Meath councillors were responsible for the rezoning thousands of acres of land, much of which is now covered in unsaleable buildings, writes FRANK McDONALD , Environment Editor
THE BATTLE of the Boyne was fought only once, but what happened in Co Meath in recent years was a series of skirmishes, some prolonged – over Tara and the M3 motorway, the incinerator at Carranstown, near Duleek, EirGrid’s plans to march pylons across the landscape, and the new hotel opposite Trim Castle.
The county’s population has also grown faster than anywhere else in Ireland over the past 15 years. It went up by 22.1 per cent between 1996 and 2002, and grew by a further 21.5 per cent in the following four years, as the 2006 Census found.
Land owners and developers made fortunes catering for this population explosion. New houses appeared everywhere, particularly in large, relatively low-density suburban estates on the outskirts of Navan, Trim and Kells.
Smaller settlements also exploded in size, with Laytown/Bettystown growing by 60 per cent, Ratoath by 91 per cent, Enfield by 102 per cent and Stamullen by 219 per cent – all between 2002 and 2006.
As a result, Meath nearly achieved its target population of 164,000 under the 1999 Greater Dublin Area Strategic Planning Guidelines five years ahead of time. And it did so courtesy of councillors defying the guidelines by rezoning vast tracts of land at the behest of their owners – enough by 2002 to accommodate a population of 240,000.
The booming population and haphazard pattern of development in Meath had knock-on effects in terms of the provision of schools and other facilities. Primary school enrolments in Ratoath quadrupled to nearly 1,000 in the eight years to 2003, while prefab classrooms became common in east Meath as schools struggled to cope.
It also generated more traffic congestion on the N3, as many of the new residents of Meath came from Dublin and still commuted to the city by car. Even as conservationists stirred up opposition to the M3 motorway, mainly because of its impact on Tara, a pro-road group called Meath Citizens for the M3 rallied in favour of the route.
But some of the most vocal conservationists came late to the Tara cause, only entering battle after the M3 had been approved by An Bord Pleanála in August 2003. They were not among the objectors at its lengthy oral hearing, and this contributed to the archaeological landscape being undervalued in the boards decision.
It was the board’s approval for the route proposed by the National Roads Authority that gave Dick Roche cover for declining to intervene as minister for the environment in 2005. Declaring that there was “no way” he could revisit the board’s decision, he issued the licences for archaeological excavations, thus allowing the M3 to proceed.
Even after the discovery of a highly significant prehistoric henge along the route at Lismullin, near Tara, he authorised its demolition under the guise of “preservation by record” – despite being told that National Museum director Dr Pat Wallace was “very perturbed about the protection of the ambience of Tara” after the M3 went through.
Roche’s decision – made just before the Fianna Fail-Green Party coalition took office in June 2007 – effectively let his successor, John Gormley, off the hook. By that stage, despite all the protests and even clashes between activists and security personnel hired by the road builders, construction of the M3 was well under way; the game was up.
Meath on Track campaigned for a reopening of the railway line to Navan but this only developed legs when Fianna Fail had to fight a by-election there in 2005. Martin Cullen approved phase one of the project, from Clonsilla to Pace (Dunboyne), which is due to open in October. A Railway Order application for the rest is to be made in 2011.
Another decision by An Bord Pleanála cleared the way for the State’s first municipal waste incinerator to be built at Carranstown, between Duleek and Drogheda; the scheme by Indaver Ireland had already been approved by Meath County Council’s planners, in the face of widespread concern locally about its environmental impacts.
The same outcome is likely in relation to EirGrid’s plans for the second North/South electricity interconnector, which would involve erecting 167 pylons across Co Meath, intruding into sensitive landscapes such as the Boyne Valley. But the appeals board is asking the right questions about the Slane bypass, which could also be intrusive.
In Trim, there were question marks over how permission came to be granted for a 68-bedroom hotel across the road from the most important Anglo-Norman fortification in Ireland – Trim Castle. The Heritage Service of the Department of the Environment had objected to it but was prevented from appealing by its political boss, Martin Cullen.
As Fintan O’Toole wrote, “A public, internationally heralded policy of preserving and protecting one of the most important historical monuments in the country clashed with the interests of a local developer and the local developer won hands down.” Trim Castle Hotel opened in July 2006.
“Facilitating development” in Meath was the priority, no matter what the context. That explains why councillors were quite willing to rezone land for housing in known flood plain areas in Dunboyne and Bettystown. Many new homeowners in Dunboyne feared their houses would be unsaleable after severe flooding there in November 2002.
Meath councillors embarked on another rezoning mission in 2005, with hundreds of acres of land up for grabs around Bettystown, Laytown, Gormanston, Mornington and Stamullen. By that stage, prospective developers were offering to “donate” land for GAA pitches and other community facilities in return for being allowed to build more housing.
The councillors proceeded with rezonings despite being warned of “grave repercussions” by county manager Tom Dowling. In March 2007, they adopted a new county development plan, ignoring a call from the Department of the Environment that they should “de-zone” some of the excessive amounts of land then designated for development.
As a direct result of this developer-led “planning”, Meath now has nearly 4,100 acres of land zoned for residential use that has yet to be developed – one of the highest figures for any county; it is exceeded only by Cork, with 7,710 acres, Kerry with 6,250 acres (prior to the recent dezonings), Monaghan (4,360 acres) and Laois (4,148 acres).
Chickens are coming home to roost. A four-storey apartment block on the River Blackwater in Navan is being sold off on the instructions of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Agent HT Meagher O’Reilly is seeking offers of around €2 million for the 31 apartments and four retail units. The price equates to a bargain-basement figure of about €57,000 per apartment.
Six other apartments in the block were previously sold for over €250,000 each, so the bank stands to lose at least €3 million – and this is only one of several blocks around the town now lying vacant. A large number of houses bought by Dublin commuters at Johnstown are also empty and difficult to sell, with prices down by 60 per cent.
But at least Navan has its Solstice Arts Centre, a “black box” designed by Grafton Architects, who were also responsible for the civic offices in Dunshaughlin, and new civic space designed by Paul Keogh Architects to give the town some coherence. Which is more than can be said of the Office of Public Works’ new headquarters in a field on the edge of Trim.