Curious Tales

The words ‘vexatious and frivolous’ get on my nerves. It’s almost as if the planning system is trying to dumb down exactly what these words mean.  If I had my way, I would replace the two words for what they really mean – ‘lies and bulls**t’.

There have been so many ‘WOW’ moments in our dealings with the planning system over the years. Moments of disbelief. These include our shock at the level of ‘lies and bulls**t’ that was written by the small minority of objectors to our plans. (And as for the lies and bulls**t in some planning reports).  We would often say to each other ‘you just couldn’t make this s**t up’. But they did, bucket loads of it and there seemed to be little we could do about it. The objectors had the perfect platform and in truth they had absolutely nothing to lose. The Irish Planning System is the ultimate platform for begrudgery.

Our planners told us that these comments would be ignored because they weren’t “relevant to planning issues” but really the lies should have been (and in future will be) called out for what they were. They are toxic and they contaminate an already broken system.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no issue with making objections. It’s an important part of the process and God knows there are very good reasons to object to some applications. My problem is when you make stuff up that you know is not true, but do it anyway. I have a problem with the dishonesty of some people who are prepared to say things and make ridiculous claims aimed solely at causing damage. I also have a problem with hypocrisy. It’s notable that if the original residents of the Rush road had been NIMBYs, the main objectors to Holmpatrick Cove wouldn’t have been able to move to the Rush road in the late 80s and 90s with their ‘Section Four’ plannings. Or the original residents might have objected to the big home extensions built without planning permission by some of the objectors to Holmpatrick Cove. Or even they might have pointed out that one of them was refused planning for a house in his garden by the planning Board because he lived in the main house and therefore “didn’t demonstrate a rural need”. He lived on the wrong side of the road obviously because that rule didn’t apply to to the big fella across the road. He can build an extra house in his garden no problem. You just got to be in with the right crowd.

But let’s face it, although the claims made by the objectors are pure NIMBYism and also  ‘vexatious and frivolous’, they were ultimately not the real reason our planning was refused by An Bord Pleanala. As I said before, the objectors created the ‘white noise’ required to muddy the waters where the big fish rule.

I refuse to go down the rabbit hole and give oxygen to the ‘lies and bulls**t’ where, as the Queen of Hearts said, “facts are what I say they are”. But it’s all there in the files and I can point anyone in the right direction if they are interested or even “curiouser and curiouser”. Frankly, we all have better things to do. Christmas is coming and hopefully the new year will bring a roadmap out of the pandemic we are all living with, and an end to lockdown. Speaking of lockdown. We’ve been playing the odd board game. Funny thing is I noticed recently that our old game of Snakes and Ladders had two snakes in the box at the end. I’m so done with that game now!

So, I have high hopes for 2021. I am writing a satirical play. I am inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm where “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. I have all my characters (top dogs, big fish, snakes, vultures, bulls, donkeys….) and a ready-made plot.

On another note and speaking of the future, we still have 15 acres of land left on the Rush Road at Holmpatrick Cove. To the ‘vexatious and frivolous’ people – there’s no more hiding behind hedges; the gloves are off….and to the snakes in the grass and the big fish lurking in the shadows; after twenty years, your game is well and truly up.

The ‘Independent’ Planning Regulator

I have a problem with the Office of the planning regulator (OPR) and given the fact that we are a democracy and we all have freedom of speech (in theory anyway – given our libel laws), I think it is high time I got this off my chest. Most readers of this blog will not really know much about this new appointment of the planning regulator because it pretty much went under the radar. Fact is, the new planning regulator, Niall Cussen, was appointed in December 2018 by Minister Eoghan Murphy which was kind of nice given the fact that Mr Cussen was Mr Murphy’s principal advisor in the Department of Housing

Niall Cussen, Minister Eoghan Murphy and Joe Corr IPI

I read about the appointment a week before Christmas on the 18th December, 2018 on the digital copy of the Irish Times but couldn’t find it in the hard copy. Maybe I just missed it. I imagine it must have been printed in the newspaper, as this new position has similar power to a government minister except, of course, we don’t vote him or her in. It’s a big deal. If you don’t co-operate with the regulator it’s a criminal offence, (according to Colm Keena of the Irish Times). The regulator can “sue and be sued, acquire, hold and dispose of land or an interest in land and acquire, hold and dispose of any other property”. Wow. That’s pretty powerful.

 Mind you in his previous role as chief advisor, Mr Cussen was already very powerful. I remember distinctly a Newstalk interview with Minister Murphy where Ivan Yates chided Murphy over the influence that Mr Cussen had over him. Yates went on to write in the Independent in January 2019, in reference to the housing crisis; “Specifically the guidelines emanating from the chief planning officer, Niall Cussen, must be reappraised”. Naturally, I found these comments very interesting.

 So the aim of the appointment of an ‘independent’ planning regulator is to bring back public confidence in the planning system and, really importantly, to investigate ‘systemic’ problems, especially corruption risks. This is what Justice Mahon recommended in his planning tribunal. He also recommended that the regulator be appointed by an independent board, which I’m sure must have been the case. (I believe there were two main candidates in the running). But here’s my problem: how can the ultimate insider be objective or independent? How can someone who has pretty much written all the planning guidelines that came out of government – National Planning Framework-  National Spatial Strategy etc.- be objective when it comes to planning policy? I mean, if someone makes a complaint involving officials that the regulator has worked closely with in the Department of Housing, An Bord Pleánala, County Councils or the Planning Institute, it could be tricky. The police, for example, ended up appointing an outsider to be on the safe side. And without casting any aspersions, but not wanting to ignore the elephant in the room, we are in the middle of a housing crisis and the planning system has contributed greatly to getting us to where we are today. My question is, why would you imagine that the author of the planning policy over the last decade is going to suddenly make it all better? I do wonder….  

Mariane Finucane- God rest her, interviewed the regulator after his appointment. I listened to it. She didn’t give him an easy ride. I also heard the then president of the Irish Planning Institute, Joe Corr, being interviewed on Newstalk. He was very excited about the new appointment. But since then, it has been quiet. Occasionally you will hear about some comments on a Development Plan down the country or an out of town shopping centre in Cork. But for someone so powerful there has been very little public scrutiny for such a key national role. I follow it on Google Alerts, which keeps me up to speed. I also follow the OPR on Twitter and I was very touched to see that on a bank holiday Monday, some months ago, they followed me back!  (one of my 10 or so followers).

So, my interest was sparked last Sunday when I read an article in the Sunday Times by Colin Coyle about Johnny Ronan’s company (RGRE.) The CEO of RGRE had written to the Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien, complaining about Dublin County Council and about biased comments made by public officials. A lot about the article piqued my interest given our own story. The minister apparently referred them to the planning regulator. But wait for it, even though the Minister (who is the regulator’s boss) suggested that RGRE should take their concerns to the regulator, according to the article the regulator’s response was that they wont’ investigate cases where “An Bord Pleanala are involved”. Now that rules out an awful lot of planning in Ireland and certainly all of the Strategic Housing Development ones; the ones that go straight to the Board.

Thinking about it (and I’m open to correction) it doesn’t strike me that there is much of an appetite to investigate those allegations, which let’s face it, are pretty serious. Mahon was pretty strong that the regulator should investigate possible systemic problems and that sufficient checks and balances should go right up to the top. He also said that the regulator “has the job of reviewing corruption risks and to ensure that corruption risks are identified and corrected as they arise.” The regulator is charged with bringing back public confidence and presiding over a fair planning system.  So what’s the problem? Funny thing is that in his ‘Highlights of 2019’ statement Mr Cussen makes reference to the Mahon Tribunal saying; “The Tribunal recognised the need for an oversight body for the Irish planning process which is operated through the 31 local authorities, three  Regional Assemblies and An Bord Pleanála….”(my emphasis).  There is no logic in excluding a vast chunk of the planning process from scrutiny, so what’s going on?

Anyway, it all seems very strange to me. It wouldn’t exactly inspire me to take our complaint to the regulator. But then again our case “isn’t as straightforward as that…..” I think we had better wait until the outsider arrives.

FOOTNOTE:

The national press has today announced that the planning regulator has not examined one case out of the ninety one cases reported to the OPR in its first year…….That will really help with public confidence.

T(h)reading Water

A few days ago we went for a drive. An escape. We are limited to Dublin of course with the lockdown so we decided to drive south along the coast.  It was a beautiful sunny day and when we hit Malahide Michael suggested that we go for a swim in the Forty Foot in Sandycove. It was unplanned so we stopped off at Dunnes stores in Cornelscourt and picked up some togs and towels. My grandfather Barney, used to swim at the Forty Foot every day in the Summer after he retired to Dalkey. That was back in the days when it was a male only swimming place. No togs needed in those times! Apart from a look at the Forty Foot on a cold Winter’s day, I had never swum there. I was very taken by the place. It was magical with the sun shining on the water and heads bobbing in the sea.  It was like an outdoor Lido. It was lunchtime and it was obvious that office workers, amongst others, were having a lunchtime swim. Everyone was cheerfully soaking up the last of the late summer sunshine. We had a lovely swim.

Skerries Frosties- Holmpatrick Cove Swim

Skerries is a swimming town, which is no surprise really given that it has water on three sides. I come from a swimming family. My father taught generations of Skerries children to swim. First in the sea some time around 1960. They used a long pole with a hoop at the end at the Springboards.  Later on in 1968 Skerries Swimming Club moved to Gormanston College swimming pool, which is about 15k away from Skerries. When we were very young we used to go there in Charlie Fanning’s minibus. That was before we got the old Renault 12. My father brought myself and my siblings down every Saturday morning for our swimming lessons.

Gormanston was a great tradition. My father taught the littlest, who would swim a width and have to get out of the pool to run around again. You worked your way up the widths as you got better.  From Mr Ryan to Mr McGloughlin to Mr Maloney, Mr Sexton and then you would hit Mr Carmichael. Now, Mr Carmichael was a man dedicated to teaching swimming, but his children skills were lacking to say the least! He was terrifying- God rest him. He used to shout at the kids and blow his whistle. My siblings and I were lucky because we had our father as a bit of a cushion. There was a great motivation to get through this width quickly as you would be moved up to the sanctuary of the next session, where you got to swim lengths.

When my eldest children were young we had the same routine. We went to Gormanston every Saturday morning to swimming. My father had moved on from teaching the young kids.  After 37 years and a couple of operations he figured that if he didn’t give it up when my youngest brother finished, he might have to see his grandchildren out. So he wisely quit while he was ahead. When we brought our children my niece Ciara (on the Branagan side) was shepherding the little ones through the first width. It went from Ciara to Conor, to Barry, to David to Peter. Same process but a new generation of children who, as a sign of the times, now called their teachers by their first names! 

Gormanston was great. Lovely Art Deco architecture. We all have great memories going there. The Galas. The echos and smell of chlorine as we ran through the entrance. The conker (chestnut) trees in the grounds. The day Mr Carmichael fell in the pool. (There was a rumour going around that he couldn’t actually swim!) The struggle to get there on time and the disappearing goggles that drove me insane. (I always thought a good title for a parenting book would be Gumshields and Goggles!).  But the roof fell in on the swimming pool and it was closed down about seven years ago. My youngest didn’t get beyond widths to lengths, which was such a pity; the difference between an able swimmer and a great swimmer.

Skerries Swimming Club also has a series of sea races during the Summer. They date back as far as the 1920s. They had petered out but were revived by Leonard McGloughlin and friends in 1941. They have wonderful old trophies and names such as The Island Swim, The Round the Head Swim, The South Strand Swim. We had many a trophy on our mantlepiece growing up, gathering spools of thread, keys and general junk.  We even borrowed the Rose Bowl trophy for our youngest’s Christening! The sea races are still going strong today. Mr Carmichael used to run the races with Leonard in the early days. (nowadays it’s Barry Sexton and David McGloughlin). To Mr Carmichael’s credit he gave up endless hours voluntarily to Skerries Swimming Club and ran a tight ship. Nobody dared question the handicap he gave them. And if you didn’t go around the last buoy at the end of the race there was hell to pay! I remember, way back when I was heavily pregnant with my first child, myself and my friend Carol (who was heavily pregnant with her last child!) decided to do the swim from The Captains to the back of the harbour. Poor Mr Carmichael didn’t know where to look at the sight of the two quite heavily pregnant women.  A bad jellyfish sting put a hold on my sea racing career (not when I was pregnant thankfully) but I reckon after twenty years it might be time to make a come -back.

Over the years the town has tried to lobby for a swimming pool.  There was the Ballast Pit proposal that lots of us contributed to, but it got pulled from Skerries to Balbriggan. (we got our money back). But unfortunately a pool didn’t even get built in Balbriggan. And there was the pool we were going to build at Holmpatrick Cove. It would have been similar in size to the pool in Gormanston which had served us all well over the years before it was closed down. One of the few objectors said the pool wasn’t big enough, that it should be an Olympic sized pool. I love your thinking mate- but get real! He also said we didn’t need a hotel in Skerries or a “dead-end walkway”. I think that was more to do with the airstrip and hangar he uses which was built on the coast without planning permission. An airstrip that cuts across the coastal walkway. Anyway, I’m sure he is happy now as he gets to fly his little airplane totally uninterrupted. These days he has taken to giving a little victory flight over the bungalow we live in. I must let him know when we leave so he can return to his old route over Shenick Island, (the island with the Special Protection Area (SPA)- the European Directive to not disturb the birds!).

Speaking of swimming and Skerries, every Summer (except for this one of course due to Covid) we have Water Safety Week. It is a national initiative and like Skerries Swimming Club, it is all done on a voluntary basis. Watersafety week in Skerries has the biggest turnout nationally and there are waiting lists to get in. In 2019 I think about 400 kids took part. (I’m open to correction as it was probably even more than that). If you look at the South Strand on Watersafety week (or sometimes the North strand depending on which way the wind is blowing) there is a tented village set up for the week as the various classes go on.  Parents often down tools to spend a week on the beach and the picnics are legendary. I never quite got my act together on the baking front, but I was lucky that my friend Debbie is a great baker and she took pity on my kids over the years. The pay-off was the barbeque we had at the end of the week in our front garden. That was always a good night!

Watersafety week makes for hardy kids. They get put through the mill come rain or shine, staying in the water for up to half an hour. For the more senior swimmers at the Springboards, that can be twice a day as well as the Lifesaving theory classes on the grass. The supermarkets run out of hot chocolate that week! All the kids come away with great life skills and a lot of respect for the sea. This knowledge has helped two of my children and my niece and nephew, out of sticky situations in the past.

From hardy kids to hardy adults. We have a cold-water swimming group in Skerries called the Frosties. As you can probably guess, they swim all year round. Only the odd hurricane would deter them from their daily swim. I couldn’t contemplate doing that and you will never see me in the water for the annual Christmas swim. I’ll leave that to Michael and the kids who, along with the Branagan family, go in for their swim outside the old family home on the South Strand, before the customary Christmas drinks.

When Holmpatrick Cove was refused by An Bord Pleanala two walks to the site took place as a show of support for the development. The planning board had said that Holmpatrick Cove was rural and distant from the town. To show what a load of rubbish that was the Frosties decided to swim from the Springboards to Holmpatrick. Only in Skerries….God, I love this town!

When we came home from our trip to the Forty Foot the tide was in that evening and we felt we should round the day off with a swim in the Springboards. It was probably motivated by loyalty to Skerries, having “crossed over to the south side” earlier that day. So, with the sun lower in the sky and still glistening across the water, we had another swim. A great way to finish off a Summer season of sea swimming- two swims in the one day. The problem is that the sun is still shining- not a problem of course- but it’s making me feel guilty. Maybe there’s a few more dips in it before the Winter closes in….


 

Saving the Community from Itself

Saved by the Board- View from the White Wall
Imagine a planning appeals board refusing a planning because of the noise from children playing. Honestly, it’s way up there with Monty Python’s Ministry for Silly Walks. The noise from children exercising on land (zoned for recreational uses) would be “injurious to the neighbouring amenity” which, by the way, is well over 100 meters away. God love those families living in the houses overlooking the rugby and Gaelic pitches in Skerries I say.

This was An Bord Pleanala. They had run out of noise you see. All the other noises had been taken by the noise studies.

The appeals board knows best. They’re the experts. They know all about this planning stuff. Didn’t they put one of their most experienced inspectors in charge??! Hmm…let’s see….No! All of the local clubs and societies supported Holmpatrick Cove. They said it was ideal. A great plan for Skerries. But what would they know? They only have to live with it. Phew. Close one!

This is the same appeals board that said that that Holmpatrick Cove wasn’t the right place for a hotel. No, it wouldn’t do to have a hotel on the coast overlooking the islands at the edge of town. I mean it’s not as if Skerries, that tourist town, needed one. There’s one in Balbriggan isn’t there? And Malahide and plenty around the airport. Oh yes and there was that letter from Failte Ireland saying it in fact was the right place for a hotel. But what would they know? They’re only the tourist board. Or maybe that letter got lost somewhere….there was a lot of trouble with the filing system over those seven months. Files were going missing.

Another big problem, that the planning appeals board sorted out, was that if the development was built, you just might be able to see it. That would not do at all. So, if you are standing at the outer point of Red Island and you look south you would see it in the distance below the other houses up on the Rush road. You think that’s bad. Wait till you get to the White Wall at the rugby club (bear with me it’s a bit of a walk along the South Strand path where you wouldn’t be able to see it). Or you can drive (although they don’t like cars) and pull in to look at the islands. Now listen carefully, this is important; when you get there do not look out to sea at the view. I repeat do not look at the view. Turn around and face south and look along the coast and you would, heaven forbid, see bits of Holmpatrick Cove sticking out. (If it was built that is).

We were spared that “visual intrusion” by our public body. It’s all highly sensitive you see, being on the sea side of the road. These views are protected. That’s why they have these rules; so you can see the view. Only problem is that there are houses in the way on the Rush road. Lots of them and a hill. Imagine if you could have driven in and had a coffee in the hotel and actually seen the view. But rules are rules. Public bodies like rules. When they suit that is.

They like Objectives and Guidelines too. Throw in a few objectives for good measure. Your average punter won’t look them up. Like the one about being “set below the ridgeline”. Did you not read the application? Or about keeping the hedges. I could go on….The Guidelines are great though. Now that’s serious stuff. Quite scary really. But hang on. Why put in Guidelines that don’t match what your saying?  Surely you mean the 2007 ones not the 2009 ones? The ones that are actually about “sequential zoning”. The ones for the councillors who vote on zoning. Which they did. Four times. Maybe it was a mistake? Honestly, you’d swear it was a democracy or something.

If you had an hour or so to spare and as an average punter (a reasonable man/woman) you could get a copy of the Development Plan and have a gander. It could be a bit confusing though to the ‘reasonable man’. There’s a Masterplan in it called the Holmpatrick Cove Masterplan. It’s on the map too. Hatched out in black and yellow. There was supposed to be a hotel and pool and houses and a park and a walkway and oh yes, don’t forget the “training spaces” for those noisy kids. But no! The planning appeals board knew better than those meddling councillors. They knew better than the planners that wrote their Development Plan. They knew better than the community. They found a loophole. A technicality…….Gotcha!