Electricity Pylons Decision Revoked on Health Grounds – by Ciarán Cuffe, published in the Irish Independent, 23rd March 1999
Cork County Council’s decision yesterday to revoke planning permission for a ring of electricity pylons around Cork Harbour has focussed attention on the role of councillors in the planning process. Their decision comes only three weeks after Leitrim County Councillors withdrew permission for an Eircell mast in Ballinamore. In both cases the Council used powers under Section 30 of the 1963 Planning Act. This allows the County Councillors to revoke or modify a planning permission that has been previously granted. The decision must be made before the works have commenced, and under the 1976 Planning Act the powers can only be used if there has been ‘a change of circumstances relating to the proper planning and development of the area concerned’.
In the Cork case, Councillor John Mulvihill referred to new concerns about health risks from electro-magnetic fields given by Professor Henshaw of Bristol University at a conference last September. This referred to apparent links between electro-magnetic fields and the incidence of child leukemia. Councillors also referred to the effect on property prices of homes located in the vicinity of the proposed electricity lines. Those who appealed the original decision to An Bord Pleanala were denied their request for an Oral Hearing to present their case, and this led to frustration being expressed on the ground. The Cork decision follows closely on a similar case in Leitrim, where three weeks ago the County Council passed a vote revoking permission for an Eircell mast in Tully, Ballinamore. In the Leitrim case fears were expressed about health risks; the effect on property values, tourism, and visual amenity. In both instances Planning Appeals to An Bord Pleanalá of the Section 30 motions is allowed by the applicants, and is now likely.
If the appeals to the Planning Appeals Board fail, the prospect looms of semi-state companies Eircell and the ESB taking Councils to the High Court and seeking compensation, or obliging the Planning Authority (in this case the repective County Councils) to purchase the land in default of granting permission. Such action under Section 29 of the 1963 Planning Act might result in County Councillors being left individually liable for their share of any loss suffered by the planning applicant.
A trend appears to be emerging of Councillors flexing their muscles, and expressing concerns about environmental risks associated with new infrastructure. The actions of protest groups, such as those who occupy the site of the proposed dual carriageway through the Glen of the Downs in Wicklow, or the sites of the proposed pylons around Cork Harbour have captured the Media’s attention. This has concentrated the minds of councillors who representing their constituents at local level. They may be concerned that their views are being usurped by more radical protestors who take direct action. In this context the use of Section 30 powers by the councillors may be seen as an attempt to wrestle power back from management. Such action helps bring Councillors into the public eye, and may be noticed in the run-in to the local elections on the 11th of June next.
Councillors also feel that their views may be ignored by the City or County Manager in making their decision. The traditional division between Managerial and reserved functions at Council level can make it difficult for a Councillor to explain to constituents that they do not have the final say in planning decisions. Under the Planning Acts, the Councillors make the Development Plan, and the Manager makes the individual decisions over planning applications. In England, Councillors have the final say on planning matters, but one wonders whether Councillors here would be capable of using such powers wisely, if it was granted to them.
The precautionary principle seems to be at work in both the Leitrim and Cork cases. This refers to a belief that new technology should only be introduced if it can be proven that no harm will result. In both case a clear level-headed approach is necessary to ensure that all views are taken into account, and that all scientific evidence is carefully considered. Both decisions draw attention the need for a planning framework that is transparent, open and able to review environmental concerns in a clear and efficient manner. The 1963 Planning Act is a good Act, but it is now badly in need of a review to reflect modern concerns relating to sustainability and community involvement in decision-making. Such a review might address the concerns being expressed by councillors and the general public in relation to electromagnetic fields and other matters.
Published in the Irish Independent, 23rd March 1999, this page updated 9th january 2018