JUST ONE month ago, former chairman of An Bord Pleanála John O’Connor publicly expressed his regret that the appeals board did not take a stronger stand against poorly designed and remotely located schemes during the boom years.
In a valedictory address, he also drew attention to the board’s record of protecting new motorways against “piggyback” local development and said the choice of location for major public or private sector projects should have a much stronger planning input, with planners involved from the outset and not merely “brought in to make the planning application afterwards”. Indeed, he found it “extraordinary” that developers and banks made significant decisions about land purchase and development without any apparent input by planners.
Now, in granting permission for most elements of the proposed Tipperary Venue outside Two-Mile-Borris, An Bord Pleanála has made a mockery of its former chairman’s views. It also made its decision in the face of an explicit recommendation from one of its own planning inspectors that permission should be refused for this outlandish proposal. Instead, the board went along with the views of Independent TD Michael Lowry and other backers of the project – with a Las Vegas-style “resort casino” as its financial engine and a full-scale replica of the White House in Washington DC as its eccentric emblem – that it would bring much-needed investment and employment to the area. Only a proposed 15,000-seat live music venue was rejected.
Promoter Richard Quirke, chiefly known as the operator of Dr Quirkey’s Good Time Emporium on Dublin’s O’Connell Street, must have been overjoyed by An Bord Pleanála’s approval for the casino, in particular, even though the Gaming and Lotteries Act would need to be amended to permit it to be licensed. All the Department of Justice has done so far was to publish a discussion document last December entitled Options for Regulating Gambling, one of which was to permit at least one “resort casino” of the type being planned for Two-Mile-Borris. The Gaming and Leisure Association of Ireland, which represents the operators of private gaming clubs, has expressed doubt about whether a resort-style casino in Ireland would be able to sustain itself. After all, this is not Macau or, indeed, Las Vegas.
As planning inspector Pauline Fitzpatrick noted in her report on the Tipperary Venue, “good planning is based on ordered decision-making”. North Tipperary County Council had no qualms about approving the project, no doubt bearing in mind its value as a major generator of revenue from commercial rates. But An Bord Pleanála had a duty to uphold the principles of sustainable development and consistency with national and regional planning policies, and it singularly failed to do so. If Ireland needs a project of the type being proposed – and that is highly debatable – surely it should be located in, or at least adjoining, one of the gateway or hub towns identified by the National Spatial Strategy in 2002? A rural area outside Two-Mile-Borris, close to the M8 motorway, is emphatically not in this category.