Why does it take so long to build anything in Ireland?

Cliff Taylor: Row over cheese plant hints at environmental battles to come

It seems to take forever to get anything built in Ireland. Some of this is due to the planning process – and some is due to policy ambiguity. Two recent court decisions underline this, both providing key pointers to policy. One is about a cheese factory. The other a housing development in Dublin’s northern suburbs.

The row over the proposed cheese plant at Belview in Co Kilkenny being planned by Glanbia and a Dutch partner to make soft cheeses for continental markets is just a taster of the battles to come on environmental policy. It underlines one thing clearly – Government policy needs to decide how we are to meet our emissions targets. The planning system is not set up as a place for a proxy battle on environmental policy.

The plant was approved by Kilkenny County Council and appealed by An Taisce to An Bord Pleanála, where it was again given the green light. An Taisce then appealed it to the High Court. Having just lost there, An Taisce this week said it wanted to take it to the Court of Appeal, based on the impact of the plant on emissions and water quality. The matter is before the High Court again on Monday but it may be some time before we discover if leave to appeal will be granted.

The project is precisely the kind of diversification which was targeted by policy in the wake of Brexit. A joint venture with a Dutch company with the requisite expertise to produce soft cheese such as Gouda and Emmental – and market outlets to sell the output – seemed a sensible way to achieve this. But given initial approval in 2019 by the county council it is still going through the planning process, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin this week calling on An Taisce not to take the matter further, to the discomfort of the Green Party. The project has been held up in planning for the guts of two years.


An Taisce, meanwhile, is saying it has to continue to object, with a spokesperson telling RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that the additional milk produced for the factory could “tip us over the edge” in terms of emissions from the sector. In his judgment in the case Mr Justice Richard Humphreys pointed to the key issue. An Taisce’s “real grievance is with Government policy” he found, and specifically the planned level of dairy production and the resulting emissions. The judge interpreted State policy as being that environmental targets should be met, but at the lowest possible economic cost. And dairy production is highly profitable. But does this mean, for example, emissions cuts elsewhere via measures such as a a smaller beef herd?

The judge quoted US economist Thomas Sowell, who said there were “no solutions, only trade-offs”. These trade-offs are inherently political decisions. Despite its recent climate Bill, it is clear that the Government – and indeed society at large – is only starting to face up to these questions. It surely isn’t for An Taisce to set overall policy in this area. Nor for Glanbia. But it is unfair to drag the company further through the planning wringer as some kind of test case for Government policy not yet articulated. And in terms of this kind of investment this is only the start of it – and means policy clarity is vital. Goudagate may pass, but there is more, much more of this to come.

There are trade-offs in other key areas of policy too – not least the hot topic of housing. Without looking at the rights and wrongs of every single one of a variety of cases in the news recently we can observe that many of them have resulted in houses not being built, or being delayed, often due to objections supported by politicians of all parties.

And so we come to our second court case. One development, close to Raheny village on land adjacent to St Paul’s College and St Anne’s Park, has been the subject of four Bord Pleanála decisions and 10 sets of legal proceedings which have led to it being approved and shot down in sequence. The developers lost the latest High Court appeal, via a judgment which from a layperson’s view would seem to have wider implications for how developments are planned, the balance is reached between local interests and the interests of getting houses built.

Wherever you stand on this one, it is surely clear that we need system which can deliver a decision – whatever it is – is a much quicker way. And planning isn’t the only hold up – the Dublin City Council’s chief quantity surveyor, Mark Bourke, pointed recently to long delays – of four to six years – in council projects due to European Union procurement rules for contractors and delays in the Department of Housing releasing funds.

Planning court

Labour leader Alan Kelly pointed out in the Dáil this week that the An Bord Pleanála’s 2019 annual report showed that in two-thirds of cases where objections were made to its decisions it either lost the legal case or folded its tent before the case went to court. Other research shows that 30 per cent of homes planned in these so-called strategic developments – bigger projects that go straight to An Bord Pleanála – in Dublin in 2019 were subject to judicial review proceedings. The Taoiseach said there may be a case for a new planning court to try to speed things up.

Sometimes ambiguity suits politicians, and not only those in government. It allows them to ride two horses, objecting when it suits and calling for development at the same time. Where does the young home-buyer stand in this equation? It allows for difficult decisions in environmental policy – how the heck we are going to meet our targets – to be fudged. The big decisions to be made after the pandemic – and the roadblocks to be tackled – are starting to build up.