Sunday 30 May 2010

At war with the blots on our landscape

Local authorities are entirely at the mercy of vested backyard interests, says Ian Lumley, An Taisce’s heritage officer

WHEN THE singular visionary Robert Lloyd Praeger (1865-1953) founded An Taisce, Ireland’s National Trust, with like-minded environmentalists such as Frank Mitchell (1912-1997), in 1948, the intention had been to celebrate, to sustain and “to safeguard” Ireland’s heritage, protecting it from various hazards, including the ribbon development Praeger feared.

The situation has worsened over the decades. Long before the bogus boom era of greedy developers and corrupt politicians thriving on mindless building projects, the Irish landscape had been in peril. Country villages, towns and the major cities of Ireland would, from the 1980s onwards, become distorted by the addition of ring roads, further complicating an already confused transport network.

Long established as one of Ireland’s most courageous guardians of the built and natural environment, Ian Lumley has been An Taisce’s heritage officer for 10 years, and he was a dedicated volunteer before that. His interest in protecting the environment began when he was a schoolboy, through working on a project about the medieval centre of Waterford city. But Ireland’s heritage is more than a passion; it is his life’s vocation.

To be committed to the environment in Ireland, where even archaeology has been compromised, excavation reports are merely part of development plans and many EU environmental and wildlife directives have been ignored, would appear a hopeless battle.

Wood Quay, Tara and now the massive bridge planned for the Boyne, which will have a devastating impact on the ancient landscape, show that heritage suffers at the hands of vested interests. Many of the planning decisions taken during the past 20 to 30 years defy intelligent discussion, never mind aesthetics. But Lumley sounds surprisingly positive: “I put the effort into clear-cut cases where there is a breach of European law, as well as national and local policy.”

He has a slight physical resemblance to the novelist Henry James and sounds very like the writer Colm Tóibín – “so I’ve been told,” he concedes with polite detachment. Lumley sits in his office in An Taisce’s headquarters, a wonderful building, the Tailors’ Hall, off Dublin’s High Street, across from Christ Church. Dating from 1706, it is contemporaneous with Marsh’s Library. Lumley’s room, with its three beautiful windows, is alive with muted sunlight and towers of bound files. Lumley spends his days examining applications, dealing with phone calls – “even now there are still calls coming in from developers and politicians as regards planning applications” – and attending hearings.

Cynics regard An Taisce as an independent but powerless organisation run by do-gooders and funded by its 5,000 members, yet Lumley knows otherwise. “The present generation of county managers and politicians have left an appalling legacy of badly planned sprawl. An Taisce tends to get most publicity for its involvement in the planning system, when in reality most of our resources are directed towards schools and education projects for the future.”

Many Irish country towns have been left with half-built houses standing in abandoned, uncompleted suburban housing estates. The people who have moved in spend exasperated hours attempting to contact county managers about the need for basic footpaths and street lighting, never mind the promised green area that still resembles the Western Front. But then large tracts of the Irish landscape could easily provide locations for war movies.

Lumley, who was born in Waterford city in 1958, grew up admiring the achievement of the distinguished 18th-century architect John Roberts (1712-1796), “but I had relatives in the countryside as well, so I have a feeling for both the rural and the urban”. The crude suburbanisation of the Irish landscape not only obliterated a way of life – and, with it, chapters of Irish social history – but also imposed a short-sighted car-based pattern of development that is now failing to deal with the emerging crisis in carbon emissions and fast-approaching oil-supply peak.

Lumley, an idealist with a grasp of the practical realities, is calm. His command of the facts is devastating and controlled. There is no rhetoric, only specific examples of bad decisions. Ireland’s infrastructure has been based on, he says, “unsustainable resource and fossil-fuel consumption”, while vital services such as water supply and the treatment of waste have been inadequate. Planning ran riot as planners were pressurised to meet the demands of private interests and, as Lumley says, “schools and social services were neglected”. It is ironic that a government committed to bailing out bankers is now interested in culture not because it wants to save the heritage but merely because it wants to use it to support the economy. “On a positive note, though,” says Lumley, “one of the core objectives of the National Trust movement is the appreciation of culture at its most integrated.” He is not interested in scoring cheap points; the fiasco is obvious to all. Instead Lumley is concerned with assessing the damage. He refers to An Taisce’s latest annual report, which was being sent to members this week. “All of the various aspects of policy are addressed in the report,” he says. It reads as an informed assessment of mismanagement at both national and local levels. It looks at specific issues and scrutinises them precisely.

An Taisce, through its watchdog role in planning, has had a ringside seat in watching An Bord Pleanála at work. “Local authorities in Ireland,” he says, “are entirely at the mercy of vested backyard interests and systemically disregard EU law, national policy and, most dramatically of all, their own development plans in making planning decisions.”

He believes An Bord Pleanála does provide a safety net and overturns “some of the more outrageous decisions”. However, it has consistently granted permissions to roads and waste projects. There is also a direct link between road building and one of the major environmental threats in Ireland: the operation of unauthorised quarries to supply construction materials. “Galway county has emerged as the most problematic Irish local authority in disregarding its own development plan,” he says, adding that Meath also has an appalling record in planning, in areas such as the Carton estate business park, as well as on heritage and environmental issues.

He is disappointed by the limited scope of the amendment to the 2009 Planning and Development Bill. Why? “Because from experience it will have very little impact at local level,” he says. The Bill contains a clause extending the lifetimes of undeveloped expired planning permissions, including a hard-luck clause enabling developers to extend permissions delayed due to economic shortfalls.

If a single issue dominates An Taisce’s concerns, it is the impact of road building on society. It is imposing car dependency and urban sprawl, “replicating what happened in the US in the 1950s during the post-war Eisenhower administration”. Between now and 2015 an additional 850km of road is planned, as well as a Dublin-Derry dual carriageway. Environmental concerns are already being raised in Northern Ireland. An Taisce is now working with the Department of Transport in a nationwide schools programme promoting cycling as sustainable travel.

Railways are another viable alternative to car travel, and Lumley is pleased with the success of the reopened Limerick-Galway service. “Passenger numbers have exceeded expectations. We are promoting a low-carbon, high-speed express ferry and rail service between Ireland and Britain.”

On the other hand there is our unsustainable air travel. “The continuation of current levels of global air traffic is untenable because of the high level of emissions per flight.” Airports too create major problems: there is a proposal to extend Sligo Airport into the sea to accommodate the longer runway requirement of international jet aircraft. A further application for increasing the capacity of Ireland West Airport, in Knock, is also pending. “This would further worsen Irish per-capita aviation emission,” he says.

How aware are the Irish of their heritage? “The treatment of the Irish landscape, particularly as regards dumping, confirms poor practical concern. Awareness is one thing; performance is quite another.”

As we stand outside the Tailors’ Hall, admiring the beauty of Georgian design, it seems appropriate to ask if Georgian architecture is his particular interest. “Georgian Dublin was a battle won, but 95 per cent of what I do is about planning and environmental issues throughout the country. I believe in Ireland; it is as Praeger said in his 1948 radio address on the founding of An Taisce, when he referred to the heritage as needing ‘protection against dilapidation, against injury, whether caused by carelessness, ignorance or ruthlessness, against sequestration for private ends, and in recent times often against the action of public bodies’.” Lumley adds: “Look at the record of the National Roads Authority.”

The threats have been evident since Praeger’s day, those risks persist and the situation has worsened.

Irish Times

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