Ground­hog Day for Ap­ple in Athenry as the world gets busy with the fu­ture

The Irish Times - Business - - CAVEAT - Mark Paul

It is two years, six months and 24 days since Ap­ple an­nounced its in­ten­tion to in­vest €850 mil­lion in a data cen­tre in Athenry, where the news was greeted like pints af­ter mass. What has hap­pened in the pe­riod since? Lots and lots of things, in fact.

In Den­mark, Ap­ple has built a sim­i­lar data cen­tre at Vi­borg that was an­nounced on the same day as the Athenry project, and will be com­mis­sioned by the end of this year. It has also an­nounced it will spend another $920 mil­lion on a sec­ond Dan­ish cen­tre at Aaben­raa.

And in Athenry? Noth­ing, be­cause it hasn’t yet got plan­ning.

Since Ap­ple made its Athenry an­nounce­ment, Ire­land has had one gen­eral elec­tion, two taoisigh, one mar­riage ref­er­en­dum and a cul­tural and so­cial near-revo­lu­tion. The UK has gone through two gen­eral elec­tions, one-and-a-half prime min­is­ters and one col­lec­tive melt­down via the vote for Brexit. The US has swapped its first black pres­i­dent for its first orange one, and gone from world po­lice­man to can­di­date for a geopo­lit­i­cal Asbo. The world has changed, and changed ut­terly.

But in the mean­time, noth­ing has hap­pened in Athenry be­cause it hasn’t got plan­ning.

When Ap­ple an­nounced its data cen­tre, my daugh­ter was five weeks old and couldn’t see past the end of her nose. Yes­ter­day, she glow­ered at me from the hall, told me I was a “silly daddy” and that she’d see me af­ter Montes­sori. She has gone from be­ing a new­born to walk­ing and talk­ing, en­tered the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and mas­tered the art of the per­fect in­sult. My job is al­ready half­way done.

But in the mean­time, noth­ing has hap­pened in Athenry be­cause it hasn’t got plan­ning.

Dif­fer­ent sport­ing galaxy

When Ap­ple made its an­nounce­ment, Manch­ester United were cling­ing onto the top four, but peo­ple trusted Louis Van Gaal’s “phi­los­o­phy” in his de­but sea­son. Since then, LVG turned to WTF, Van Gaal was re­placed by José Mour­inho (who was lead­ing Chelsea to glory when Athenry was an­nounced), and we’re now in a dif­fer­ent sport­ing galaxy.

An African ele­phant could have got­ten lucky, given birth af­ter the long­est preg­nancy of any mam­mal, got­ten lucky a sec­ond time, and be one-third through her next preg­nancy.

Yet, in the mean­time . . . you can fin­ish the rest of this sen­tence your­self.

There is a writ­ten-off Coillte for­est where Ap­ple, and Athenry, wanted a data cen­tre, 300 con­struc­tion jobs, and 150 on-site per­ma­nent jobs to be.

Doesn’t any of this strike those with the power to change our plan­ning sys­tem as be­ing a tri­fle odd? That the world could spin on its axis 936 times, but no­body can give Ap­ple the go-ahead for the largest ever cap­i­tal in­vest­ment west of the Shan­non?

This week, Bloomberg re­ported that Ap­ple is losing pa­tience with its Ir­ish de­lays, and could shelve the project. The Gov­ern­ment has de­nied that Ap­ple is losing com­mit­ment. But United de­nied they were sack­ing Van Gaal un­til Mour­inho showed up in his park­ing spot. De­nials are cheap. Could you blame Ap­ple if it walked away?

We shouldn’t blame the hand­ful of in­di­vid­u­als who have sought a ju­di­cial re­view of the plan­ning per­mis­sion in the High Court (the source of much of the de­lay). They are sim­ply mak­ing use of the sys­tem as it stands. The cor­rect de­ci­sion should be made in full ac­cor­dance with the laws de­signed to pro­tect our en­vi­ron­ment.

But any plan­ning sys­tem that fa­cil­i­tates such egre­gious de­lays in mak­ing fi­nal de­ci­sions on ma­jor in­vest­ment projects is clearly de­fec­tive, in the same way that a cho­co­late fry­ing pan, or a low-fat ke­bab, is de­fec­tive. It is sim­ply of no use to any­one.

Ap­ple made its ini­tial an­nounce­ment on Fe­bru­ary 23rd, 2015, and filed its plan­ning ap­pli­ca­tion some weeks later. It got its per­mis­sion from Gal­way County Coun­cil in Septem­ber of that year. The mat­ter was ap­pealed to An Bord Pleanála, which af­ter a se­ries of pub­lic hear­ings fi­nally ap­proved the scheme in Au­gust 2016.

Three ob­jec­tors (in­clud­ing the owner of a ri­val site in Wick­low) then sought a ju­di­cial re­view in the High Court in

Horses pic­tured last year at the site in Der­ry­don­nell near Athenry where Ap­ple plans to build an €920 mil­lion data cen­tre.

Oc­to­ber, and in Novem­ber Ap­ple had the mat­ter ex­pe­dited to the fast-track Com­mer­cial Court, which should take a max­i­mum of six months. Fi­nal sub­mis­sions were made in March.

Square one

It was ad­journed in June, ad­journed again in July, and it now ap­pears a fi­nal de­ci­sion on whether the de­ci­sion to grant plan­ning was taken in ac­cor­dance with the law will be de­liv­ered on Oc­to­ber 12th. If the court finds the de­ci­sion was de­fec­tive, Ap­ple and Athenry are back to square one.

That is not a prop­erly func­tion­ing, mod­ern plan­ning sys­tem. That is a sys­temic sham­bles, the fault of no­body in par­tic­u­lar but all of us at once.

In Vi­borg, a lo­cal en­ergy com­pany wants to har­ness the ex­cess heat from its Ap­ple data cen­tre to heat the town. Just imag­ine what they could do with all the hot air from the Ir­ish plan­ning sys­tem? They’d be grow­ing palm trees in the fields of Athenry.

Please, let this be the last ma­jor in­vest­ment project to get bogged down in plan­ning quick­sand. The peo­ple of Athenry – and the rest of us – de­serve much bet­ter.

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