Wednesday 29 November 2006

Growth in all the wrong places?

Frank McDonald's views on planning and commuting:

Growth in all the wrong places

The county's population is likely to continue increasing, contrary to planning guidelines, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Editor

Kildare County Council has been ticked off more than once by ministers for not pursuing an overall strategy and failing to abide by the Strategic Planning Guidelines (SPGs) for the Greater Dublin Area. Yet nothing has been done to ensure that growth is channelled into the right areas.

Co Kildare is growing faster than any other county in the Republic with the single exception of Meath. The 2002 census showed it was just five people short of the Strategic Planning Guideline target of 164,000 for 2006, having recorded a 21.5 per cent increase in population since 1996 - mainly in areas close to Dublin.

The population of Naas rose by 30 per cent to 18,312. Newbridge grew slightly faster (by 32 per cent) to 8,686, while Kildare town went up by 29 per cent to 6,893 and Kilcock by more than 45 per cent to 3,251. Athy, more remote from Dublin, rose by just 18 per cent to 5,270.

These were all areas designated for growth under the SPGs, first published in 1999. But what was remarkable about the 2002 Census was its confirmation that villages that were never intended for development, other than to meet local needs, had become hot spots in the Dublin commuter belt.

Clane's population went up by nearly 30 per cent to 5,192 and Kill's by 37.5 per cent while Bodenstown grew by a staggering 120 per cent to 3,206. Growth rates in Leixlip and Maynooth, both in the Dublin metropolitan area, were much more modest.

Other designated growth centres that recorded population increases substantially less than the county average include Kilcullen (up 5.8 per cent to 1,780) and Monasterevin (up 12 per cent to 3,158). Celbridge, where the SPGs sought more controlled development, saw its figure rise by 28 per cent to 14,251.

The county council must shoulder the blame. Even as it was denying that there was any conflict between its own plan and the SPGs, the council was not only targeting Maynooth and Kilcock, which were both designated for development under the guidelines, but also Clane, Castledermot and Kill, which were not. Like other villages in Co Kildare, these are located in the "strategic greenbelt" of Dublin's hinterland, according to the SPGs. The draft local area plan for Kill, published in March 2001, even noted this greenbelt designation and the restriction of growth to local needs only before going on to propose doubling its population.

In the case of Castledermot, the local area plan also quoted from the SPGs' prohibition on development other than that required by local needs. But it, too, went on to suggest a 200 per cent increase in population by 2006. More than 500 new homes would be needed to accommodate this dramatic increase.

Conceding that most of the demand arises from Dublin's overspill, the council's housing strategy estimates the number of households in the county would grow by more than 26 per cent to 65,159 by 2006, and says that improved roads, sewerage, electricity and telecom services would be needed to cater for this.

As elsewhere, developers tend to get what they want in Co Kildare. On area committees, Fianna F�il and Fine Gael councillors unanimously support land rezoning wherever it is proposed and their decisions are then rubber-stamped by the full council. It's a free-for-all, of course, but with chaotic consequences.

However, not everyone in Co Kildare is as gung-ho about development as the councillors.

There was fierce resistance in Clane to what local people saw as aunseemly rush by councillors to rezone large tracts of land for housing on the outskirts of a village that lacked the facilities even to cater for its existing population. A massive campaign was waged against these rezonings in 1996, prompting the then minister for the environment, Labour's Brendan Howlin, to intervene. He refused to approve an early draft of the county development plan on the basis that it was being put together in a piecemeal fashion, with no overall strategy. After his successor, Noel Dempsey, sent back a revised draft in 1997, the county council engaged planning consultants Jonathan Blackwell Associates to draw up a new strategy. This provided the foundations for the revised county plan, which was finally adopted in May 1999. Though the local area plans for Clane and Kill were quashed by the High Court, on the grounds that they were being adopted out of time, the county council later proceeded to designate Clane as a "primary growth centre" in defiance of the SPGs and set a population target of 6,300 for the village, to be achieved by 2006. But Cllr Tony McEvoy (Ind), who unsuccessfully challenged the Meath county plan in the High Court, winning a moral victory in the process, maintains that if all of the zoned land in the area is developed - some 140 acres in total - Clane's population could soar to 10,000, or almost double the figure recorded last year.

Since the present county plan was adopted, a number of other towns and villages have been the subject of local area plans, all characterised by the over-zoning of land. These include Rathangan and even little-known Derrinturn, barely more than a crossroads, which could end up with a population exceeding 3,000. When individual targets for all the towns and villages with local area plans are added to a growing rural population, the county plan would cater for a total of 197,000 in Co Kildare by 2006 - 22 per cent more than the target set by the SPGs. Thus, there is no way the county council can claim to be in compliance.

The county plan assumed that the rural population of Kildare would remain constant, at around 36,000. Yet in 2001 alone, 900 "one-off" houses were built in the countryside, reflecting the view taken by county manager Niall Bradley, often in opposition to the council's planners. Over the past two years, An Taisce has lodged at least 60 appeals against schemes in Co Kildare, many of them cases where refusals were recommended by the planners. Of the 40 cases determined so far by An Bord Plean�la, the county council lost every single one. In one case, where a Dublin-based solicitor built a large two-storey house without planning permission in Ballycaghan, near Kilcock, and the Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, made representations on his behalf, the council has so far failed to seek a High Court injunction against this unauthorised development.

It was McCreevy, a local Fianna F�il TD, who allocated �2.5 million (€3.2 million) for the re-opening of Monasterevin train station in 2001. This was based on projections by the town's railway action committee that 95 per cent of the town's 270 Dublin-bound commuters would use it - a figure disputed by Iarnr�d �ireann. There has been a pathetically low return on this public investment. Though the town is now served by five mainline trains travelling to and from Dublin, average daily boardings amount to just 60. The only hope is that this will grow with Monasterevin.

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