The worst-planned counties in Ireland?


This week An Taisce released a blacklist of Irish counties with poor planning records, but errors in the report have undermined its findings. We visited three of the affected counties to gauge local reaction to the controversy

THIS WEEK An Taisce published a 44-page report entitled State of the Nation: A Review of Ireland’s Planning System 2001-2011. The report identified what it had found to be “the worst councils in Ireland’s planning system”.

Of the 34 city and county councils in the State, An Taisce said South Dublin had the best planning record. Donegal was worst, followed by Roscommon, Leitrim, Kerry and Mayo. The scores were published in an appendix table.

On Wednesday An Taisce withdrew the table from its website. On Thursday it confirmed to The Irish Times that “a mistake had been made in the counting”.

Counties had been ranked using eight indicators: overzoning, decisions reversed by An Bord Pleanála, decisions confirmed by Bord Pleanála, percentage of vacant housing stock, changes in vacant housing stock, water quality, percentage of one-off housing, and legal proceedings that followed noncompliance with enforcement notices. Calculations for one of the eight indicators, overzoning, had been omitted from the total score.

Charles Stanley-Smith, An Taisce’s press officer, explained: “In our original calculations, we felt that indicator 1 gave unfair advantage to city councils, because as cities are mostly zoned it is significantly more difficult to overzone a city. So we only counted the last seven indicators.”

Yesterday An Taisce was working to put amended tables of scores and rankings back on its website, and it has said it will publish two sets of rankings, one using seven indicators,

the other using eight. This means several councils move up and down the new ranking, including Mayo, which moved from fifth-worst to 12th.

CO MAYO ‘The number of one-off houses is phenomenal’

By Rosita Boland, in Castlebar

An Taisce’s omission of one set of figures from its report on Monday – and the consequent placing of Mayo County Council at number five on a blacklist when it should have been number 12 – prompted John Condon, county secretary of Mayo County Council, to call for the withdrawal of the report altogether because he believed it was “so seriously flawed”.

But, for others, the controversy about where Mayo should sit in the rankings does not detract from its planning record.

Barney Kiernan’s auctioneering business is on Linenhall Street in Castlebar. “The number of one-off houses in Mayo is phenomenal,” he says. “There were so many of them that popped up during the boom.” Kiernan’s impression is that planning was permitted because “it was all revenue. The council were getting levies based on the number of units.”

As he puts it, “In my opinion there was no logic to planning for a rural county like Mayo. In 20 years in business only once did I ever sit down with an architect, a developer and a designer and look at the plans for their greenfield site.”

“My impression of the report is that it seemed to fit into a pattern of counties on the west coast,” says Marie Farrell, director of the Linenhall Arts Centre.

“I have no objection to one-off housing. It’s been there since the beginning of time,” says Frank Durcan, a councillor. “Overzoning keeps the price of land down. Small pockets zoned around the town puts up the price of building land.”

CO LEITRIM ‘An Taisce objects to all the things that brought life to the county’

By Marese McDonagh, in Carrick-on-Shannon

A glass door at the side of the house has been smashed, giving free access. Inside, a dirty mattress, graffiti and empty beer cans suggest that squatters have been around. A blackened empty space next door, like a rotten tooth, is all that remains of a house destroyed by fire. What was probably once the very desirable Cluain Bui complex on the Leitrim road in Carrick-on-Shannon is today a wasteland.

These “holiday homes” are just a few minutes’ walk from the bustling town centre but a world away from Carrick-on-Shannon’s many attractions – the marina and the boardwalk, the pleasure cruisers and the busy restaurants and hotels.

The people living in Lis Cara, an estate bordering Cluain Bui, see a different side of the place. “I bought my house nine years ago,” says a Dublin man whose home faces Cluain Bui and who admits he had hoped to make a killing within a few years. “I could not afford to buy in Dublin at the time. I paid €126,000 for this two-bedroom house, but I’d be lucky to get €50,000 for it now.”

His neighbours, on one of the few occupied terraces in Lis Cara, are Pakistani, Polish and Lithuanian. A woman from Ukraine says she is happy there. The Dubliner shrugs when asked whether he is disappointed with his move to Leitrim.

This week’s An Taisce report, which gave Leitrim County Council an F-minus for planning, draws more shrugs from many local people, who adopt a tell-us-something-new attitude. The county council wants to study the report in full before making a comment, but a spokesperson notes that all planning decisions are made in accordance with proper planning and sustainable development, and in accordance with the county development plan.

One county councillor has called for An Taisce to lose its position as a prescribed body that must be notified of planning applications. “They are as culpable as anyone else,” says John McCartin of Fine Gael. “They were notified of all these applications,” he adds; his home village of Newtowngore has been “absolutely destroyed” by ghost estates.

“What An Taisce did object to in Leitrim was MBNA and Masonite and Tesco and Lough Rynn – all the things that brought life to the county,” says McCartin

Pressed on who is to blame for ghost estates in villages such as Newtowngore and Keshcarrigan – where guerrilla gardeners recently planted 1,000 saplings to counter the blight – McCartin says the buck stops with the Government.

“You could blame the farmer [who] sold the site, the local politicians for pushing it, the planners for letting it happen, the banks for bankrolling it, the developers who put up the estates or the homeowners who paid exorbitant prices, but the Government is supposed to govern.”

CO DONEGAL ‘There were far too many houses built’

By Pamela Duncan, in Letterkenny

When Noreen McGarrigle moved to Letterkenny, in 1985, she enjoyed going for walks in the green fields near her home, on Glencar Park. “It was nearly all fields – you’d nearly have to wear boots to walk through it,” she says. “Wild big difference from when we moved in to when we moved out.”

She eventually left the town after almost 20 years because “there were far too many houses built”.

Letterkenny is “scattered all over the place”, says another woman, who has lived here for 19 years. “And it’s taking custom away from the main street,” she says, pointing to a shop and a cafe that have shut recently.

“There’s no central area,” English-born Ken MacKenzie, who has lived here for 10 years, complains. “Groups of businesses have sprung up here, there and everywhere, with no real regard for planning.” The National Roads Authority has blamed poor planning for Letterkenny becoming a “significant bottleneck”.

Jesse Purtell, who has lived in Letterkenny since 1972, agrees. “To me the road structure is all wrong, the way the town ended up with all the one-way systems . . . It was all zoned to suit people who had land,” he says.

Locals’ view of local planning problems is reflected in the An Taisce report, which ranks Donegal last among 34 local authorities.

“Donegal had approximately 2,250 hectares of residential zoned land in 2010, sufficient for an additional population of 180,000 people. Despite this, 50 per cent of all residential planning permissions in Donegal over the past decade were granted on unzoned land,” the report notes.

Thomas Pringle, a TD and Donegal county councillor from 1999 to 2011, agrees with An Taisce’s finding that the county’s larger towns were overzoned but says the trust’s league table is being “a bit disingenuous” when it comes to planning permissions being granted on unzoned land. He says that only land in locations with more than 1,500 people is required to be zoned, and Donegal has few of these.

“In [small towns such as] Mountcharles or Dunkineely, if you applied for planning permission on the main street that would be considered unzoned land, so that’s misleading,” he says.

Donegal County Council has defended its record, saying that the An Taisce league table “appears unbalanced, ambiguous and biased against rural and peripheral areas of the country”.

But Neil Clarke, a builder and former Green councillor on Donegal County Council, believes An Taisce is broadly correct in its findings. Between 2005 and 2010, he points out, half of all decisions made by Donegal County Council were reversed on appeal to Bord Pleanála.

“If you had someone working for you and only half of their work was suitable, any employer would sack them. How did they get it so wrong?”

What is An Taisce?

An Taisce, established in 1948, is a charity that aims to help conserve Ireland’s heritage. It is also a prescribed body that must be notified of planning applications. An Taisce receives about €12,500 a year from the State, with more for special projects. It has about 5,000 members, who pay from €10 for students to €600 for life membership. The organisation focuses on three key areas: heritage and planning; natural environment; and properties and conservation.

The dirty dozen?

An Taisce’s initial report named these 12 county councils as having the worst records:

1 Donegal

2 Roscommon

3 Leitrim

4 Kerry

5 Mayo

6 Galway County

7 Cavan

8 Carlow

9 Waterford County

10 Wexford

11 Monaghan

12 Clare

If it had totted up all indicators, the list would have read like this (original position in brackets):

1 Donegal (1)

2 Roscommon (2)

3 Leitrim (3)

4 Kerry (4)

5 Cavan (7)

6 Waterford County (9)

7 Monaghan (11)

8=Clare (12)

8=Galway County (6)

10 Carlow (8)

11 Longford (14)

12 Mayo (5)