PLANS FOR a major road in Kilkenny, with a new bridge across the River Nore, have been strongly criticised by the Heritage Council as an "inappropriate" intrusion into the setting of one of Ireland's most important medieval towns.
In advance of an An Bord Pleanála oral hearing on the "central access scheme", due to open today, the State agency with responsibility for heritage has called for the "poorly conceived" plan to be reconsidered in the light of current policies.
An Taisce has also written to Minister for the Environment John Gormley, urging him to strengthen the submission made by his department's heritage division, saying it did not "properly consider" the severance impact of the road scheme.
An Taisce said the submission by the heritage division in the department was "weak in its recommendations, making a minor design change in the proposed access ramp for the new bridge and a vague recommendation for a better integration of the road proposals with the surrounding built fabric" of Dean Street.
"We would recommend that the department reassess the sustainability of and justification for the proposal in the first instance, and address the wider severance impact on Kilkenny's urban environment", said An Taisce's heritage officer, Ian Lumley.
Much of the concern expressed by archaeologists and conservationists from Ireland and abroad is that the relationship between St Canice's Cathedral and the remainder of the city would be severed by the road and a high level cable-stayed bridge across the Nore.
This concern was echoed by the department's chief archaeologist, Brian Duffy, in a letter to the design team in July 2007, when he wrote that the proposed road - originally conceived in 1978 - would "cross through the heart of the historic city of Kilkenny".
"We object to the proposed scheme proceeding because of the severe impacts on the archaeology of one of Ireland's premier historic cities", Mr Duffy said
He added that the department was "surprised" that no alternatives had been put forward for consideration.
A spokesman said some changes had been made to the design of the road since then, but the department still believed there were "serious problems" with the scheme, both architectural and archaeological, and it would be making these points at the oral hearing.
In its 80-page submission to An Bord Pleanála, the Heritage Council warned that approval for the proposed central access route "would create an unwelcome legal precedent for similar developments within other Irish historic medieval towns and cities".
The submission, which includes a detailed analysis of the environmental impact statement (EIS) prepared for Kilkenny County Council, acknowledged the "positive track record" of the local authorities in managing and promoting Kilkenny's heritage.
However, it said this role "brings with it an added responsibility . . . to protect and sustain this essential resource for existing and future generations" by protecting the "strong underlying street pattern based on the remnants of medieval burgage plots".
The Heritage Council, which has been based in Kilkenny since 1995, recently moved its headquarters to the old Bishop's Palace, within the St. Canice's Cathedral precinct. Access to the precinct is via steps from Dean Street, which was widened in the 1980s.
The Heritage Council claimed that Kilkenny County Council "failed to adequately consider sustainable alternatives such as proper or increased public transport provision within the historic city" - such as occurs at Bath in England, which has bus services to its centre from three park-and-ride sites.
The Heritage Council also said the Kilkenny road scheme "is contrary to existing and emerging government travel and transportation policy" and "belongs to a former era", predating "numerous EU and national sustainable development strategies".
Referring to the proposed bridge, the council said its "very different design" could disrupt the settings of two historic bridges across the Nore and "detract from the simple, uncluttered composition of the landscape and townscape in this area".
It also complained that no details were given in the EIS on which protected views would be affected and how, and also that there was "no evidence (such as photomontages) to support the statement that the road will not impact on sensitive city skylines".
"The EIS, in the opinion of the Heritage Council, does not correctly nor adequately assess the significant impact of the proposal on the historic character of the city - a character that has served the city well, in terms of its social, economic and environmental needs.
"It is also the view of the Heritage Council . . . that the proposal is at odds with the historic grain and streetscape of Kilkenny, insofar as it will represent a dramatic change (with potential severance) to the historic 'axis' between the ancient castle and cathedral.
"Additionally, the opportunity to revitalise the setting of St Francis Abbey, which is enclosed and adjacent to the city walls and therefore part of a historic complex, after the Diageo brewery ceases to operate will ultimately be compromised by this development."
The submission cites An Bord Pleanála's decision in 2005 to refuse planning permission for an inner relief route in Athy, Co Kildare, as an "important precedent" - not least because the main reason was that it would "adversely affect the character of the town centre".
The Mayor of Kilkenny, Cllr Pat Crotty (FG), said on RTÉ radio last week that the proposed central access route was necessary because "people have to get from A to B" and, if Kilkenny wasn't accessible to car-borne shoppers, "they'll go to Waterford or Carlow".
Asked about a letter in The Irish Times from 22 academics condemning the scheme, he said Kilkenny had won the Academy of Urbanism's Great Town award because "what we're proposing, what we're doing and what we've done to date is exactly what needs to be done . . ."