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Tullamore should back away from being part of an economic "Gateway"

15th June 2017

Fergal MacCabe

RESPONDING last January to the rumour that Athlone might be elevated to the role of a large new city in the forthcoming National Planning Framework, the Chairman of Tullamore Chamber of Commerce, Niall Mulligan, expressed his opposition to the idea for the reason that  "efforts and investment to achieve growth would undoubtedly be at the expense of other peripheral towns". 
In other words, Athlone's gain would be Tullamore's loss and therefore any dilution of the concept enshrined in the National Spatial Strategy 2002- 2020 which links both towns together with Mullingar to form a "Gateway City", should be resisted. 
The Chamber is once again at the forefront of the debate on the future of Tullamore and I hope they will continue to take the lead in the coming months as the Framework is revealed and the options for the town discussed.
I would like to contribute by setting out a totally opposite position and asserting that not only should Tullamore back away from being part of an economic "Gateway" but that any idea of expanding Athlone into a major city of the scale of Galway, should  be discouraged also. I will set out my stall.
For several centuries, people have been leaving the land and 60 per cent of the population of Ireland now live in urban areas, almost one third in the Dublin region. Though unbalanced, this has created a critical mass which has attracted international investment whose spin offs have then benefited  the national economy. All over the world, it is the larger cities that are the drivers of growth and success breeds further success. The danger however, particularly on an island with a relatively small population, is that overconcentration in one area, stunts the growth potential of others, devours a disproportionate amount of national infrastructural spend and creates resentment.   
From the 1960s onward, the Government tried to overcome this by directing development around the country in order to cool down the rapid expansion of Dublin while boosting other centres. 
The first effort was the "Buchanan Report" of 1969 which accepted some further growth in Dublin but singled out Cork/Cobh and Limerick/Shannon as National Growth Centres also. Large scale investment would allow these two poles to ultimately grow to populations of up to 600,000 each and be capable of competing with Dublin for inward investment. Regional growth centres around the country were identified also but the basis of the strategy was that only by creating centres above a critical size, could growth be self sustaining.
When the plan was published, all hell broke loose and not for the last time, the cry went up that the expansion of these centres would come at the expense of others and that growth should not be concentrated but spread evenly around the country so that every town and village would get something. 
Unsurprisingly, the report was then shelved  "pending further examination" and we muddled along for the next thirty years without any coherent national strategy and with decisions on infrastructural investment heavily influenced by local political considerations.
The next effort was the "National Spatial Strategy" of 2002 which identified the five main cities as "Gateways" driving growth in the regions. Dundalk, Sligo and the "Linked Gateways" of Letterkenny/Derry and Tullamore/Athlone/Mullingar were added to the mix along with nine regional "Hubs" supporting the Gateways. The idea of concentration, though not as radical as Buchanan, was back on the table.
Perversely, the Government immediately undermined its own plan by decentralising entire departments of the Civil Service to many locations  which had not been designated as either Gateways or Hubs but which for the most part, were in the constituencies of various Ministers. Confidence in the credibility of the NSS immediately began to wane. 
One could blame the great downturn from 2008 onwards for its ultimate failure, but it was doomed from the start, as apart from not being taken seriously by its own makers, it never had a serious funding stream, didn't have statutory legislative status and in any event was undermined by a blind eye being turned to the proliferation of "one off" housing in the countryside which undermined the potential for the growth of the smaller towns and villages. 
During its lifetime, 750 villages and small towns up to a population of 3,000 persons, simply stagnated and the closures of post offices, banks, shops and pubs accelerated, particularly so in the much vaunted "Gateways".
As for its impact on Tullamore, it is difficult to identify any benefits which were directly attributable to the NSS or which would not have happened anyway. The expansion of the County Hospital was announced in 2000, the bypass had been  planned for many years, though its delivery in 2009 might have been slightly accelerated by having an Offaly Taoiseach, while Tullamore DEW wasn't going to anywhere else but to Tullamore.
In my view the impact of the NSS on the town was either harmful or ineffective and apart from the somewhat controversial pedestrian bridges over the canal, it is difficult to discern any actual positive outcomes. 
Town centre shopping was undermined by the installation (supported by the Tullamore Chamber of Commerce) of the out of  centre commercial hub at Cloncolloge. The damage which a competing and remote large scale retail destination, located on the bypass and with extensive free car parking, would do to the historic core of the town was clear to the inspector of An Bord Pleanala  who recommended refusal, but the board found itself  bound by the designation of the town as an NSS 'Gateway' and reluctantly granted permission.
Meanwhile, responding to its new  status, the Town Council produced its 2010-2016 Development Plan based on the NSS targets. Effectively disregarding the potential of the town centre as a residential location, the Council directed most new housing onto 290 Ha. of agricultural lands all around the town in order to accommodate its 30,000 population in 2020 envisaged in the Strategy, whose first stage anticipated that by 2016 an additional 5,250 persons would have arrived.
However, when the results of the 2016 Census were announced, it was revealed that  between 2011 and 2016, the population of Tullamore Urban had increased by only 98 persons, while Tullamore Rural  went up by a mere 186. As the projections on which the Strategy was based were so wildly wrong, a reassessment was essential.
It is evident that our attempts at regional planning up to now have not been particularly successful- largely because our politicians fear the wrath of constituents who feel that they have not got a fair slice of the cake and therefore they are reluctant to take unpopular decisions. 
Twice we have tried to create counterbalances to Dublin and twice we have failed. Hopefully this third attempt will be more successful, but given the delicate balance in the Dail, I am not hopeful and am preparing myself to witness another 'one for everyone in the audience' fudge in which the opportunity for concentration on just a few viable growth centres will be funked once again. 
It is my belief that any plan which doesn't try to create a genuine counterbalance to Dublin by seriously expanding and linking the cities of Cork, Limerick/Shannon and Galway will eventually follow its predecessors down the road to failure. 
It is necessary to make real modern cities of what are presently in European terms, just large towns. This will require massive and focussed investment in  infrastructure, particularly transport, and in urban renewal and social and physical amenities.  
However, our country is still heavily in debt and has limited financial resources. Spending it in these cities will mean denying it elsewhere and that will be controversial. 
But it would be worth it in the long term because their success will spill over into their hinterlands and ultimately the country as a whole will benefit.
The delivery of this new National Framework is promised for the Autumn. Initial leaks  suggest that the Government acknowledges the shortcomings of the NSS and is more open to a concentrated approach in which investment will be targeted on the locations which have the best chance of success. 
We will have to wait and see if this is so and whether or not the Framework will seek to expand Athlone to the level of a city big enough to rival Galway, as feared by Niall Mulligan. 
Given the scale and population of our little island, I believe that it would be better to spend scarce resources in turning Galway into a very substantial conurbation and improving its links with Sligo, Cork and Waterford.  But if Athlone wants to expand to major city scale - good luck with that.....
Tullamore, in my view, should take a different path and seek an independent role based on its own resources and strengths which are many. It now has an international identity thanks to Tullamore DEW, excellent medical, legal, recreational and educational facilities and good links to the national transport system, particularly a rail commuting journey to central Dublin of less than an hour.
 It still has an attractive and compact centre with several key sites ready for development.  Capitalising on these potentials with imagination, could capture spillover from the success of the nearby expanding major cities.
Indeed, Tullamore could market itself as a niche of intermediate scale, offering high quality civic, residential, social and environmental standards which would attract new and sophisticated employment opportunities and residents.
This would of course first require the binning of the now outdated, unbalanced and patently overambitious Tullamore Development Plan, and taking a totally different approach to the planning of the town, starting with the redevelopment of its historic centre.
But that's a topic for another day.


Fergal MacCabe is an architect and town planner and a former President of the Irish Planning Institute.

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