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!

Power

I have been thinking a lot about power lately. We are all familiar with the saying “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. But it’s not as simple as that really. I read a summary of a study in the Journal of Applied Science. It was interesting and it made sense to me. In summary the conclusion was that power doesn’t corrupt, it “heightens pre-existing tendencies”. (A bit like a benign dictatorship and a malevolent dictatorship). As Abraham Lincoln said “if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Think Donald Trump and Jacinda Ardern. Need I say more!

Image: https://www.thecut.com/2018/04/jacinda-ardern-is-furious-about-being-compared-to-trump.html

Michael and I have first hand experience witnessing power at play over the years. Most particularly when we attended meetings with the senior planning executives in our local council offices. Of all the meetings over the years one meeting in particular stands out in our minds, even ten years on. We had been trying to get this meeting for almost four months because we wanted an explanation as to why the council (the senior planning executives) had done a complete U-turn on Holmpatrick Cove. To make a long story short we had put our proposals for Holmpatrick Cove to the executive planners almost a year earlier, in the Summer of 2009. And they liked it. There were meetings and exchanges over a six month period. The final meeting included a site visit where the County Manager and his top planning official said they were going to include the Holmpatrick Cove proposal in the Draft Development Plan. We agreed to send the details: maps, layouts etc. in before Christmas so they could include it in the Manager’s Report in January.

January came and there was no Holmpatrick Cove in the Manager’s Report. Attempts by the local councillors to get answers were met with silence. The shutters had come down. Finally, in late April we were granted an audience. I will never forget it. Myself, Michael (and a planning consultant that we brought along with us), were ushered up in the lift. We were brought to a room where three senior planning executives were sitting at the far side of a large table. To say the atmosphere was tense is an understatement. What we witnessed in that meeting was a demonstration of power in all its glory. Our questions went unanswered. The message was that Holmpatrick Cove was going no-where. They wanted it closed down. They had changed their tune completely. How odd, given that these were the people who we had spoken to and who supported Holmpatrick Cove months before. One of them had even gone so far to say in the field, “sure I’d buy one of the houses myself”.  

Michael and I refer to that meeting as ‘The High Priests’. Which given our experiences in the planning system, is a fair analogy.  It is the modern-day equivalent of the power of the Catholic Church in the last century when bishops and priests called the shots. That power enjoyed by the church is as potent as the power that planning executives in County Councils, in Government Departments and in An Bord Pleanála enjoy. And as for the powers transferred to the new Planning Regulator: now that power is eye watering. 

The planner we had along with us at that ‘High Priests’ meeting did not hang around. You can’t blame him. Planning consultants working in the private sector depend on executive planners’ decisions for their bread and butter. They cannot afford to get on the bad side of them. This is how the system works. Developers too depend on the planners and know only too well where the real power is now, post Mahon Tribunal. As recent as last year we lost a sale because a council planning official told the developer that he was against Holmpatrick Cove and wouldn’t have given planning. (The council had given planning permission). The developer walked, based on this personal opinion. Needless to say if this hadn’t happened we would not be where we are today. That’s pretty powerful stuff really considering the collateral damage. But that’s only one example of damage done to us over the years. For example the twelve months that followed on from the ‘High Priests’ Meeting’ shocked us to the core. But that is another story.

It’s important not to confuse the local councillors with the planning executives. Councillors are elected and if you don’t like them, they will lose their seats. They are accountable. That’s democracy and generally it works. We all know what went on in the ‘bad old days’ but it would be remiss not to say that the vast majority of elected representatives and civil servants in the executive are good hard-working people who carry out their duties in the public interest. We can only hope that the right people end up in power. (I’m thinking of the ‘pre-existing tendency theory’) Here in Skerries and Balbriggan we are lucky with our public representatives, especially the fresh voices in the area. Michael and I are grateful for their support now and in the past. 

So, in conclusion. The big question (and one we and our local councillors never got an answer to) regarding the ‘High Priests’ Meeting’ is, why the change of mind? Why go from supporting to attacking a plan overnight?  We know there were powerful forces working against us. We believe more from the Trump than the Arderne playbook. Quoting from the barrister in the famous Mr Moonlight trial (the one with the slurry pit) “The human condition can only withstand so much co-incidence until it says. That’s not co-incidence. That’s planned.”  Now where would I get a good deal on a box of whistles? I can think of a few places I would like to send some………