The decision by An Bord Pleanala last week – to overturn the decision of Kilkenny Borough Council, to ignore the advice of their own appointed inspector, to defy the wishes of local businesses – and approve a large amusement arcade for High Street has left many people in shock and disbelief.
Melcorpo Commercial Properties will now amalgamate all the former retail units of the High Street Mall into a single 555sq.m property. The building’s use will then change from ‘retail’ to ‘lesuire/entertainment’.
The level of opposition to the proposed project is substantial. It is opposed by the members of the borough council, including the mayor. It was rejected by An Board Pleanala’s appointed inspector, Joanna Kelly, who is also the President of the Irish Planning Institute.
It produced objections from the Kilkenny Chamber of Commerce, from the City Centre Businesses Association, the voices of High Street retailers, and appears to be out of step with the city development plan, and the strategy of the county manager.
Locally, there is a sense of disbelief that the powers that be at No 64 Marlborough Street, Dublin 1 can have such a such a controlling say regarding Kilkenny’s future. On foot of an appeal lodged in May last year, a small number of people ultimately decided that Kilkenny City is to have an amusement arcade built in the centre of High Street, at the heart of the Medieval Mile.
“How can the nameless, faceless people in An Bord Pleanala do this, without meeting the borough council, or seeking the opinion of anyone actually on the ground in Kilkenny?” asked Cllr Joe Malone.
None of the local business owners and retailers to whom the Kilkenny People spoke had been consulted by the Board. The borough council, too, is feeling undermined – its previous unanimous refusal counts for little now.
“People now think that the borough council is useless; we made a decision and it was worth nothing,” said Cllr Andrew McGuinness.
Kilkenny City’s development plan recognises amusement arcades as ‘non-desirable’ land use in the core retail area.
Many of the objections stem from the fact that the development is to take place in the centre of the city’s ‘Medieval Mile’ – a new project, which has received considerable investment, emphasising a spine of high-quality tourist attractions. At a recent meeting of Kilkenny Borough Council, county manager Joe Crockett had said the upgrade of the ‘public realm’ was an effort to attract a key tourist target market.
“In terms of developing new attractions, the 45-plus demographic is the key demographic we are now chasing,” he told the council.”
An Board Pleanala’s own inspector, who did visit the site, produced a 16-page document outlining why she felt the scheme should be rejected. The main reasons for her conclusion were that mall’s proposed use would result in the loss of retail space from the city’s core retail area, and that aspects of the development would detract from the existing streetscape and possibly have a negative visual impact on an area of architectural conservation.
However, the Board decided not to accept this. It said the loss of retail space would not detract from the viability or vitality of the city centre, and that it would add to the mix of retail, restaurant and recreation in the city. A footnote said that the board “noted the inspector’s concerns in relation to the potential negative visual impact” to the street, but it could be addressed by way of condition.
Cllr Malcolm Noonan (Green Party) has asked whether broader elements are fully considered in reaching such conclusions.
“It’s tough to accept the decision making of An Bord Pleanala in going against the local authority,” he said.
“I would have questions about the transparency of the decision-making process. Do they have any real knowledge of the situation on the ground here, or the social impact of this?”
The members of An Bord Pleanala are appointed by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, who has the authority to make decisions about general planning and development policy – but crucially, cannot influence the Board in relation to a particular appeal.
The board member who signed off on the decision, Paddy Keogh, took up office on the Board in May of last year. He is a barrister, a member of the Irish Planning Institute and the Irish Environmental Law Association, and has worked as a professional planner in a number of different local authorities.
“The Board only make their decision after they have studied all the evidence,” reads the Bord Pleanala website.
“This includes submissions from the public and the planning inspector’s report and recommendation. In most cases, the decision of the Board follows the recommendation of the planning inspector but this is not always the case.”
The only remaining recourse now is judicial review – an often costly process.
“Any person seeking a review of a decision by ABP could do so on the grounds that such a review deals with process rather than the merits of the Bord’s decision,” said a local authority spokesperson.
“For that reason one would not necessarily have had to have objected to the application in the first instance. As ever it is up to any individual to seek legal advice before embarking on such a course as costs incurred in pursuing a judicial review could be significant.”
At Monday night’s borough council meeting, the members ruled this option out.