Monday 17 March 2008

Mayo rural housing plan 'won't fail Gormley test'

MAYO councillors are confident that their bid to overhaul planning rules in rural Mayo will stand up to scrutiny from the Minister for the Environment.

The draft county development plan, which recently went on public display, is the subject of a number of submissions, including one from Minister John Gormley.

The Department of the Environment confirmed to the Western People that the minister has written to Mayo County Council about the draft which proposes to relax the rules for one-off rural housing. It's under-stood that concerns have been raised about the loosening of rural planning controls.

In the face of this possible challenge, councillors say they have been motivated by the need to revitalise rural Mayo, and not by any desire to rezone land for the benefit of individual owners or developers.

The Mayo campaign could spark a national debate on the issue of one-off housing.

Councillor Al McDonnell, who spearheaded the drafting of the plan on behalf of his Fianna Fáil counterparts, said he was keen to avoid "any war of words" with the minister, but was determined that party members would not be pressurised into ditching their proposals.

Describing the fact that the minister had made a submission as "pre-dictable", Cllr McDonnell added: "This draft plan is as open to challenge as any other. We have taken every precaution not to break any regulations. We promised the people we represent that we would do something to halt the decline of rural Mayo, and stem the anti-rural element in the planning system, and that is what we are aiming to do.

He added that while he believed it was too early to speculate about what the Minister expects from the plan, councillors would "treat all submissions, from all quarters, equally, and give them due consideration".

Meanwhile the Fine Gael Whip Cllr Paddy McGuin-ness said he would welcome the opening of a national debate on rural planning.

"What we are trying to do in the plan is by-and-large untested and unprecedented," the Castlebar-based councillor admitted. "But, what has already been tested has clearly not worked for rural Mayo, or for Mayo in general. Our proposals are underpinned by the principles of proper and sustainable development. Road safety and water protection are sacrosanct."

Referring to the current restriction on one-off housing to those with a proven ‘local need', Cllr McGuiness said: "Our plan no longer asks people where they come from or what the colour of their skin is."

The FG Whip expressed the view that there was a lot of "green-type thinking" in the proposals.

"The minister should be pleased with our land use and conservation proposals, as well as the plans for park-and-ride facilities, and access to uplands for walking tourism."

The closing date for submissions on the draft plan was Monday, March 3. It's not unusual to receive a departmental submission at this stage. A spokesperson for Mayo County Council said no details of any ministerial comment would be made public until the County Manager prepared a report which will go back before members for consideration.

Fiona McGarry
Western People

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