No public conscience on planning

As a lifelong hill-walker, I love the Comeragh mountains and would hate to see a procession of huge pylons arrogantly march on the periphery of the range’s southern flanks, the route now proposed in the Eirgrid corridor.

As a lifelong hill-walker, I love the Comeragh mountains and would hate to see a procession of huge pylons arrogantly march on the periphery of the range’s southern flanks, the route now proposed in the Eirgrid corridor.

The Comeraghs may not be the highest or most extensive of Ireland’s mountains, but they have everything: from the small upland farms and woods of the foothills over Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir, to expanses of moorland and bog, jagged ridges, steep cliffs, lonely corrie lakes, deep valleys, streams, waterfalls and ancient sites. And then the range slides gently into the sea.

My German son-in-law (an experienced mountaineer), when he first walked these hills, asked: “Where are all the smoking chimneys?” Coming from one of the most densely populated and industrialised areas of Central Europe, he was responding to the beauty of the pristine landscape - a landscape which still bears archaeological evidence of human occupancy going back, at least, to the Bronze Age, 3/4000 years ago.

Some years ago, a fellow Comeragh-enthusiast talked to me about the prospect of initiating a campaign to have the area declared a national park, and I raised the issue in this column. Although my readers have never been remiss in telling me what they think about this column, especially when they disagree with what I write, the Comeragh national park issue did not raise even a tittle, a whit, of comment or response.

While the prospect was remote, and may well have never been achieved, it would have had its merits. The status would have brought with it an imperative to preserve and conserve. It would have imposed strict planning conditions and limitations on the entire area - limitations which might now save it from the threatened Eirgrid development.

Planning conditions, restrictions, limitations! Ah! there’s the rub!

We have never developed a public conscience on planning in Ireland. We have never taken the long view on development. We have never looked at consequences. We have never subscribed to the theory of the common good. We, ordinary Irish people, have never viewed planning except through the most narrow of selfish prisms. “This is where I will build my house. This will be my view. This is my property and nobody has the right to tell me what I should do with it.” Perhaps our attitude has been influenced by history: rack-renting landlords and evictions. But that is now history, and property does have its duty as well as its privileges. Developers do have their civic responsibilities as well as access to profits. While many Irish local authorities have had the most conscientious and talented of planners, the political will has never been there to encourage us to think of planning in other than the most limited of perspectives.

Have we made mistakes? Boy, have we made mistakes! We now have the ghost estates and the cavernous empty hotels and NAMA. Have we learned anything from those mistakes? In Clonmel, for instance, because of the persistent encroachment on the floodplain, the natural drainage of the Suir, we have had to expensively confine the river within high walls and banks. The open river, once the most attractive feature of the town centre, is now so channelled that it can no longer be seen on a quay-side walk. Yet, there is the dichotomy in the treatment of the river by a neighbouring local authority. The extensive marches on the estuary at Waterford, the great natural retainer and slower-down of the river, especially in times of flooding, are gradually being eroded and drained with the prospect, apparently, of ultimate development. While we try to keep the water out in one location, we destroy the natural and free soakage at another. All at the same time. There are the same contradictions in our personal lives, in our modern dependency on electricity, which has become as necessary to us as the air we breath. From the moment we tune into the early morning radio news, to cooking the breakfast porridge and making our morning tea, we are electrically-powered.

Eirgrid now tells us that in order to meet that dependency and the anticipated needs of industry, it will be necessary to cover substantial areas of the countryside of East Cork, Co. Waterford, the Tipperary/Waterford border and vast areas of counties Carlow and Kildare with corridors of pylons and networks of wire, much of which will impact on individual farmland, villages, towns, isolated dwellings and areas of natural beauty.

There are allied claims, including those made recently by European Deputy Phil Prendergast, that clusters of pylons can impact dangerously on people’s health, but as yet there has been no authenticated published research to confirm this. The jury is out.

Irish people have become, justifiably, suspicious of experts who charge the taxpayers huge fees and tell us what is good for us. Here, Eirgrid is the expert, and while the pylon proposal has been opened to public consultation, thre is a suspicion that this is just window-dressing.

The public, however, as a shareholder in the planning process, cannot be dismissed. Here a balance to achieve good planning, in the interest of the common good, has to be the objective.

Because each of use will have our own sections of ‘special interest’ corridor, I return to mine. It is a loop which veers off from Rathgormack through Feddans, Munsburrow, Coolaharna, the lower slopes of Coumahon and on to Fews, the periphery of the lower slopes of the Comeraghs, the remoter areas of which still remain part of Waterford’s vanishing wilderness, And although electricity is now an essential in all our lives, so too is our wilderness. For our souls!

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