Current use of the facilities within the Portlick Forest amenity is a source of much discontent for members of the local scout group management committee, the secretary of which, John Butler, informed the Athlone Advertiser this week.
Established in excess of 30 years, Portlick Scout campsite has occupied its current site adjacent to the forest and trails, managed by Westmeath County Council, and can cater for 300 children from an activity perspective on a daily basis. Open for use from April to September, it is currently closed due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The maintenance of the campsite remains vital to enhance its attraction to visiting parties and with this ethos to the fore among the management committee, an independent risk assessment of the amenity pertaining to public safety was commissioned, the results of which were afforded to the local authority.
Reflecting upon the results of the assessment, secretary, John Butler, noted the need to maintain a harmonious relationship with Westmeath County Council.
“Certain actions are desirable and the aim of this assessment is not to place blame or criticise. It’s purpose is to ensure that there are arrangements implemented to reduce the level of risk to users and to improve the general physical environment of the amenity for the enjoyment of all,” Mr Butler asserted.
Chief among the secretary’s concerns is the decision taken by the local authority not to segregate the pedestrian walkway and the equestrian trail within Portlick Forest.
“Westmeath County Council have erected a sign at the entrance to Portlick Forest indicating that the blue trail, of 6.5km in length, is for use as both an equestrian route and a pedestrian walkway.
“This trail is undergoing untold damage by horses trekking along its course and those who choose to walk along the trail are being put at risk by the presence of equines.
“To date, the local authority have afforded no indication as to when they will address the issues detail in our risk assessment and to maintain a cohesive working relationship into the future, it is necessary that they do so in due course,” Mr Butler emphasised.
John stated that there has been an increase in the number of individuals and groups visiting Portlick Forest in recent times and the issue of safety must now be paramount.
“Westmeath County Council have no relevant guidelines for horse or pony trekking within the amenity, further increasing the safety concerns for users. I am of the opinion that a public consultation process should have been enacted prior to the local authority’s decision to make the blue trail a shared route for equestrians and pedestrians.
“With such health and safety concerns to the fore, I have now called upon Westmeath County Council CEO, Mr Pat Gallagher, to segregate the walkway with immediate effect and to take action with regard to the risks which have been highlighted in our independent risk assessment report.
“In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Westmeath County Council should be ensuring that the Portlick Forest amenity is a safe place for all users,” Mr Butler added.
The independent assessment report further detailed on site key risks, namely the non-presence of a pertinent permit system for horse and pony users, a condition of issue being the requirement to hold adequate insurance cover when using Portlick Forest, while the curbing anti-social behaviour within the amenity remains of vast concern.
Acknowledging receipt of the independent assessment, Town Mayor, Cllr. Aengus O’Rourke, stated that valid claims were raised within the report.
“From a health and safety perspective, it is not sustainable to have shared use of this particular trail for horse users and pedestrians and while I appreciate that equestrians have an entitlement, the need to segregate this walkway is of much importance.
“Portlick Forest is a vast footprint of land which is presently in need of much focus and all interested parties, to include the local authority must unite with progressive discussion in mind to formulate a short and medium term plan for its future development.
“The amenity necessitates better maintenance management and investment,” Cllr. O’Rourke concluded.