Businessman's fury after Gaeltacht jobs plan 'blocked' by Udaras
For Tom Lydon it seemed a simple plan. An idle building on land owned by Udaras na Gaeltachta located not far from a Connemara sea berth was the perfect location for his planned coal importation business.
It would provide eight to 10 jobs in an area with 60 per cent unemployment in a building where a number of workers had been let go when the local community co-op, Comharchumann Chonamara Thiar, went into liquidation.
But Mr Lydon says Udaras chiefs didn't give his request to lease the building the consideration it deserved -- even though he would have spent some €30,000 updating the property and was not looking for any grant aid or financial assistance from the Gaeltacht development agency.
Instead, Mr Lydon claims, he was given the runaround, and months after he made the initial inquiries to Udaras -- having been advised to do so by the liquidator-- the pre-fabricated building was sold for around €6,000 with the proviso that it be dismantled and removed from the site.
"It's crazy. Udaras is supposed to be in the business of creating jobs but they say that there was a problem with the planning permission and they would not get involved. My legal advice is that because the building is more than 30 years old any problems in relation to planning at this stage are null and void," he said.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames believes an opportunity has been lost: "If there was a problem with the planning, I can see why a State agency would have no desire to get into a potentially difficult situation legally. There are differing opinions on whether there really is a legal difficulty in that regard.
"What is most alarming is the way Mr Lydon and his two partners were treated. They were not kept informed about what was happening and they have lost valuable time in progressing what they feel is a viable business plan. There is high unemployment in this area and any time someone comes up with an idea that would create jobs they should get a fair hearing," she said.
However, Udaras chief executive Padraig O hAolain defended the agency's role: "We looked at the building. The site on which it stands is owned by Udaras. About 20 years ago we leased the site to the local co-op, which was in receipt of an administration grant from us.
"That grant was withdrawn five or six years ago because we were not happy with the way that the co-op was operating," he said.
Mr O hAolain said the building was built on the basis of a long-term lease and a grant that was received at that time from another agency. "When the co-op went into financial difficulties, a liquidator was appointed who took possession of all the assets. We had some dealings with the liquidator. He wanted to sell the building to us but was looking for a price that was way in excess of what we thought it was worth.
"While we considered that deal we had our engineers look at it and they found that it was not built in compliance with the planning permission," he said.
"In summary, we thought that the building was too expensive, it had problems with regards to planning permission and we were not greatly interested in the building at any rate. We decided to let the liquidator go ahead with a public auction.
"We don't participate in public auctions as a matter of policy. Our thoughts in relation to the value of the building turned out to be correct. It made about €6,000 on the open market," Mr O hAolain added.
He admitted that there was a misunderstanding between Udaras officials and Mr Lydon about what he wanted to do and he regretted that, but he said Udaras had based their decisions on both practical and legal reasons.
"There are other buildings in the area that would suit his purpose very well," he added.
But Mr Lydon is not convinced. He told the Sunday Independent: "Basically, all we wanted was a building on this site, not any assistance. We were willing to purchase this building and to lease this land off Udaras and to create employment but we were shunned."
He added that he had initiated contact with Udaras last March but was basically ignored for some months until he asked his local public representatives to intercede. After that he was contacted by Udaras.
"They gave me the biggest load of shit and excuses I had heard in my life, it didn't make sense, talking about planning and this and that and there was no explanation whatsoever why they didn't get back to me," he said.