Terrible legacy of corrupt Quarryvale rezoning
OPINION:SOME PEOPLE are living in floodplains as a result of land rezoning decisions made by local councillors at the behest of landowners or property speculators. Others have no option but to get into their cars to travel to a shopping centre because the one that was planned nearer wasn’t built, against planning advice.
“Corrupt and bad planning decisions have a significant impact upon people’s lives,” says Jerry Barnes, chairman of the Royal Town Planning Institute (Southern Ireland). He cites as prime example the designation in 1991 by Dublin County Council, tainted by widespread bribery, of Quarryvale as a “town centre”.
It didn’t matter that for the previous two decades an actual town centre had been planned in a central location to serve the Lucan/Clondalkin conurbation. What happened was that it was relocated to the northeastern extremity of the “new town”.
This meant, as Barnes noted, that the residents of Lucan and Clondalkin “have been left for 20 years without an appropriately centrally located town centre which is easily accessible to all. This has very serious long-term implications for thousands of people”. But that was barely considered by councillors who voted for Quarryvale.
Those who championed the radical change of plan, notably the late Liam Lawlor and former Fianna Fáil councillor Colm McGrath, were paid handsomely for their support by lobbyist Frank Dunlop from his “war chest”. Many other councillors also received smaller sums of money for voting in favour of developer Owen O’Callaghan’s scheme.
What Tom Gilmartin originally planned for the 180-acre site he assembled at Quarryvale in the late 1980s was no ordinary shopping centre; it was inspired by the vast Metrocentre at Gateshead, in Tyneside, an out-of-town shopping mecca with 194,000sq m of retail space, inaugurated in 1986.
The Luton-based developer, bankrolled by AIB, was first to spot that Quarryvale, then zoned industrial and residential, would be located right next to the N4/M50 interchange, ideally placed for a motorway shopping centre with a wide catchment area, and he set about talking to the politicians to advance his plan.
Liam Lawlor – “Mr Big”, in Dunlop’s book – recruited himself to Gilmartin’s cause, for his usual extortionate “fees”, and brought him to meet members of Charles Haughey’s government, at that time (February 1989) putting the Dublin authorities under pressure to ease development proposals in the city and county.
After meeting Haughey, Ray Burke, Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and others in Leinster House, Gilmartin was approached in the corridor by a man he didn’t know who demanded that, in return for the assistance he would receive over his Quarryvale and Bachelors Walk projects, he deposit £5 million in an Isle of Man bank account.
As recounted in the Mahon tribunal’s report, the shocked Sligo-born developer told him he made “the Mafia look like monks” and was then warned by him that he could “wind up in the Liffey for that statement”. The tribunal accepted Gilmartin’s evidence of the “undeniably corrupt” demand.
So it wasn’t only county councillors who were shaking down developers for money; the corruption reached into the corridors of power in Leinster House. The tribunal also accepted that Lawlor had sought Quarryvale payments of £100,000 for himself and for then-assistant city and county manager George Redmond.
When Gilmartin wouldn’t pay, Redmond tipped off John Corcoran of the Green Property Company which had got planning permission for the town centre in Blanchardstown, that Gilmartin was planning an even bigger centre for Quarryvale; Redmond learned this at a meeting of senior officials with Haughey, Pádraig Flynn and Ahern.
The upshot was that a proposed deal to sell 69 acres of land at Quarryvale, owned by Dublin corporation and county council, fell through after Green Property expressed an interest in buying the site. In the end, following a public tender, Gilmartin had to pay £70,000 an acre, rather than the £40,000 originally agreed.
Without going into the convoluted takeover of Quarryvale by Owen O’Callaghan, it is clear that members of the county council were corruptly induced to rezone it in 1991 for a major retail development – what became the Liffey Valley centre – to the detriment of the designated town centre in Neilstown.
Indeed, even before it opened in 1998, South Dublin County Council planners sought to lift the cap of 23,225sq m on its size and recommended that it should be elevated to “town centre” status, with the Neilstown site downgraded to “district centre”. The most corrupt decision in Irish planning history was paying dividends.
“The heart of the Mahon findings is that the system was manipulated to serve certain private interests rather than the common good,” Jerry Barnes says. “While the ‘common good’ is a somewhat nebulous term, it is broadly understood to be something which benefits all or most of a community rather than advancing a purely personal gain.”
As a result, there had been “a vast and damaging overzoning of lands throughout the country, much of it in the wrong location, without any long-term demand or supported by the required services; in early 2009, zoned land in the State could accommodate 900,000 dwellings, enough housing to meet demands for the next 20 years.”
Barnes also notes that the development of some of these lands “has contributed to the creation of ghost estates, with the resulting well-documented problems for many residents”. At last count, there are nearly 180,000 houses in various stages of completion on 2,881 ghost estates.
“In the past, there has been a culture of clientelism in local politics serving narrow landed/development interests,” Barnes says. Instead, councillors need to “grapple with what is in the common good, rather than just listening to those who have deep pockets, shout loudest or who could potentially be a source of votes for the next election”.
The Mahon tribunal’s recommendations on ethical standards would “reinforce this shift in political culture”, he believes. But while proposals to put national planning policy on a statutory footing and to reinforce regional authorities’ role are welcome, he feels the function of planning regulator might be better exercised by An Bord Pleanála.
“The Government’s programme to devolve more decision-making to local councillors needs to be balanced with a system of checks, balances and review to avoid errant and evidently incorrect decisions that are at odds with good planning or national and regional policy” – most notoriously the deeply corrupt decision to rezone Quarryvale.
Frank McDonald is Environment Editor of The Irish Times