An Bord Pleanála has decided to hold an oral hearing into plans for a controversial housing development on the site of the former Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork amid concerns by a campaign group that the development will encroach on a former children's burial ground.
Developer MWB Two Ltd has applied for planning permission for two phases of development to build 246 residential units on a privately owned 3.7-acre site on the grounds of the former mother and baby home near Mahon in Cork city.
The first phase of the development for 67 apartments in an eight-storey block has been refused planning permission by Cork City Council and is under appeal to An Bord Pleanála, with a decision due by July 5th.
MWB Two Ltd also applied directly to An Bord Pleanála under the Strategic Housing Development Initiative for permission for a further 179 residential units and a creche in three blocks on the lands, and An Bord Pleanála has decided to hold an oral hearing on this application.
The proposed development has caused controversy as it emerged from the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes that 923 infants born at or associated with Bessborough died between 1922 and its closure in 1998.
The commission could find burial records for only 64 infants, prompting a campaign group, Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance, to call for a proper examination of the Bessborough grounds to see if it contains the remains of the other 859 infants whose burial places remain unknown.
In a submission to An Bord Pleanála the alliance said parts of some of the blocks of the proposed development would be located on an area that was marked as the children’s burial ground on a 1950 Ordnance Survey map.
An Bord Pleanála informed the applicants, MWB Two Ltd on Friday morning that it would hold the oral hearing over three days next month. The hearing will be limited to dealing solely with the issue of the children’s burial ground.
It said the oral hearing would involve the board asking the developer for further clarification regarding the areas identified as “potential children’s burial ground”, in particular an area to the northwest of a folly, adjacent to a nuns’ cemetery on the site.
An Bord Pleanála noted that the southern parts of three blocks in the development, Blocks A,B and C, may encroach on to this potential burial ground and they would be asking the developers to clarify the issue in the form of survey and documentary evidence.
The board noted that the commission of investigation had observed that the only way to address the issue of whether there was a children’s burial ground in Bessborough was by way of “an excavation of the entire property, including those areas that are not built on”.
The developer will be asked to outline what it proposes to do should any human remains be found on the site and to consider whether there “may be instances that the development, even if it were permitted in principle, could not proceed”.
The decision has been welcomed by the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance which said it would not only allow it to call experts in bioarchaelogy cartography and burial laws and practices but also significantly, Bessborough survivors.
“We will hear from living witnesses, survivors of Bessborough like Ann O’Gorman - this will be Ann’s day in court. Ann found within herself the courage to speak out and she never gave up on finding her baby Evelyn. Ann opened herself up to all the consequences that come with speaking out.”
The campaign group will be able to make observations and submissions at the hearing, which is scheduled to be held between April 21st and 23rd and conducted virtually due to Covid-19 restrictions.
The Strategic Housing Development initiative was introduced to fast-track developments of more than 100 units but An Bord Pleanála oral hearings into initiatives under the scheme have been rare since the legislation was enacted in 2016.