Many of us will have looked at the candidates in the general election, as we did in the 2019 local elections and asked ourselves, “Who will take seriously the declared climate and biodiversity emergency?”
An equally good question would be, “When elected on a platform of climate and environmental policy, does your elected representative get the opportunity to stand up for the environment, climate change and biodiversity when making decisions?”
I was in the Council Chamber as an observer recently, when a proposed amendment (or variation) to the Cork County Development Plan, to provide strategic planning policy support for a Retail Outlet Centre in the N25 Corridor was discussed.
It seems many of the councillors present were in favour of this amendment, though some, most notably from the Green Party, the Social Democrats and Independent were clearly against it. They raised environmental and social sustainability concerns and, along with Fianna Fáil, raised concerns regarding the effect that such a retail park would have on the retail life of town centres and villages.
The recently appointed Office of The Planning Regulator (OPR) had written to Cork County Council, recommending that the proposed amendment should not be passed by council, as it was not consistent with the Retail Planning Guidelines. They said it was premature to the preparation and finalisation of wider retail, spatial planning and transportation policies that are relevant to the implementation of plan-led development in the interests of sustainable development.
The full letter from the OPR can be found at www.opr.ie. It was interesting to watch the governance and the way this item eventually played out in the Chamber. There were many comments from councillors in favour of passing the amendment alongside those with concerns against it.
Fianna Fáil, supported by some of the other councillors requested a deferral of the decision in order for there to be time for councillors to be supplied with more information, such as economic data relating to towns and villages, carbon footprint etc.
The Chief Executive was at pains to point out that “this was not zoning for a specific site for a particular planning” and there were some queries then as to why there was urgency for the decision to be made outside the review of the County Development Plan. However the Chief Executive was anxious that the vote, for or against the proposed adaptation should take place at that meeting. He said that under planning law “the consideration of the variation and the Chief Executive’s Report on that variation, must be completed within six weeks” although “No time limit is set to the resolution”.
His concern was that should the councillors ‘not’ make a decision within the six weeks (i.e. before 31st January 2020) there would be ‘a risk’ that if a judicial review of the variation should arise, the court could take the view that ‘the whole aim of the six week period is to set a time limit to the variation procedure’.
The Planning and Development Act 2000 from which the CEO was quoting the six-week time limit states that ‘A person shall not question the validity of a variation in a development plan by reason only that the procedures as set out were not completed within the time required.’
Nevertheless in response to a further request from Fianna Fáil, for a deferral in order for there to be more time to receive more information, the Chief Executive stated that ‘he believed’ his ‘study was adequate’ with ‘nothing (he) believe(d) needing to be added’ and that there was `no basis for him to move this forwards’ and thus he ‘would not be in a position to put it back on the agenda’ as it ‘brings Council potentially into a serious risk situation’.
Although he more than once noted that this was ‘not zoning a specific site for a particular planning’ despite the press reports on it, he did not elaborate on ‘WHO’ could successfully apply to the High Court for leave to bring Judicial Review proceedings.
In order to make such an application one has to have a material interest in the site. However the question was left unanswered of ‘who’ then, if there is no particular site, nor planning application or entity with a material interest, would go through the procedure of applying for leave to bring Judicial Review proceedings against the council?
After a short recess for Fianna Fáil to decide how they as a party would respond given they were NOT going to be provided with further information, the chamber took a vote and the motion was passed by 42 votes in favour, four against and one abstention.
From the perspective of those with environmental concerns, including climate mitigation and adaptation, it makes no sense at all to create large out-of-town retail parks. They are reliant on car travel, have been shown by many studies to reduce the profitability of retail in the towns to the point where many town centres do not survive and may create considerable vehicle congestion.
Ireland already has the third highest emissions of greenhouse gases per capita in the EU with 20 per cent of climate change emissions being down to transport and the majority of that produced by car use.
In May 2019, commenting in the Irish Examiner at the launch of the Local Authority Climate Adaptation Strategy Development, the then County Mayor of Cork, Cllr Patrick Gerard Murphy stated,
“Government strategy has long recognised the crucial role played by local government in translating national sustainable development policies into tangible practical local actions. The range of services delivered by Cork County Council means we are uniquely placed to play a lead role in sustainable development, both in terms of our own activities and also in supporting local communities and businesses. The impact of climate change means sustainable development can no longer be an aspiration; it is now an undeniable necessity. We owe it to the young people of Cork to ensure that our decisions don’t compromise their future!“
The Chief Executive stated that Cork County Council “has a key role to play in leading by example on the sustainability agenda.”
Indeed, Cork County Council has a standing Local Agenda 21 Forum. Agenda 21, adopted by 178 national governments at the 1992 Rio Conference, recognised that many environmental problems can be traced back to local communities and that local governments have an important role to play in implementing environmental programs to develop integrated local plans for environmental protection, economic prosperity and community well-being. This requires the integration of planning and action across economic, social and environmental spheres.
Setting local policy that is in conflict with sustainable development and which reflects ONLY a narrow economic policy, must count as a failure to lead by example
Surely it is imperative to the democratic process that elected public representatives are not pressured to make decisions that affect the economic and environmental future without the information that they believe they should have.
It is up to members of the public to not only vote for representatives who will take seriously the declared climate and biodiversity emergency, but also to hold those representatives to account once elected; and to hold to account the governance of our public bodies to ensure that it is possible to look to the future and create the change we so desperately need.
The Public is invited to attend and observe Full Council Meetings from the Public Viewing Gallery. The meetings are held fortnightly on Mondays starting at 11am, the next one being on February 10, 2020.
The agenda is published at www.corkcoco.ie.