Tuesday 20 March 2012

Locals lose out in 'dead zone' of heritage centre

Embraced by the majestic Boyne River and in the shadow of the Bru na Boinne sites -- which include Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth -- the 18th century heritage village of Slane should be a wonderful place to live.

Instead, pubs and businesses and two banks have closed and even the atmospheric old hotel, once a home from home for salmon anglers and a meeting point for locals, is no longer open.

The trouble, according to many local people, is that Slane and its hinterland is paying too high a price for its wonderful location in the lea of Newgrange.

They say the authorities care only for the dead ancestors of 5,000 years ago. At the same time the 2,000 or so living inhabitants feel that they have been saddled with all the disadvantages of having a world heritage site on their doorstep and none of the advantages.

Nearly one-third of the land area of the parish is effectively a no-go area for planning permission. Young couples with growing families can't get permission to add even modest extensions so they are moving out. Farmers can't gift sites to sons and daughters. It means that out of 190 children under 18 years playing with Slane GAA club, only a dozen come from the "dead zone" around the world heritage site.

The Bru na Boinne Visitor Centre was built in the late Nineties well outside the village and -- crucially -- on the other side of the Boyne. It was a blow to most locals who wanted Slane to act as the gateway to the neolithic treasures. That would have meant the local economy would have got a lucrative spin-off from Bru na Boinne. However, there was a section of the community who were opposed to building the centre in the village.

Clare Tuffy, manager of the Bru na Boinne Visitor Centre, told the Sunday Independent that 230,000 people went through its doors last year.

But all admission to Newgrange and Knowth is through the visitor centre and there is no direct access otherwise. Visitors are brought from the centre to the monuments by shuttle bus and many of those have already been bussed in by coach from Dublin and further afield. They visit Newgrange and then go home, seldom stopping in Slane.

Ms Tuffy accepts the village gets little peripheral business from the centre -- but points out that the centre does provide about 40 jobs, many of them filled by locals.

The latest blow to Slane came courtesy of An Bord Pleanala, which decided two weeks ago to reject plans for a bypass of the village.

Meath County Council had sought approval for a 3.5km route crossing the River Boyne on a new bridge between the townlands of Fennor and Crewbane, east of the existing Slane bridge.

In its refusal, the board said the proposed bypass is within the "viewshed" of the Bru na Boinne and "would be acceptable only where it has been demonstrated that no appropriate alternative is available".

The refusal means a by-pass of Slane may now not happen at all. Last year the National Roads Authority (NRA) was told by Government to conclude planning on all current road schemes -- and now the NRA simply doesn't have the cash to prepare a new route that would meet An Bord Pleanala approval.

Gabriel Mullen lives in Dowth. He says that the OPW and the other authorities have a stranglehold on the area. His daughter Sarah has been trying for seven years to get planning permission to build on the site beside the family home, without success.

"They are slowly but surely killing off this area. We are being treated as second-class citizens," he says.

"Since 2001, there have been 27 planning refusals for dwellings on the north side of the river and there is obviously a high number on the south side," he adds.

Mr Mullen is not alone. A neighbouring couple with two young children were refused planning permission outright for a modest two-bed extension to their small cottage.

Cllr Wayne Harding says the world heritage status was now toxic in its immediate environment.

"I have met farmers who cannot give their children a site for a house, and community organisations who have to meet with government officials before they apply for very minor planning applications. The villages of Duleek, Donore and Slane get no economic kickback from 230,000 visitors a year that are right on their doorstep.

"The final straw is the refusal of the Slane bypass -- because the road's opponents used the extraordinary protection the site has under the Meath County Development Plan to enhance their objection to a road that the people of Slane have wanted for 20 years," he said.

Eddie Downey, who is IFA deputy president, has a farm in the area. He accepts that he lives in a unique area but says that this means that unique solutions must be found.

He accepts that planning permission cannot be granted "willy nilly" in an area of such historic importance -- but he feels that other measures should now be introduced so that those who come from the area can continue to live there.

"We are the people who know it best. My belief is that if an existing house comes up for sale, locals should be able to benefit from special provisions which means no capital gains and no stamp duty on the property. That would preserve the people in the area. Something has to be done," he says.

Gabriel Mullen believes the overall concept of the World Heritage Site initially was to make the area into a quasi-national park.

"But they obviously could not afford to buy out the farmers who own the land so they proceeded to simply implement the same rules of a park.

"There is an effort to ethnically cleanse the area," Gabriel Mullen says.


Read the article @ The Irish Independent


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