Is Irish planning remiss in its duty to the environment?

On January 21 in the High Court, an application for Judicial Review was granted by Mr. Justice Seamus Noonan in Court 6.  

This Judicial Review will be brought against An Bord Pleanala’s decision to grant permission for a customised thermoplastic compounding factory in Poundlick in Skibbereen.

The people of Skibbereen and the surrounding area raised over €16,000 in three weeks over Christmas to fund the application to bring Judicial Review Proceedings and are now set for full steam ahead on the next phase, raising funds to contribute to the total cost of Judicial Review Proceedings,. which is likely to be over €100,000

An Bord Pleanala’s own inspector recommended that the planning should be turned down, stating that it risked a contravention of the Local Area Plan, serious injury to the amenities of residential property in the vicinity of the site, and the jeopardising of public health. The proposal would therefore be contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.

Meanwhile in Bantry the community is raising funding to contribute to the legal costs of fighting to save 1,860 acres of Native Kelp Forests from being mechanically harvested. Kelp forests are the backbone of the Bantry Bay’s ecosystem – home to whales, dolphins, seals, fish, lobsters, their food sources, and more. Kelp is CRITICAL to cutting CO2 emissions. Mechanical Harvesting is banned in many countries, as it permanently destroys vital Kelp Forests.

In Cork Harbour an alliance of community groups now known as CHASE (Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment) formed in October 2001 and have been campaigning and raising money to fight in the courts ever since that time in order to prevent the construction of a 240,000 tonne commercial incinerator for hazardous waste in Cork Harbour.

An Bord Pleanala had, against the detailed advice of their own Senior Planning Inspector, and despite the objections of over 23,000 people and the refusal of planning permission by Cork County Council, granted permission for Indaver’s initial application for a Hazardous waste incinerator in 16 Jan 2004.

This was successfully challenged in court by CHASE, and eventually replaced in November 2008 by a new application with a larger capacity, and to include municipal waste. 

The project was refused planning from An Bord Pleanala in 2011

Chase is now fighting in the courts to overturn a third application by Indaver.

CHASE is widely represented at a local level by groups in Carrigaline, Cobh, Cork, Crosshaven, Douglas, Kinsale, Midleton, Monkstown/Passage/Glenbrook, Ringaskiddy and Youghal

Further inland, seven families, fully supported by the local communities are raising funding for judicial review proceedings in the high court to stop the Carrigarierk Wind farm. The turbines are 140 to 200 metres high with a blade area span the equivalent of seven GAA pitches. 

Current scientific research shows that noise levels, shadow flicker and the infrasound disturbance of these giant structures have a negative impact on wildlife and the environment.

What do all these cases have in common?

They all play lip service to the requirement for Public Consultation detailed in the Aarhus Convention, which states that the public have the right to participate in environmental decision-making and that ‘arrangements are to be made by public authorities to enable the public affected and environmental non-governmental organisations to comment on, for example, proposals for projects affecting the environment, or plans and programmes relating to the environment, these comments to be taken into due account in decision-making, and information to be provided on the final decisions and the reasons for it (‘public participation in environmental decision-making’).

The Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters was ratified in June 2012 and all of its provisions fully implemented into Irelands national law, however in each of the above cases the planning notices have been tucked away in a newspaper where they have been easy to miss; and limited to a small notice on a fence post or lamp post near the site itself. These planning notices at first glance look no different to domestic planning notices despite that they may affect local amenities, health and the sustainability of wide areas of rural Ireland.  

When there is no open and proper public consultation, or the planning office discount the public concerns, as in the above cases it is left to local community groups to discover the detail and challenge the planning decisions.

The European Union also protects the right of the public to review procedures and to challenge public decisions that have been made without respecting the Aarhus Convention rights or environmental law in general. However challenging decisions is costly as evidenced by the level of fundraising being done by community Groups right through Cork County. 

The first stage is to appeal the County Council Planning decision; which means the planning case is referred to An Bord Pleanala, who look at all the evidence sent in to them both from the body looking for planning and from the community appealing the planning. 

In two of the above cases, CHASE and Save Our Skibbereen, An Bord Pleanala went against their own inspector’s report and upheld the planning decision when the inspector had advised it should be refused.

That leaves the community with two options. Give up and accept that a development that is not in their best interests will be built or apply to the High Court for Leave to Bring Judicial Review Proceedings. That application can cost upward of €10,000. 

If the Judicial Review is granted then the community have to raise significant amounts of money, often upward of €100,000 to pay for the legal team to fight their case.

Fine Gael Senator Tim Lombard made a statement in the Oireactas; 

“The independent inspector goes through the project, examines it, probably holds an oral hearing, compiles a report and then makes a recommendation to the board, which is ignored, before it grants permission. It is an issue that needs to be examined… There is an issue here, particularly in respect of environmental projects… The board seems to lean towards regarding the potential for jobs as more valuable than the environment… We have seen that with an incinerator, and with solar farms, and now we are seeing it with the plastics factory in Skibbereen.”

Indeed in Skibbereen, it appears the board have not only failed to look at the environment but also have failed to acknowledge the potential net loss of jobs that this planning decision creates should the environmental impact damage the fishing, shellfish farming and tourism in the area. Each of those industries individually employs far more people than a fully automated polymer-compounding factory ever would. 

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe states that releases of hazardous chemicals, climate change, effective engagement of the public in decision-making and access to environmental information and justice are among major concerns we need to address urgently. In response Ireland’s revised National Sustainable Development Strategy – ‘Our Sustainable Future: a Framework for Sustainable Development in Ireland’ – was launched in June 2012 and sets out the roadmap for a holistic policy framework with sustainable development at its heart. Amongst the 70 measures the document identifies to be put into effect is a Government policy statement on growth and employment in the green economy, and publication of an action plan on green public procurement. 

It would seem however that it is local communities rather than the planning authorities and government who are working to implement these agreed policies and to keep West Cork sustainable. 

WCP Staff

WCP Staff Writer

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