There were clear dividing lines drawn in the Mayo County Council on Monday afternoon when a controversial draft policy on ‘Community Benefit Contributions for Certain Major Developments’ was passed, by a vote of 26-6. Excepting Fine Gael where all councillors support the motion, the two other political parties in the council split on the vote, with Sinn Féin’s Rose Conway-Walsh, Fianna Fáil trio of Al McDonnell, Blackie Gavin, and Damien Ryan, and Independent councillors Michael Kilcoyne, Richard Finn, and Michael Holmes all voting for it. Voting against the motion were Fianna Fáil’s Margaret Adams, Jimmy Maloney, and Annie May Reape alongside Sinn Féin’s Gerry Murray and independents Gerry Ginty and Seamus Weir. Cllr Frank Durcan was absent from the meeting. Both Cllr Murray and Cllr Weir led the charge against the proposals at the meeting and both councillors ended up in heated side-debates with other councillors while the topic was being discussed.
The policy itself, which sets out contributions made by developers for projects such as wind turbines and pylons for the divisive Eirgrid project, may in time turn out worthless as it is only a guideline. An Bord Pleanála will have the final say on what the contributions should be as the planning process and the planning permission for such projects will go straight to An Bord Pleanála.
The legislation which allows such planning applications to bypass the county council was a major issue of concern for Cllr Murray who said: “This critical infrastructure legislation should be removed, the people want due process and how can they get due process if their only chance is when something comes to An Bord Pleanála.”
Cllr Weir, who was elected as a Fine Gael councillor before leaving the party over the Eirgrid pylon issue, proposed that the issue be postponed indefinitely until everything had been sorted out in relation to that controversy, he was seconded by Cllr Gerry Ginty on that idea, but a counter motion to approve the plan also got backing and was voted on. Cllr Ginty said that he could not support the proposals, saying it was “blood money and bribery”, he also said he had seen the people in the areas where such projects may go ahead and “I’ve seen the fear in their faces, they’re very scared.”
Cllr Weir hit out at the councillors who voted for the proposals saying: “They’ll tell the people that they are against the pylons and this is only voting for a community fund. It’s going to divide communities, it’ll pit people against people.” Cllr Murray backed Cllr Weir saying: “You can’t go into a community with a blueprint in one hand and a cheque book in another.” The Sinn Féin councillor hit out at the one size for all cost for developers in projects, telling the meeting: “You can’t say that a 48 wind turbine development in a desolate, wind swept, location in the north Mayo will have the same effect on a community as one in a low lying area of clustered homes in somewhere like Beakan for example, but that’s what you’re saying.” Those in favour of the proposals regularly pointed out that even if the policy was passed there was no guarantee that it would be followed by An Bord Pleanála, but it was better to have something in writing from the council for when such decisions were being made.
County manager Peter Hynes told the meeting advertisements that had been taken out in some local newspapers claiming that Mayo would generate 6,700 megawatts of wind energy was “scaremongering of the worst type, and only a small fraction of this could realistically be generated in Mayo.” Cllr Weir said it was in the councils own development plan, to which the manager responded again that there would never be that amount of energy created in Mayo from wind energy. He said the policy was a good balance between nothing, which the developers want to pay, and community interests who would like to see a fortune from them. The only change to the draft proposals that came before the council was to increase to €5,000 per kilometre per year the contribution from Eirgrid for 400kV electricity lines and an increase to €10,000 per megawatt per year for energy created from wind turbines.