Entrepreneurs who want to set up business in rural Westmeath now have some hope of having their application considered.
The current County Development Plan excluded the prospect of any development outside of urban areas. This means that in recent times, businesses similar to Mr Crumb and Iralco, which got permission under previous plans, could not have made a successful application to the council for planning permission.
If Michael O’Leary planned to build a fuselage manufacturing plant on one of his Westmeath farms, the county development plan wouldn’t allow that, Cllr Frank McDermott said.
With a vote of 15 to seven, a proposal by Fine Gael’s Peter Burke to amend the plan was accepted by councillors.
Cllr Mick Dollard rejected the amendment, saying there are urban industrial sites not being used and so the status quo should be maintained, and Cllr Dennis Leonard agreed.
He said environmental planning guidelines would be “difficult to marry with industrial development in rural areas”.
Cllr Colm Arthur rejected the proposal. He said rural Ireland is alive and well, but people need to have strong towns to go to work in.
“What companies need is certainty and our current County Development Plan gives that,” he said.
“There are numerous empty stores and units that could be converted that might be a better and a cheaper option,” he added.
Cllr Paddy Hill said he was surprised at the lack of support for the amendment from rural councillors, but Cllr Arthur said his Coole area colleague wanted an Ireland of the 1920s.
County manager Danny McLoughlin said he would not like the message to go out that the council is anti-rural Westmeath.
He said no planning was refused in recent years because the application was for the countryside.
When the amendment was passed, Cllr Burke said he was pleased, saying the variation levels the playing field to attract industry outside urban areas.
Speaking after the meeting, he said that “it just provides a policy that all applications can be considered.
“Under the current policy if you were going strictly by the County Development Plan, industry would be precluded from operating in rural areas, but it’s up to the local authority afterwards to grant or refuse permission,” he said.
He rejected accusations of having an anti-rural attitude, saying this is a more open policy that won’t box all development into single urban areas.
He said he understood Cllr Arthur’s concerns but didn’t agree with them.
“We need to encourage opportunities for employment wherever we can get them,” he said.