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ECJ ruling casts doubt on planning permission for Galway bypass

The EU’s top court hands a major boost to opponents to the N6 bypass around Galway, ahead of a final Supreme Court ruling.

Planning for the N6 Galway City Outer Bypass was approved in 2008 - but has been appealed to the Supreme Court due to its environmental impact.
Planning for the N6 Galway City Outer Bypass was approved in 2008 - but has been appealed to the Supreme Court due to its environmental impact.
Image: National Roads Authority

THE EUROPEAN UNION’S highest court has sided with objectors to the construction of a bypass around Galway city – suggesting that An Bord Pleanála had an incorrect interpretation of environmental law when it granted permission for the project.

The European Court of Justice says planning permission cannot be granted for projects that “adversely affect the integrity of that site” if they stop the site from being to act as a protected priority natural habitat.

The ruling, on questions referred to it by the Supreme Court of Ireland, throw the future of the N6 Galway City Outer Bypass into jeopardy – and may now result in the plans having to be dramatically scaled back or abandoned.

An Bord Pleanála approved planning permission for the 12 kilometre road in 2008. Part of the road was planned to cross a designated ‘site of Community importance’ at Lough Corrib, which hosts 14 different habitats protected under the EU habitats directive.

When approving planning permission, An Bord Pleanála acknowledged that the road would have “a localised severe impact” on the areas in Lough Corrib, it would not “have unacceptable effects for on the environment”.

The areas in Lough Corrib had not been formally included in the European Commission’s list of protected areas at the time, however, although the Irish government had submitted them to the European Commission for inclusion in the list by that time.

Approval appealed to High Court and onward

Environmental campaigner Peter Sweetman appealed the case to the High Court and then to the Supreme Court, which sent questions to the ECJ seeking clarification on the extent of European law.

The ECJ this morning ruled that national authorities could not “authorise interventions where there is a risk of lasting harm to the ecological characteristics of sites which host priority natural habitat types” such as those listed in the EU habitats directive.

“That would particularly be so where there is a risk that an intervention of a particular kind will bring about the disappearance or the partial and irreparable destruction of a priority natural habitat type present on the site concerned,” it said.

The court said that the construction of the Galway bypass through the Lough Corrib site would destroy limestone pavement which could not be replaced.

“The conservation objective thus corresponds to maintenance at a favourable conservation status of that site’s constitutive characteristics, namely the presence of limestone pavement,” it ruled.

The matter will now be returned to the Irish Supreme Court, which could still opt to approve the plans on the “imperative reason of overriding public interest”.

Development of the project – which was funded under EU programmes from 2000 to 2006 – remains suspended.

About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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