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Council’s battle with Minister over County Development Plan to escalate

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A recent court victory for Cork County Council on the issue of siting a 'Kildare retail village' type development outside Cork City is the backdrop for the Minister's intervention.

A recent court victory for Cork County Council on the issue of siting a 'Kildare retail village' type development outside Cork City is the backdrop for the Minister's intervention.

A recent court victory for Cork County Council on the issue of siting a 'Kildare retail village' type development outside Cork City is the backdrop for the Minister's intervention.

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A SPECIAL meeting of Cork County Council has been called following an angry reaction to a direction from the Minister of Local Government advising the authority that its recently adapted County Development Plan was not in compliance with the recommendations of the Office of the Planning Regulator.

Minister Darragh O’Brien’s intervention in the form of a Section 31 Draft notification met with unanimous condemnation from councillors across the party divides as elected members felt the Minister was under-mining local democracy by challenging the validity of the County Development Plan which came into effect on June 6 following two years of consultations, meetings and deliberations.

The intervention from the Minister prompted a chorus of angry criticism from councillors during Monday’s Council meeting and proposals that a deputation be sent to the Minister to voice their concerns at this latest twist in the long running saga was one of the suggestions made by elected members.  Disappointment was also expressed at the ‘failure’ of the three Cork South Central members of Cabinet, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath and Foreign Affairs Minister Smon Coveney hadn’t made a better case for Cork in the discussions. 

While Minister O’Brien’s formal notice stipulated that the recent High Court victory for the Council, giving it the green light to allow a retail village development in Carrigtwohill, issues regarding retail developments formed the centre piece of the document, along with other issues raised by the Office of the Planning Regulator with the Minister in recent correspondence. 

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In the Minister’s correspondence, he stated that the Plan had also failed to set out an ‘overall strategy for the pro’, yper planning and sustainable development of the area’, that it was not consistent with National Policy Objectives set out in the National Planning Framework and it was also not consistent with regional development objectives set out in the Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy for the Southern Region. w’

It also argues that the Plan is inconsistent with Ministerial guidelines issued under Section 28 of the Planning Act and this included the Retail Planning Guidelines. 

Among the recommendations made by the Minister is that Cork County Council should sit down with its Cork city counterpart ‘to complete the preparation of a Joint Retail Strategy’ which would jointly determine the scope for retail development generally and for retail outlet development specifically within the Cork metropolitan area within 12 months of the adaption of the both City and County Development Plans and to adopt the Joint Retail Strategy into the Cork County Development Plan by way of a Variation’.

The suspicion was voiced by a number of councillors that political pressure had been brought to bear by commercial interests within Cork City to bring about this intervention. 

The first consequence of the intervention is that a period of public consultation is to get underway on Friday during which councillors and the citizenry of Cork will have two weeks to give their views of the Minister’s opinions.  Following that Cork County Council has three weeks in which to collate and summarise those views and present them to the Minister after which he will be able to make a direction, which could include an order to adapt the Plan to take into account the recommendations contained in his draft document. 

Irrespective of the formal consultation process which begins on June 17 and continues until midnight on July 1, councillors were quick to give their view on the Minister’s intervention during Monday’s meeting of the Council. 

Cllr Anthony Barry expressed his frustration at the development and asked whether there was any point to a public consultation as he wondered whether the result was pre-ordained by the Office of the Planning Regulator. “I hope that we will fight this to the bitter end because it’s a complete undermining of the local government system in this country and is very, very disappointing.”

His colleague, Cllr Joe O’Carroll described himself as ‘sickened and very annoyed at the carry-on’.  “It’s quite clear from the very start that what happened here is that there's political involvement here,” he said.

"It’s clear that people in the city or some part of business associations in the city didn’t want this thing to go ahead,” he said, referring specifically to the proposed outlet village for Carrigtwohill. “They didn’t want it to go ahead so their next move was to go to some senior politiicans and they got them and they wagged them and the Regulator and our Minister, I’m sorry to say, is being wagged around the place.”

Mallow based representative Cllr Gearóid Murphy wondered whether there was a legal course of action which could be pursued and asked for a Counsel’s opinion to be sought on the matter while his Fianna Fáil colleague in Fermoy, Cllr Frank O’Flynn, was more direct in his comments. 

"I’m not surprised – what’s after happening is an absolute disgrace,” he said. “We’ve spent the best part of two years, 63 or 64 meetings, in deliberation, in the best interest of our community going forward.

"No-one knows our own area better than our councillors and the people who voted us in, each and every one of us.”

He referred to the recent High Court cases in which the judges had found in favour of Cork County Council. “How much clearer can it be?

"When a judge makes a ruling, especially on a second occasion, you listen.

"The only one who doesn’t listen to the judge, or anyone as far as I’m concerned, is Boris Johnson,” he added, asking if ‘we have a second Boris Johnson’?  “When is he going to get the message?”

He also asked who was paying for the legal proceedings as, he pointed out, a ‘day in the High Court doesn’t come cheap’. 

While the issue was ostensibily about the fate of the proposed outlet centre in Carrigtwohill, Cllr Flynn said the matter was far more serious than that. 

"We’re fighting for the survival of Cork County – there’s up to 64 liners a day, I believe, coming into Cobh and bus operators telling me that there are 20 or 30 buses a day going all the way up to the outlet centre in Kildare Village.”

He added that while there’s a lot of talk about ‘carbon footprint’ that this wasn’t being brought to bear on this issue. 

Cllr Flynn also referred to the Minister’s specific objections to the County Development Plan as they related to Fermoy Mart.  One Ministerial recommenendation was to change the zoning on a site from industrial to green belt and another recommendation was to change the zoning on a site which would be the location of an NCT centre and an expansion of Fermoy Mart from ‘special policy area’ to ‘unzoned’. 

He said he would fight for the NCT Centre and the mart expansion as it was now one of the most modern mart venues in all of Ireland and he had been told by the NCT operator in Fermoy that the location at the Mart was the only place he could operate the facility. 
”This is important, if we did no other business today except to discuss this, this is the future of Cork County, it’s the future of economic development, it's the future of employment.

"I will fight this and I would ask that my fellow members of Cork County Council stand up and fight this because the future economic development and the businesses of this county and the future of our Cork County Council – that’s what we’re put here for and that’s what we should fight for.”

Cllr Patrick Gerard Murphy described the Office of the Planning Regulator as a ‘dictator’ and suggested that he was seeking additional powers because of the successful legal challenges brought by Cork County Council against him. 

The meeting also heard criticism of An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney and Michael McGrath, the holder of the Public Expenditure portfolio.  Cllr Michael Hegarty expressed his disappointment at the three ‘senior people from Cork South Central’ as, he felt, they weren’t ‘looking at the greater good of Cork County’ and hadn’t intervened in this situation. 

A number of councillors expressed concern at the manner in which the Office of Planning Regulator was negating their power to adapt a County Development Plan by substituting high level strategic objectives for the local knowledge of infrastructure and topography which informed the decisions of councillors. Fine Gael Councillor Gerard Murphy echoed the concerns from the EU that local government in Ireland was the weakest in the Union and said it pointed to a ‘cemocratic deficit’. 

County Mayor, Cllr Gillian Coughlan, suggested that a special meeting of the Council should be called to discuss whether the authority, as a body, should make a single submission regarding the Minister’s intervention and Council Chief Executive Tim Lucey agreed that a meeting held within the two week consultation period which gets underway on Friday would be ‘completely appropriate’. 


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