An Board Pleanala this week refused an appeal by Local Developer Tony Diskin to the decision taken last year by Athlone Town Council to refuse permission for a large scale development in Golden Island.
Cllr. O'Rourke said he was very disappointed at the out come of the appeal and said it was a huge blow to the town. "I have been watching this application very carefully over the past 12 months as I regarded it as having the potential to give Athlone a badly needed shot in the arm at a time when there is very little else going on.
"This development was planned for the Diskin site in Golden Island, a large prime development site. There was a guaranteed blue chip tenant ready to occupy the bulk of the development. The development would have tidied up the site but more importantly it would have provided significant additional employment. It would also have contributed a huge amount of development levies and commercial rates to the Council.
"I am also concerned at what appears to be a disconnect between the planning mindset at Council level and within An Board Pleanala. The main reason for refusal by the board seems to have been the scale of the development, yet from a Council perspective it was traffic and flooding. A developer is never going to satisfy our planning decision makers if the goal posts are moved to such a significant extent.
"I will be taking this matter up with the Council with a view to obtaining further clarity on how these two decisions could have been so far removed from one other. For the developer I am very disappointed at the decision, he has put huge effort and resources into these applications. I am also extremely disappointed at the missed opportunity for Athlone.
Speaking after Monday nights meeting Cllr O'Rourke expressed his satisfaction with the outcome, "The motion raised by Cllr. Cooney to have a certain piece of Art removed from the gallery in my view was invalid and had no place on an Agenda of a Town Council Meeting.
"Granted we are the only shareholders, the only owners of the property but a year ago we gave Athlone Art & Heritage Limited the authority to run the facility. That company is made up of a board of Directors, all well respected and for the motion to appear on the agenda undermines the authority and autonomy of that board. Why have a dog and bark yourself?
"If the motion had proceeded to a vote and the decision was taken to ‘force’ the removal of the exhibit in question I believe it would in effect have rendered the directors of Athlone Art & Heritage redundant and rendered the company defunct……. and all of a sudden we are (the Councillors) running an art gallery and a Castle!
"In relation to the piece its self, I fully appreciate that to some people this piece of art could be regarded as insensitive and I fully understand that, particularly in an army town like Athlone. I have read the exhibit myself so I see the point being made in this regard. However, this was never a decision for us to take and the motion should never have appeared on the agenda.
"I am satisfied at the eventual outcome after a week of intensive speculation and public interest. I have never before received as many representations about one single issue. But what I am most pleased about is that we as Councillors can now get back to work. There are very many pressing issues before us and a lot of challenges facing people out there. For the remaining 18 months of this Council term, indeed this councils life I would rather we get back to business and get on with what the people put us here to do.
Cllr. O'Rourke concluded, "I wish the Luan Gallery well and hope that if anything this controversy might serve to bring more people to Athlone and to the Gallery."
Fianna Fáil Councillor Aengus O'Rourke said he is becoming increasingly concerned at the government's complete indifference to speculation that the banks are planning another round of variable rate mortgage hikes potentially affecting up to 300,000 customers.
Cllr. O'Rourke said, "There is growing speculation that AIB is planning a further hike in variable mortgage rates and that this will spark another round of hikes by the other banks. Variable rate mortgage customers have become the sacrificial lambs as the banks seek to make up for losses elsewhere in their books.
"While the final decision on rates does rest with the banks at present, it is remarkable that the government is unwilling to even express a view on the matter given the impact of rate increases on mortgage arrears and the wider economy. Less than two years ago – fresh in office – the government took a much more hands on approach on at least one occasion when the banks were dragging their feet on passing on an ECB rate increase.
"Many analysts now believe that variable rates could reach 5% in the next year or so. On a €200,000 mortgage over 20 years, the difference in the monthly repayment between a customer on a variable rate of 5% and a customer on a tracker of 1.75% is a staggering almost €400. This pattern is completely unsustainable and is an issue government cannot continue to ignore. It is about time the government stood up for variable rate mortgage customers and made its views known to the banks on the prospect of further rate increases."
Fianna Fáil Councillor Aengus O'Rourke is calling on the Government to reconsider its plan to include farm assets in means testing for Third Level Grants.
Reports in the past week suggest that the Minister for Education will proceed with plans to include farm and business assets as part of their assessment criteria for Third Level Grants.
Cllr O'Rourke commented: “I find it hugely disappointing that the Minister plans to forge ahead with these plans despite huge opposition within and outside the Government. Eligibility for the grant should be solely judged on income and it is discriminatory to use agricultural lands as part of the assessment criteria.
“Under the current grant application system, all farm income is assessed. If the Government goes ahead and assesses the value of farmland as an income source on its own, this would be hugely unfair and amount to double assessment on the same land.
“To proceed with this plan would result in a further cut to student grants targeted at farming and self-employed families. It will put many farming families in a position where they must decide whether or not to sell some of their land, which may not be generating income, in order to fund college for their children.
“Fianna Fail is completely opposed to this as it would act as a further deterrent to third level education at a time when education is so important to our economic recovery.
“There should not be separate rules for farmers and everyone else. The double assessment for farmers is wrong, discriminatory – it must and will be strongly resisted by Fianna Fáil.”
It is absolutely clear the government has no intention of taking 'ability to pay' into account in a meaningful way in the changes being made to the property tax, according to Fianna Fáil Councillor Aengus O'Rourke.
Cllr. O'Rourke stated, “The government is still insisting that a single person earning anything more than €288 gross per week or a family with anything more than €480 gross per week is not even entitled to defer the property tax liability. The government seems to have no concern whatsoever for the thousands of people who are struggling to make ends meet as it is and who simply have no means to pay this property tax.
“I had hoped that the government would address the ability to pay issue in a meaningful way in the amendment bill. Instead the fundamental unfairness of the property tax has been reinforced and no tangible effort has been made to deal with the situation of people on low incomes, those living with mortgage arrears and negative equity, and those who paid large amounts of stamp duty and development levies in recent years. This tax will now disproportionately hit those on low and middle incomes and those experiencing difficulties with their mortgage.
“The original Property Tax bill was rammed through the Dáil before Christmas. The same will be done with the amendment bill. This is being done to allow the Revenue to issue letters to 1.9 million households starting on 11th March, many of whom can ill afford to pay this unfair and penal tax on the family home.”
Fianna Fáil Councillor Aengus O'Rourke has voiced his strong opposition to reports that the Government plans to axe the Rural Transport Network, describing the move as ‘another attack on rural Ireland’.
Cllr. O'Rourke commented, “This has been an extremely successful and cost-effective scheme since its inception in 2002. Why would the Government seek to change something that has been working so well for more than a decade?
“This scheme is evidence of the real benefits of involving the community in local services. It has exceeded expectations in tackling rural isolation and providing valuable transport links to those who would otherwise have been isolated in their homes. It is the community element of this scheme that makes it so successful and in my view the removal of community input will only undermine the service.
“This is yet another example of the Government’s complete insensitivity to the effect that their policy agenda is having on rural communities. So many towns and villages have lost their garda stations, post offices, Town Councils and local bank branches, while at the same time the threat remains over the future of many small rural schools. People in rural areas in particular are despairing about the future of their communities. This latest news about the Rural Transport Network will add to those concerns.
“The Minister needs to get out of Dublin to understand the impact of this particular policy decision. The Government and the Minister must immediately clarify their plans in light of these latest reports.”
This week Cllr. O'Rourke was responding to an answer he received from Minister Alan Shatter
following a question put to the Minister by Cllr. O'Rourke in which he asked the minister what were the cost savings achieved by disbanding the 4th Western Brigade.
"I was not surprised to learn from Minister Shatter this week that he was unable to say what if any savings were achieved. If he were honest he
would admit that his actions have in fact cost the country money. The rationale behind the move to disband the 4th Western Brigade has always
been suspect. I have consistently said that there could be no cost savings in this move and that militarily, logistically and practically disbanding
the brigade was a senseless and reckless move.
"We now have soldiers commuting to various barracks to ply their trade, families discommoded and additional stress piled on young Army families.
Furthermore, the promotional pipe-line for many soldiers has been cut short as their brigade was disbanded. The transition from the three brigade
structure to two has not been smooth and if anything has served to further erode the morale of a force that had already been on the floor since this
Government came in to office.
Local Councillor Aengus O'Rourke this week hits out at what he calls the Governments lack of action on the issue of upward only rents.
“Upward only rents are a serious threat to the survival of businesses and to jobs. The B&Q case is a classic example of what happens when a government ignores the warning signs and ignores calls from the business sector to do something. Interestingly, both parties in Government, Labour and Fine Geal, committed in their Programme for Government to 'legislate for upward only rent reviews to be changed for existing leases'. Today as the staff of B&Q Athlone stare down the barrel of a gun, both Labour & Fine Gael have utterly and disgracefully abandoned yet another important commitment.
“Fianna Fáil published a Bill to ban clauses within business leases which provided exclusively for upward only rent reviews. The Landlord and Tenant (Business Leases Rent Review) Bill 2012 was turned down by the government last year. The government believe that they can not constitutionally deal with this issue as it would be too complex. It is amazing to think that the government are confident they can legislate for abortion but can not legislate to deal with upward only rents.
Cllr. O'Rourke said “Fianna Fáil has sought and received legal advice on banning clauses in business leases providing for upward only rents and there is a way to deal with it. These leases, most of which were negotiated in different economic times, are strangling so many small and medium sized businesses around the country. If we are serious about supporting the SME sector and encouraging growth and job creation, we must free businesses from the strangle-hold of exorbitant rents that have no bearing on market rates.
Retailers are seriously struggling to cope with high operating costs, business commercial rates and excessive rents. Removing the barrier to negotiating more reasonable rents in this market would make an enormous difference to their chance of survival and growth.
In my view, as a minimum, upward only rent reviews should be suspended for a temporary period until the economy has recovered. It is difficult to predict for how long such a suspension should be implemented for, but a five year break should be the minimum.
Cystic Fibrosis drug Kalydeco, also known as Ivacaftor, is currently being assessed in Ireland by the National Centre for Pharmaeconomics (NCPE). This process is known as a ‘Health Technology Assessment’ (HTA). This week Cllr. O’Rourke is calling on the HSE and the Government to get behind those suffering with CF by agreeing to support and fund this ground breaking drug.
Cllr O’Rourke said “The importance of Kalydeco for those with CF should not be under estimated, especially those with CF who have the G551D gene alteration. This drug helps the sufferer in so many ways that a much improved quality of life is now possible for these people. I had the opportunity to meet and discuss the issues with local CF suffers recently, this drug can give them a new lease of life so the government really must take an immediate interest in this issue.
“In recent days the NCPE informed me that the assessment is still in progress but that a decision is due in the coming days. The purpose of their assessment is to determine the following two matters; firstly is Kalydeco an effective drug for its intended use and secondly whether the HSE will pay for Kalydeco based on an assessment of the cost effectiveness of the drug.
“A positive decision is eagerly awaited by CF sufferers, however if the decision goes against them I will be urging CF Ireland to appeal such a decision and lobby government hard on the issue. The cost of this drug is very high at approx. €250,000 per patient per year so whatever the outcome of this assessment the HSE and the Irish Government must do what the British Government did last year and negotiate hard for a significant reduction in the cost.
“Another option open to Ireland in seeking to reduce the costs associated with Kalydeco is to enter into a ‘shared risk’ agreement with the drug provider whereby (for example) the company is only reimbursed for those patients with the G551D alteration that are proven to benefit from the new drug.
Cystic Fibrosis Ireland also calls for their patients to have access to this drug, but also calls for a fair price to be negotiated between the HSE/NCPE and the pharmaceutical company Vertex.
Fianna Fáil Councillor Aengus O'Rourke has said it will come as a relief to older people across the country that the Government has been forced into a u-turn on the ‘incredibly cruel’ cut to the Senior Alert Scheme.
Cllr. Aengus O'Rourke said, “This is an admission by the Government that they made a mistake in slashing funding for a scheme that has helped tens of thousands of older people over the years.
“I very much welcome the fact that Minister Phil Hogan has caved into public and political pressure on this matter. This was an incredibly cruel and potentially dangerous cut, particularly in the context of the Government’s slash and burn of community garda resources and the increase in burglaries and thefts in many parts of the country. It would have been completely wrong to take security supports from older people who are already feeling more vulnerable than ever in their homes.
“It comes as a relief that Minister Hogan has heeded advice on this matter. I hope this marks a change in the Minister’s approach and signals a willingness from him to listen and communicate with people on matters of public concern.”