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Up here it’s different

Last year An Taisce judged Donegal to have the worst planning in Ireland. Allegations of impropriety have been made. However, only one case of corruption has been substantiated: a report established that Donegal’s chief planner in the 1990s, Gerry Convie, who effectively controlled planning in Donegal for twenty years, had granted permission for a holiday home development on a site which he owned.

An Taisce’s Heritage Officer, Ian Lumley, believes the problem is systemic. “Donegal County Council is so permissive that I do not think concerns over bribery arise”, Lumley said.

During the years 2005-2010, Donegal County Council had the highest number of decisions reversed by An Bord Pleanála: almost 52% of decisions appealed were overturned. In 2011, it was in third place, with 43%. However, while lovely Leitrim was second, this was based on only six decisions.

The systemic failures are multiple. There has been excessive rezoning of land. In the 2011 census, the county’s population was 161,000. There was sufficient zoned land for population growth to 341,000.

According to the current County Development Plan, Letterkenny, the County’s largest town, requires 41 hectares of residential land between now and 2018. Nine hundred and twenty hectares are currently zoned. Against that background it is difficult to steer development into priority zones.

The recession has led to an 80% fall in planning applications since 2006. However, the legacy of the boom years lives on. Between 2000 and 2010, 85% of planning applications granted were for one-off rural housing. They caused a 20% increase in rural housing. According to the County Development Plan, this resulted “in pressure on local infrastructure and the creation of unsewered urban sprawl in (the) rural hinterlands”. One-off housing was partly holiday-home development which the County Development Plan says “has arguably had a short term benefit to the local economy, has added to the strain on local infrastructure and some argue it has disproportionately affected the ability of members of the local community to acquire affordable sites for themselves”.

John McAteer edits the Tirconaill Tribune, which covers north Donegal. He says the Council allowed excessive holiday-home development in certain coastal towns. He described Dunfanaghy, Portsalon, Rathmullan, Downings and Gweedore as particularly affected, and having “a negative landscape with houses pointing in all directions, breaking skylines and having no cohesion to the rural environment whatever”. Dunfanaghy is 2.4 kilometres from the smaller village of Portnablagh: the two villages are now linked by a ribbon development of holiday homes.

Holiday-home development depended on the Northern market – sometimes driven by undeclared cash – and being thus fuelled by the boom in the Northern economy, the strength of sterling against the euro, and the Troubles, during which many Northerners felt safer having a bolt-hole in Donegal. None of these factors still applies, and over-development is a further deterrent. It is unclear how many of Donegal’s 46 ghost estates are holiday home developments. However, four in the Dunfanaghy area alone are ghost estates.

In all, 28.5% of Donegal’s housing stock – or 24,066 units – is vacant. That is the second highest rate in the state. In the western half of the county, west of a line from Donegal Town to Creeslough, at least 20% of houses are vacant in almost every electoral division.

There has also been bad planning in Donegal’s towns. Francis McCafferty is a community activist in Letterkenny. He has been part of several campaigns against inappropriate development. Poor planning has produced fragmented communities “with residential areas splattered all over the place”. The population is slightly under 20,000: however, a car is essential as most shops are now in a retail park to the south of the town centre.

Bundoran has also suffered from bad planning. The amusement-arcade-owning McEniff family are the main force on its Town Council. In an eight-year period in recent years, they were granted retention five times for developments at their Holyrood Hotel. Fianna Fáil Councillor Séan McEniff believes Travellers should be housed “in isolation” from wider society.

Former Fianna Fáil Town Councillor John O’Donnell was the only person expelled from Fianna Fáil over planning issues – because he raised questions about the integrity of planning in the town. He said the worst planning decisions related to the implementation of the seaside renewal tax-incentive scheme, allowing for rent and rate relief initially. “Its main legacy is an oversupply of poorly built accommodation”, he says.

Over-development has made sewage contamination a major problem right round the county.

Windfarms have become the planning issue of the recession. Donegal has more wind farms than any other county on the island (though Cork’s windfarms have a greater capacity). There is concern at concentrations of wind farms developing: approximately 20% of the capacity is around Glenties. A smaller concentration is developing in a district of blanket bog on the Border: this adjoins an area in Tyrone where there is a cluster of at least 24 permitted and proposed wind farms within a 10-mile radius. Given that the County Development Plan does not set out any minimum distance of turbines from houses, it can be expected that controversy will increase.

Perhaps the friendliest county in Ireland and once the most beautiful, Donegal remains sui generis.