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'A lack of regard for our community': Row erupts over social housing development in Donegal

Residents claim to have been misled about the consultation and appeals process, but councillors deny this is the case.

The site on Trusk Road, Ballybofey, Co Donegal.
The site on Trusk Road, Ballybofey, Co Donegal.

A ROW HAS erupted in Co Donegal over a planned social housing development on a site in Ballybofey.

Some residents in the town, which is located about 30 minutes south of Letterkenny, have criticised plans to build a senior citizen housing development on Trusk Road, claiming Donegal County Council (DCC) has ignored some of their concerns.

However, the council denies this is the case, saying the development is needed in the area and is in keeping with all planning regulations.

Three two-storey apartment blocks and three houses are set to be built on the site in question, with DCC giving the plan the green light on 20 July. There was cross-party support on the council for the development.

Local residents say they were told by a number of councillors the council would meet them before voting on the development to discuss their concerns. However, at a meeting on 27 July, residents say they were informed the development had already been given the green light the previous week.

A spokesperson for DCC said the proposals to develop the site were made public in March through local media and a notice placed at the site on Trusk Road. Plans related to the development were also put on public display, and the deadline for submissions related to the development was extended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The spokesperson said residents were given the opportunity to enter submissions and their concerns were responded to in the council’s report on the development.

Residents also claim a number of local councillors told them they could appeal the decision to An Bord Pleanála (ABP) but recently found out this wasn’t the case and a judicial review would be necessary.

Applications for certain developments, such as social housing and strategic infrastructure, can be made directly to An Bord Pleanála. When this occurs, as it did in relation to the development on Trusk Road, the application cannot be appealed via ABP and a judicial review would be necessary.

Residents say they are not against the site being developed but the current plan is not suitable for small rural area. Ballybofey and the neighbouring smaller town of Stranorlar have a population of about 5,000 people.

There has been much debate over what to do with the site since DCC bought it 17 years ago. Two previous housing developments proposed for the site did not receive backing from the council.

The new development will see 19 apartments built at the site – 16 two-bedroom units and three three-bedroom units. The council describes the development as a “predominantly senior citizen housing scheme” that will “help address the existing social housing needs of the Ballybofey/Stranorlar area”.

Screenshot 2020-09-14 at 13.48.15 Architectural plans for units on the site. Source: Donegal County Council

Screenshot 2020-09-14 at 13.47.45 Architectural plans for the site. Source: Donegal County Council

The council has said the proposed development will also have a communal facility and enclosed private residential courtyard, car-parking facilities, a new access road, and a temporary wastewater treatment plant. The intended occupancy of the completed development will be 22 people, the council said.

“Additional space has been designed into the units to accommodate caring, family and medical supports for residents as they age. The development has been designed in line with best practice for an aging population and aims to provide sustainable, long-terms homes to meet the needs of older people in a community setting for people aged over 55 years of age,” a spokesperson for the council said.

“The residents will benefit from a communal space which will enable group activities, events and provides a shared space where older people can meet and socalise with the aim of combating loneliness and isolation.”

They added that the site is located within 200m of local shops and a pharmacy and within 650m of the town centre.

The development is due to cost €4.7 million, which will be paid by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. It is expected that construction on the project will commence in 2021 and take 16 months to complete.

Local residents submitted over 20 objections to the development, saying it is too large for the site in question and not in-keeping with its surroundings.

‘There is no space for people to live’

A spokeswoman for a local residents committee told TheJournal.ie people are “not against that field being developed”, stating: “We welcome social housing, we think it’s necessary, but not two-storey apartments on less than an acre of land.”

She noted there are 24 houses on 4.5 acres in The Weavers estate, which is located beside the site, adding: “There is no space for people to live, this is rural Donegal.”

The submissions against the development include several concerns about the plans, with many residents saying the development is better suited to an urban area where there is more space.

Residents say they don’t understand why the development has been green-lit when planning permission for two-storey houses in the same locality has previously been turned down. However, councillors have pointed out there is a five-storey apartment building nearby.

One submission states there has been a “lack of regard for our community” in relation to the plans. Another concern notes it is “not realistic” to compare a rural town like Ballybofey to larger urban towns where similar developments are planned or have already been built.

Some of the submissions made by residents:

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Residents are concerned about the height of the proposed buildings, saying they will be several metres higher than existing houses in The Weavers estate next door.

“Two-storey houses were rejected by the planning authority and replaced by dormer type dwellings in The Weavers development. No regard has been demonstrated for the precedent set by existing houses at Trusk Road. The mass and scale are not in keeping and are not acceptable,” one submission notes.

Residents have also highlighted the fact there are already a high number of vacant apartments in the town, saying the proposed development could also end up vacant if the current “impractical approach” is not changed.

Demand in the area

Local Fine Gael councillor Martin Harley said there is a demand for this type of social housing in the area, noting there are about 80 people – many of them over the age of 55 – on the waiting list for two-bedroom apartments.

“This is the third time the council has come to the elected members with proposals for this site. This was the first time that we felt there was a project that was suitable for the area,” Harley told TheJournal.ie.

“There is a need in the area for it. We know there are some residents that are not happy with it and we accept that,” Harley said, adding that other residents support the plans.

“I don’t vote to be popular, I vote if I think something is good for the area, I’m not a populist.”

Harley said the development, once completed, will enable older people in the area who wish to downsize their home live independently for longer instead of moving into a nursing home.

He said previous plans were in part rejected because they were too large or the proposed buildings were too high.

Appeals

The residents’ spokeswoman said local people “were told to put in as many submissions as we wanted to and they would be considered, and there would be a public consultation where they would show us the plans and they would talk to us about it and then we’d have a workable, agreeable compromise”.

“We knew we weren’t going to get everything on our wish list, but at least we felt that we had an opportunity to get our concerns and our views listened to, and perhaps acted on as well.”

A number of local councillors told TheJournal.ie they asked for the vote on the application to be deferred until September but were told it had to be voted on at the meeting on 20 July, otherwise funding for the project could be lost.

WhatsApp Image 2020-09-07 at 12.42.53 Residents say they fear the new apartments will end up vacant, like other units in the town.

“We talked to the council executive before the meeting and were told that wouldn’t be possible,” local Sinn Féin councillor Gary Doherty said about attempts by him and colleagues to defer the vote.

Gary Doherty said councillors were “told that the whole project would fall basically” if it wasn’t voted on in July. The council has not responded to queries in relation to this specific aspect of the meeting.

“The decision that I had to make then was, well, do you vote against something that you believe in your heart to be right?” He said social housing is needed in the area, and people over the age of 55 “are crying out for accommodation and they need somewhere to live”.

“As elected members, we have to go by the county development plan and the planning regulations that cover county Donegal, and this development wasn’t in contravention of any of those policies.”

Gary Doherty said he and other councillors have “been engaging with [residents] over a number of months” and wanted to reach a compromise about the development.

“From my personal perspective, we were trying to engage with residents as much as possible to find a resolution and common ground. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been possible.”

In a message to one of the residents after the meeting on 20 July and seen by TheJournal.ie, Gary Doherty said he “did my best” to have the vote deferred until September but was told the whole project would “fall completely” if it wasn’t voted on at the meeting in question.

He said, “by way of a compromise”, the council had agreed to meet with residents in the coming days.

“I would hope that this meeting will allow for all concerns to be raised, and a compromise reached between residents and the Council on outstanding issues. If a compromise still cannot be found, then residents can still have the opportunity to appeal to An Board Pleanála.”

Gary Doherty said he genuinely believed residents could appeal via ABP, later finding out this was not the case.

“That would have been my understanding, it’s unfortunate that that doesn’t seem to be the case. I tried my best to understand the residents’ concerns to see if we can come to common ground, but unfortunately that proved impossible.”

He said there was “absolutely no intention to mislead anybody” and it was “absolutely” a genuine error on his behalf.

“I tried to accommodate the residents as much as I could, that was the point of the meeting with them in the Villa Rose [Hotel, on 27 July], to try at that stage to come to an agreement and a resolution that the residents would be happy with and unfortunately that didn’t happen.”

Liam Doherty, another local Sinn Féin councillor, said, even after the vote on 20 July, he was also under the impression residents could appeal the decision to An Bord Pleanála, but found out this was not the case at the meeting on 27 July.

Screenshot 2020-09-16 at 12.31.46 A letter sent to residents on 22 July about the meeting on 27 July.

“Personally, I thought that they could still go to An Bord Pleanála with it, but that wasn’t the case and I didn’t know that until the day of the meeting. The matter arose after that meeting, I was still under the impression that it wasn’t a complete done deal, and I’ve explained that to the residents.”

Harley said he was also under the impression the decision could be appealed via An Bord Pleanála, only finding out this was not the case when he spoke to council executives after the meeting on 20 July.

Both Harley and Liam Doherty deny advising residents they could appeal via An Bord Pleanála, but say they did believe this was an option when they voted to back the development.

They say there may have been a miscommunication between the council and residents, but they don’t think it was intentional. The council has not replied to queries in relation to possible miscommunication in this regard.

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Liam Doherty said: “I might have said to them, or would have said, that this wasn’t the end of it, you know, we passed the Part 8 (application) but this wasn’t the end of it and that was, hand on heart, my understanding of it. I would have no reason to lie to them. I thought they could still appeal.”

Extended deadline

A spokesperson for Donegal County Council told TheJournal.ie plans for the development were made public via local media outlets and a notice placed at the site.

An advertisement was published in the Donegal Democrat newspaper, and a notice was placed on the site, on 12 March 2020 to notify the public of the council’s intention to use the land for a housing development for older people. A revised planning advertisement was published in the Donegal Democrat newspaper on the 26 March to advise the public that the consultation period was extended due to Covid-19 and a revised site notice was placed on the site on the same date, the spokesperson said in a statement.

They said plans related to the development were put on public display and available for viewing by the public at the council offices in Lifford, about 23km away from Ballybofey, from 12 to 27 March when the offices closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“In order to enable participation in the public consultation process during the period of the Council offices being closed, the plans and particulars of the development were made available for public inspection online on the Donegal County Council website.

“The extended deadline for receipt of submissions and observations was 17th June 2020. Submissions and observations were accepted in hard copy or soft copy format. The overall extended period of public consultation was 13 weeks, which is in line with departmental guidance arising from Covid-19 implications,” the spokesperson said.

A total of 26 submissions were received by the council from members of the public, with the spokesperson noting this included double submissions from two households.

The spokesperson said each submission “was considered in the appraisal of the proposal by both the design team and the Planning Department”. They said the council considers that the design and orientation of the two-storey development “does not impact on the natural light or result in overshadowing of neighbouring properties” and “no gable windows are located on the proposed buildings facing the adjoining Weaver’s Estate”.

The spokesperson said the Department of Housing has reviewed the design and nature of the proposed development and is “supportive of same”.

The council arranged a meeting with local residents on 27 July, at the request of elected members. The spokesperson said this meeting was “used as an opportunity to outline in detail how the submissions/observations received were given due consideration within the process”, as well as give details of the design.

Donegal County Council’s responses to some of the submissions made by local residents:

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Screenshot 2020-09-16 at 13.29.59

Planning permission for the development was applied for via a Part 8 planning application, a method used by local authorities when planning developments such as social housing.

Certain local authority projects are subject to a public consultation process, known as the Part 8 process. This procedure requires that notice of the proposed development shall be given in an approved newspaper and that a site notice be erected on the land on which the proposed development would be situated.

As set out by the Office of Public Works: “Following the consultation period, the chief executive of the local authority will prepare a report which will summarise submissions or observations received and the report is presented to the members of the authority. This report recommends whether or not the proposed development should proceed as proposed, or should not be proceed.

“Following consideration of the report, the proposed development may be carried out as recommended in the report, unless the local authority, by resolution, decides to vary or modify the development, otherwise than as recommended in the report, or decides not to proceed with the development.”

Residents recently sought legal advice on the matter and a solicitor confirmed they would need to appeal via a judicial review. The deadline for this was last Monday, 14 September, eight weeks after the decision was made.

“In very limited cases this time can be extended but this requires an application to The High Court for an extension and our experience shows that such extensions of time are rarely given,” the solicitor told residents in a statement.

They advised that a judicial review would need to show that Donegal County Council “was in breach of the correct procedures and applicable statutory and constitutional law” – something they said doesn’t appear to be the case.

The solicitor noted that another important factor to consider is the potential cost of such litigation, telling residents: “If you were not successful you would risk having to pay the costs of the [the council] as well as your own.”

The spokeswoman said residents could not go down this route due to the costs involved, which could be tens of thousands of euro.

“The cost was the deciding factor. We were prepared to pay for [an appeal via ABP] and any consultation involved, but there is no way we could possibly afford a judicial review,” she said.

Liam Doherty said the council has tried to address residents’ concerns and, after reading the final report about the development, he does not see any issues with the plan.

“Personally, I think it’s a great development. What we can read in the report, and what the architects and planners are putting in front of us, we can’t find flaws in it.”

Liam Doherty said the plan has support “across the board”, and was unanimously backed by councillors on 20 July.

“There’s a demand there for it and [the council] had to prove that to the department, that there was a demand there for these apartments. There is a demand there for them and they will be filled. There’s a waiting list there for them.

“It is a done deal and it’s passed now and there’s no going back, they’d need to go court with it,” he said.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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