Wednesday 16 October 2019

Billy Keane: 'Hospice decision came out of left field - and put fate of butterflies ahead of the people most in need'

Galway badly needs a new hospice and a site had been secured on HSE-controlled lands right next to Merlin Park Hospital in Galway. (stock photo)
Galway badly needs a new hospice and a site had been secured on HSE-controlled lands right next to Merlin Park Hospital in Galway. (stock photo)
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

We need to tell you today of how it was An Bord Pleanála refused planning permission for a hospice in Galway, because, among other things, it was worried about the fate of a field.

On Thursday, the members of An Bord Pleanála, according to some, saved the homes of several butterflies in Galway, a meadow, and a wide variant of other species, including orchids. This would have been fine if it was a commercial project but surely some sacrifices must be made for the hospice application.

Galway badly needs a new hospice and a site had been secured on HSE-controlled lands right next to Merlin Park Hospital in Galway.

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The benefits of having the hospice near to a hospital are obvious. I'm sure most of you were in favour of a pay rise for the nurses. Hospice nurses should be paid double that and more. They are well entitled to good working conditions. I will never forget the care my mother was given when she was dying.

The present Galway Hospice is situated in a place where further expansion is impossible. The new site meant vulnerable patients would be close to X-rays and emergency facilities.

Land is scarce in booming Galway, and land near a hospital in the city is scarcer still.

Galway County Council granted planning permission, with conditions, for a 36-bed hospice to be built on a meadow in Merlin.

The decision was appealed to An Bord Pleanála by an organisation known as The Friends of Merlin Woods.

The Galway Hospice people spent years finding and planning a site that would be suitable for the care of the sick and the dying. Money was raised and volunteers gave up their every free moment to back the project. There is no greater love.

The field they planned to build the 36-bed hospice on was zoned Annex 1 hay meadow. Opponents say butterflies and orchids would have been threatened and access to other lands may have been more difficult. The area near the field is wooded and is a lovely piece of the country, very near the city. But should we look at the greater good? The objectors have a strong point when it comes to saving the environment preserving Merlin Woods but this wasn't the time or the place, and the loss of just one field is minimal. No precedent will be set. This is a hospice not a factory, nor a bungalow.

An Bord Pleanála stated that the development would contravene recreation and amenity zoning, as well as having an impact on the "significant biodiversity value".

But Galway City Council had inserted a specific objective into the current Galway City Development Plan to facilitate the development of a hospice on the site.

The hospice field is not the only hay meadow in Galway. There are hundreds more, if not thousands, and maybe there are a million meadows more, if you take in the whole country. There are other meadows in the vicinity of the proposed hospice site. It's not as if this is the last meadow. Each meadow is precious, but so too are the hospice patients.

The present 18-bed hospice is inadequate for the care of the dying. More beds are needed. The new hospice will have double the capacity. Ancillary facilities are badly needed and wouldn't it be nice if the patients could look out on fields, hedgerows and meadows? Or even take a walk in the Merlin Woods, if they were up to it.

The proposed site is near the hospital but far enough away to give the patients the peace, light and space they so need. Galway County Council was happy with the site, subject to conditions, as was a planning inspector who recommended the granting of planning to An Bord Pleanála. But the board disagreed.

There is talk of a legal challenge by the Galway Hospice. The hospice says the challenge if it materialises will be financed by separate funds from donors, who are incensed by the An Bord Pleanála decision.

I hope they win. Can you imagine the hospice people saying to someone in dire need of a bed: "Sorry, we have no room due to the refusal to grant planning for one field next to a hospital."

I am sure the appeals board felt it was absolutely right in every respect. But it should have seen the big picture. I'm sure too the board gave full and due consideration to arguments on all sides.

It was genuinely worried about the future of this field, next to a hospital. It may even be right in law, but morally this was a travesty. If the law needs to be changed, change the law. Butterflies before sick people may be a simplification, but there is truth here.

If the board wins, it means heart and emotion has no place in Irish planning, nor has any sense of balancing the rights of the seriously ill with the needs of the environment.

There is no sense of scale here. This field is just one in the overall patchwork of fields. The hospice is a giant step forward for the care of Galway's most vulnerable.

So far as I know though, no dying Galway person was called to give evidence. It's not as if we are calling for the extinction of all butterflies. This is an exceptional case. I wonder will hay be saved in Merlin's Meadow this summer. Maybe cows will eat the hay and methane will flow out and up to the ozone layer.

I wonder too who will mop the butterflies' brows and take the pulses of the orchids in the Merlin's Meadow when the field lies unbuilt upon. There will hardly be a person who will trample the grass or take time to notice the biodiversity. The field will just become another field in the varied patchwork.

Merlin's Meadow could have been a last caring, loving home for those in extremis. There is no logic here. The objectors and the board took a narrow view like as if they were looking through a telescope from the wide end. The board's own inspector presided over the oral hearing last December, and he found in favour of the Merlin Hospice project.

There is no doubt but that whatever the outcome, the decision of An Bord Pleanála will delay the building of the hospice for some time to come. And time is not on the side of those most in need of hospice beds.

Irish Independent

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