Tuam car park causes ‘chaos’ in historical heart
Campaigners for right of way accused of jeopardising jobs
Leo Moran never quite thought of himself as a latter-day Woody Guthrie. Musician with the Saw Doctors and, lately, the Cabin Collective, he has sung about the pain of emigration and lost love, small town blues and the Rossport Five, but says he has never really regarded himself as “political”.
Now, however, he finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being held responsible for “closing a town down”, due to his support for a campaign to save a right of way.
That right of way was along the Palace Road in Tuam, a route which linked the north to the south of the Co Galway town via the centre.
“People kissed each
other for the first time there . . . you’d be asked if you would walk down the Palace,” Moran explains.
In January 2012, residents, including Moran, found that centuries-old garden walls, mature trees and the Palace Road itself had been replaced by a car park attached to the SuperValu store owned by businessman Joe O’Toole. One of the trees was said to be 200 years old.
No planning permission had been applied for and no notice had been given of an extinction of a public right of way.
“We’d seen the hoardings up, but we’d never questioned it as we thought it was all part of the inner relief road works,” Moran and fellow supporters of the Restore Our Palace Road group explain.
Two years earlier, in April 2010, An Bord Pleanála had granted permission with 27 conditions to O’Toole and his wife Helen, who died recently, for a new shopping centre in the town. The O’Tooles had been in business in Tuam for over 40 years, and this was a flagship project, lodged just before the economic downturn hit. It was put on hold, however, until conditions picked up again.
Some eight years prior to that, in 2002-2003, Galway County Council had begun exploring routes for an inner relief road for Tuam. The final route ran across lands owned by O’Toole and by the Presentation secondary school, but the council had no money to proceed. Recognising that the relief road was essential for his shopping centre development, O’Toole made an agreement with the local authority to fund it.
He supplied and acquired about 95 per cent of the land required, including tennis and basketball courts owned by the school, and sponsored design costs. The school was offered new sports facilities, and O’Toole’s cash input for the road was just over €1 million.
Coffey Construction, which had been engaged by Galway County Council for work on a main drainage scheme, was also awarded the contract for the relief road. The “big dig”, as the Tuam works became known, caused considerable disruption, but the project was completed in December 2011.
A month later, the unauthorised car park appeared, but consultants for O’Toole
say this was a separate private contract with Coffey Construction and the aim was to build it while the company was on hand, and apply for retention afterwards.
Campaign against extinction
The Restore Our Palace Road campaign was formed, with 500 people attending a protest and 197 submissions sent to Galway County Council opposing any right of way extinction.
Independent councillor Shaun Cunniffe, a member of the campaign group, said he had backed the new shopping centre development, but had not realised this would involve the loss of the Palace Road.
The council initially issued an enforcement notice, giving a deadline for removing the car park. However, it then granted retention to O’Toole in October 2013, on foot of an application he had lodged late the previous year. This was appealed to An Bord Pleanála, and a decision is due next month.
The campaign group initiated legal action, and won. In a judgment delivered in the High Court last December by Mr Justice Hedigan, O’Toole was instructed to stop use of the new car park. The judgment also applies to three existing car parks for which he has planning permission.
Mr Justice Hedigan described O’Toole as having “an extraordinary planning history”, with “a pattern of constructing unauthorised developments and subsequently seeking retention” – in all, eight unauthorised developments since 1996.
The judge described the planning situation in the “historic heart of Tuam” as “chaotic”.
In late January, the Supreme Court refused to grant a further stay on the order made by Mr Justice Hedigan, and all the car parks were closed, amounting to 262 spaces – including the 120 spaces in the new unauthorised development.
However, far from being able to celebrate victory, campaign members, including Moran, Connie Goss and Cunniffe, have found themselves the target of public opprobrium.
For 10 days in January, the names of the litigants were listed on notices posted up to inform customers of the car park closure. For people with children in local schools, it was particularly difficult. There were fears of job losses among staff in the supermarket, with a petition seeking the retention of the car park being made available for customers to sign at checkouts.
O’Toole said in an information leaflet that he would “never do anything to put anyone’s safety at risk”, and he appreciated that there was a “problem with the car park” and wanted to “find the best way forward”.
However, the campaign group, including Moran, is not convinced by this overture, and believe they are being subjected to enormous and unfair pressure due to misinformation.
“Trees were planted here 200 years ago,” Moran says. “We have a duty to preserve what’s left of this town for those coming 200 years after us.”