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Lidl wants MetroLink redesigned so it can build apartments. And can you pay the bill please?

This massive development doesn’t even exist. It is an outline drawing of a possible notion

Things in Ireland that merit the adjective “breath-taking”. The Cliffs of Moher on a wild Atlantic day. The light radiating from a snow-covered Mount Errigal. Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ in the National Gallery. Newgrange at the winter solstice. And the gall of some developers.

I follow the planning hearings for the proposed MetroLink underground rail line in Dublin for the same reason that some people become obsessed with the Loch Ness monster or Bigfoot: the fascination of mythical creatures. There have been rumours of the existence of the metro for half my lifetime and occasionally those of us who live close to its proposed route have even spotted the equivalents of yeti footprints: engineers in hard hats with sophisticated-looking instruments taking mysterious measurements.

Evidence that the metro might be a real beast has come in recent weeks with the holding of oral hearings in which communities and businesses along its putative path get to have their say about how it may affect them. It was one of these hearings last week that provided a staggering insight into the mentality of development in Ireland.

The hearing concerned the proposed metro stop at a place called Northwood. If you’ve ever been to Ikea, it’s the area across the main road, just north of Ballymun and south of the M50, with a large shopping mall and a load of apartments.

One of the big shops there is Lidl. Lidl also owns a plot of undeveloped land at Northwood. Hence it had a lot to say at the metro planning hearings. On the morning of last Monday’s session, it suddenly announced that the infrastructure under the Northwood station would have to be radically altered.

Why? Out of the blue, Lidl produced at the hearing an outline design of a commercial and residential scheme at Northwood including 200 apartments, a supermarket and offices. This scheme includes two large towers, one of 15 storeys, the other of 10.

The polite term for this is chutzpah; the less decorous one would allude to reproductive organs of male equestrians

The problem is that the Metro tunnel as currently designed would not be able to support the weight of such a mass of buildings on top of it. Lidl’s representative therefore issued a demand: the tunnels and the Northwood station must be redesigned “to take full account of the future development of the Lidl site and not restrict it in any way”.

But there’s an interesting thing about this massive development: it doesn’t exist. It is an outline drawing of a possible notion. The towers that make the current metro design allegedly unviable are castles in the air. Lidl hasn’t even applied for planning permission and indeed there is no indication that it intends to do so any time soon. The supermarket chain’s senior counsel Eamon Galligan told the hearing that this is not “an application which is about to be made or anything like that”.

And the first thing anybody – including Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII), the State body that is planning the metro – heard of it was when it was it was sprung on them at the hearing last week. According to TII, it has been in discussions with Lidl about the site for years and had never been told of this proposal “up to about one hour ago”.

Indeed, TII had understood that Lidl was intending to develop a different part of the site and had made its plans accordingly. But Lidl’s lawyer nonetheless insisted that the fact the proposed developed was revealed for the first time at the hearing was “of absolutely no relevance”. TII would still have to change its plans to accommodate the airy vagary.

Who would pay for this? Reader, look in the mirror. I have no idea what it costs to redesign an underground tunnel and then build it to a higher specification that allows it to bear a much heavier load. Tens of millions of euro? Hundreds of millions? Whatever it is, it’s not the price of a weekly grocery shop – and it would come out of the pockets of ordinary citizens.

The revealing thing about all of this is the sense of entitlement. Lidl didn’t send in an architectural firm, a firm of planning consultants and a senior counsel just for the fun of it. It actually expects that a crucial piece of public infrastructure should be reverse-engineered from a notional drawing of a possible high-rise complex it might or might not build at some unspecified time in the future.

And remember: this has little or nothing to do with Lidl’s actual business, which is selling groceries. It’s pure speculative property development. And remember, too, that what would make these notional apartment towers especially profitable would be their location – guess where? Next to the Northwood metro station. There’s a double delight: the public pays for the upgrading of the metro line to suit Lidl and then Lidl makes even more money from the proximity of that line.

The polite term for this is chutzpah; the less decorous one would allude to reproductive organs of male equestrians. But there is also a very useful clarity in Lidl’s demand that it should be able to do whatever it wants with its parcel of land and that the State should not only “not restrict it in any way” but pay whatever it demands.

This is the essence of developer-led planning. Ireland’s political, social, environmental and economic future depends on our ability to plan for public need rather than for private greed. Perhaps Lidl have done us a favour by reminding us how deep the opposite assumptions go.

And meanwhile the massive new Planning and Development Bill is about to be guillotined through the Dáil. Its very title is telling: the D-word is up there in lights.

One of its main aims is to restrict severely the rights of citizens to seek judicial reviews of planning decisions. It makes no mention of sustainability or the climate crisis and places no real emphasis on defining the public good. Lidl’s slogan is “For a better tomorrow”. Are we allowed to ask: for whom?

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