital – 80km from their homes. Or that Gorey Community School, the largest secondary school in Ireland, was already bursting at the seams. “Development” was the only priority.

Thus, as one senior planner commented, north Wexford was “hit by two wallops”: first, the designation of Courtown under the tax incentive scheme for run-down seaside resorts, which led to an explosion of house-building in the area and, second, the incorporation of Gorey, an old market town, into Dublin’s extended commuter belt.

Under the plan adopted in 2002, sufficient land was rezoned by the four councillors to cater for up to 10 times Gorey’s then population of about 3,000 – depending on the density at which housing was built. This was emphatically not in line with the planning advice they got, but then minister for the environment Martin Cullen did nothing to stop them.

Lorcan Allen, whose mother died not long after the rezoning of 36 acres of her land at Raheenagurran, located at a junction on Gorey’s new bypass, put the site up for sale in October 2006. A spokesman for his auctioneering firm, Allen and Kenny Ltd, thought the “superb development holding” could fetch €1 million an acre. But it didn’t sell.

By then, the steam was going out of the market. Such was the development activity in and around the town that Gorey’s population had doubled in just four years, from 2002 to 2006. This was directly aided by improvements to the N11, which brought Dublin within an hour-and-a-half’s driving time, and by more frequent rail services.

According to figures compiled by Wexford County Council, the average price of a house in Gorey increased by 58 per cent between 2004 and 2006, when three-bed semi-detached houses were selling for €325,000. “Entry-level” properties, usually two-bed mid-terrace townhouses aimed at young couples, could be bought for €260,000.

Much larger one-off houses popped up all over the countryside, often as “executive homes”; in 2003, councillors voted through a Fianna Fáil-sponsored series of amendments to the county development plan, which made it much easier for people to get permission for rural one-off houses – including the omission of any “local needs” requirement.

Adopted in response to lobbying by the Irish Rural Dwellers Association and criticism from An Taisce, the amended plan said Wexford County Council “will facilitate the provision of single rural houses and cluster development in rural areas”. It would also allow houses closer to road frontages and permit the sharing of septic tanks.

While applicants for full planning permission would have to be the intended owner and first occupier of a house, this would not apply to applicants for outline permission – so landowners would be free to sell sites. The minimum period of occupancy for new homeowners would be five years, but even this could be waived in exceptional circumstances.

There were also strong development pressures in picturesque seaside villages, such as Kilmore Quay, which local objectors said was in danger of being “raped” by new holiday homes, and Ballymoney, near Gorey, where luxury detached houses at the Seafield Golf and Country Club were selling for up to €900,000 and sites from €250,000 in 2004.

Three years later, Wexford County Council refused planning permission to Prospect Homes for 226 houses, maisonettes and apartments in Ballymoney village, saying it wanted to avoid “extensive areas of suburban-style housing” to preserve the character of the village. Blackwater, however, had suburban estates tacked onto it.

In Courtown Harbour, a succession of daring schemes to demolish two of its long-established hotels – the Bayview and Ounavarra – to make way for holiday apartment blocks up to five storeys high were turned down by An Bord Pleanála (most recently in 2007) on the basis that this “would adversely affect the character of this coastal village”.

Wexford town was allowed to sprawl in every direction, with car showrooms and even out-of-town office blocks up to five storeys high being built in Drinagh, on the Rosslare road. A “decentralised” office block on Newtown Road, designed by Scott Tallon Walker for 250 staff from the Department of the Environment, was opened last Friday.

Although the town’s quayfront regeneration project won an urban design award from the Irish Planning Institute in 2002, many of the trees planted there are looking ragged now. And there’s no sign of Trinity Wharf, the huge scheme by Deerland Construction that was to include a shopping centre, offices, a hotel and 266 apartments.

But Wexford can rejoice in its new Opera House, designed by Office of Public Works architects in collaboration with Keith Williams. Already a multiple award-winner, it has added a distinctive contemporary element to the town’s skyline. Another boost was Coca Cola’s decision in 2008 to establish a manufacturing and RD facility in Wexford.

More extraordinary was the news a year earlier from Providence Resources that it had made a “significant” oil find off Hook Head, on the south Wexford coast. According to the company’s chief executive, Tony O’Reilly jnr, there could be 70 million barrels of recoverable oil offshore – similar to a “good- to large-sized field in the North Sea”.

BACK IN GOREY, development was grinding to a halt as the credit crunch kicked in. Builders of new estates such as Meadow Gate, where the first phase had sold off the plans in 2006, had to cut prices to get buyers for houses that came later and some have yet to be sold, although the town doesn’t have a huge collection of empty houses.

A sheltered housing scheme directly opposite the gates of Gorey’s Catholic church, designed by Paul Keogh Architects for the St Vincent de Paul Society, showed what could be done to develop “backland” sites in Irish towns. Certainly, the elderly residents couldn’t be more delighted as they now live within walking distance of everything.

Now, a new batch of five local councillors have set about the task of dezoning more than 250 acres of land zoned for residential or commercial development around Gorey in 2002. They’ll be meeting this morning to consider the submissions made by members of the public, including disappointed landowners, on the draft local area plan.

Cllr Malcolm Byrne (FF), who opposed much of what was done eight years ago, believes the latest effort is a much more balanced plan than the 2002 version. “The common view in town is that we must get this plan right,” he says.

Irish Times

Hearing into interconnector adjourned

A hearing by Bord Pleanála into an Eirgrid plan to establish a second North/South electricity interconnector has been adjourned until Monday after the board inspector said a serious matter had arisen.

At the hearing yesterday, Fine Gael councillor Owen Bannigan, speaking on behalf of the Monaghan Anti-Pylon Committee Ltd, said the newspaper public notice and site notice did not accurately describe the project, as the height range of the pylons in the publications was ranging from 23m to 37m yet the actual height range was from 23m to 44m.

Inspector Mary Coneen said she was adjourning the hearing until Monday when all parties could come back and make their arguments as to how, if at all, the hearing could continue.

Irish Times

Questions for Gormley on Poolbeg conflict of interest

Hundreds of millions of euro of taxpayers’ money could be at stake over hold-ups in granting a licence for an incinerator in Dublin

REBEL FIANNA Fáil TDs created a hullabaloo in the Dáil over John Gormley’s plans to ban stag hunting but a far more important policy of the Minister’s, which threatens to cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of euro, has generated surprisingly little comment.

The issue is Gormley’s handling of the planned Poolbeg incinerator in Dublin’s docklands, or the energy-from-waste project as its promoters prefer to call it. At stake is the city’s future waste disposal system, its natural environment, hundreds of jobs, Ireland’s image as a place to do business and a potentially massive bill to the taxpayer.

The politics of the case, as distinct from its merits or demerits, is that Gormley is an inveterate opponent of the project, as are TDs from all parties in Dublin South East where it is located. On the other side the backers of the plan are the four Dublin local authorities who have a duty to develop the safest and most efficient waste disposal system for the capital in line with EU directives.

Gormley and the local authorities are locked in an increasingly bitter battle. Potential EU fines are starting to clock up, because the continuing over- reliance on landfill is in clear breach of an EU directive which came into effect at the beginning of this year. Meanwhile the commercial developers of the project may be lining up for a multi- million euro legal action over the delaying tactics that have blocked its development.

Gormley has made no secret of the fact that he is not going to allow the project to get off the ground under any circumstances while he is Minister for the Environment and one of his latest moves has been to employ a senior counsel to try to pick holes in the contracts.

The project, first mooted over a decade ago, has been approved by An Bord Pleanála, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Development Finance Agency and the Department of the Environment itself. Site clearance work is complete but, before it can proceed, a foreshore licence is required for the construction of a water cooling system.

Dublin City Council first lodged an application for a foreshore licence almost two years ago and until it is issued the US developer of the project, Covanta Energy, will not be able to proceed. All the preliminary work on the licence has been done and the paperwork has been sitting on the Minister’s desk for months but no decision has emerged.

Questioned in the Dáil a month ago, Gormley told Fine Gael’s Phil Hogan that more than 700 foreshore applications were being processed. “As the licence application in question is one of a large number at different stages of consideration under the foreshore consent process my department will be in contact with Dublin City Council on the matter as soon as possible.” Gormley said.

He went on to say that his understanding was that the various processes had not yet been gone through. The whispers in the corridors of power, however, are that the Attorney General has told the Minister there is no legal reason for him not to issue the licence but so far it has not emerged from the department and there is no sign of it doing so.

To put the delay in context, a foreshore licence was issued within days to facilitate repair work when the Donabate to Malahide railway bridge collapsed a year ago. Of more relevance to Poolbeg, a foreshore licence application was made for the controversial Shell Corrib project in January of this year.

Significant work will be carried out in a special area of conservation and the Shell application had to go to a public consultation with hundreds of written objections being considered. Nonetheless, the permit was granted last week, five months after its initial lodgement. The sponsoring Minister for this project is Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Eamon Ryan and the licence was granted by his Green Cabinet colleague, John Gormley.

The Shell decision shows how the system can work, even for a highly controversial project, if the focus is there at political and official level. The Dublin incinerator issue is clearly a matter of strategic national importance not only for the people of the city but for the taxpayers of the entire State.

Apart from refusing to sign the foreshore licence, the Minister has also moved to undermine the Poolbeg plan through the introduction of waste facility levies designed to penalise large incinerator projects. Forfás, the IDA and Enterprise Ireland have made a submission to Gormley opposing the measure and pointing out the damage it will do to job creation as well as the waste-energy market.

The agencies point out that the countries with the best records, like Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands, have reduced landfill to minuscule proportions and rely heavily on incineration, while Ireland is bracketed with countries with poor environmental records like Poland, Hungary and Britain which still rely heavily on landfill.

It is extraordinary that one Minister can simply block the project indefinitely, regardless of national policy, EU policy and legal considerations. Given his clear conflict of interest on the issue Gormley should never have been put in a position where through the exercise of his official functions he could simply hold up the project for as long as he remained in office.

Either the Minister should have taken himself out of the equation in the exercise of his official functions on Poolbeg or the Taoiseach should have insisted that he do so. Gormley and the Greens have many fine achievements to their credit in office in terms of improved planning, alternative energy and political reform but that legacy is in danger of being tarnished by the handling of one major project in the Minister’s backyard.

Irish Times

Planning review to focus on Drogheda

THE REVIEW of planning in Meath ordered by Minister for the Environment John Gormley is to focus solely on the southern Drogheda local area plan which was adopted by Meath County Council last year.

The council is one of six local authorities facing reviews of their planning systems as a result of a decision announced last week by Mr Gormley.

The Drogheda local area plan was controversial mainly because of plans for a €35 million 10,000- seat stadium for Drogheda United football club on lands in Bryanstown, on the southern edge of the town.

In a deal the club did with developer Bill Doyle, the new stadium was to be funded by the sale of houses he wanted to build in Bryanstown, but he first needed residential zoning on the lands. However, in the local area plan, they were zoned as open space.

Mr Doyle and his supporters said this zoning, along with the National Roads Authority decision to appeal planning permission for the stadium to An Bord Pleanála, dealt the project a fatal blow.

A spokesman for Meath County Council confirmed that the department’s review “relates to the southern Drogheda local area plan” and that the department had written asking it to “gather documentation” relating to the process that was gone through before the plan was adopted in April 2009.

It is understood that complaints made by Mr Doyle about the council are among those which prompted the department to include Meath in the review of planning decisions made by six local authorities.

Details of some of the complaints have been given to the council in Meath. Its spokesman said: “We will gather all the information requested by the department and respond by the date given.”

The southern Drogheda plan also sparked controversy because it included residential and other zoning on lands identified in an already adopted plan – prepared jointly for Meath, Louth and Drogheda local authorities – as a strategic land reserve and therefore not to be developed.

Four county councils – Galway, Cork, Meath and Carlow – and two city councils, Dublin and Cork, comprise the six being subjected to the review.

Mr Gormley said “substantial complaints” had been received about the planning processes of the six. One other local authority, Donegal County Council, is already the subject of a similar review.

The first phase of the inquiry announced last week will require each council to provide information about its planning system within four weeks and to answer specific questions about complaints and allegations that have been made.

These will cover areas such as zoning, the scale and height of certain structures and concerns raised in local government audit reports.

The review is being carried out in the context of the new planning Bill, which is expected to become law by the summer.

Mr Gormley has expressed concern that the legislation will be ineffective unless all 34 local authorities can fully implement its measures.

Irish Times

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Gormley to drop veto on one-off houses on main roads

THE controversial ban on one-off houses along the nation's secondary roads is to be scrapped, the Irish Independent has learned.

But new developments, such as fast-food restaurants and giant warehouse-type retail outlets, are to be completely banned from motorway and dual-carriageway interchanges on the main primary network.

Environment Minister John Gormley is proposing to give councils powers to allow one-off developments on main secondary roads under new planning guidelines.

The move is certain to be welcomed by Fianna Fail councillors and deputies who have vehemently opposed the ban -- which has been supported by the Mr Gormley's Green Party.

The ban on fast-food restaurants and warehouse-type outlets from motorway and dual- carriageway interchanges is designed to stop the creation of unnecessary local traffic mixing with cars and trucks moving along the primary national road network.

Currently, there is a cordon sanitaire -- or quarantine line -- on developments on main primary and secondary routes.

The changes give new flexibility for one-off houses and other developments on secondary routes that are not going to be upgraded in the near future by the National Roads Authority (NRA).

The new guidelines are due to be published shortly. They mean that shopping and other commercial developments will not be permitted at key interchanges, such as that at Blundlestown on the new M3, which runs through the Skryne valley in Co Meath.

The NRA routinely objects to one-off houses along main roads because of the dangers involved in cars moving on to and off the roads interacting with fast-moving trucks and cars.

However, the new guidelines giving the green light to housing and other developments will apply only to secondary roads that are not going to be upgraded.


It is expected that normal safety criteria for main secondary roads will apply and will not be affected by the changes.

The ban on one-off houses on the main inter-urban primary routes will remain, due to those same safety concerns.

The planning guidelines will be put out to public consultation, after which they will be finalised.

Local authorities and An Bord Pleanala will then have to take account of the guidelines when deciding on planning applications and any objections to them.

Another feature of the new guidelines is that developments already in place on motorway or dual-carriageway interchanges cannot be altered for other uses.

For instance, a retail shopping premises could not be turned into a fast-food outlet.

Treacy Hogan Environment Correspondent
Irish Independent

Gormley under fire over planning inquiry

ENVIRONMENT Minister John Gormley yesterday denied Cork City Council had been left in the dark about a probe into its planning policies and those of five other councils.

Mr Gormley told the Irish Independent that several messages had been left with Cork City Council informing them that a review was due to get under way.

Cork city manager Joe Gavin said yesterday that he had received no communication from the Department of the Environment about the review.

Mr Gavin and he was "very disappointed and surprised" at the move, insisting that every aspect of planning in the council was fully in accordance with the law.

Mr Gormley said the aim was to achieve greater consistency in the planning process, to avoid planning decisions which are inconsistent with other local authorities. This had been a big bone of contention, he added.

The councils facing a review are Dublin City, Galway County, Cork City, Cork County, Carlow and Meath.

The relevant managers will be given four weeks to respond to specified issues, after which their replies will be assessed by the expert group, which can make far-reaching recommendations. Individual planning decisions will not be examined.

The six councils are being peer reviewed and the currently unidentified team of experts can call for a full investigation of planning policy.

Joanna Tuffy, Labour's environment spokesperson, said it was unclear what Mr Gormley hoped to achieve by carrying out the review of planning policy in the six councils.

Treacy Hogan and Louise Hogan
Irish Independent

Capital braced for five years of traffic chaos from Luas and Metr

DUBLIN city centre is braced for five years of traffic and business chaos from major road works needed to build the Metro and Luas link-up line.

Luas chiefs have decided to dig up the city alongside excavation works on the Metro to Dublin Airport, starting at the end of next year.

Transport Minister Noel Dempsey said last night "it made sense" to have overlapping construction works to be carried out at the same time.

Luas chiefs admitted yesterday that construction work on the €170m link-up will cause disruption throughout the city centre.

The Railway Procurement Agency (RPA ) yesterday formally applied for planning permission for the long-overdue line linking the two unconnected Luas lines.

However, Mr Dempsey has insisted that the Metro must be built before the Luas link-up can proceed, but has agreed for the excavation and utilities work to be done earlier.

The route of the underground Metro and overground Luas link follow very similar paths.

By applying for the railway order yesterday, Luas chiefs plan to carry out the digging work in tandem with the Metro excavations.

The alternative is to dig up the city centre, build the Metro, and then come back and dig up the city in the exact same locations for the Luas link-up line.

Both projects are being carried out by the RPA.

Under the current plan, the Metro is due to be up and running by 2016, followed by the Luas line in 2018, according to the rail agency.

Tom Manning, RPA spokesperson, said yesterday that business interests in the city centre had been pushing for both projects to be built in tandem to minimise the expected disruption.

By seeking the railway order it was hoped that where parts of the Metro and Luas works overlapped it would be possible to carry out the works at the same time.

Mr Dempsey has insisted, however, that the cross-city Luas link line would not be built until Metro north is completed. The two big priorities for the Government are the Dart underground interconnector and the Metro.

The RPA is dependent on the Government for funding both projects, and it is clear that the Metro will get any cash allocations first.

The Luas line linking the St Stephen's Green and Tallaght services was due to be finished in 2012.

The new line will run from St Stephen's Green, down Dawson Street and down past Trinity College.

It will then travel down Westmoreland Street and O'Connell Street, before turning on to Parnell Street and then along Marlborough Street.

The route will cross the Luas Red Line at Abbey Street and then travel across the River Liffey via a new Marlborough Street public transport bridge. There will also be stops at Hawkins Street and College Street.

The project also includes a connection from the city out to Broombridge via Broadstone.

Treacy Hogan
Irish Independent

'Kiss-and-ride' facilities planned for tram stations

WHOEVER said romance was dead hadn't heard of the soppy Luas chiefs.

They're providing 'kiss-and-ride' facilities for commuters using the planned Luas link-up in Dublin city centre. In fact, the reality is far less salacious than that implied in the rather suggestive term.

The Railway Procurement Agency (RPA) yesterday formally applied for 'kiss-and-ride' facilities to be provided at the Luas Broombridge line.

It means that drivers can drop off their loved ones at the Luas, receive a kiss and then drive away. Park-and-ride facilities are available at the Red Cow for Tallaght line Luas passengers.

But those using the new city centre route from 2018 will not be given parking spaces. They will just have to make do with a kiss.

Tom Manning, RPA spokesman, said yesterday the phrase probably originated in the US.

"People can just drive in and get a peck on the cheek and then drive away. The person receiving the kiss doesn't have to get out of the car."

Treacy Hogan
Irish Independent

Location of 25 estates in pyrite probes to stay secret

A JUDGE has ordered a ban on naming more than 25 new housing estates where residents have complained that their homes have been damaged due to the use of pyrite.

To prevent panic among homeowners, the Commercial Court has ruled that a list of the estates -- along with several quarries alleged to have supplied the defective material that caused floors and walls to heave and crack -- will be kept secret.

The list, compiled by Homebond, the builder's insurers, comes as politicians have warned of a pyrite "epidemic" in Ireland, with up to 20,000 homeowners complaining about cracked floors and walls and swelling.

It is feared that publication of the list would have a dramatic impact on the valuations of homes and that people living adjacent to the homes in question will assume, incorrectly, that their properties are also affected.

Homebond's Conor Taaffe, who testified before High Court Judge John Gilligan earlier this week, warned that if builders are identified with the pyrite problem they will have difficulties selling houses in other estates.


Mr Taaffe was giving evidence in the marathon legal action between developer Seamus Ross's Menolly Homes and several companies within the Lagan Group.

Menolly has sued the Lagan companies alleging cracks and swelling in hundreds of houses on three estates in north Dublin built by Menolly were caused by defective pyrite infill supplied by Lagan.

Lagan vigorously denies the claim.

Menolly is seeking indemnity against any compensation claims it may have to pay to homeowners complaining of cracked and swollen walls on the estates of Drynam Hall in Kinsealy, and Beaupark and Myrtle in north Dublin.

The High Court has already heard claims from Menolly that it could be facing a bill of €60m in compensation claims from as many as 759 householders on three north Dublin estates over alleged building defects.

Residents have complained that the vast resources being used to prosecute and defend the civil action could be used to fix their homes.

Last night, Fine Gael spokesman on housing, Terence Flanagan TD, called for an audit of all quarries where allegedly defective material was sourced to find out the true extent of the pyrite problem.

"It is a disaster," said Mr Flanagan. "And the longer this litigation goes on, the less funds there will be available to fix people's homes. A taskforce must be set up by the government to address the issue."

All legal parties in the Menolly/Lagan legal action have given undertakings not to disclose the contents of the Homebond list and estates will only be identified by code when references are made to them in the court.

The Menolly/Lagan action, which began a year ago, has incurred costs of several million euro to date and is not expected to conclude until next year.

Final costs for the action, which are likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court, could exceed €20m.

Yesterday marked the 126th day of the High Court action, which has already surpassed the epic DCC/Fyffes insider trading action, which lasted 87 days in the High Court.

Earlier this year, Fine Gael TD Shane McEntee told the Oireachtas transport committee that two homes in his Co Meath constituency had "exploded" because of the inappropriate use of pyrite in their construction.

Mr McEntee, who has been involved in a high-profile campaign to have remedial works carried out on behalf of constituents, claimed that there were thousands of homeowners in Dublin, Kildare and Meath who were desperate as their homes had been damaged due to the use of pyrite.

Dearbhail McDonald Legal Editor

Irish Independent

EU asked to look into Cork toxic dump case

THE European Commission is to be asked to investigate the Government’s handling of a toxic dump discovered in Cork harbour.

Ireland South MEP Sean Kelly said he would be raising the matter with the commission after it was disclosed that a working group set up by the OPW had no remit to address remediation, contamination or containment at the site on Haulbowline island.

There was widespread anger after Health Minister Mary Harney refused to carry out a baseline health study on people living in the lower harbour.

Mr Kelly said it "beggared belief" that two years after the discovery of the dump, which contained highly carcinogenic Chromium 6, nothing had been done to assess its health risks or clean it up.

The MEP said he would be asking the commission if the Government had broken any European laws in relation to the dump.

He said he would also be appealing to the commission to provide money for a clean-up and a baseline health survey of the local population.

Earlier this week, Deputy David Stanton accused the Government of either attempting a cover-up or exhibiting incompetence by allowing the working group, set up under the OPW, to examine the future of the site without immediately addressing the most important issue: how to make it safe. Environment Minister John Gormley, meanwhile, has defended the Government’s protracted effort to find a long-term solution to the toxic Haulbowline site.

Cobh has a cancer rate 37% above the national average, and the cause of this hasn’t been identified.

The minister said the risk assessment and working group process, which has been criticised for its failure to deal with the contamination, was the best way forward.

"It is crucial that in dealing with such sites, rather than piecemeal action, which could inadvertently cause problems with the local community and the environment, a coherent overall approach is taken and we have the objective to ensure we get the best possible result."

Mr Gormley was responding to a Labour Party motion in the Seanad which criticised the Government’s record on the site.

Mr Gormley said the initial working group, which only met for the first time this year, would inform future work.

This will involve consultation with the community throughout the harbour area, he said, and help decide what is the best remediation method for the former Irish Steel site.

He said the Irish Steel buildings had already been demolished and decontaminated. And he claimed more had been spent on clean up work during 12 months of the Green Party in Government than in the previous 68-year history of the site.

Irish Examiner

Westmeath's gateway plan disappeared in the Tullingathlone triangle

Boom-time plans to turn Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar into a gateway for economic development met with limited success, writes FRANK McDONALD

IT WAS at the edge of Rochfortbridge that the future direction of Dublin’s sprawl first became evident in the mid-1990s. Exactly 80km from the capital, housing estates were materialising on the outskirts of this Co Westmeath village to cater for first-time home buyers who had been squeezed out of the property market in Dublin.

They hit the road early, between 6.30am and 7am every weekday to commute to jobs in or around the city, leaving the estates eerily devoid of most signs of life. A survey in 2001 by transition-year students at the local secondary school found that 80 per cent of the new residents were from Dublin and were commuting to work there.

It was a harbinger of things to come in Westmeath and elsewhere in Commuterland, a trend that local councillors sought to cater for by rezoning land for more housing – whatever the plans, or the planners, had to say. Landowners on the outskirts of other villages, including at least one councillor, felt they were entitled to a share of the spoils.

But the experience of Rochfortbridge “came very early and quickly, and happened so fast. It was an eye-opener for county planners, officials and even councillors”, as one senior planner said, off the record. “There was a fear of other places being engulfed in the same way — and that’s why it didn’t happen in Delvin, Killucan or Tyrellspass.”

It was clear to the planners that extensive rezonings around villages in Co Westmeath threatened to undermine the National Spatial Strategy’s goal of turning Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar (ATM) into a “gateway” for economic development. None of these three towns is particularly large, and they needed all the help they could get.

The regional planning guidelines, drafted in 2004, forecast that “by 2020, the midlands will be a successful, sustainable and equitable region full of opportunities for its expanded population”. It recommended driving forward with the triangular ATM gateway, while not neglecting Longford and Portlaoise as principal towns.

Although there was strong population growth in the midlands, second only to the greater Dublin area, most of this was driven by migration from the capital, as Forfás pointed out in a regional competitiveness report. It also differs from most other regions in not having a single dominant urban centre to drive economic development.

Forfás wanted to see the Athlone-Tullamore-Mullingar gateway “accelerated” by an inter-agency implementation forum, but it said the government’s decision to “defer” the €300 million Gateway Innovation Fund, announced in June 2007, was a setback, and its reinstatement was “a matter of priority for progressing the linked-gateway concept”.

On the plus side, there is now a Midlands Gateway Chamber of Commerce, drawing together business interests in Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar with the aim of developing a “world-class knowledge-based competitive gateway”, in line with the recommendations of a strategic development analysis by Indecon economic consultants.

As Brian Cowen said when he launched the report in December 2006, the real challenge facing the midlands was to generate “self-sustaining rather than commuter-led growth”. But he cautioned that “thriving, dynamic and expansive urban growth centres are not summoned out of the ground by a wave of the magic wand of central government”.

Indeed not. However, the withdrawal of a funding pot for innovative projects in the region was a real kick in the teeth, especially for the rather nebulous ATM. And it was competing for money with eight other “gateways” to finance projects with a cumulative value of €720 million – more than double what was on offer. In the end, they all got nothing.

One of the projects that the Midland Railway Action Group expected to be included was the reopening of a line between Athlone and Mullingar, which was closed in 1987. But Westmeath county manager Danny McLoughlin maintained that this project – costed at €170 million by Iarnród Éireann – didn’t fulfil the Gateway Innovation Fund criteria.

Against the backdrop of the economic downturn, as Westmeath Independent editor Tadhg Carey noted, “there has been little momentum behind the plans to have this rail line reopened”. One of the stumbling blocks was that 20 per cent of the funding (€34 million) would have to have been sourced locally, which seems impossible now.

In the meantime, roads forged ahead. The most recent was the N6 Kilbeggan-Athlone dual carriageway, opened in July 2008. This 29km stretch of the Dublin-Galway route, built for €280 million, finally bypassed Moate, the scene of endless tailbacks over the years, and cut travelling time between the two cities by 45 minutes.

It was the gradual replacement of the N4/N6 by a dual carriageway from Dublin to the Shannon and beyond that drew Co Westmeath into the commuter belt. Indeed, then county council cathaoirleach Joe Whelan described the new Kilbeggan- Athlone route as “another step in bringing the midlands and the west closer to the capital”.

Mullingar got a slice of Dublin in 2003 with the completion of Market Point, on the Royal Canal bank close to the town’s railway station. The apartment blocks, up to five storeys high, were aimed at buy-to-let investors availing of Section 23 – the juicy tax incentive that inflated the property bubble because it was kept going so long.

Athlone even got an 11-storey “signature tower” as the centrepiece of a new shopping centre just off the main street. It contains a 160-bedroom hotel. The scheme, designed by Murray O’Laoire Architects (now in liquidation), also includes 70 retail units and 148 apartments or townhouses, laid out around courtyards.

The opening of Athlone Town Centre in 2007 put paid to plans for a major expansion of the more remotely located Golden Island centre, built by Cork-based developer Owen O’Callaghan with the benefit of urban-renewal tax incentives – granted in December 1994 by Albert Reynolds’ government during its last hours in office.

An Bord Pleanála approved its expansion, including a 92-bedroom hotel, five large retail outlets totalling 36,600sq ft and a 550-space multi-storey car park in 2003 – two years before the shopping centre, which is in the River Shannon’s floodplain, was sold to Tesco. The planning permission has since expired.

Athlone’s development was “leaking all over the place” during the boom years, as one planner said, and in November 2009 it was one of the areas hit by serious flooding. Water levels at Athlone Lock, near Golden Island, rose by nearly a metre above the highest level on record, and 35 families had to be evacuated.

But the town acquired an impressive new Civic Centre, designed by Keith Williams Architects to provide a “one-stop shop” for all county and town council services, and completed in 2004 at a cost of €17 million. More recently, the county council moved into a new headquarters in Mullingar, designed by Bucholz McEvoy Architects.

In a sign of the times we live in, a well-located commercial site of five acres in Athlone that had an asking price of €5 million in 2006 is now on the market for €1.25 million – 75 per cent less than its peak value. And a major urban renewal project in Mullingar, in which the county council is a partner, has been “put on hold” due to funding problems.

Irish Times

Rezoned Meath land ends up in the twilight zone

Meath councillors were responsible for the rezoning thousands of acres of land, much of which is now covered in unsaleable buildings, writes FRANK McDONALD , Environment Editor

THE BATTLE of the Boyne was fought only once, but what happened in Co Meath in recent years was a series of skirmishes, some prolonged – over Tara and the M3 motorway, the incinerator at Carranstown, near Duleek, EirGrid’s plans to march pylons across the landscape, and the new hotel opposite Trim Castle.

The county’s population has also grown faster than anywhere else in Ireland over the past 15 years. It went up by 22.1 per cent between 1996 and 2002, and grew by a further 21.5 per cent in the following four years, as the 2006 Census found.

Land owners and developers made fortunes catering for this population explosion. New houses appeared everywhere, particularly in large, relatively low-density suburban estates on the outskirts of Navan, Trim and Kells.

Smaller settlements also exploded in size, with Laytown/Bettystown growing by 60 per cent, Ratoath by 91 per cent, Enfield by 102 per cent and Stamullen by 219 per cent – all between 2002 and 2006.

As a result, Meath nearly achieved its target population of 164,000 under the 1999 Greater Dublin Area Strategic Planning Guidelines five years ahead of time. And it did so courtesy of councillors defying the guidelines by rezoning vast tracts of land at the behest of their owners – enough by 2002 to accommodate a population of 240,000.

The booming population and haphazard pattern of development in Meath had knock-on effects in terms of the provision of schools and other facilities. Primary school enrolments in Ratoath quadrupled to nearly 1,000 in the eight years to 2003, while prefab classrooms became common in east Meath as schools struggled to cope.

It also generated more traffic congestion on the N3, as many of the new residents of Meath came from Dublin and still commuted to the city by car. Even as conservationists stirred up opposition to the M3 motorway, mainly because of its impact on Tara, a pro-road group called Meath Citizens for the M3 rallied in favour of the route.

But some of the most vocal conservationists came late to the Tara cause, only entering battle after the M3 had been approved by An Bord Pleanála in August 2003. They were not among the objectors at its lengthy oral hearing, and this contributed to the archaeological landscape being undervalued in the boards decision.

It was the board’s approval for the route proposed by the National Roads Authority that gave Dick Roche cover for declining to intervene as minister for the environment in 2005. Declaring that there was “no way” he could revisit the board’s decision, he issued the licences for archaeological excavations, thus allowing the M3 to proceed.

Even after the discovery of a highly significant prehistoric henge along the route at Lismullin, near Tara, he authorised its demolition under the guise of “preservation by record” – despite being told that National Museum director Dr Pat Wallace was “very perturbed about the protection of the ambience of Tara” after the M3 went through.

Roche’s decision – made just before the Fianna Fail-Green Party coalition took office in June 2007 – effectively let his successor, John Gormley, off the hook. By that stage, despite all the protests and even clashes between activists and security personnel hired by the road builders, construction of the M3 was well under way; the game was up.

Meath on Track campaigned for a reopening of the railway line to Navan but this only developed legs when Fianna Fail had to fight a by-election there in 2005. Martin Cullen approved phase one of the project, from Clonsilla to Pace (Dunboyne), which is due to open in October. A Railway Order application for the rest is to be made in 2011.

Another decision by An Bord Pleanála cleared the way for the State’s first municipal waste incinerator to be built at Carranstown, between Duleek and Drogheda; the scheme by Indaver Ireland had already been approved by Meath County Council’s planners, in the face of widespread concern locally about its environmental impacts.

The same outcome is likely in relation to EirGrid’s plans for the second North/South electricity interconnector, which would involve erecting 167 pylons across Co Meath, intruding into sensitive landscapes such as the Boyne Valley. But the appeals board is asking the right questions about the Slane bypass, which could also be intrusive.

In Trim, there were question marks over how permission came to be granted for a 68-bedroom hotel across the road from the most important Anglo-Norman fortification in Ireland – Trim Castle. The Heritage Service of the Department of the Environment had objected to it but was prevented from appealing by its political boss, Martin Cullen.

As Fintan O’Toole wrote, “A public, internationally heralded policy of preserving and protecting one of the most important historical monuments in the country clashed with the interests of a local developer and the local developer won hands down.” Trim Castle Hotel opened in July 2006.

“Facilitating development” in Meath was the priority, no matter what the context. That explains why councillors were quite willing to rezone land for housing in known flood plain areas in Dunboyne and Bettystown. Many new homeowners in Dunboyne feared their houses would be unsaleable after severe flooding there in November 2002.

Meath councillors embarked on another rezoning mission in 2005, with hundreds of acres of land up for grabs around Bettystown, Laytown, Gormanston, Mornington and Stamullen. By that stage, prospective developers were offering to “donate” land for GAA pitches and other community facilities in return for being allowed to build more housing.

The councillors proceeded with rezonings despite being warned of “grave repercussions” by county manager Tom Dowling. In March 2007, they adopted a new county development plan, ignoring a call from the Department of the Environment that they should “de-zone” some of the excessive amounts of land then designated for development.

As a direct result of this developer-led “planning”, Meath now has nearly 4,100 acres of land zoned for residential use that has yet to be developed – one of the highest figures for any county; it is exceeded only by Cork, with 7,710 acres, Kerry with 6,250 acres (prior to the recent dezonings), Monaghan (4,360 acres) and Laois (4,148 acres).

Chickens are coming home to roost. A four-storey apartment block on the River Blackwater in Navan is being sold off on the instructions of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Agent HT Meagher O’Reilly is seeking offers of around €2 million for the 31 apartments and four retail units. The price equates to a bargain-basement figure of about €57,000 per apartment.

Six other apartments in the block were previously sold for over €250,000 each, so the bank stands to lose at least €3 million – and this is only one of several blocks around the town now lying vacant. A large number of houses bought by Dublin commuters at Johnstown are also empty and difficult to sell, with prices down by 60 per cent.

But at least Navan has its Solstice Arts Centre, a “black box” designed by Grafton Architects, who were also responsible for the civic offices in Dunshaughlin, and new civic space designed by Paul Keogh Architects to give the town some coherence. Which is more than can be said of the Office of Public Works’ new headquarters in a field on the edge of Trim.

Irish Times

Go-ahead for wind farm despite bird fears

Clare County Council has given the go-ahead to a €20 million six-turbine wind farm in spite of concerns expressed by the council’s heritage officer over whooper swans and Greenland white-fronted geese that use the area.

The planning authority has given the go-ahead to CP Energy for the 390ft wind farm at Tullabrack, north of Kilrush.

An Bord Pleanála previously refused permission for a wind farm on the site as it was identified as being in close proximity to a direct flight path of the birds.

Irish Times

Plans to link Luas lines finalised

Planning permission is to be sought for a Luas line linking the existing Sandyford and Tallaght lines in Dublin.

An application for a new line running from St Stephen’s Green to Broombridge is to be lodged with An Bord Pleanala by the Railway Procurement Agency.

The forecast journey time between the Green line terminus and the Broombridge station is expected to be approximately 24 minutes, with 20 trams serving each direction per hour during peak periods.

The BX line is planned to run from St Stephen’s Green to O’Connell Street via College Green before doubling back and travelling along Marlborough Street across a specially constructed bridge over the River Liffey to Hawkins Street.

Stops along this line will be located at Dawson Street, Westmoreland Street, O’ Connell Street, Marlborough Street and College Street.

Using the BX line, members of the public will be able to transfer between the Sandyford and Tallaght lines at Middle Abbey Street.

The BX line would also form part of Line D which will run from O’Connell Street to Broombridge via Broadstone and Grangegorman. Stops along Line D include Parnell Street, Dominick Street Lower and Broadstone.

At Broombridge the Luas line will interchange with Iarnrod Éireann’s Maynooth railway line services.

Dublin Chamber of Commerce has said the city centre would face an eight year construction period if the Luas Metro North and Dart projects are not properly integrated.

Chief executive Gina Quin said it was critical that construction works are managed effectively so that the projects are delivered together as quickly as possible, while still ensuring the city remains fully open for business.

“The benefits of these major transport projects are clear," she said. "They will transform the way in which people move around and through Dublin, but we need to be sure that construction is controlled from day one so that it is still easy for residents, commuters, shoppers and tourists to get into and around the city centre in particular."

Irish Times

Review fires warning shot in advance of Planning Bill

Six local authorities are under scrutiny not so much for their specific records as to ensure widespread co-operation with legislative changes

THE REVIEW announced yesterday by Minister for the Environment John Gormley into the planning practices of six county and city councils may not live up to the sum of its parts.

The announcement was certainly dramatic. The Minister made reference to serious and substantive complaints about irregularities. Unsurprisingly, the reaction of the managers of the named local authorities to a review of their planning practices ranged from nonplussed to apoplectic.

It is true that Gormley does have concerns about what he sees as possible problems or flaws in the planning process in the four county councils (Galway, Cork, Meath and Carlow) and two city councils (Dublin and Cork) named yesterday. But the rationale behind his decision is not based so much on those concerns as on the “dragging effect” they might have on one of his major projects.

What it relates to, in reality, is the Green Party leader’s Planning Bill which will become law by the time the Dáil goes into recess next month. Gormley sees this as his magnum opus in the planning area during his time in Government. But he is concerned that local authorities will not share his enthusiasm about the legislation and won’t move might and main to make sure that it works.

“There’s no point in having Rolls Royce planning legislation and a suite of new guidelines if he cannot be certain that they are going to be implemented on the ground,” says a source who is familiar with the process.

So, in a sense, what is happening is a piece of political “pretaliation”. The outcome of the review will have unmistakable political overtones. Therefore, it must be emphasised that Gormley is not launching a major investigation or inquiry into planning practices in local authorities. He is merely reviewing the planning processes and practices (but not any specific decisions taken) in six named local authorities.

The reason he has picked six is because his department accepts it would be impractical to review all 34 local authorities. Sure, the six chosen are the ones with problems (in other words, there have been substantive complaints). But they have also been chosen because there is a good geographical spread and also a mix between urban and rural councils. So that’s why “review” is a much more accurate description than “inquiry” or “probe”.

Ostensibly, Gormley is putting councils on notice that their practices will have to live up to the high principles of his new legislation. If they’re falling short of the mark now, he can make an example of them, so that he can emphasise to all 34 local authorities that certain ways of doing things will no longer be tolerated.

There won’t be an investigation into specific decisions. Nobody is going to walk the plank. It’s hard to second-guess a process that is only getting under way. But the indications are that the most serious sanctions will be a naming-and-shaming exercise.

Gormley has been thinking of such a review for some time. According to the department, the six councils have substantive issues with their planning process. It also said yesterday that numerous complaints and submissions had been received. It is certain that some came from An Taisce but the department also said there were correspondences and contacts from individuals, councillors and from other organisations.

The issues are different for each council. Questions over Carlow’s corporate governance have been in the public domain for some time, especially since a road project was abandoned after it emerged the council did not own the land. In Meath, the council has faced criticism for not following its own development plan. Galway County Council has had an unusually high number of planning permissions overturned on appeal to An Bord Pleanála.

In Dublin city, questions have been raised about whether or not decisions on high-rise buildings have complied with its development plan. Both councils in Cork, city and county, have faced criticisms over the planning process, namely that they have lacked transparency and consistency.

The first stage of the review will give each of the six local authorities four weeks to supply information on how they perform their planning functions. Specific questions will be asked of each about the substantive issues.

For example, where An Bord Pleanála reversed local authority decisions, certain councils are being asked to set out how their authority’s decision-making had regard to national and local planning policies.

When this information is supplied, a broader review will take place.

This will be conducted by a planning expert or experts. The person or persons will report to Gormley, who will then decide if further steps are warranted.

But no planning experts have been chosen as yet, though it’s likely they will come from abroad. Nor has the exact format for the panel’s work been chosen.

The Minister does intend to publish the findings of the review. Paradoxically, depending on the week that’s in it, the findings may struggle to have the same impact as the announcement had yesterday

Irish Times

Leash put on rezoning, developer-led planning

Commuter Counties revisited: Co. Laois : When Laois councillors tried to earmark acres of land for ‘development’ the then minister for the environment, Dick Roche, stopped it

CO LAOIS has the distinction of being the first county in Ireland where a minister for the environment used his powers to overturn land rezoning decisions made by councillors against planning advice. And this served as a warning to others that they could be next in line for similar ministerial intervention.

The fact that it was a Fine Gael-led rezoning mission probably made Dick Roche’s decision to take action easier. So did the sheer brazenness of the councillors in designating hundreds of acres of land for residential development on the outskirts of 21 villages in Laois, including Borris-in-Ossory, Durrow, Stradbally and Timahoe.

Killenard, a village 5km from Portarlington, should have served as an object lesson in what not to do. With almost no warning and certainly no plan, it was swamped by suburban housing, gathered around the Heritage Golf and Spa Resort. And when the developers moved in, some of the local farmers became millionaires overnight.

The running was made by Portlaoise-based Tommy Kane, of Corrigeen Construction, when he got permission in 2001 for an 18-hole golf course designed by Seve Ballesteros and a road layout for future housing development. And since all of the land was unzoned, there was no obligation to provide any “social and affordable” housing.

His first salvo was followed by separate schemes for a five-star hotel, 82 semi-detached and terraced houses, a golf clubhouse, leisure centre, golf academy and driving range, indoor bowls arena, 18 “golf villas” (one of them built for Ballesteros) and a par-three golf course. This was classic “developer-led planning”, on a staggering scale.

A similar fate lay in store for all the other villages in Co Laois if Dick Roche hadn’t acted to stop the rezoning frenzy in 2005. All of it was being done behind closed doors, with the initiative coming from Fine Gael councillors supported by Progressive Democrat and Sinn Féin colleagues. Fianna Fáil opposed what it called “blanket rezonings”.

Of course, there was no provision in the Midlands Regional Planning Guidelines, adopted in April 2005, for the villages of Co Laois to become engulfed by suburban housing aimed at Dublin commuters; its focus was on building up the urban structure of the region based on a “hierarchy” of towns, such as Portlaoise and Portarlington.

An Taisce, among others, argued in favour of developing villages as a viable alternative to indiscriminate one-off housing in the countryside. But this would mean preparing detailed local plans, rather than simply zoning land as was being done in Laois. The Heritage Council also stressed the need to draw up “village design statements” first.

No such steps were taken before the council decided, by 12 votes to nine, to proceed with the controversial rezonings. Cllr John Bonham (FG) said they were taking “a holistic approach to planning. People want to live and be able to afford housing in local areas, go to local schools, support local businesses; this gives them that opportunity.” But Cllr Jerry Lodge (FF) said members of his party had walked out of the meeting after being “denied the opportunity” to speak.

“We had proposed that there should be local area plans for each of the villages to ensure there was proper and sustainable development in each case, but the chairman [Cllr William Aird (FG)] wouldn’t listen to us.” As minister for the environment, with powers to intervene under the 2000 Planning Act, Dick Roche gave them a hearing, however. This resulted in a submission being made on his behalf after the draft county development plan went on public display, in which it was made clear that he would use those powers if the rezonings were confirmed.

Roche said he intended to “frustrate” what the councillors were doing and later described as “insufferable” the council’s decision to proceed with the rezoning of sufficient land for 34,900 new homes – more than nine times what was actually needed – despite being told that this threatened to turn villages into dormitory towns.

He also became the first minister for the environment to enunciate as policy that publicly funded sewerage services would not be provided for land zoned in defiance of regional planning guidelines. This was one of the most effective weapons in the Department’s armoury to deter “maverick” rezoning decisions, yet it had never been used previously.

Finally, in October 2006, Roche refused to approve the Laois county plan, saying the councillors’ decisions to zone enough land to accommodate the entire population of the midlands up to 2020 were “grotesquely irresponsible”, and he had seen the negative effects of such activity in his Wicklow constituency over the previous 30 years.

Despite his intervention, Co Laois now has nearly 4,150 acres of zoned land available for residential development – sufficient for some 6,000 new homes at standard suburban densities, to accommodate a nearly 17,000 people. A recent survey by the Department found 632 newly built homes empty and as many again nearing completion.

Most of the development was taking place in and around Portlaoise and Portarlington – driven by Dubliners “leapfrogging” into Co Laois and commuting to work in the capital, usually by car on the newly-improved roads. Iarnród Éireann’s train services also found new patrons, many leaving their cars in park-and-ride sites at the stations.

The population of Portarlington has nearly doubled to 6,000 since the mid-1990s. But Laois County Council was ill-equipped to plan for this growth, as it had only two planners before 2000 and only set up a forward-planning unit in 2002 when the horse was “half-way out through the door”, as senior planner Peter Dolan conceded.

No wonder nearly 47 per cent of the council’s decisions were reversed on appeal by An Bord Pleanála in 2006. It was still happening in 2008, when the board overturned planning approval for Tesco to develop a new outlet in Portarlington; even the planning application acknowledged that the site was in the River Barrow’s floodplain.

A year earlier, the Office of Public Works announced a €9 million flood relief plan for Portarlington, involving the erection of flood walls and embankments along the Barrow and its tributaries. The avowed aim was to protect existing properties at risk while simultaneously improving the town’s development potential.

IN PORTLAOISE, things turned sour for the local GAA club after it agreed in 2007 to sell its grounds to Cork-based Firestone Developments for €19 million, to make way for retail, residential and commercial scheme. An Bord Pleanála refused permission, citing its edge-of-town location, and Firestone pulled out – leaving the club with a €6.5 million debt.

But Laois county manager Peter Carey was determined to capitalise on Portlaoise’s location at “the crossroads of Ireland” by facilitating the development of a “logistics and distribution park” on a site of 250 acres adjoining the M7. The scheme was to include 278,706sq m (three million sq ft) of warehousing and parking for up to 15,000 cars.

First unveiled in 2004, this ambitious development is taking a long time to materialise and has not been helped by the current recession. Apart from Iarnród Éireann’s national train depot, built at a cost of €65 million, it includes an “incubator unit” of 20,000sq ft (1,858sq m) for business start-ups, developed by the council, and not much else so far.

Irish Times

Cork city manager surprised council is part of inquiry

CORK CITY manager Joe Gavin expressed surprise and disappointment at learning Cork City Council was to be included in the review. He said the first that he knew of it was when he heard Minister for the Environment John Gormley announce it on radio yesterday.

He had received no official information on the alleged irregularity and he expected a letter from the Department of the Environment in the coming day.

He was satisfied the procedures followed in the council were first class. “I would be very concerned that anyone would think there are irregularities in Cork City Council’s planning department because there aren’t,” he said.

Cork county manager Martin Riordan first heard about the inquiry on the radio yesterday.

“I’m not clear what the Minister is concerned about,” Mr Riordan said. He was not aware of an unresolved planning issue at the council and was anxious to “clear up that”.

Dublin City Council had yesterday not received details of the specific complaints being investigated or the terms of reference.

However, it would “co-operate fully” with Mr Gormley’s request “when received”, a council statement said.

All decisions were “made in the context of the proper planning and sustainable development of the area”, the statement said.

The announcement had come “out of the blue”, Dublin Labour councillor Dermot Lacey said.

Officials told a council planning committee meeting yesterday that it had received no information and no advance warning about the review, Dublin councillor Seán Kenny (Labour) said.

Complaints by an individual about corporate governance at the Carlow County Council planning department was the main issue under investigation in the planning review for Carlow, the county manager has said.

Carlow is one of six local authorities for which a review of how planning laws and policy have been implemented has been ordered by the Minister.

Carlow County Council was audited by the department’s local government audit service in 2008. The corporate governance and planning issues which were raised in the 2008 audit report would be similar to those examined in the forthcoming investigation, Carlow county manager Tom Barry said.

Among the corporate governance issues raised were the use of special development contributions, planning enforcement and planning time being extended at quarries .

The council had not yet received a formal notification of the report. “I am happy to respond and give reasons why I made the decisions,” Mr Barry said.

No information or notification of the planning review had been received by the majority of the six local authorities concerned.

The number of approvals by Galway County Council which were subsequently overturned by An Bord Pleanála was a key factor in the decision to approve this local authority in the inquiry, Green Party Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin said yesterday. Galway County Council was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Galway’s An Taisce branch has welcomed Mr Gormley’s planning review for Galway County Council, but has called for it to be extended to the city.

Last winter’s flooding of estates built on river plains highlighted the need to review planning in the county area, branch chairman Derrick Hambleton said.

Irish Times

Six councils' planning systems face review

THE SIX local authority areas that face reviews of their planning systems have been the subject of “substantial complaints”, according to Minister for the Environment John Gormley.

Mr Gormley yesterday announced a two-phase review of how four named county councils – Galway, Cork, Meath and Carlow – and two named city councils – Dublin and Cork – have implemented planning laws and policies. One other local authority, Donegal County Council, is already the subject of a similar process.

The first phase of the review will require each council to provide information about its planning system within four weeks, and to answer specific questions about complaints and allegations that have been made.

These will cover areas like zoning, the scale and height of certain structures and concerns raised in local government audit reports. The review will call on Dublin City Council to address concerns that decisions on high-rise buildings in its area did not adhere to the development plan.

Galway County Council faces questions on the percentage of permissions that have been overturned on appeal to An Bord Pleanála. Meath has been asked to confirm it followed its own development plan. The issues for the two councils in Cork relate to processes and transparency, while Carlow has been asked to address concerns about governance.

The review is being carried out in the context of the new Planning Bill, which is expected to become law by the summer and concerns expressed by Mr Gormley that the legislation will be ineffective unless all 34 local authorities can fully implement its measures.

Mr Gormley said some 8,000 complaints, representations and submissions on various planning issues had been received by his department from An Taisce, NGOs and the public last year. He said this correspondence would be used to shape the work of the review group and to help prepare future development plans.

He said there were specific and major complaints about decisions made by the authorities that were to be examined but that they also offered a good geographic spread.

Mr Gormley said the purpose of the review was not to examine particular planning decisions but to assess the processes that allow for such decisions. He said he was precluded from getting involved in individual planning cases.

Mr Gormley said if impropriety was uncovered in the course of the investigation it would be treated very seriously. However, he said “corruption” and “breaches of the law” were loaded terms and should be used carefully in the context of the review.

“We have to be very careful not to in any way prejudice the outcome of these inquiries. We have to look at why exactly they made these decisions and there could be legitimate reasons for that.”

Planning experts from here and abroad are to examine the decisions made by the local authorities in question and look at processes in detail. They will also assess if the local authorities have the correct powers and tools in place to deliver on their responsibilities.

The format of the review has not been decided, nor has the identity of those on the panel, a department spokesman said.

Labour’s environment spokeswoman Joanna Tuffy said yesterday that the purpose of the review was not apparent.

“There is no clear notion as to what he hopes to achieve out of this exercise . . . the whole process lacks transparency.” She said she had serious doubts as to whether the councils would be in a position to provide insight or analysis, to the level of detail that the Minister appears to expect, in four weeks.

Irish Times

Permission sought to link up Luas lines

PLANNING PERMISSION is to be sought for a Luas line linking the existing Sandyford and Tallaght lines in Dublin.

An application for the new BX line, running 5.6km from the Luas Green line at St Stephen’s Green to the Iarnród Éireann Broombridge station, is to be lodged with An Bord Pleanála by the Railway Procurement Agency.

The forecast journey time between the Green line terminus and the Broombridge station is expected to be approximately 24 minutes, with 20 trams an hour serving each direction during peak periods.

The BX line is to run from St Stephen’s Green to O’Connell Street via College Green before doubling back and travelling along Marlborough Street across a specially constructed bridge over the river Liffey to Hawkins Street.

Stops along this line will be located at Dawson Street, Westmoreland Street, O’Connell Street, Marlborough Street and College Street.

Using the BX line, members of the public will be able to transfer between the Green Luas line and the Red Luas line at Middle Abbey Street. The proposed line would also form part of Line D which will run from O’Connell Street to Broombridge via Broadstone and Grangegorman. Stops along Line D include Parnell Street, Dominick Street Lower and Broadstone.

At Broombridge, the Luas line will interchange with Iarnród Éireann’s Maynooth railway line services.

However, it would be “quite some time before the lines materialise”, a spokesman for the Railway Procurement Agency said. He said the earliest any works on the new lines could start would be a year away, as “it takes about a year for a railway order to be granted”.

Dublin Chamber of Commerce has said the city centre would face an eight-year construction period if the new Luas, Metro North and Dart projects were not properly integrated.

Chief executive Gina Quin said it was critical that construction works were managed effectively so the projects were delivered together as quickly as possible, while ensuring the city remained fully open for business.

“The benefits of these major transport projects are clear,” Ms Quin added.

“They will transform the way in which people move around and through Dublin, but we need to be sure that construction is controlled from day one so that it is still easy for residents, commuters, shoppers and tourists to get into and around the city centre in particular.”

According to the environmental impact statement, construction on the new lines is expected to take approximately 33 months once started, with a period of testing required.

Irish Times

Carlow: 'If you want a life-work balance, you have to cut your cloth'

Carlow town rose to the challenges of its population explosion over the past seven years, with lots of investment in infrastructure and services, but the town has taken a hit with a number of high-profile company closures

IN 2003, Carlow town’s population had soared by a third in just six years. Commuters faced a 90-minute drive to the capital (and that’s if they left at dawn). Yet, unlike other areas of sudden expansion, it seemed up to the challenge.

Looking back, it did better than most. The schools bore up well, although the post-primary system is coming under pressure. The €70 million Fairgreen centre with its big multiplex is a success, although it hived shoppers from the town centre. The sad business park is morphing into Merck Sharp Dohme and the promise of 250 jobs. The beautiful €18 million theatre and contemporary arts centre was funded almost entirely by Carlow’s local authorities. The long-awaited €20 million drainage and flood relief scheme finally got under way in recent weeks. And the new bypass, opened two years ago, restored sanity to the town’s core.

But there were also setbacks. Hundreds of jobs disappeared with the Greencore Irish Sugar factory, Braun, Läpple and Celtic Linen. Unsold houses on estates and a swarm of For Sale signs in the centre indicate that the town is in deep trouble.

Then again, if An Bord Pleanála comes back with a thumbs-up to the proposed €85 million development on the old Penneys site, “it would make an extraordinary difference”, says Joe Watters, the stalwart town clerk.

When we last met in 2003, Carlow-born Michelle Abbey (daughter of Cllr Michael Abbey), was about to marry Limerick native, Barry Wall. Both worked for Dublin IT companies but had set up home in Carlow, in a fine, four-bed, detached house bought for the price of a Dublin suburban two-bed apartment. The price was the commute. Though Michelle was able to “telework” from home three days a week, Barry’s daily journey to Clonskeagh began at 5.30am, ending back in Carlow 12 hours later.

So what happened next?

Both had good jobs, so it seemed feasible to buy a one-bed apartment in Stepaside, for a mid-week respite near the city. The arrival of their first child made the dual-location lifestyle barely manageable but the second prompted decision time. Dublin or Carlow?

Two mortgages and Dublin’s high creche charges were big factors but in the end, it was also about quality of life. “The creche here [in Carlow] is three minutes down the road . . . Michelle’s parents are literally in the next estate and her sister is here,” says Barry of their decision to stay in Carlow.

Apart from having two small children in the past seven years, Michelle completed a Masters degree and joined Ernst Young in Harcourt Street, Dublin, for whom she works three days a week in the city and two at home. Barry managed a similar arrangement and, for a few years, they alternated their home-working days.

In recent months, however, much has changed. Barry’s employer withdrew from Ireland leading to mass redundancies. His new job entails providing contracted support, remotely, for an American communications company, “so I’m at home five days a week now”, he says evenly. How is it going? “It’s early days.”

Michelle is expecting another child, but the commute continues. The new bypass makes for a “straighter run”, getting her to Newlands Cross in 45 minutes, “but it’s another 45 minutes to get the rest of the way. The roads are full. I try to leave work at 4.30pm and get home between 6pm and 6.30pm.”

Is it as tough as it sounds? “It is difficult. I don’t see the kids before I leave and if I’m home at 7pm, I might only be seeing them for an hour or half an hour. But the two days I’m working from home, you get three hours back,” she adds brightly.

The Walls are good at counting their blessings. They broke even on the Stepaside apartment, selling it just before the crash. They’ve bought a mobile home in Ballymoney, Co Wexford, which is 45 minutes south. “In the current environment, we’re very lucky,” Michelle says. “We have a good house and we both have jobs. At the moment, we’re not going to question too much how we do it.”

“People just have to be more flexible,” says Barry. “I’m 37. I’m not of the generation that doesn’t remember the bad days. I came out of college in the early 90s and took the first job I was offered.”

In 2003, their neighbour, Berni Murphy, a native of Dublin’s Liberties, was commuting to St James’s Hospital, where she worked a three-day week in nurse education. On the road at 6.20am, via Baltinglass and Tallaght, her journey took up to two hours and often she took respite overnight with her mother.

“I couldn’t carry on,” she says now. “I work a two-day week now and I still stay overnight with Mum or my sister or I’d be like a briar next day. But it has improved. With the new road and bypasses, I can leave at 7am and get in to work by 8.30am.”

The couple of years after the move to Carlow in 2000 were deeply challenging for a Liberties girl, but Berni is well settled. “I’m still a Dub, but even if I won the Lotto I wouldn’t move back now. I can ramble down the town for company, like my mother would walk down Meath Street. Everything is nearby. Every day I go for a walk in the Killeshin hills with the dogs.”

RURAL LIFE IS NOT for everyone though, Berni points out. Her daughter, Jessica, was 12 when they moved 10 years ago and she remained a “city kid” who “couldn’t wait to get out of Carlow”. For Berni though, it’s quality of life over money. “If you want a life-work balance, you have to cut your cloth.”

Seven years ago, Oonagh Barrett, then a theatre nurse working two 12-hour shifts a week in St James’s Hospital and her husband, Renny, an English-born IT contractor, had made the move from Kilmainham, seeking better local schools and a bigger house.

Back then, Renny was cramming his week into four 10-hour days in Park West off the M50, getting the 6.30am train to work and arriving home at around 6pm. Key to this was his determination to use travelling time as work time. He still does. The car would be quicker than the 90-minute train journey (he has to change at Heuston), “but driving is dead time”, he says. But he has gradually increased his days working from home and sometimes, works from Carlow for weeks at a time.

Renny is clear about the downside: “Working from home can quickly make you a poor cousin of those in the office.” But he now gets to have breakfast with his children. “I’ll walk them to school and pick them up. If the two of us are around, it leaves the other free to do stuff.”

Meanwhile, Oonagh lost her “verve” for nursing and did a diploma in holistic health. She now works for Carlow VEC as a tutor in adult and community education. “It’s The Good Life ,” says Renny gleefully. They have chickens in the garden, tickets for Electric Picnic in the dresser and – only today — a brand new, shiny Jaguar outside the door, a delighted Renny’s 40th birthday present to himself.

Oonagh volunteers at the “really beautiful” contemporary arts centre and Renny as a maths tutor to adults doing their Leaving Cert. They love Carlow’s diversity, the booming sports clubs – “there’s about 30 kids in the seven- to eight-year-olds’ rugby team, where other towns have only eight or nine”. They have the security of knowing the children can “wander” safely outside, and that the countryside is only three minutes away. A good decision then? “Anything that could be better is better here – and nothing was worse,” says Renny.

Irish Times

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Council denies conflict over planning guarantees on land for sale

DUBLIN City Council has been accused of a conflict of interest by selling land at prices which are agreed strictly on condition that it then grants planning permission for development. In the unusual event that planning is rejected, the would-be purchaser can pull out.

Critics of the practice claim it skews the planning system and leads to a situation where people objecting to the planning application are not aware that the council has a vested interest in granting permission.

The issue is due to be debated at an upcoming council meeting, which will discuss a motion from independent councillor Damian O'Farrell seeking clarity on the system and assurances that it is not open to abuse.

The Sunday Tribune has seen two examples where small sites were offered to private residents for €30,000 and €40,000 on the basis that the council could also provide planning permission. The values would be significantly lower without permission.

Planners are aware of such agreements but the council insists its professional judgement is not influenced.

Further concerns that third parties objecting to planning applications are not aware of such deals were dismissed by the council, which said that decisions are ultimately judged by An Bord Pleanála, the planning appeals authority.

However, in a letter to management last November, O'Farrell highlighted the self-serving role of the council in such sales. "I absolutely fully appreciate that DCC is in a very poor financial position at the moment to say the least… and that these very small plots of land can generate much-needed income," he wrote.

"Without [planning] permission, DCC would receive a lot less or nothing. I am against these types of contracts no matter what the circumstances or reason."

While there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing regarding planning decisions, O'Farrell believes the system must be "fireproof" and transparent.

Defending the system, Declan Wallace, executive manager in charge of economic development, said that if the council did not seek to maximise the land value ahead of its sale, it could be accused of exactly the opposite, undervaluing public property at a cost to the taxpayer.

"The city council as a land owner can't disadvantage itself by virtue of the fact that it's also the planning authority," he said.

"If someone said there was a conflict of interest that you sell the land and also grant planning, then following on from that [logic] would be that we sell land with no thought of what could go on it or for its development potential, which would be a huge waste of public resources."

Asked whether or not a third-party planning system would be prudent in such cases, Wallace said: "We would say that third party is An Bord Pleanála."

Sunday Tribune

Share Ireland in EU court over planning laws breach

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) will open hearings this week in a significant challenge by the European Commission (EC) to Ireland’s alleged failure to implement European planning laws.

The EC is claiming that, for years, Ireland has been in breach of its obligation to conduct environmental impact assessments properly. Hearings in the case will open at the ECJ on Thursday.

If Ireland is found in breach, it will face substantial costs, and the implication will be that state agencies and local authority planning departments have, in effect, sanctioned developments which were contrary to EU law.

Among the EC’s claims are that there is a major disconnection between the functions of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Ireland and local authorities, caused by the government’s failure to adhere properly to European law.

The EC’s allegation is based on the fact that certain projects in Ireland are subject to two separate decision making processes: one process involves decision-making on land-use aspects by the planning authorities, while the other involves decision-making on pollution aspects by the EPA.

The EC alleges that Irish legislation ‘‘contains no obligation on these bodies to coordinate with each other effectively and, therefore, is contrary [to EU law]".

As a result, the EC argues that ‘‘it is possible for a licence application to be made to the Environmental Protection Agency before an application for planning permission has been made, and thus before an environmental impact assessment has been carried out’’.

European law requires that an environmental impact assessment be carried out before a licence application is made, although the EC says it has no problem in principle with planning and environmental decisions being conducted by separate bodies.

The EC also insists that Ireland has breached European law by excluding nearly all demolition works from the legislation implementing a 1985 EU directive related to environmental impact assessments.

The commission argues that the directive applies to demolition works, subject to certain conditions, and requires that an environmental impact assessment must be carried out for all demolition works. Irish law is ‘‘plainly at variance with the directive’’, the EC said.

The commission also alleges that Ireland has failed to transpose into law the obligation to carry out an environmental impact assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects.

Irish law requires planning authorities to have regard to an environmental impact statement, but the EC claims that this ‘‘does not correspond to the wider duty’’ on authorities to undertake an environmental impact assessment, which ‘‘identifies, describes and assesses the direct and indirect effects of a project on the environment’’.

Sunday Business Post

Pavement makeover on way for Grafton St

Grafton Street will be getting a bright new look when the pedestrianised area is completely repaved.

The current red-brick paving was laid in 1988 as part of the Dublin millennium project and cost £500,000 at the time.

Dublin City Council and the Dublin City Business Association (DCBA) have now "agreed in principle" to the massive long-term scheme.

The repaving is expected to be carried out over three to four years to reduce the disturbance along the route.

The street, which dates back to the early 17th century, recently slipped to eighth place - from a top-five position - in the latest ranking of the world's most expensive retail streets in terms of rents. Prime rents on the street have fallen by 22.5pc in the property price crash.

At peak shopping times, as many as 30,000 people visit the street every hour.

The council outlined plans to rejuvenate the street in 2006. "It is an objective to carry out a co-ordinated street improvement scheme for Grafton Street that will upgrade the existing paving and street furniture," the council said.

"Paving work will be to a high design standard and of high quality paving materials and complementary in slab size, colour and texture with the architectural character of the street."

DCBA chief executive Tom Coffey said the move could be a massive boost for businesses as a means of attracting more tourists to the area. "There will be pain - but, if these kind of projects are completed for the centenary of the 1916 Rising, then we can boost tourism and have a truly modern city," he said.

Appeals board to look at Slane bypass

AN BORD Pleanála has asked Meath County Council to supply detailed additional information on the proposed N2 Slane bypass – including whether any alternative route west of the village had been examined.

The current proposal, which includes a new bridge over the river Boyne, runs to the east of Slane and has proved controversial because this would bring it close to the Brú na Bóinne archaeological complex – a designated Unesco World Heritage Site.

The council, which is acting as agent for the National Roads Authority, has now been asked to furnish 12 points of additional information to “clarify” its environmental impact statement (EIS), to assist the appeals board in adjudicating on the scheme.

Seeking details of any alternative route, the board said: “If such a route has not been examined, a desktop study and drawings are required of a potential route to the west of Slane to the same level of detail as the routes examined [but not chosen].”

Referring to a statement in the EIS that the route selection for the Slane bypass “has been influenced by its potential for future inclusion in a longer [dual-carriageway] route between Ashbourne and Ardee, the board wants more information on this plan.

“The non-technical summary of the EIS should be expanded to include an illustration of the proposed bridge, a map showing alternative routes considered for the road and a map/aerial photograph showing the route in relation to the world heritage site”.

It is also seeking details – “with drawings as appropriate” – of alternative designs examined for the proposed bridge over the Boyne, which has been criticised by objectors as unnecessarily intrusive in the context of the landscape of Brú na Bóinne.

The board’s request said it considered that the photomontages in the EIS are “not of sufficient scale” to enable it to “fully assess the landscape and visual impacts of the proposed development”, and more high-quality photomontages are required.

These should include views from the Hill of Slane looking east, the Knowth prehistoric site at both ground level and from the top of this monument, and existing and proposed views from the river valley 300 metres east of the planned Boyne bridge. The board also wants A3-size photomontages of views of the bridge from Knowth, the Hill of Slane, the Battle of the Boyne crossing point at Rosnaree, poet Francis Ledwidge’s cottage, and a typical point within the world heritage site buffer zone.

It has also asked the council to provide a report of “all geophysical and archaeological investigations carried out for the purpose of route selection and impact identification” to clarify the extent of land subject to surveying, field walking and excavation.

The council has been given a deadline of next Monday to respond.

Irish Times

Locals oppose €600m Eirgrid pipeline over health concerns

RESIDENTS OF Rush in north county Dublin are opposing the development of a €600 million underground electricity pipeline because they say health and safety issues have not been adequately addressed by developer Eirgrid.

The depth of the pipeline and the potential health risks created by magnetic currents were among the concerns expressed by up to 300 residents at a public information meeting held last week.

Development on the interconnector is scheduled to begin later this month. The pipeline will be placed 1m (3.2ft) below ground as work takes place in Rush over the next 18 months. The National electricity network operator Eirgrid was granted permission by An Bord Pleanála to build the East-West interconnector pipeline between Ireland and Wales last year and they say their plans comply fully with all the relevant domestic and EU regulations.

A spokeswoman for Eirgrid said the interconnector posed no potential health risks and the shallow depth of the piping around Rush was necessary to maximise the capacity of energy flowing through the interconnector.

“The pipeline will be laid at quite a shallow depth and will emit slight magnetic currents, but they would be no different to the magnetic currents that are produced naturally by the Earth,” she said.

Residents say Eirgrid has failed to adequately notify them about the interconnector, according to chairman of the Rush Development Council Charlie Monks.

Mr Monks said locals were concerned about plans to lay sections of the interconnector close to residential areas. “People in the area are genuinely nervous that this pipeline could affect their health . . . a lot of people turned up at the meeting because they didn’t actually know this development was taking place until recently. Eirgrid has scheduled an information day next Thursday but work on the pipeline starts a week later on June 28th. The meeting comes too late for residents to object.”

Irish Times

Gormley approves Shell plan for investigative drilling in Mayo

THE MINISTER for the Environment has approved an application by Shell EP Ireland to undertake investigative work in north Mayo’s Sruwaddacon estuary for its proposed new pipeline route.

John Gormley has signed off on a foreshore licence application for the geotechnical work, which would involve drilling up to 80 boreholes in a candidate special area of conservation (SAC).

His department received almost 200 objections to the application, which was applied for by the Corrib gas developers earlier this year.

An Bord Pleanála is still deliberating on the revised pipeline route up Sruwaddacon estuary, following its finding that up to half of a proposed second onshore routing was “unacceptable” on safety grounds.

Shell says it needs to carry out the work as part of site investigations, although it drilled 14 boreholes and took samples in the same estuary over a 10-week period in 2008. Shell consultants RPS had ruled against running the high-pressure pipeline through Sruwaddacon on environmental and technical grounds two years ago.

Both Shell to Sea and community group Pobal Chill Chomáin called on Mr Gormley to reject the application due to fears that it could degrade the estuary’s SAC status.

However, Shell told the department that the boreholes would be up to 30mm to minimise disturbance and said it was “not anticipated” that the work would have an adverse impact on the SAC.

Meanwhile, Minister of State for Natural Resources Conor Lenihan says he is taking “new measures” to monitor oil and gas activity in Irish waters in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

He said this week that his department had instituted a “special oversight of well operations” which would involve more frequent on-board audits and inspections for “routine or critical events”.

The initiative comes as Shell EP Ireland and its Corrib gas partners are due to begin drilling a satellite well on the Corrib North block which could yield additional gas reserves. The Transocean-owned Sedco 711 semi-submersible rig arrived on location late last week off the Mayo coast.

Transocean also owned the Deepwater Horizon rig which exploded and sank on April 20th in the Gulf of Mexico with the loss of 11 lives and with consequent serious pollution.

Mr Lenihan said the “special oversight” would involve “verification to the department’s satisfaction prior to drilling”.

Irish Times