31 Jul 2008

From the Drawing Board Column in the Trib back in March:

‘The Irish have a genius for conspiracy rather than government.’ – Winston Churchill. As much as I’m reluctant to do it, twelve years back in Ireland observing the planning system up close, I have to concede that if you read his thesis not that the Irish have a grand conspiracy to rule the world but, rather, that we insinuate dark motives in whispered conversations in County Hall corridors, he may have had a point. Let me illustrate. 

About two years ago a small developer and his team of consultants lodged a planning application for a nice little proposal to regenerate an urban site in one of our bigger cities. It involved locating an art house cinema and apartments in a new building to the rear of a disused Protected Structure which, itself, was to be tastefully renovated as part of the design.

The Protected Structure in question was in appalling condition - falling down, syringe strewn and frighteningly grafittoed from the days when it was used as an, em, apartment building. In recent years it had been abandoned to the elements and had become an eyesore.

In their proposal, the consultants went to great efforts to ensure that the Protected Structure (old, but no Palladian beauty) would be restored. Crucially, the Protected building was to be reused.

Unsurprisingly, the City Council granted planning permission.

Surprisingly, the decision was appealed to An Bord Planeala, by the Minister for the Environment, on the grounds that the proposal wasn’t, in various ways, respectful enough of the ‘Protected’ status of the existing structure.

An Bord, unsurprisingly, cowed in the face of the Minister’s submission and overturned the Council’s decision.

(Somewhat surprisingly, it was later discovered that the Minister’s decision to appeal the case to An Bord was without the benefit of a site visit – his officials made up their minds from their Dublin desks having read only the material included in the planning application. Sharp practise, considering an appeal to An Bord by the Minister is no small matter.)

On the strength of this example, I’ve demonstrated that the planning system is archly conservative and reacts severely to things it doesn’t like. But does it treat all planning applications the same way, or do Churchill’s corridor whisperers influence outcomes? We’ll soon get an idea.

In a project which in crucial ways is strikingly similar to the anonymous one I spoke about above, Dublin City Council has just granted planning approval to U2 to renovate and extend the Clarence Hotel. The proposal involves some serious intervention to neighbouring Protected Georgian houses (of far better quality than the building in the application in that other city).

So, if the planning system is consistent, the Minister will now unequivocally appeal the decision to An Bord Planeala (without visiting the project site) on the grounds that the proposal is not respectful enough to the adjacent Protected structures. And An Bord Planala will, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, endorse the Minister’s decision without being swayed in its deliberations by the likely international media interest that an unfavourable decision against a Norman Foster designed, U2 backed project will inevitably attract.

Its not going to happen this way, is it?

(By the way, if you’re familiar with Foster’s work but haven’t seen his Clarence hotel designs, I can confirm that it does have a light-headed-media-pronounced-‘stunning’, glazed-roofed, ‘skycatching,’ central element. Unsurprisingly.)    

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