There has been understandable dismay over An Bord Pleanála’s decision to refuse to grant planning permission for the proposed Drogheda to Mornington Greenway. In an area devoid of any meaningful cycling infrastructure, the provision of a greenway to connect the coastal villages with Drogheda and further beyond is an important project.
People in the area feel aggrieved by the failure of this headline project to secure planning permission, but we think it is important that people also understand the reasons for it, which essentially is a function of the Council’s decision to select a route close to (and in some cases actually inside) a Special Protection Area for birds and to terminate the route at the Mornington Dunes which are within a Special Area of Conservation, both of which are protected by EU law. In particular Birdwatch Ireland and the National Parks and Wildlife Service expressed serious concerns about the impact of the project on these habitats and species.
There are two key documents (see https://www.eastmeath.org/greenway-refusal/) that need to be read together to understand the decision
- The Inspector’s Report which sets out an independent analysis of the application file and the submissions from the public and from public bodies.
- The Board Order which is the decision of the Board taken in light of the Inspector’s Report
The Inspector’s Report
An inspector of the Board was appointed to prepare a report which also contains a detailed opinion from the Board’s in-house ecologist on the scientific information presented by the Council in relation to the habitats in the Boyne and along the coast at Mornington.
The first thing to say is that there was extensive consultation with 233 public submissions and several submissions from statutory consultees. These submissions raised many issues both for an against the project. Following receipt of these submissions the Board asked Meath County Council to provide further details and there followed a further round of consultations with 75 submissions from the public.
The inspector’s report is detailed and diligently analyses the project looking at it from all angles, both for and against.
The first thing to say is that the inspector accepted the principle of a Greenway in the area and was off the view that it complied with national and local policies. The inspector said it would provide a sustainable transport route for commuters and would support future development of a national sustainable transport route. However the inspector said that despite the greenway being acceptable in principle the impact on the protected sites in the Boyne, the environment and on traffic needed to be examined so that an assessment of these issues could be taken into account.
In relation to transport, the inspector indicated that she would be concerned that it had not been adequately demonstrated as to how public transport will link up to the serve the greenway. Furthermore she identified the lack of any dedicated parking areas as a significant issue raised in submissions. She said it would result in congestion including at Mornington. The inspector recommended refusal on this point.
The Inspector noted that while the proposal did examine alternatives none of them referred to the possibility of locating the proposed greenway elsewhere, i.e. away from the protected sites in the Boyne. She said it would have been preferable if an alternative route could have been looked at to ensure less impact on the Boyne habitats.
The inspector also raised concerns about the removal of a significant number of trees and hedgerows along the route resulting in a considerable impact on landscape and visual amenity.
The inspector dealt specifically with the Boyne Coast and Estuary SAC which includes sensitive dune habitats and the Boyne Estuary SPA which is home to large numbers of wintering birds. These habitats are protected by EU law which says that the planning authority cannot grant permission unless it can be ascertained that there will be no adverse impact on the integrity of the habitats from the project.
In relation to theses habitats a detailed analysis was undertaken by the Board’s expert ecologist who raised a number of concerns:
- The ecologist identified a number of methodological issues include misapplication of the assessment approach.
- The potential impacts were not correctly considered in the Council’s reports
- Given the current unmanaged situation at Mornington Dunes, any meaningful avoidance of further impacts could not be achieved through signage and the Council had not demonstrated that adverse effects could be excluded. She thought that the proposal would actually further delay the achievement of the conservation objectives for the Dunes.
- Lack of information on construction and operational impacts on habitats in the river
- Uncertainty about measures to mitigate disturbance of birds from walkers and dogs
- Adverse effects on the dunes
- Proposed reliance on post-consent monitoring to identify further adverse effects is contrary to EU law
The Board Decision
The Board makes its decision taking into account the inspector’s report.
In its decision the Board agreed with the inspector’s conclusions concerning European habitats but disagreed and found that there would not be significant adverse impacts on traffic and landscape despite the concerns of the inspector.
To conclude, the greenway was refused because adverse effects on the most sensitive habitats and species in the area, which are protected by EU law, could not be ruled out. In essence, either the Council had not done enough to rule this out, or alternatively it is not possible to rule them out given the route that was selected.