It would be perverse to imagine that planners take pleasure in thwarting efforts to discover why particular decisions have been made. But developments in relation to Prehen Wood suggests that some planners see people who exercise their right to ask for information as nuisances.
Prehen Historical and Environmental Society (PHES) has long been fighting to protect the Wood, the last remnant of a verdant canopy which once stretched along the Foyle all the way from Derry to Strabane. It is among the few patches of ancient bluebell woodland left in the North, providing a habitat for a colony of endangered red squirrels, as well as badgers, long-eared owls and many other species.
Prehen Wood is described on the website of the Woodland Trust as “one of Northern Ireland’s rare and irreplaceable ancient woodlands...it managed to withstand the siege of Derry in 1689 and the presence of American troops during the Second World War. At 7.5 hectares (18.5 acres) the remaining woodland is much reduced from its former size. That which remains, however, is a natural treasure trove, a place of great beauty - and all on the doorstep of the city of Londonderry.”
PHES secretary George McLaughlin has assiduously monitored proposals that might impact on the Wood and lobbying against developments which the PHES believes would compromise its integrity.
In early 2007, the Planning Service considered a proposal for four houses at the edge of the Wood, a road linking the houses to Prehen Park and the installation of sewerage, drainage and other services. The planners rejected a submission from the PHES arguing that the proposal contravened the Derry Area Plan and ignored various official designations: “Why is the area plan being changed to allow this roadway that would traverse through part of the ancient woodland which is covered by a full Tree Preservation Order, has an Area of Nature Conservation and Local Amenity Importance designation, is Green Belt (and) is an Area of High Scenic Value?
“What is the point of these designations and protection orders...if they can be set aside at the whim or discretion of a particular planning officer?”
On May 14th 2007, George wrote to the Department of the Environment complaining that the PHES hadn’t been told on what basis its submissions had been rejected.
The Department replied on June 12th saying that all information relevant to the rejection of the PHES case was contained in the application file available for inspection at the Derry planning office.
On July 15th, George wrote back saying that the PHES had examined this file and could find none of the information it had sought. He asked for an internal review of the apparent decision to withhold information from the PHES.
On July 19th, the Department replied, promising to provide a “substantive response” within 40 working days - that is, by September 13th. But September 13th came and went without any response, substantive or otherwise.
On October 22nd, George received a letter from the Department saying that the planners’ recommendation had been formally approved. The letter went on: “The issues raised in your correspondence including the provisions of the Derry Area Plan, concerns relating to access and the character of the area, impact on woodland and impact on wildlife were carefully considered as part of the balanced judgement reached to approve the proposed development in the overall public interest...The detailed consideration and assessment can be inspected as necessary at the above office.”
But the PHES complaint to the Department had been precisely that the documents available at the planning office for inspection contained none of the answers they had asked for.
On November 3rd, George wrote to the Information Officer - the official responsible for ensuring that public bodies comply with the Freedom of Information Act - protesting that his request back in May for information on why the PHES submission had been rejected had not been dealt with properly. On November 29th, the Commissioner contacted the Department pointing out that the results of the internal review which the PHES had been promised by September 13th had not materialised, nor had there been any explanation of why the deadline had been missed.
The Department replied that the review was under way but had not been completed. The outcome would be supplied to George and the PHES within 14 to 20 days - December 18th at the latest.
On March 14th the following year, the Commissioner again contacted the Department saying that no result of the review had yet been provided and asking that it be supplied within 10 working days – by March 26th.
On April 8th, the Commissioner wrote again asking for an explanation of why this deadline, too, had been missed. Three weeks later, on May 1st, the Department replied that it would provide a “full response” - with no mention of when.
The matter dragged on through the summer of 2008 – its progress not helped by a staffing change at the Commissioner’s office.
On September 5th, the Commissioner wrote yet again to the Department, noting that the information he had required the Department to produce within 10 working days on March 14th still hadn’t materialised. The Commissioner asked for copies of “all information relevant to the (PHES) request”.
On September 23rd, the Department forwarded to the Commissioner what the Commissioner described as “some information which was contained within the planning application file”. The Department said in a covering letter that it couldn’t produce a list of all the information it held because the planning application file was “voluminous” and had not been indexed. However, it agreed to provide the Commissioner with a copy of the file itself - the file which George and the PHES had been told on June 12th the previous year contained the answers to all their queries but which had turned out upon inspection to contain answers to none of them.
On February 9th 2009, the Commissioner wrote to the Department yet again, looking for clarification of the sequence of events since George and the PHES had first sought an explanation of the planners’ thinking. In his eventual determination, the Commissioner summarised this letter: “The Commissioner asked the Department to confirm whether any further information relevant to the complainant’s request was held by the Department at the time of the [PHES] request on 14 May 2007. The Commissioner asked whether there existed any correspondence to any party, internal or external, on the issue of this development, other than that which was held on the open planning application file. The Commissioner also asked whether there existed any notes, minutes, memoranda or e-mails held by any party within the Department or on behalf of the Department relating to the development which were not contained within the planning application file.”
Ten months later, on December 4th 2009, the Commissioner wrote to the Department asking why there had been no reply to the February 9th letter.
The Department came back on December 10th saying that: “The information on the planning application file made available to the applicant details all the information subject to his request.”
Thus, by a winding and wearying circuitous route, the Department had manoeuvred the issue all the way back to square one.
The Commissioner eventually delivered his verdict on the case on March 25th last year, finding in favour of George and the PHES - the Department had denied them their rights. But if George and the PHES thought that this meant that they’d now get the answers they had doggedly sought - what weight, if any, been had placed on the protection of flora and fauna, on the wishes of local residents, on the integrity of the area plan, on the relevance of Green Belt regulations, on what considerations had been taken into account in determining “the overall public interest” – if they thought they’d won just because the Information Commissioner had ruled that they should, they had another think coming.
On May 28th last year, the Department wrote to George saying that it had now (!) completed the review of its handling of the matter which the Commissioner had unsuccessfully required it to conduct on three previous occasions and could inform him that the Department held no information which had not previously been supplied to him.
Writing in July to the Chief Information Commissioner’s office George described the letter as, “extremely disappointing and annoying in that, after a time span of three years, it does not provide the information that was requested. (It) has all the appearance of something which was cobbled together just to have to say or record that a reply has been sent to me. The absence of any effort to provide an explanation or apology...could further be classed as the height of bad manners.”
There the matters rests, if fitfully. For months, there was no activity in the vicinity of the Wood suggesting construction was imminent. In the last couple of weeks, however, members of the PHES have noted groups meeting and apparently carrying out measurements at the site.
George has contacted and has been able to speak directly to current Environment Minister Alex Atwood, who has undertaken to examine the file and the extensive correspondence relating to it and to speak with George and PHES again.
The Department’s own website carries a piece on the Wood, observing that “ancient woodland is rare enough in Ireland, and is generally represented only by fragments such as Prehen” and acknowledging that “it was thanks to a local outcry (that) the last remnant of this great forest was spared”.
“Let’s hope it survives another 400 years,” the Department concluded.
Meanwhile, PropertyPal.com is advertising “Prehen Woods, Waterside - the City’s smartest new address...We will shortly be releasing a very small and exclusive development of magnificent detached family homes in the historic Prehen Woods. This is a unique opportunity to acquire a state of the art family home in a beautiful setting surrounded by historic woodland yet just ten minutes’ drive from the City Centre...Further details will follow soon – WATCH THIS SPACE!”
The developers, the planners and the Department can rest assured that George and the PHES will be watching.