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J'accuse Monsieur Brady!

Sunday September 28th 2003

Frank Corcoran is President of An Taisce. Here he responds to comments made earlier in the week by the chairman of an Oireachtas committee, Johnny Brady TD, when he likened An Taisce to the "British landlords" who evicted their tenants in the 19th century, because of its objections to housing in the countryside.

JOHNNY Brady TD, chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, knows that the reaction of the Irish public to evictions by British landlords was violence. What does he expect the reaction to be to his recent statements to the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, and repeated on Morning Ireland, that An Taisce is a new British landlord evicting people from their homes? Such untrue statements are an incitement to hatred.

Let us look at the real truth of the matter. People are getting planning permission for one-off houses. Currently, one third of all houses built are one-off.

However, it is not a free for all. Any restrictions that do exist are placed there in the first instance by the Development Plans made by the elected County Councillors, and not by An Taisce. These in turn are subject to the Regional Planning Guidelines made by the Government and not by An Taisce.

They are further subject to the National Spatial Strategy made by the Government and not by An Taisce. The detailed restrictions on one-off houses are contained in the 1997 Sustainable Development Strategy adopted by the Rainbow Coalition and approved by the following FF/PD/Independents government when they, and not An Taisce, proposed that Sustainable Development be put on a full legal footing in the Treaty of Amsterdam, binding the Irish Government. This was approved by the People and not An Taisce in the 1998 referendum. Remember it was open to that Government to change the strategy in relation to rural one-off housing prior to that referendum, but they chose not to do so.

The Government, and not An Taisce, adopted a number of EU landscape directives and Groundwater and Drinking Water Directives, which placed limitations on development in certain areas.

In September 2002 the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg issued a judgment against Ireland for our failure to comply with the Drinking Water Directive and the judgment recognised the inability of Local Authorities to monitor compliance as a reason for Ireland's difficulties. The Court held that existing rural dwellers on group water schemes were entitled to the protection of the Drinking Water Directive which had been denied to them by the Government.

The Government states that 42% of group water schemes and 33% of single wells have been contaminated with bacteriological coliforms. The European Commission threatened to withdraw all agricultural grants from Ireland if we continued to disregard Environmental Directives.

In relation to Ground Water this was to commence in January 2001, and was then postponed to January 2002 upon a commitment by the Irish Government that they would produce a plan to control pollution. Currently 90% of farmer's income is provided by way of direct grant from the European taxpayer (shortly to be the Irish taxpayer). Any action by Ireland to make compliance more difficult threatens the continuance of these funds that recirculate in the rural economy. €42 billion of the €96 billion entire EU budget goes to agricultural grants.

The Irish Government, and not An Taisce, agreed to the Kyoto Protocol on reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, the fastest growing of which are from transport. As a result of our inability to meet our commitments, the Department of the Environment has estimated that we will have to pay €1.3billion to, for example, the UK, on emissions trading. They are proposing to pay for this by a tax on petrol. This will have a severe impact on existing rural dwellers who are car dependent.

Planning decisions are made by County Managers and An Bord Pleanála, the planning appeals board, and not by An Taisce. An Taisce is one of the consultees under the Planning Acts, and its function is to make comment on planning applications and refer appropriate cases to An Bord Pleanála. An Taisce only appeals 4 out of every 1,000 decisions, and of these approximately 90% are upheld, invariably on the grounds of public health and public safety.

The Chairman of An Bord Pleanála, when asked by the Dáil committee of Public Accounts why such a high proportion of An Taisce appeals were upheld, replied that An Taisce only referred to them the most extreme examples of breach of public health and safety. The trigger for referrals is usually an inconsistency between the decision of the County Manager and the planners and environmental officers' reports. Is Deputy Brady seriously suggesting that An Taisce should compromise public health and safety by neglecting to make such referrals?

So, what is An Taisce? It is the oldest and largest environmental organisation in Ireland, set up in 1947 by Cearbhall Ó'Dálaigh and Sean Mac Bride, and Eamon DeValera was a member. As well as holding unique landscapes and buildings in trust, it also organises the Green Schools campaign, which has the highest participation rate, at over one third of all schools, in the world. It also organises the Blue Flag campaign for beaches, the White Flag campaign for leisure centres, and the National Spring Clean for dealing with the litter problem. We are currently costing for Local Authorities the cheaper and safe alternatives to mixed dumps and incinerators in accordance with best international practise.

My colleagues and I have given evidence before the Oireachtas Committees on Public Accounts, on the Environment and on the Constitution. We have found them to be courteous and efficient. However, our experience of the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture was quite different. The Chair allowed criticism and charges by Members against identifiable persons outside the House in breach of long-standing parliamentary practice. He ruled out of order as irrelevant discussion on a Government document on the public cost of rural housing, while at the same time requesting me to visit a large commercial development in West Cork, which was not relevant to rural housing (I acquiesced out of respect for the Oireachtas Committee). I believe that Oireachtas Committees are a good extension of democracy and should be given increased powers to subpoena witnesses and order discovery of documents. However, they must earn the respect of the public to be entrusted with such powers.

© Irish Independent
http://www.unison.ie/irish_independent/ & http://www.unison.ie/
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