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Galway Sprawlway

The proposed ringroad and continuing prevalence of one-off housing applications symptomise historical planning anarchy and the derivative current planning stasis in Galway City and County

Around one hundred submissions were received by Galway’s City Council on its Draft Development Plan 2017-23 by the deadline of 5 October.

Meanwhile, a number of well-known community and environmental activists in Galway City have come together to form a new alliance to promote a ‘Future Cities’ concept based on “regenerative urban development, ‘green’ living, smart technologies and a sustainable transport. They have a lot on their plate. It’s a planning and transportation mess with no visionary Messiah.

In many small cities comparable in size to Galway, people are regenerating and humanising their urban environments by introducing woodlands, gardens, recreational parks and city-wide 24/7 cycling, walking and public bus or train systems.

Yet here in Galway City we are now proposing to build the N6 ringroad that will cut through homes, villages, neighbourhoods, farmland, key wildlife habitats, a university campus and sports elds, and lead to further mindless urban sprawl of this, in so many ways, creative city.

Then, having spent €700m on a new road, there will be no incentive or money left to introduce the Public Transport improvements being promised “after the road is built”. If Galway City is to have a sustainable future, the authorities should immediately bin a policy based on a discredited ‘predict and provide’ private car-based transportation model and instead should use the available €500-750m to construct a hierarchical transport model based on a ‘new mobility’ prioritising pedestrians, cyclists and users of public transport”.

When the IDA first developed its business parks at Parkmore in the early 1970s there were very few businesses initially established out that far. So having only one main entrance avenue wasn’t a problem. In the intervening years the estate has exploded so it now accommodates many of the world’s leading medical device and IT manufacturers. With very little available public transport passing, let alone actually entering the estate: the sheer number of private cars coming in has now reached crisis point.

Yet Galway Co Council actually gave permission for a new sub-standard entrance/exit point and junction giving the planning board no choice but to refuse permission. In September An Bord Pleanála duly reversed the permission because “its construction would endanger public safety by reason of traffic hazard”. This decision could, should, force debate about the much larger can of worms around Ireland’s lack of a ‘sustainable’ National Spatial Strategy’.

The daily traffic chaos in Parkmore is a symptom of the much wider problem we have in historic spatial planning in Galway, with rapidly increasing numbers of people having to commute from their new homes in County Galway to their workplace in the city, by car.

This phenomenon has become overwhelming over the past 40 years. Workers living in the city but working in Parkmore/Ballybrit have been failed by the lack of civic imagination that might have provided an adequate public transport system in the city. For a youthful and fashionable city, capital of ‘craic’, dubbed as progressive, and once crowned ‘the fastest growing city in Europe’ this is anachronistic.

In its May 2014 Newsletter, the Western Development Commission – using an IDA case-study, stated that “of the 16,701 rural dwellers commuting to work within the gateway of Galway city, one quarter (25.6% or 4,285) commute to work in the IDA estates”.

The first figure refers not just to people heading in to Ballybrit, Parkmore and Galway Technology Parks, but others who commute further still into the heart of Galway city, for work at GMIT, NUIG and UCHG, our largest city-centre employment nodes.

As James Wickham said in his book ‘Gridlock’:

“Car dependency is an issue for social policy. Car dependency exacerbates social exclusion, for those who do not have a car run the risk of being excluded from normal life. Their access to jobs is restricted, they find it difficult to move around the city, they are not full citizens”.

There is a belief that transportation problems result from the antedeluvian planning policies of the 1980s and 1990s, both at local and national level. These intensi ed in Galway from the time Colin Buchanan and Partners published its ‘Galway Transportation and Planning Study’ in September 1999. This report together with its subsequent 2002 ‘Integration Study’ commissioned jointly by Galway City and County Councils, led to a situation in Galway, not dissimilar to that of Dublin, where availability of sufficient reasonably priced housing units in the city failed to keep up with growing public demand.

This, combined during the madness of the Celtic Tiger years, with pressure being applied by county councillors and developers turned Galway’s surrounding towns, villages and particularly countryside into worker dormitories: for families that had been priced out of continuing to live in Galway city.

The Galway County Development Plan of 2002, which integrated the recommendations from the Buchanan Report, facilitated development in places ringed around the city: Bearna, Moycullen, Claregalway, Tuam, Oran- more and Athenry. And everything in between.

Responding to Galway County Council’s then- Draft Development Plan in July 2002, then City Manager John Tierney wrote to Donal O’Donoghue, then County Manager, expressing some concern over proposed policies which would continue to promote a wider spread of settlement, and not the concentration into the 38 towns, villages and proposed development at Ardaun that had been planned.

He stated: “The cumulative effect of these policies/objectives all greatly undermines the ‘Galway Transport and Planning Study’ GTPS, any sustainable approach to a settlement structure and consequently any ability to promote a sustainable public transport system. It would exacerbate the current dependence on private vehicular transport and the consequent negative effects of this”.

Tierney’s pleas went ignored, and widespread ‘one off’ housing development in County Galway continued unabated, with septic tanks mushrooming leading to water pollution, cryptosporidium, and a culture of lengthy commutes into once homely Galway City.

So a long-term strategic policy for planning where people might be sustainably housed was scupperedd, due to the regime, the report and thousands of concomitant individual acts of planning anarchy, cumulatively undermining any regional strategy.

The problem is now self-pepetuating and solution-less. Acting County CEO Kevin Kelly recently told an audience gathered in the Meyrick Hotel ballroom in the city in late September to hear housing minister Simon Coveney, announce his latest ‘Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness’ that: “Of all the numbers of new houses built in the county last year 50% were grants for ‘one-offs’. It should be no surprise therefore to note that without consequent development of additional public transport services to these locations -an impossible task – many more workers living in county areas will have to continue to travel to work by car”.

The President of the Irish Planning Institute Deirdre Fallon, made the following submission before the formation of the new government earlier this year: “The next Government must take rural issues seriously, particularly by committing to a new approach to rural development and one-off rural housing. We welcome all parties’ commitments to renewing and investing in our towns and villages but this is pointless unless strong, reasonable and viable alternatives to the construction of one-off rural housing are put in place and the Rural Housing Guidelines for Planning Authorities 2005 are reviewed to ensure rural Ireland is protected as an asset, not just used as a sprawling commuter belt”.

Building the proposed new bypass around Galway will only add to and intensify urban- sprawl – pushing urban development around Galway City ever further out into the countryside.

The ‘Galway Transport Strategy’ was drawn up to address the severe build-up of traffic congestion in Galway City, outside of school holiday times, and to promote future growth in peripheral development areas with more housing and industry.

Officials in Galway now characteristically complain that there is a lack of residential housing density to justify building a city-wide Light Rail Tram system. Councillors twice voted for cost-benefit analysis as long ago as 2010!

Yet planners do nothing to encourage and provide for increased urban density, which would include development of the high-quality apartment developments residents in other European cities take for granted. Even in Dublin the move towards developing more intense city centre apartment schemes is powering ahead. This policy is surely making the Luas an even more sustainable choice.

In Galway our authorities, together with Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) want to spend over a billion euro in construction of an N6 Ring Road, that will pass through some of Galway’s greenest suburbs, and in developing their Galway City Transportation Plan.

Alternative transport options will have to be pursued at an An Bord Pleanála hearing towards the end of this year. With authorities having ignored all efforts from people opposed to their damaging plans, it is the only opportunity many people will have to help arrest the tentacles of overwhelming sprawl and follow better, standard European models that promote a better and more sustainable quality of life.

Derrick Hambleton

Derrick Hambleton is chairman of An Taisce’s Galway Association and Galway City Community Networks representative on Galway City’s Transport and Planning SPC