Friday 18 October 2019

Samantha McCaughren: 'Our fast-track planning system is working at cross-purposes'

Burkeway planned to build in Bearna
Burkeway planned to build in Bearna
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

The fast-track planning process was brought in back in 2017 to try to get big housing developments swiftly through the system. At the time, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy proclaimed he was "confident" that these streamlining measures would bring with them certainty to the system.

However, a recent case has highlighted that big plans don't always flow easily through the planning system, as local and national planning policies send out mixed messages to developers.

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Burkeway Homes bought an 18-acre site in Bearna, Co Galway in 2017, and initially sought planning for 113 homes, complying with the local area development plan. The proposed development mainly consisted of detached and semi-detached homes.

However, in February 2018, this application was rejected by An Bord Pleanála (ABP) for being too low in density, given how near it is to Galway city.

It was back to the drawing board for Burkeway.

Based on this decision, it then applied for 197 homes in August 2018. This revised plan included apartments, duplexes, houses and recreational space. It met with ABP's approval last November. The plan would develop homes for 550 people and Burkeway planned to get building the first 50 homes in February.

However, local residents in phase one of the development (completed in 2004) launched an appeal by way of judicial review in January and, last month, Mr Justice Garrett Simons overturned the ABP decisions, concluding that the Bord had acted outside its powers, resulting in two material contraventions to the Galway County Development Plan.

One issue related to density levels set for Bearna; ABP felt the need for more housing in the area justified the higher density, which was at odds with the levels set in the city's development plan.

Some other issues arose around testing for an area at risk of flooding, and environmental questions.

The developer now feels that in a traditional planning process - which would have taken nine to 12 months - most of this would have been ironed out. It is around two years into a fast-track system which is supposed to take six months.

It is incredibly frustrating for developers, not to mention the 400 people Burkeway has on a waiting list.

Managing director of Burkeway Michael Burke told me: "It is disappointing that the process of delivering new homes has proven so challenging. We purchased the site as it is zoned Residential Phase 1 in an area with significant local demand for housing, and we then sought planning permission under the fast-track process.

"When permission was eventually granted by An Bord Pleanála, the objectors exercised their right to have that decision reviewed through the courts and did so successfully to our detriment, as well as those patiently waiting to purchase new homes."

He said that he understood the objectives of strategic housing development fast-track planning. "But further examination of the process is urgently required, in our view," he added. "Notwithstanding all of this, we are adhering to the judge's decision in the recent judicial review."

Naturally, the company is hoping to be third time lucky.

Irish farmers irked by Mercosur agreement

It's not that many weeks ago since Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was heckled by farmers with shouts of "where's the beef, ye vegan?" in Cork.

Members of the Irish Farmers' Association had been vexed by comments Varadkar had made about his plans to cut back on meat over health and climate change concerns.

Last week, the farming community was championing the cause of climate change too - although the priority is not less beef, rather less Mercosur beef.

This follows the landmark trade agreement between the EU and the Mercosur countries of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

And the Irish farmers are right about the Mercosur record on farming. Reports from the likes of the BBC and The Guardian have laid bare the devastating effect that beef farming in the trading bloc is having on the Amazon rainforest - not just on its forestry, plants and wildlife, but on indigenous people also.

Reports have indicated that the EU deal will encourage Brazil and other Mercosur countries to tackle this glaring issue. But environmental awareness is at an embryonic stage in the bloc and little meaningful change can be expected for many, many years.

For now, the proposed deal is being hailed a huge success in the Mercosur countries. Brazil's foreign affairs minister Ernesto Araujo took to Twitter to say: "It will be one of the most important trade agreements of all time and will bring enormous benefits to our economy."

In the Brazilian media this week, the Irish farmer reaction has been presented as an unsurprising response from sectoral interests rather than as something that could threaten the overall Mercosur agreement.

Uncomfortable as it may be for Irish beef farmers, that perspective is probably correct. While various factors could threaten or modify the agreement before it is fully implemented, concerns about the Irish beef industry are unlikely to have a major effect on it.

Other ways will have to be found within the EU to ensure that the beef industry in Ireland can meet any challenges that eventually emerge from larger volumes of South American beef entering European markets.

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