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29 May 2022

Kildare politicians seek legal advice over RTE TV programme

Controversy

Park proposed for Aras Chill Dara site in Naas

Aras Chill Dara, Naas

Kildare County Council is to take legal advice following a RTE television programme which featured the sale of a piece of land at Athgarvan.

The RTE Investigates Council Chamber Secrets item was broadcast over a week ago and referred to a “ransom strip” - a small piece of land, less than an acre, needed to access a larger site, which was sold by KCC in Athgarvan to facilitate a residential  housing project.

At a KCC meeting yesterday, members voted overwhelmingly to suspend standing orders to facilitate an off-the-agenda  call by Fine Gael councillor Mark Stafford that the legal advice be taken about how the issue was covered by the broadcaster. They also voted overwhelmingly to seek legal advice

He said lawyers would be instructed to review the programme and “the online content on RTE.”

“We need to consider this,” he told the meeting. Cllr Stafford also said that clarification should be sought from RTE about the programme.

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This follows a KCC statement last week.

According to that statement “the programme stated that it ‘highlighted certain issues, including allegations of fraud, corruption, waste of public money, mismanagement, and lack of oversight and accountability’ however, the segment relating to the disposal of land by the elected members of KCC did not demonstrate any wrongdoing on the part of either the elected members or the executive of the council.”

The statement added: “On the contrary the programme demonstrated that the elected members, in agreeing to the disposal of land, had regard to the objectives of the County Kildare Development Plan, as adopted by the elected members.”

According to KCC, the programme intimated that the land should have been considered as a ransom strip, the rationale being that it links land zoned for residential development with a means of access to the public road. 

“However, the County Kildare Development Plan contains a clear objective in relation to access to land: Kildare County Development Plan 2017-2023 - Section 17.2.8 Access to Land”.

The plan stipulates that  development should be designed in such a fashion that it will not prejudice the provision of vehicular or pedestrian access, or key infrastructural services in adjoining lands and development should also be designed so as to ensure “ransom strips” will not inhibit future development.

“The agreement of the elected members to dispose of this land at an appropriate valuation, not taking into account a ransom strip value, which would have contravened an objective of the County Development Plan as adopted by the elected members, facilitates the development of housing on land zoned for residential development, at a time when delivery of much needed housing is a key priority.

KCC has written to RTE seeking justification for inclusion of the segment relating to the disposal of land at Athgarvan “given that the programme did not demonstrate any wrongdoing on the part of either the elected members or executive of KCC in dealing with this matter.”

Newbridge councillor Fiona McLoughlin Healy, who appeared on the programme and said a valuer had put the value of the land at just over €1m, said at the meeting that legal advice secured by KCC relating to the land sale was not provided to the councillors.

Cllr McLoughlin Healy said she was refused the advice.

Cllr McLoughlin Healy also  said she was challenging the idea that legal advice would be just for the council executive because councillors “are duty bound to exercise our oversight role.”

She added: “Legal advice is for the whole council, not just the executive and if it is (then) who is advising the councillors.”

“Where is our independent advice ?” she asked and said that the councillors should have been advised about the ransom strip and allowed to consider it.

She alleged that the land had been sold for less (and) “we did not follow proper procedure.”

KCC official Annette Aspell responded that where advice is received from KCC’s legal advisors, it is provided for use only by the intended recipient. 

Sharing of the information provided with any other party is subject to an exemption “as it is provided under legal professional privilege.”

Ms Aspell said KCC has also refused to issue this information on foot of a Freedom of

Information request on the basis that “this information is considered legal professional privilege”.

Ms Aspell told the meeting she had nothing to add other than the legal advice was privileged and exempted under Freedom of Information legislation.

Cllr McLoughlin Healy then said she was calling on the Cathaoirleach Naoise Ó Cearúil to ask for the legal advice relating to the land, saying “I see no grounds we can’t have access.”

Cllr Ó Cearúil said he would not respond to the call, saying he was acting in the best interests of the majority of councillors.

There was no other request for the advice to be disclosed.

Acting KCC chief executive Sonya Kavanagh said the council did not have a separate valuation.

Ms Kavanagh added that one came from a councillor; it wasn’t commissioned by KCC and came after the councillors had decided to dispose of the land.

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