3 Apr 2007

I’ve written a letter to the Minister for the Environment Heritage and Local Government in relation to an experience I had a short while ago.  I have to be sketchy about the details because the client and building owner involved – just your average decent developer/ citizen - is very sensitive about the situation, fearful that creating a fuss will make life difficult for him in his future dealings with the council, and I have to respect that.

But it goes like this: A team of well known architects based in one of our larger cities invited me to get involved in a project they were working on. The proposal involved developments to a ‘listed’ building which meant they needed a report from someone with a suitable qualification (which I happen to have). I was delighted to get on board. The listed building in question is close to the city centre. It has a fine façade, but it’s been left vacant for so many years it’s in the most appalling condition. For this reason I was very glad to get involved in any project, really, which would save the building from collapse. 

The lead architects designed a very fine scheme which would have seen the listed building renovated and linked to a new building located in the very large back yard. A clever mix of uses was proposed (residential, commercial and cultural), there was an open courtyard café and (I’d like to think, with a little bit of encouragement from myself) we managed to devise some ways to retain more of the original fabric of the listed building than duty or common sense might have suggested. In short, this project would have made a genuine contribution to an area of town needing some serious TLC and I felt sort of proud to have been involved in proposals to turn it around, if even in only a very modest way. 

The application was lodged with the local authority. There were one or two ‘overlooking’ type observations from neighbours, which is only to be expected in an urban area, but nothing from An Taisce which, which in the city I’m talking about, can only mean that their chief spokesperson was away for two months on the space shuttle (so active are they in the area in question) or that they were quite happy with the proposal as submitted.

The council were happy too and, in due course, they  notified all interested parties that they intended to approve the application. 

But then something unexpected happened. Just when everyone was thinking about bringing the project to site, we got an out of the blue notification that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was appealing the local authority’s intention to grant permission to An Bord Planala (when I say ‘Minister’, I mean that an official within his department was making the appeal – it’s unlikely that Dick Roche himself knew the first thing about it). The Department apparently felt that not enough effort was being made to retain original fabric from the listed building and that the ‘new’ element - which was to be constructed to the rear and therefore not visible from the street - somehow compromised the integrity of the ‘listed’ part. 

I was quite shocked. I’d come across situations in the past where the Department had raised objections to development proposals, but only ever where these proposals were generally unpopular and where there were a number of other objectors on board anyway.

For everyone involved on the design team, this was a new experience (but I’ve since discovered not unique to us). It was even more shocking when an Bord, on the advice of one of its examiners (who’s report I’ll kindly categorize as failing to achieve the level of technicality you would expect on a matter of this importance) refused permission. 

When I say I was shocked, I mean I was gobsmacked. And, as you can imagine my client, who had already paid out a considerable sum on fees to me and my design team colleages, was very unhappy. I felt it necessary to demonstrate to him that it was through no lack of effort on my part that he found himself in this dreadful situation. 

So I made some calls to the Minister’s office to find out on what grounds they had decided, when everyone else was quite satisfied with the proposal, to try to stop it. Speaking to him/her by telephone, the official who’d brought the appeal to an Bord outlined some vague worries s/he had about how the proposal ‘failed to adequately respect the importance of the existing structure’.

But after a few minutes of this line of debate, I began to suspect that the official concerned was unfamiliar with the building under discussion and when I finally pressed him/her on the matter s/he finally admitted that s/he hadn’t visited the site at all (in a subsequent conversation, the official changed this story to say that s/he had made a trip to the area and had seen the building from the outside but hadn’t managed to access the inside).     

I hope the point of what I’m trying to make is getting through to everyone, not just to those of you involved in the planning game. When the Minister appeals to An Bord Planala about a planning application, you might be forgiven for expecting that your application is about to be refused.

So, at the very least, you’d expect that the Minister or someone acting on his behalf would, before taking such drastic action, make arrangements to visit the site, meet with the relevant players, discuss concerns, etc., and see if anything can be worked out by way of compromise before exercising the most radical power at their disposal.

(And when I think of all the times where the Minister’s people have turned a blind eye to projects where their commentary was so obviously called for…) 

Anyway, here’s the text of my letter.   

I’m writing to you in relation to a development project on which I was engaged as an architectural consultant in the not too distant past. (I’m afraid, as my client fears the retribution which might accrue if details on the matter fall into the public domain, I’m obliged to describe the scenario in the broadest possible terms.)

In brief, the situation involved the redevelopment of a Protected Structure in one of our larger cities. The design architects on the project were (and remain) one of the most respected in the profession and have won many awards for their work. I personally have a qualification in building conservation and it was in this capacity that the lead architects invited me to get on board, i.e., to advise on conservation matters.

The structure in question had been vacant for some time and was (and, sadly, remains) in an appalling condition. Located close to the centre of town and with a large undeveloped plot of land to its rear, the site presented an ideal development opportunity which, if exploited in the correct way, would guarantee the continued use of the historic structure.

Working closely together, the design team of principal architects, structural engineer and myself came up with a scheme which, I feel, succeeded in maximizing the development potential of the site, offering a rich mix of uses suitable to its urban location while at the same time treating the existing historic structure with the respect it deserved.

In brief, it would be fair to say that the project was very well designed and, had it been executed, would have made a very positive contribution to a part of a city in real need of attention.

Not surprisingly, the council announced their intention to grant approval for the application. What was surprising, however, was the news that your own department (and no other bodies or individuals whatsoever) had appealed the council’s decision to An Bord Planala on the grounds that the proposals were not sensitive enough to the ‘protected’ nature of the existing structure.

I was puzzled to know how you (or, more likely, anyone acting on your behalf with professional experience in this line of work) could have visited the site and arrived at such a contrary opinion on the works proposed for the Protected Structure to my own. So it was not that great a surprise to me (although it was awfully disappointing) when I finally discovered that the Department official assigned to the project had not, in fact, had the opportunity to arrange a site visit.

In other words, your objection to An Bord (as I say, the only one received) was made without the benefit of a field inspection. I can’t think of a single instance where such a course of action would be considered satisfactory.

So, in the context of all of this, my questions to you are as follows:
What criteria are adhered to when deciding whether or not an appeal to An Bord involving a proposal for a Protected Structure might be appropriate?
Are these criteria available to the public to examine? 
What ‘checks and balance’ mechanisms are in place to ensure that the criteria are consistently adhered to?  
Are you personally, as the relevant minister, directly involved in all instances where your department appeals to An Bord on matters relating to Protected Structures?
If not, are there criteria to assist you in deciding which projects receive your own personal attention.
Are you personally made aware of all projects which your Department appeals to An Bord Planala (even where you do not have a direct imput in preparing the appeal).   
Is it policy to appeal decisions to An Bord without having first visited the site of the proposed development?
Has it happened in the past that a Department official has prepared an objection to an Bord Planala which, when brought to your attention, you decided not to follow through.

I look forward with great interest to your response. 

Yours faithfully,

Garry Miley, B.Arch., M.U.B.C., M.R.I.A.I.
Garry Miley Architect Ltd.

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