28 Feb 2008

Whenever Prime Time Investigates or the Irish Times decide to take a pop at the ‘unsustainable’ planning practises of some poor rural local authority, you can be sure that in the course of their investigations they’ll unearth a Local Councillor who happens to be an auctioneer and pin the blame upon this unfortunate for whatever recent planning travesty has caught the outraged eye of D4. (At the start of a recent Prime Time planning ‘exposé’, host Miriam O’Callaghan actually more or less said (paraphrasing here) ‘the following report was intended to be controversial, but after our customary superficial research and advice from our solicitors, we must inform viewers that the report is not only not controversial, it’s neither relevant nor interesting.’ I watched it anyway. Only Dustin could have saved it.)

In the time when i worked within the local authority system I came across the odd councillor who, if someone told me they had pushed a convenient rezoning through for a quick few bob (or such like), it probably wouldn't have surprised me. But I can also tell you that, apart from Section 140s (i.e. Councillors overturning a decision by an official on a planning application) elected officials simply don’t have enough power to interfere in the planning system in the way that Prime Time imagines. They should know that the real power to influence planning lies, these days, with Council officials. Most Councillors are simply too far outside the loop to know what’s going on.

Now, I’m not for a minute saying that Council officials are ‘corrupt’ in the ‘Mahon Tribunal’ sense – i.e., accepting money in brown envelopes (although, despite Tribunal revelations, not a single piece of legislation has been enacted to ensure that financial corruption is a thing of the past) – what I’m implying is that in the past ten years or so the power of the Local Council to influence our daily lives has increased in leaps and bounds and often without any clear legislation or black and white guidelines to determine how such new powers should be applied. Invariably, these new powers are applied by Council officials, not by the elected Councillors.

A case in point is the new ‘pro-active’ pose adopted senior officials (City Managers, Directors of Services) who hustle to attract high quality development into their areas, a la Greystones. I can understand how a City Manager would behave in this way: it’s a competitive market out there and if a rival in a neighbouring county has pulled a few strings to reel in, say, Marks and Spencers as an anchor tenant in a new development, you might forgive an official for doing whatever he had to do to bring the same calibre of investment into his own patch. One day both of these guys will be in the running for the Dublin City Manager position and the better hustler will get the job.

But there’s great scope for conflict of interest in this type of practise. The main duties of Senior Local Authority officials, remember, are to a) guarantee the provision of essential services and b) act fairly and justly in adjudicating on things like planning applications. In the case of b), it’s easy to see how, if a Manager is trying to attract major investment into his town, he leaves himself open to the suggestion that he might have given an easier ride to the ensuing planning application to ensure that a wooed applicant ends up with a positive outcome. 

Take the case of Carrick on Suir, County Tipperary, which has been making some headlines lately (not with the nationals, who don’t seem to grasp the significance of what’s happening).

Carrick on Suir, its fair to say, has not benefited all that much from the Celtic economy and suffers some of the problems associated with social disadvantage.

Briefly, a couple of years back, a local developer sought and was granted permission to build a very small retail park on the east end of a town (the Piltown Centre). After the building was completed the developer negotiated a deal with home furnishings outlet, Heatons, to be the anchor tenant. The move would have guaranteed at least 50 jobs in a town where jobs aren’t exactly falling out of the sky. It would also have ensured that the remaining units in the park would have found tenants, ie. it would have generated a kind of economic activity that an officially designated ‘Rapid’ area (i.e. an area of disadvantage where authorities are obliged to pull out the stops to make things happen faster than they might) could do with.

Despite the fact that Heatons are the kind of outlet you find in retail parks the length and breadth of the country, for some reason Carrick Town Council decided that the franchise’s presence in the Piltown Centre would be a breach of planning guidelines (it seems the Council believes the retail park should only cater for bulky goods and Heatons, apparently, aren’t ‘bulky’ enough for the Carrick officials). Heatons pulled out of the deal and the Piltown development is now sitting idle.

Now, while all this was going on, officials were busily promoting a vacant site at the opposite end of the town which they wanted to develop as The New Retail Centre. I went to see the ‘Council favoured’ site for myself and, I promise you, I couldn’t think of a place less suitable for the intense development the Council has in mind. It’s awkwardly shaped (long and narrow), so it’s not real easy to see how vehicular access could be managed. It’s also small. Plus, as I understand it, it’s located in a Special Area of Conservation. But most of all, it floods. Nevertheless, the Council pushed through a rezoning of the ‘Underwater Site’ within the past year to allow for mixed use commercial development. I understand, a planning application (designed to attract the likes of Heatons for example) has been lodged in the past few days.

There’s more. Apparently because it will make the Underwater Site more attractive, a new bridge is to be built to link it to the other side of the River Suir. I understand the cost of building this bridge will be born by local townsfolk (the vast majority of whom are against it) in the form of increased development levies.

Okay. So. First, the idea of putting a load of new commercial development on the Underwater Site seems extraordinary when, at the other end of town, the Piltown Centre stands vacant (and will remain vacant if the Underwater Centre goes ahead).

Second, there are hardly any traders, business people or local community activists in the area who agree with the Council’s vision to develop the Underwater Site – they fear that, due to the wide mix of retail uses which will be permitted, the commercial centre of Carrick will suffer.

Third, now that the townsfolk have come to realise that the new bridge is to be paid for, not by the developers of the Underwater Site, but by development contributions from local Carrick people, there is great unhappiness.

Opposition to the plans of the Council Officials has become so heated that late last year more than 3,000 people (in a town with a population of only 5,000) signed a petition asking the Town Council allow Heatons to move into the already built Piltown Centre which would guarantee an immediate use for the building and gve 50 local people much needed jobs. Local TDs, including Martin Manseragh and Tom Hayes, have spoken publicly and critically of the Council’s actions. But the Council is not for turning. (By the by, when elected Councillors asked officials to reconsider their stance on not allowing Heatons to move into Piltown, they were warned that such a reversal could leave the Councillors personally liable to prosecution. Technically this is correct. In reality it’s a bullying tactic.)

In the time since I started the Dispatch, I’ve visited a number of communities around the country to talk to them about various issues of local concern, but I have never seen a situation like the one developing on in Carrick at the moment: not only are the vast majority of the local community against what the Council officials are doing, the local traders, businessmen and builders are already talking of taking some form of protest action.

An innocent explanation (and, lets hope the correct one) of what’s going on in Carrick is that a bunch of unaccountable Council officials are doing what they think is the right thing for the town even if the locals don’t see the value of it. Let me liken this situation to the case where an overly conscientious citizen insists on helping an elderly, blind person across a four lane highway even though the elderly blind person wants to be left on their own.

The problem is that the circumstances leave the situation open to a less benign interpretation. Given the facts of the case, is it not reasonable to ask if, in their zeal to bring new investment into town, Council officials promised potential investors more than they could possibly deliver (‘yes, we can change the zoning on the Underwater Site to suit you; yes, we’ll make sure that no big player can compete with you in the Piltown Centre at the other end of town, and we'll get you that bridge etc.). (And, yes, I realise that there are worse interpretations of what might actually be going on in this case which I won’t elaborate on but which you've already guessed.) I’m not for a minute suggesting that the less innocent explanation(s) reflects the reality of the situation: the problem with the deficit in the Irish democratic system at local level is that even the most innocent explanations for why strange things happen leave scope for suspicions of wrong doing.

We need a complete and total revamp of the devolution of powers to local communities. One of these days the issue will explode and people all over the country will be out on the streets.

Comments are closed.