Commuter Counties revisited: Co. Laois : When Laois councillors tried to earmark acres of land for ‘development’ the then minister for the environment, Dick Roche, stopped it
CO LAOIS has the distinction of being the first county in Ireland where a minister for the environment used his powers to overturn land rezoning decisions made by councillors against planning advice. And this served as a warning to others that they could be next in line for similar ministerial intervention.
The fact that it was a Fine Gael-led rezoning mission probably made Dick Roche’s decision to take action easier. So did the sheer brazenness of the councillors in designating hundreds of acres of land for residential development on the outskirts of 21 villages in Laois, including Borris-in-Ossory, Durrow, Stradbally and Timahoe.
Killenard, a village 5km from Portarlington, should have served as an object lesson in what not to do. With almost no warning and certainly no plan, it was swamped by suburban housing, gathered around the Heritage Golf and Spa Resort. And when the developers moved in, some of the local farmers became millionaires overnight.
The running was made by Portlaoise-based Tommy Kane, of Corrigeen Construction, when he got permission in 2001 for an 18-hole golf course designed by Seve Ballesteros and a road layout for future housing development. And since all of the land was unzoned, there was no obligation to provide any “social and affordable” housing.
His first salvo was followed by separate schemes for a five-star hotel, 82 semi-detached and terraced houses, a golf clubhouse, leisure centre, golf academy and driving range, indoor bowls arena, 18 “golf villas” (one of them built for Ballesteros) and a par-three golf course. This was classic “developer-led planning”, on a staggering scale.
A similar fate lay in store for all the other villages in Co Laois if Dick Roche hadn’t acted to stop the rezoning frenzy in 2005. All of it was being done behind closed doors, with the initiative coming from Fine Gael councillors supported by Progressive Democrat and Sinn Féin colleagues. Fianna Fáil opposed what it called “blanket rezonings”.
Of course, there was no provision in the Midlands Regional Planning Guidelines, adopted in April 2005, for the villages of Co Laois to become engulfed by suburban housing aimed at Dublin commuters; its focus was on building up the urban structure of the region based on a “hierarchy” of towns, such as Portlaoise and Portarlington.
An Taisce, among others, argued in favour of developing villages as a viable alternative to indiscriminate one-off housing in the countryside. But this would mean preparing detailed local plans, rather than simply zoning land as was being done in Laois. The Heritage Council also stressed the need to draw up “village design statements” first.
No such steps were taken before the council decided, by 12 votes to nine, to proceed with the controversial rezonings. Cllr John Bonham (FG) said they were taking “a holistic approach to planning. People want to live and be able to afford housing in local areas, go to local schools, support local businesses; this gives them that opportunity.” But Cllr Jerry Lodge (FF) said members of his party had walked out of the meeting after being “denied the opportunity” to speak.
“We had proposed that there should be local area plans for each of the villages to ensure there was proper and sustainable development in each case, but the chairman [Cllr William Aird (FG)] wouldn’t listen to us.” As minister for the environment, with powers to intervene under the 2000 Planning Act, Dick Roche gave them a hearing, however. This resulted in a submission being made on his behalf after the draft county development plan went on public display, in which it was made clear that he would use those powers if the rezonings were confirmed.
Roche said he intended to “frustrate” what the councillors were doing and later described as “insufferable” the council’s decision to proceed with the rezoning of sufficient land for 34,900 new homes – more than nine times what was actually needed – despite being told that this threatened to turn villages into dormitory towns.
He also became the first minister for the environment to enunciate as policy that publicly funded sewerage services would not be provided for land zoned in defiance of regional planning guidelines. This was one of the most effective weapons in the Department’s armoury to deter “maverick” rezoning decisions, yet it had never been used previously.
Finally, in October 2006, Roche refused to approve the Laois county plan, saying the councillors’ decisions to zone enough land to accommodate the entire population of the midlands up to 2020 were “grotesquely irresponsible”, and he had seen the negative effects of such activity in his Wicklow constituency over the previous 30 years.
Despite his intervention, Co Laois now has nearly 4,150 acres of zoned land available for residential development – sufficient for some 6,000 new homes at standard suburban densities, to accommodate a nearly 17,000 people. A recent survey by the Department found 632 newly built homes empty and as many again nearing completion.
Most of the development was taking place in and around Portlaoise and Portarlington – driven by Dubliners “leapfrogging” into Co Laois and commuting to work in the capital, usually by car on the newly-improved roads. Iarnród Éireann’s train services also found new patrons, many leaving their cars in park-and-ride sites at the stations.
The population of Portarlington has nearly doubled to 6,000 since the mid-1990s. But Laois County Council was ill-equipped to plan for this growth, as it had only two planners before 2000 and only set up a forward-planning unit in 2002 when the horse was “half-way out through the door”, as senior planner Peter Dolan conceded.
No wonder nearly 47 per cent of the council’s decisions were reversed on appeal by An Bord Pleanála in 2006. It was still happening in 2008, when the board overturned planning approval for Tesco to develop a new outlet in Portarlington; even the planning application acknowledged that the site was in the River Barrow’s floodplain.
A year earlier, the Office of Public Works announced a €9 million flood relief plan for Portarlington, involving the erection of flood walls and embankments along the Barrow and its tributaries. The avowed aim was to protect existing properties at risk while simultaneously improving the town’s development potential.
IN PORTLAOISE, things turned sour for the local GAA club after it agreed in 2007 to sell its grounds to Cork-based Firestone Developments for €19 million, to make way for retail, residential and commercial scheme. An Bord Pleanála refused permission, citing its edge-of-town location, and Firestone pulled out – leaving the club with a €6.5 million debt.
But Laois county manager Peter Carey was determined to capitalise on Portlaoise’s location at “the crossroads of Ireland” by facilitating the development of a “logistics and distribution park” on a site of 250 acres adjoining the M7. The scheme was to include 278,706sq m (three million sq ft) of warehousing and parking for up to 15,000 cars.
First unveiled in 2004, this ambitious development is taking a long time to materialise and has not been helped by the current recession. Apart from Iarnród Éireann’s national train depot, built at a cost of €65 million, it includes an “incubator unit” of 20,000sq ft (1,858sq m) for business start-ups, developed by the council, and not much else so far.