The first meeting of the new Planning, Environment and Agriculture Strategic Policy Committee of Mayo County Council saw the long running issue of the county development plan get a long airing between councillors and officials.
The week prior to the meeting, a delegation of councillors and officials from the council met a delegation from the Department of Environment to try to work out issues the Department had with the plan which was adopted by the council last April.
Senior planner for Mayo County Council Ian Douglas told this week’s SPC: “I think it was fair to say that there was a frank and forthright exchange of views. But the conclusion of the meeting was that the forward planning section of the council would look at the various contentious issues and see could we come up with some form of words that would be acceptable to both the Department and ourselves, and we are doing that at the moment.”
He went on to explain what the contentious issues were from the Department’s point of view: “There were a number of objectives that were adopted by the elected members in April when the plan was made. There are a number of environmental issues around those particular objectives, which the Department expressed concern about and that was their worry.” He added: “They are worried in case there is a legal challenge to Europe and that is their main concern. We are trying to see can we recast the objectives, bearing in mind members’ concerns and the Department’s concerns.”
Fianna Fáil councillor Al McDonnell, who was a member of the delegation from the council, outlined to the meeting: “I’ve been fairly largely involved in all the development plans since I came into the council. I think the plan we adopted on April 22 was probably the best plan that I’ve seen, because it attempted to address to some extent the terrible scourge of rural decline in our county. We’ve watched with great sadness the collapse of the basic fabric of rural Mayo, there’s no need to go into the details of the closure of services and the exodus.”
He continued that the Department of Environment wrote to the council about the plan on June 11, not at the behest of the Minister, but signed by the most senior planning official in the Department, a man called Niall Cussan. There was no reference to the Minster, but Mr Cussan expressed reservations based on some environmental and European regulations. Cllr McDonnell said: “But when we read some of the suggestions he made, it had nothing at all to do with European policy, it was to do with rural sustainability, and it was to do with relieving some of the draconian measures associated with the residency clause. The residency clause stipulates that if Cllr Holmes applies for planning permission in the vicinity of Castlebar or Westport, that one of conditions of the planning is that he must reside in that house for a minimum of five years, now they want to extent that to seven years.
Under no circumstances, regardless of his personal situation in that five years, in no circumstances is he entitled to rent or dispose of that property. We intended to address that by including a number of situations where it would be possible to sell the house. That has absolutely nothing to do with European Regulations. For pure, personal and compassionate reasons we included them.
“Also development is, by-and-large, prohibited on national primary and national secondary roads, we accept that. There’s not a problem with that, but there was a problem to include a number of regional roads as well, that were deemed to be strategically important regional roads”
Cllr McDonnell continued: “When we thrashed out a number of these things with the Department, they said that this doesn’t concern us at all. They also said that goal number one was to promote rural sustainability by encouraging more people to live in rural areas, that that wasn’t a concern of theirs either.
“We were somewhat confused after the meeting and were wondering where some of these recommendations originated, was it in Dublin or was it in Mayo County Council?”
Despite Cllr McDonnell’s assertions that none of the problems the Department of Environment had with the plan had anything to do with European legislation, Mr Douglas outlined that it did, saying: “The difficulty is, that in 2008 we drew up a plan which the Department were happy with, met all the regulations, no difficulty with the situation in regards to Strategic Environmental Assessment or the Appropriate Assessment. The unilateral change that the members made to the 2008 plan created the position where the policies were against the Strategic Environmental Assessment, the Appropriate Assessment report, and European directives say you cannot legally create policies and objectives which are manifestly damaging to the environment and to Natura 2000 sites. The amendments the members made were in clear contravention to those two directives and that is what has caused the problem.”