Wednesday 21 July 2010

Sustainable planning is cure for growth delusion

Gerry Crilly, a member of An Taisces national council, has been opposing suburban-style development in Dunleer, Co Louth, for the past 10 years. This article, published in the Irish Times reflects on this work.

OPINION: To move forward we need to honestly confront behaviour that is crippling us but gradually being exposed in reports and tribunals, writes GERRY CRILLY

THE BUILDING boom of the Celtic Tiger years has resulted in the dispersal and displacement of our people throughout the island to inappropriately located and badly designed housing estates

More than 600 nationally of these are identified as “ghost estates”. If we are to recover from this, we needs to recognise what went wrong.

Misguided ideologies – “more is good” and “bigger is better” – have led to an unsustainable existence, globally, nationally and locally. When we examine where we are now, we see clearly what these misguided ideologies have created. The only way we can progress from here sustainably is to honestly appraise and understand what happened.

A very narrow programme of “progress, growth and development” was pursued over the boom years by developers and their political hacks. Now, in recession, the inevitable has happened, yet we are led to believe that we are in recovery. We are not. The delusion continues. We remain firmly focused solely on the economic, to the detriment of the environment.

It is not enough to blame politicians, bankers and developers for the scars and sores we have inflicted on our landscape. We are all culpable. We have participated in a monocultural, developer-led, expedient exploitation of land that unfolded right across the country, with little regard for social consequences. The diversity of our island habitat was completely ignored, with passive consent from the general public and active promotion by county councils.

The ideology of development at any cost was not only encouraged but led from the very top. Many individuals felt entitled to profit, irrespective of the cost to their fellow citizens. Opposition was considered unacceptable and “anti-progress” and was oftentimes dangerous for those who dared to do so.

Dunleer, a rural village in Co Louth, was subject to the same all-pervasive greed and to the potential negative consequences of unacceptable development on the quality of life of a coherent community.

Realising the disastrous path to which we appeared to be set, I sought to promote sustainable development. I familiarised myself with how the planning process worked and became eager to play an honest and positive role in support of the community.

In 1998, I approached the school of architecture in UCD to compile an urban design strategy for the village, which then had a population of 985. I was supported in the work initially by Louth County Council, the Heritage Council, An Taisce and the goodwill of the community. In May 1999, I established and chaired a steering committee that identified the need for a local area plan.

In June 2000, we employed the services of planning consultants New Ground/Talamh Nua to compile a proposal. The objective was to promote a planned approach, based on consensus and shared interests, which would avoid confrontation and retain good relationships within the village, in the context of an incremental population increase.

Following a village “think in”, a proposal was submitted to the county council, but ignored. Instead, architects and planning consultancy Murray O’Laoire was commissioned by the councillors to prepare a draft local area plan, with a view to a population increase to around 3,000.

Immediately after presentation of the draft plan, five local councillors, unhappy with this plan, drew up their own, which largely consisted of a line drawn on a map showing the land they wanted zoned for development, with a suggested village population increase of 40,000-50,000.

This was deemed inappropriate and, on the advice of the county manager, the group of five engaged a local consultancy to draw up a third plan, which was subsequently modified and adopted as the local area plan in 2003 (projected population increase of 4,000). The current population of Dunleer is 1,830.

In order to promote sustainable development, I resigned from the steering committee and the community development board and actively involved myself in appealing unsuitable developments to An Bord Pleanála on behalf of An Taisce.

I strongly resisted the attempts being made to develop the area around the former railway station in advance of any coherent plan to reopen the station. A landowner in this case also happened to be chairman of the community development board.

The appeals board was consistent in refusing proposed developments that were clearly inappropriate to this rural settlement and that would interfere with the reopening of the railway station. These refusals included a 155-unit housing development, 167 apartments, 350 underground car parking spaces, more than 21,300sq m (229,272 sq ft) of residential and retail development and a number of smaller schemes.

In appealing over an 11-year period the county council’s decisions to grant planning permission, I simply reiterated both local and nationally accepted policies. The fact that An Bord Plean├íla upheld all my appeals illustrates the unacceptability of the developments that were being permitted by the council during this period.

The consequences of my individual actions have saved the village of Dunleer from a great deal of the ravages of the Celtic Tiger era. If such steps had been replicated nationally, our island would not now be suffering in its aftermath from inappropriately sited, poorly designed, overpriced and, in many cases, unfinished housing developments.

The development proposals for Dunleer reflect a mindset that has brought us to where we are nationally, to the detriment of community, society and sustainable development. What was proposed for Dunleer was mirrored exactly at the national level.

Both during and after the Celtic Tiger, we were and still are being let down by all pillars of society – political, religious and financial. Present and past leaders have admitted to pressure from vested interests. I am familiar with such pressure at a local scale. If I can withstand it as an individual, why can’t they?

We live on a beautiful, though scarred island. We have a landscape that should determine our development strategies. We have a diversity of character from county to county and distinctive local traditions that need to be incorporated into our recovery as communities and as a nation.

Global climate change is going to significantly influence much in our lives in the future. Car-dependent, commuter-based housing developments cannot be the rationale for future planning of our towns and villages. To position Ireland to cope with climate change, we need a quality of leadership and open debate that we have not had in the past.

To recover and move forward, we need to shake off the shackles of silence and honestly confront behaviour that is crippling us but gradually being exposed in various reports and tribunals. We, in our communities, must take ownership of our landscape, our heritage and our settlements and sustainably plan for the future.

Irish Times

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