Groundhog Day in Athenry as Apple’s €850m data centre stalls

Caveat: the town is frozen in time while planning process moves at a glacial pace

Athenry in Co. Galway was given the go-ahead for the proposed project by Apple worth €850 million but complaints from three locals are putting the project in jeopardy. Video: Mark Paul

 

It is two years, six months and 24 days since Apple announced its intention to invest €850 million in a data centre in Athenry, where the news was greeted like pints after mass. What has happened in the period since? Lots and lots of things, in fact.

In Denmark, Apple has built a similar data centre at Viborg that was announced on the same day as the Athenry project, and will be commissioned by the end of this year. It has also announced it will spend another $920 million on a second Danish centre at Aabenraa.

And in Athenry? Nothing, because it hasn’t yet got planning.

Since Apple made its Athenry announcement, Ireland has had one general election, two taoisigh, one marriage referendum and a cultural and social near-revolution. The UK has gone through two general elections, one-and-a-half prime ministers and one collective meltdown via the vote for Brexit. The US has swapped its first black president for its first orange one, and gone from world policeman to candidate for a geopolitical Asbo. The world has changed, and changed utterly.

But in the meantime, nothing has happened in Athenry because it hasn’t got planning.

When Apple announced its data centre, my daughter was five weeks old and couldn’t see past the end of her nose. Yesterday, she glowered at me from the hall, told me I was a “silly daddy” and that she’d see me after Montessori. She has gone from being a newborn to walking and talking, entered the education system and mastered the art of the perfect insult. My job is already halfway done.

But in the meantime, nothing has happened in Athenry because it hasn’t got planning.

Different sporting galaxy

When Apple made its announcement, Manchester United were clinging onto the top four, but people trusted Louis Van Gaal’s “philosophy” in his debut season. Since then, LVG turned to WTF, Van Gaal was replaced by José Mourinho (who was leading Chelsea to glory when Athenry was announced), and we’re now in a different sporting galaxy.

An African elephant could have gotten lucky, given birth after the longest pregnancy of any mammal, gotten lucky a second time, and be one-third through her next pregnancy.

Yet, in the meantime . . . you can finish the rest of this sentence yourself.

There is a written-off Coillte forest where Apple, and Athenry, wanted a data centre, 300 construction jobs, and 150 on-site permanent jobs to be.

Doesn’t any of this strike those with the power to change our planning system as being a trifle odd? That the world could spin on its axis 936 times, but nobody can give Apple the go-ahead for the largest ever capital investment west of the Shannon?

This week, Bloomberg reported that Apple is losing patience with its Irish delays, and could shelve the project. The Government has denied that Apple is losing commitment. But United denied they were sacking Van Gaal until Mourinho showed up in his parking spot. Denials are cheap. Could you blame Apple if it walked away?

We shouldn’t blame the handful of individuals who have sought a judicial review of the planning permission in the High Court (the source of much of the delay). They are simply making use of the system as it stands. The correct decision should be made in full accordance with the laws designed to protect our environment.

But any planning system that facilitates such egregious delays in making final decisions on major investment projects is clearly defective, in the same way that a chocolate frying pan, or a low-fat kebab, is defective. It is simply of no use to anyone.

Public hearings

Apple made its initial announcement on February 23rd, 2015, and filed its planning application some weeks later. It got its permission from Galway County Council in September of that year. The matter was appealed to An Bord Pleanála, which after a series of public hearings finally approved the scheme in August 2016.

Three objectors (including the owner of a rival site in Wicklow) then sought a judicial review in the High Court in October, and in November Apple had the matter expedited to the fast-track Commercial Court, which should take a maximum of six months. Final submissions were made in March.

It was adjourned in June, adjourned again in July, and it now appears a final decision on whether the decision to grant planning was taken in accordance with the law will be delivered on October 12th. If the court finds the decision was defective, Apple and Athenry are back to square one.

That is not a properly functioning, modern planning system. That is a systemic shambles, the fault of nobody in particular but all of us at once.

In Viborg, a local energy company wants to harness the excess heat from its Apple data centre to heat the town. Just imagine what they could do with all the hot air from the Irish planning system? They’d be growing palm trees in the fields of Athenry.

Please, let this be the last major investment project to get bogged down in planning quicksand. The people of Athenry – and the rest of us – deserve much better.

*********

Footnotes

Belfast airport strikes back in battle for the skies

The decline in sterling means that the spending power of southerners in the North has been greatly enhanced. This is the inverse of the position two years ago, when a stronger sterling meant people from the North would come south in search of value.

There was no shortage of moaning north of the Border two years ago, when Dublin Airport was targeting travellers from the other side of the Border to drive down the M1 and fly from Dublin for cheaper. Southern airports were being “aggressive”, or so the talk went up north, in between sniffles.

The currency shoe is on the other foot now, and Belfast International Airport is gleefully kicking with it as hard as it can.

Belfast has launched the next phase of a marketing campaign to tempt southern flyers, and reckons it will get 600,000 this year. The airport’s blog says it is launching “hard-hitting advertisements directed at persuading passengers away from Dublin Airport” in the six counties just south of the Border – Louth, Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim, Donegal and Sligo. It will also send a fleet of ad bikes across the border.

The blog also says its “Forget Dublin” campaign will “tackle the long delays being experienced in Dublin with long queues for US flight pre-clearance”.

Belfast International Airport managing director Graham Keddie said: “Yes, we’re having a go at the main opposition, just as they are visible in Northern Ireland trying to ‘poach’ business here. We make no apologies for fighting back and offering people from the South a real alternative. That’s business!”

It is indeed. At least he has dried his eyes.

What’s a family hotel like you doing on a show like this?

The ugly row over George Hook’s even uglier comments about rape on Newstalk demonstrates the dangers for businesses when sponsorships go bad.

Dalata Hotel Group’s Clayton brand was the show’s main sponsor, and took the understandable but clearly commercially driven decision to extricate itself from the arrangement and avoid the ire of the angry masses on social media.

But you have to ask: what on earth was a mid-range, family-and-business oriented hotel company doing sponsoring a show hosted by such a notoriously controversial broadcaster in the first place? Did Dalata expect he would tell knock-knock jokes?

In branding terms, Hook and Clayton went together like chalk and cheese.

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