Whether it indicates an increasing acceptance of the executive’s work at council, or a growing tendency towards political apathy on the part of the people of Westmeath, there were just a grand total of two submissions from members of the public on five important plans and reports which had been on a cumulative public display at a number of venues around the county of more than half a year.
This was uncovered at this month’s meeting of Westmeath County Council in Mullingar last week, and it reveals an enormous gulf in the levels of public engagement with the work of the county, where just one planning application - the Gaybrook windfarm - can elicit 500 submissions.
Before the council this week were the county manager’s final recommendations on three local area plans, the county’s litter management plan for the next two years, and the county’s policy on anti-social behaviour. Over the summer, each of these documents were, as required by law, on public display and available for public comment for six weeks.
All five were adopted by the councillors, but a number voiced concern about the lack of engagement with the public, with one, Cllr Robert Troy, even proposing adjourning a decision on one area plan because of this, but he was turned down after the county manager, Danny McLoughlin pointed out that the six weeks it was available to the public for comment was regarded as satisfactory in law.
The local area plans - documents the council use as a blueprints for the developmental best practice of a village or area for its medium to long term future - were presented and adopted for the villages of Ballinalack and Rathowen, and for Creggan in east Athlone.
The meeting heard that there were no submissions on either of the former, and that there were just five submissions on the Creggan plan, with four of these from planning consultants and government bodies. Only one local resident felt sufficiently energised to make a comment on the Creggan local area plan, which can now allow for the doubling of the area of the present town of Athlone over the next 15 years and, possibly, see the development of a mini-Shanghai between Kilmartin’s and Moore’s garages.
When the draft anti-social behaviour policy went before the chamber, Cllr Mick Dollard became the second member to voice concern about the level of engagement, when it was revealed that of the 11 statutory bodies and every residents’ association in Westmeath that was sent a copy of the draft policy, only the Gardai made any comments on the document.
With the litter plan, however, the importance of getting involved was made evident when it was shown that at least three of the suggestions offered by the only person interested enough to make a submission were included by the plan.