Apple's Athenry uncertainty prompts calls for planning reform

The Athenry project is reportedly no longer an immediate priority for the tech giant

Apple's Athenry uncertainty prompts calls for planning reform

The Apple iPhone X on display in Chicago, 03-11-2017. Image: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP/Press Association Images

Hundreds of potential jobs in the west of the country have been thrown in doubt amid uncertainty over Apple's €850m data centre in County Galway.

The tech giant’s CEO has reportedly told the Taoiseach that the Athenry project is no longer an immediate priority.

Earlier this week the High Court cleared the way for the centre to go ahead - following lengthy legal efforts to block it on environmental grounds. 

Galway East Fianna Fáil TD Anne Rabbitte has said the saga highlights the need for changes to Irish planning laws:

“Fast tracking these projects is critical,” she said. “The fact of where we sit with Brexit; the fact that we know there were seven or eight other data centres looking to come into Ireland.

“They were all sitting and watching to see how this planning process was going to go; how it was going to go through the courts and how long it was going to take.

“We need to learn lessons from what we have experienced in Athenry.”

Judicial review

Apple was given the green light to proceed with the development by Galway County Council in February 2015.

That decision was re-affirmed by An Bord Pleanála in August 2016 – however the project was delayed by a judicial review undertaken by three objectors to the project.

That review was eventually rejected – with the objectors this week refused permission to take the case to the Court of Appeal.

Planning objection

In late September - while the planning objection was still before the courts – the Taoiseach insisted that Apple remained committed to the project despite the delay.

He said the government was considering a change to the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act which would include data centres as “strategic infrastructure” - thus speeding up the planning process.

He warned that any change to the operation of the courts can be difficult to put in place as it may require constitutional amendment; however he insisted that the process can be significantly sped up by classifying "projects such as this” as strategic infrastructure.

Blow for the country

Deputy Rabbitte said the potential loss of the Athenry project is not just a blow for Galway, “it is a blow to the entire country.”

“Because there are more businesses sitting out there wondering what is going to happen and how did it get to this stage,” she said.

“We have to learn lessons and we need to learn them very, very fast so we are not turning away valuable business that was going to bring a lot of jobs and infrastructure here.”

A similar project in Denmark - originally announced alongside the Galway plans – is now close to completion.

Apple has already announced plans to open a second centre in the Scandinavian country.