Boom-time plans to turn Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar into a gateway for economic development met with limited success, writes FRANK McDONALD
IT WAS at the edge of Rochfortbridge that the future direction of Dublin’s sprawl first became evident in the mid-1990s. Exactly 80km from the capital, housing estates were materialising on the outskirts of this Co Westmeath village to cater for first-time home buyers who had been squeezed out of the property market in Dublin.
They hit the road early, between 6.30am and 7am every weekday to commute to jobs in or around the city, leaving the estates eerily devoid of most signs of life. A survey in 2001 by transition-year students at the local secondary school found that 80 per cent of the new residents were from Dublin and were commuting to work there.
It was a harbinger of things to come in Westmeath and elsewhere in Commuterland, a trend that local councillors sought to cater for by rezoning land for more housing – whatever the plans, or the planners, had to say. Landowners on the outskirts of other villages, including at least one councillor, felt they were entitled to a share of the spoils.
But the experience of Rochfortbridge “came very early and quickly, and happened so fast. It was an eye-opener for county planners, officials and even councillors”, as one senior planner said, off the record. “There was a fear of other places being engulfed in the same way — and that’s why it didn’t happen in Delvin, Killucan or Tyrellspass.”
It was clear to the planners that extensive rezonings around villages in Co Westmeath threatened to undermine the National Spatial Strategy’s goal of turning Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar (ATM) into a “gateway” for economic development. None of these three towns is particularly large, and they needed all the help they could get.
The regional planning guidelines, drafted in 2004, forecast that “by 2020, the midlands will be a successful, sustainable and equitable region full of opportunities for its expanded population”. It recommended driving forward with the triangular ATM gateway, while not neglecting Longford and Portlaoise as principal towns.
Although there was strong population growth in the midlands, second only to the greater Dublin area, most of this was driven by migration from the capital, as Forfás pointed out in a regional competitiveness report. It also differs from most other regions in not having a single dominant urban centre to drive economic development.
Forfás wanted to see the Athlone-Tullamore-Mullingar gateway “accelerated” by an inter-agency implementation forum, but it said the government’s decision to “defer” the €300 million Gateway Innovation Fund, announced in June 2007, was a setback, and its reinstatement was “a matter of priority for progressing the linked-gateway concept”.
On the plus side, there is now a Midlands Gateway Chamber of Commerce, drawing together business interests in Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar with the aim of developing a “world-class knowledge-based competitive gateway”, in line with the recommendations of a strategic development analysis by Indecon economic consultants.
As Brian Cowen said when he launched the report in December 2006, the real challenge facing the midlands was to generate “self-sustaining rather than commuter-led growth”. But he cautioned that “thriving, dynamic and expansive urban growth centres are not summoned out of the ground by a wave of the magic wand of central government”.
Indeed not. However, the withdrawal of a funding pot for innovative projects in the region was a real kick in the teeth, especially for the rather nebulous ATM. And it was competing for money with eight other “gateways” to finance projects with a cumulative value of €720 million – more than double what was on offer. In the end, they all got nothing.
One of the projects that the Midland Railway Action Group expected to be included was the reopening of a line between Athlone and Mullingar, which was closed in 1987. But Westmeath county manager Danny McLoughlin maintained that this project – costed at €170 million by Iarnród Éireann – didn’t fulfil the Gateway Innovation Fund criteria.
Against the backdrop of the economic downturn, as Westmeath Independent editor Tadhg Carey noted, “there has been little momentum behind the plans to have this rail line reopened”. One of the stumbling blocks was that 20 per cent of the funding (€34 million) would have to have been sourced locally, which seems impossible now.
In the meantime, roads forged ahead. The most recent was the N6 Kilbeggan-Athlone dual carriageway, opened in July 2008. This 29km stretch of the Dublin-Galway route, built for €280 million, finally bypassed Moate, the scene of endless tailbacks over the years, and cut travelling time between the two cities by 45 minutes.
It was the gradual replacement of the N4/N6 by a dual carriageway from Dublin to the Shannon and beyond that drew Co Westmeath into the commuter belt. Indeed, then county council cathaoirleach Joe Whelan described the new Kilbeggan- Athlone route as “another step in bringing the midlands and the west closer to the capital”.
Mullingar got a slice of Dublin in 2003 with the completion of Market Point, on the Royal Canal bank close to the town’s railway station. The apartment blocks, up to five storeys high, were aimed at buy-to-let investors availing of Section 23 – the juicy tax incentive that inflated the property bubble because it was kept going so long.
Athlone even got an 11-storey “signature tower” as the centrepiece of a new shopping centre just off the main street. It contains a 160-bedroom hotel. The scheme, designed by Murray O’Laoire Architects (now in liquidation), also includes 70 retail units and 148 apartments or townhouses, laid out around courtyards.
The opening of Athlone Town Centre in 2007 put paid to plans for a major expansion of the more remotely located Golden Island centre, built by Cork-based developer Owen O’Callaghan with the benefit of urban-renewal tax incentives – granted in December 1994 by Albert Reynolds’ government during its last hours in office.
An Bord Pleanála approved its expansion, including a 92-bedroom hotel, five large retail outlets totalling 36,600sq ft and a 550-space multi-storey car park in 2003 – two years before the shopping centre, which is in the River Shannon’s floodplain, was sold to Tesco. The planning permission has since expired.
Athlone’s development was “leaking all over the place” during the boom years, as one planner said, and in November 2009 it was one of the areas hit by serious flooding. Water levels at Athlone Lock, near Golden Island, rose by nearly a metre above the highest level on record, and 35 families had to be evacuated.
But the town acquired an impressive new Civic Centre, designed by Keith Williams Architects to provide a “one-stop shop” for all county and town council services, and completed in 2004 at a cost of €17 million. More recently, the county council moved into a new headquarters in Mullingar, designed by Bucholz McEvoy Architects.
In a sign of the times we live in, a well-located commercial site of five acres in Athlone that had an asking price of €5 million in 2006 is now on the market for €1.25 million – 75 per cent less than its peak value. And a major urban renewal project in Mullingar, in which the county council is a partner, has been “put on hold” due to funding problems.