24 Mar 2008

Last time I told you about a situation developing in Carrick on Suir, County Tipp, where the Councill is at odds with a huge chunk of the local community about how the town is being planned. Briefly, Town Hall recently decided that the planning legislation won’t permit the home furnishings retailer, Heatons, to move into a retail park which has already been built at the east end of the town because Heaton’s products aren’t ‘bulky’ - in the council’s view - enough to comply with government guidelines. As a consequence, the already built retail park is lying idle and is likely to remain that way until an anchor of Heaton’s equivalent is sourced - not an easy proposition in Carrick, a town which never rode the crest of the Celtic Tiger wave. The fifty jobs Heatons would have brought to the town would have been extremely welcome.

Meanwhile, Town Hall appears to be all in favour of developing a separate and brand new retail park at the opposite end of the town on a site which spends a lot of its time underwater. The proposal is already the subject of a planning application. It includes some large supermarket type spaces and twelve small retail units which local traders fear will attract business away from the town centre. It also comes with a proposal to build a new bridge linking the Underwater Site to an infrastructureless area on the opposite side of the Suir which will be to the benefit of… actually, no one knows.

Why, when you have locations on high ground, away from scenic amenity and very well served by an existing road network, would you want to build on a site which floods and which can only be developed by bringing new infrastructure into the area?

I don’t know.

Anyway… the Underwater Site runs along the River Suir, offering fantastic undisturbed views of the hills to the south. It’s one of the nicest things about Carrick and the most obvious place for an attractive park. Until fairly recently, the Council agreed with me. A planning application in the late 90s for a few houses was refused on the grounds that the location was, for various reasons, unsuitable (perhaps, in those days they remembered that the site used to be even further underwater than it is now: the current levels were established when a layer of fill was added not so long ago). Later site owners floated (if you’ll excuse the pun) ideas with the Council which went nowhere for similar reasons.

But then, during the 2002 Development Plan review, the Council did an about face and identified the area as having development potential. To that end, in 2004 the Council wrote up a Masterplan which is notable only for suggesting that development should be limited to two or three storeys and that parking should be placed to the rear, concealed from public view. Oh, and that the site should be developed in an integrated – and not a piecemeal – way. 

Within the past few weeks, three separate planning applications have been lodged for the site: the first for a building housing two large and twelve small retail stores (which is more than twice the height the Masterplan suggested it would favour) and parking (which is not as much to the rear as the Masterplan suggested it should be). The second is for the previously mentioned bridge. The third for a separate building to house another retailer.

First of all, taking the three applications together, it’s hard to believe that this is the result of a Masterplan. Tens of pages of strongly worded policies and well meaning aspirations and what have they got? Two retail shells in a car park.

And what about the business of the three separate applications? Remember I mentioned that the Masterplan didn’t want piecemeal development on the site? Well then, why did they allow the proposed development to be carved up into three separate packages? Dividing projects up in this way is THE classic piecemeal approach – if one application gets turned town, the other two can still go ahead.  

But it’s the bridge element that is most striking.

The 2007 Carrick Development Plan makes a vague reference to a new Suir crossing being built at some time in the future. Presto, within a few short months pf the development plan being adopted a planning application for just such a structure is lodged. By a private developer.

Strange, this, if you consider the story of another similar bridge which is proposed to cross the Shannon in my own neck of the woods – Killaloe. Now, since the new Killaloe Bridge was first mooted it’s been the subject of much public debate. There have been arguments and counter arguments about whether its really needed; high priced consultants have evaluated the various crossing options available to Tipp North and Clare County Councils; comparative analyses have been carried out showing which of six different possible locations would offer the maximum traffic decongestion and the minimum disruption; ways of mitigating the impact on the natural environment have been discussed; concerns about the visual impact the new bridge might have have been addressed; there have been heated public meetings; there’s been talk about how the bridge would be funded, and so on. In short, clumsy and flawed as it has been, the concept of community participation in the planning process has been, in some way, acknowledged.

In the starkest contrast, the proposed Carrick on Suir bridge appears to be materialising without even the minimum of public consultation. A major infrastructural project which will have a massive impact on the future development of the town has been submitted to planning with hardly any public consultation whatsoever. In their application, the applicants offer no justification for its development (except for an airy suggestion that in may connect with a few hundred houses and two secondary schools on the south side of the river the Council hopes to build at some unspecified time in the future). Furthermore, the application shows the bridge arriving slap bang into an empty field on the south side of the river – no plans to connect it with anything.

The most astonishing thing of all is the manner in which the bridge is proposed to be funded. People close to the scene tell me that when they first heard word of such a project, it was generally understood its cost would be picked up by the eventual developers of the retail park. However, it now transpires this isn’t the case. The cost will actually be born by the local community in the form of increased development contributions. In a proposal to be put before the council for ratification in the next few weeks, development contributions for new housing and commercial developments will soon almost double to cover anticipated bridge construction costs. Now, I can imagine a scenario where townfolk might agree to increased development costs – to build decent schools and crèches, or to provide better facilities for the aged, or to develop proper programmes to assist the socially disadvantaged – but an unjustified bridge which the local community have little interest in? I don’t think so.

On April 4th, the people of Carrick on Suir plan to take their grievances to the street. A major public event is planned for the day and hundreds are expected to show up. Not the lunatic fringe, not the anarchists, not the special interest groups, just normal average decent people who recognise that local authorities are out of lockstep with the communities their supposed to serve.

Oh, and by the way, seeing as the Council is not in favour of developing the site piecemeal, when the bridge proposal is refused permission, as it inevitably will be, presumably the retail elements of the site will be refused permission as well?

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