A BID to buy more time to thrash out controversial aspects of the new development plan for Clare has been successful. At a special local authority meeting on Wednesday, a motion invoking new legislation that makes provision for the disruption caused by the pandemic led to the granting of an additional seven months to finalise the blueprint.
While the extension of time was granted in strict compliance with the provisions of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act, 2021, several council members have pledged to use the additional time to ensure the new plan is as favourable as possible in terms of the development of rural Clare.
There were some dissenting voices from the Ennis district with two members reluctantly backing the extension and expressing reservations about potential delays in major projects for the county town.
At the council’s July meeting, 11 members had tabled a motion seeking a stay on the plan for 12 months. Councillors Murphy, Hayes, Cooney, Gerry Flynn, Norton, Crowe, Kelly, O’Callaghan, Colleran-Molloy, O’Gorman and O’Brien deferred their motion on the basis that the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act, 2021 had not, at that point, been signed into law. On Wednesday last, Councillor Cillian Murphy tabled an amendment seeking an extension of seven months solely on the basis of the negative impact of Covid-19 on consultation between members and with the general public.
Proposing the motion, Councillor Murphy said: “We are not alone in our concerns. The new law was not dreamed up by councillors in Clare. It is driven by the concerns of councillors all over the country. For the past year, most of the time and energy of the council has focused on day to day management of Covid and the preservation of health and wellbeing. This has caused consultation to slip. An extension will give us an opportunity to catch up and have further meaningful discussions among ourselves and with the communities we represent.”
The motion was seconded by Councillor Joe Cooney who spoke on behalf of the Fine Gael grouping. “We have all had to deal with circumstances outside the control,” he said. “This extension will give the time needed for people to engage more fully and to create a more representative plan.”
On behalf of the Technical Group, Councillor Gerry Flynn said he was in full support of the extension proposal. “It is very important that as democrats and elected representatives we have full and effective engagement with the people who are major stakeholders,” he said. “That is the bottom line, this is about the public, not just investors or other stakeholders. Virtual engagement not working as well as it should.”
Concerns about the extension were expressed by Councillors Johnny Flynn, Paul Murphy and Pat Burke who said their support for the motion was “reluctant”. “The Local Area Plan (LAP) for Ennis urgently needed,” Councillor Flynn said. “If it [the extension] is the democratic wish I’ll have to go along with it.”
Councillor Murphy said that while he was willing to go along with the will of the majority, he was “a small little bit apprehensive”. “We’re in the middle of a housing crisis and we need to be tackling that, especially in the urban centres,” he said.
Councillor Pat Burke said he would “reluctantly go along with the majority”. “I am a great believer in not putting off until tomorrow what you can do today,” he said. “I am looking forward to seeing what will be achieved in seven months. That’s a bit unclear, but I will go along with the majority.
Councillors PJ Kelly and Pat O’Gorman both raised concerns over the impact of national policies with the former saying “planned obsolesce” faced rural Clare unless a rural regeneration strategy was promoted by the constituency’s Oireachtas members.
Councillor Pat Daly noted that Ennis was ready to progress with its new plan.” There’s a shortage of housing,” he said. “Ennis 2040 is very important not just for Ennis but for the county and the Midwest. There are people trying to get lands zoned to create jobs. At the same time, if there are rural issues, I have no problem support the extensions, but for seven months maximum.”
Councillor Clare Colleran-Molloy supported the deferral. “There were some legitimate points on slowing progress on projects in Ennis,” she conceded, “but I would like to think the executive could push with those ahead at the same time as we are considering the county plan. We are county councillors not just district councillors. When we have concerns in rural areas, we have to heed that. We need to meet the needs of the whole county.”
Councillor Ann Norton welcomed the extension as “a good idea”. “We are here to represent the public,” she said. “It’s important that we look at the submissions. They are what we are here for work for, to make sure people’s voices are heard.”
Councillor Pat McMahon said the extension was needed because peoples’ minds were not on the development plan, “but on staying alive and our families staying alive” over recent months.
Councillor Patrick O’Gorman said he was delighted to have the seven month extension. “I can’t understand how a department in Dublin can send rules and regulations for rural Clare and offer no solutions on issues like sewerage and water,” he said. “How can areas grow into the future? I am hoping for answers from the Oireachtas members in the next seven months.”
Councillor Alan O’Callaghan repeated that the reason members were seeking the extension was Covid-related. “There have been huge delays because of Covid,” he said. “People haven’t been able to get workforce or materials. That’s the reason for the extension and it’s important that we don’t get side-tracked.”
Councillor Joe Killeen said Covid had caused community engagement and councillor engagement to be hampered. “Look at how difficult this online meeting is,” he said. “Covid has affected consultation.”
Councillor Pat Hayes reminded members that the extension of time was being sought purely in response the pandemic. “In order to comply with new regulations and legislation, our proposal is very clear,” he said. “This is because of the lack of time for community and councillor engagement, we need more time. There may be other issues and challenges, the law is very clear and we’re using that law very clearly to extend the period. A lot of work to be done right across the county. The last thing we want to do is create an urban-rural divide. We’re a council for the county.”
Councillor Michael Begley was supportive of the seven-month extension. “It is practical to extend and the period is not too long,” he said. “We want to get it right and to get on with the business of making the new plan.”
Chief Executive Pat Dowling acknowledged members’ concerns. “I want to assure you that the planning authority has been very conscious of potential disruptions and has taken steps to ensure public and member engagement,” he said. “Notwithstanding and in respect of reserved powers, you have resolved to initiate extension of new plan and of duration of existing plan.”
Council official Anne Reynolds then read a resolution to give effect to the extension which was proposed by Councillor Murphy and seconded by Councillor Ann Norton.
Mr Dowling promised “robust” engagement and consultation on the plan over the next seven months.