Just last June, former senior planner with Donegal County Council, Mr. Gerard Convie, was successful in his legal challenge in quashing the findings of the Internal Planning Review published by the Department of the Environment in respect of allegations of serious planning irregularities in County Donegal. As previously reported on this blog, the Department’s Review found that there was no evidence of irregularities or corruption in relation to the complaints. The quashing of the Review’s findings prompted Minister Jan O’Sullivan to reopen the Independent Planning Investigation previously proposed by former minister John Gormley. Mr. Convie and Donegal County Council certainly appear to have a colorful history having been involved in a number of legal tussles in recent years. As widely reported in the media, back in 2002 Mr. Convie alleged that a “golden circle of corruption” operated within the planning system in the county. Mr Convie himself was suspended from Donegal County Council in 1999, allegedly for not following proper procedures in relation to a planning application on a piece of land in which he had an interest. The claims and counter-claims of corruption and irregularities played out in the courts certainly have more than a whiff about them and certainly merit full scrutiny by the newly reopened independent planning investigation.

In the aftermath of the case, there have been a number of unfortunate episodes which certainly do not paint planning in Donegal in the best light and give credence to the contention that, at the very least,  some very fundamental questions need to be asked regarding planning procedures and practices in the County. For example, a row has broken out between the HSE and Letterkenny Town Council over the recent high profile flooding of the newly opened €22 million Emergency Unit at Letterkenny General Hospital. The damage caused by the flood forced the closure of the hospital, extensive damage estimated to run to over ten million euro and even prompting genuine fears that the new unit will need to be demolished. As reported in the Donegal Democrat, the flood waters entered from a blocked gully above the site, became mixed with sewage, causing millions of euro in medical equipment to be destroyed, thousands of patient files soaked in foul smelling polluted water, walls and floors contaminated and the hospital only able to offer extremely limited services for the people of the county.

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It since emerged that the granting of planning permission for the new unit was conditional on a flood attenuation report being submitted to the council prior to the commencement of construction and that the potential for serious flooding was known about for over a decade. In fact, two reports dating from 2002 to 2006 which are freely available to download from the OPW’s www.floodmap.ie website raised very serious concerns about local flooding at Letterkenny General Hospital with the 2006 report plainly concluding:

“L8. Letterkenny Hospital, Letterkenny – River overflows its banks once every 3 years after very heavy rain. The Hospital is liable to flood.”

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However, according to the Donegal News a senior council official stated that this condition of planning had not been fulfilled and the flood attenuation measures were never received. While it may seem grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented that Letterkenny Town Council could allow the construction and operation of a brand new medical facility (accommodating vulnerable emergency patients) of critical regional importance to commence without requiring the most basic risk management measures of a known risk to be complied with, other recent events point to a general ham-fisted approach to planning in the county which suggest that the malaise was not merely a once-off.

For example, a recent edition of the Today with Myles Dungan radio programme reported on the problem of raw sewage overflowing into the sea in Dungloe and Burtonport. Resident’s describe the two holding tanks for the town’s sewage overflowing; the local beach festooned with toilet paper and untreated human faeces; manholes in the children’s playground overflowing with sewage; sewage flowing out of toilets in housing estates; the closure of the local oysterbeds due to faecal pollution; and a foul stench causing nausea and creating public health issues. According to the wastewater treatment specialist interviewed by RTE residents were living in a ‘toxic environment’. This issue does not seem to be unique to Dungloe and Burtonport with similar issues reported all around Donegal including in Bundoran and Glenties.

The reason of course is simple – although none of these towns have sewerage treatment plants or have grossly inadequate treatment plants, Donegal County Council sanctioned a massive ad-hoc expansion of new development in these areas throughout the Celtic tiger. In fact, a quick look through the Donegal County Council’s online planning enquiry system shows that the Council granted planning permission for hundreds of homes, shops, commercial premises – all with temporary private domestic effluent treatment systems. In one case in Dungloe, the Council granted permission for 94 residential units all to be serviced by a temporary septic tank. In the case of the Altán estate in Burtonport (which featured in the RTE programme), the Council granted planning permission for a 22 unit residential development with what is described in the application documentation as a ‘temporary contract cess-pitt’ as its primary sewage disposal system.

Leaving aside for one moment Donegal County Council’s apparent lax attitude to enforcing planning conditions as exemplified by the Letterkenny General Hospital debacle and the fact that septic tanks were until recently completely unregulated, it does not require a skilled expert to decipher from the picture of the Altán housing development below that the nature of the soil in many of these areas may be unsuitable for a septic tank system. In fact, the North West River Basin Management Plan concludes that there are as many as 60,000 septic tanks in this region located in areas where the soil characteristics are unsuitable for septic tanks and that there has been a proliferation in recent years of private sewage treatment systems for multiple housing schemes causing significant pollution risks.

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*The Rear of the Altán Housing Development in Burtonport showing the percolation area for the waste water disposal system

Donegal is obviously an extreme example of the planning chaos which gripped Ireland throughout the Celtic tiger but is by no means unique. The legacy costs of the rush to allow development regardless of location will continue to unfold for decades and will not just affect the local residents. For example, a 2012 report by the EPA found that 17 of Donegal’s 33 settlements had no required secondary sewage treatment. Of the remaining 16 that did have secondary treatment, 12 did not meet the required standards. As a result, in order to avoid serious fines under the EU Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, a minimum tax payer investment of €120 million is required to be invested in Donegal, including in retrofitting small peripheral settlements where even a basic planning assessment would conclude that development of the scale permitted was completely inappropriate. In a time of extremely limited exchequer resources, this wasteful expenditure is causing investment to be diverted from elsewhere, including areas where there is significant potential for economic development and employment creation.

Gavin Daly

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