The Government’s National Planning Framework, ‘Project Ireland 2040’, has recognised Athlone as a ‘key regional centre’ in the Midlands, earmarking the town for two decades of population growth and increased investment in infrastructure and services.
The National Development Plan 2018-2027 sets out the investment priorities that will underpin the successful implementation of the NPF. But what does this designation actually mean for the town?
While the NPF sets out concrete population targets for Dublin and the next four cities, growth in regional towns like Athlone will be tailored by local and regional planning authorities. Athlone’s strategic importance could see its population increase by 30 per cent by 2040, with no cap announced in the NPF.
The population of the entire Eastern and Midlands region is projected to grow by half a million people to 2.85 million by 2040. Athlone Chamber predict that the population of Athlone will reach 50,000 by 2050.
Athlone Chamber project further employment growth in the areas of ICT, Pharma, Medical Devices, Life Sciences, Manufacturing and Tourism. Like population growth, The NPF places job growth in the hands of regional and local planning authorities, to grow in tandem with population. The National Development Plan pledges continued IDA investment for the Eastern and Midlands region.
Under the National Development Plan, Athlone will have access to a €2 billion urban regeneration fund, to help with regeneration aimed at bringing people back to live in the town centre itself.
The plan also includes a €36m commitment for the Athlone main drainage project, desperately needed if the town’s population is to double in the coming decades.
Plans are already underway to convert the peat fired power stations at Lanesboro and Shannonbridge to run on biomass. If crops are grown locally, this could create additional income for local farmers.
The Government has committed to a new 50-bed ward in Portiuncula hospital, as well as bed increases in all the hospitals serving Athlone.
These increases form part of an overall plan to increase hospital bed numbers by 2,600 over the next 10 years. The plan also provides for the development of new primary care centres, and a new ambulance base in Mullingar.
The government has committed to providing an additional 550,000 homes by 2040. These will be prioritised in cities and large towns, like Athlone. The Midlands region is also due to get 3,500 new social housing units by 2021.
The government will also support the upgrading of one third of all homes throughout the Midlands, making them more comfortable and energy efficient. It will do the same for every school built prior to 2008, as well as public nursing homes and hospitals throughout the country.
The Midland counties will get a dedicated tourism plan to promote the Lakelands Region to international tourists. This will build on existing tourist attractions and provide new investment to develop additional attractions.
Athlone IT will become one of three locations for new ‘Technology & Innovation Poles’, centres that aim to support existing local and new start-up businesses.
The government has pledged to support the creation of Technological Universities, formed by the amalgamation of several Institutes of Technology. While TU status has long been an ambition of Athlone IT, it is still unclear when and how this will happen. AIT’s forthcoming €15 million STEM building will surely help its bid for TU status.