Galway - a city in transition?

The bypass could prove a backward step, while proposed changes at Galway Harbour may neve get off the ground

Photo:- Andrew Downes XPOSURE

Photo:- Andrew Downes XPOSURE

So here it is, the news that Galway city and county are lodged “within a province that from a spatial planning point of view, is full of low density housing, is totally reliant on private transport (the car ) and which is in need of transforming to using rail and public transport” to become a “high density city and to support cycling and walking?”

From a region that is largely populated by commuters, is disconnected, and is unhealthy, we are to become a city that is urban, networked, digitally smart, and with vibrant rural communities. We are to move from a dual economy/old economy, and become inclusive and be sustainable.

That is how the Northern & Western Regional Authority 2019 Report “A Region in Transition-The Way Forward” sees it.

In layperson’s terms we are being told to transform from being an ancient medieval city, which is heavily dependent on the use of private cars to bring commuters from rural areas to work, shop, or bring children to school - all of which is said to be unhealthy for us - and instead become urban dwellers, who are digitally connected, tolerant of difference, and environmentally sustainable in reality, and not just in terms of Government inspired media Greenwashing.

Will the ring road solve anything?

After more than 20 years delay, our new green tinged Government is to spend €1 billion on a transformational N6 roads network, with a new cross-city motorway, and after a public oral hearing which finally concluded via a Microsoft-Teams Covid-19 delayed and socially distanced hearing. During that hearting, those representing local businesses negotiated to ensure their client's interests were being disadvantaged, but would actually gain new access points for their business employers - and all of this will be paid for out of the public purse...if the motorway is ever built.

'The final decision after the ring road oral hearing will probably not be known for some months yet, but even then, legal challenges may ensue.

Not only are 50 families set to lose their lifetime homes to an environmentally damaging urban motorway, we also learned last week that a local nursing home’s aged, vulnerable residents are expected to be disadvantaged in having traffic fumes, noise, and pollution, all brought close to within yards of their back door.

Yet this motorway, formerly by-pass, now to be known as a ring road, will not allow for any public transport use, nor will access be open to allow any pedal cyclist to wheel a bike on it.

Is this all just a ploy to regain financial support from a lost Ten-T EU status as a Trans European Network-Transport project? The last major European roads project in Galway, the M17/M18 Gort to Tuam PPP Scheme has one of the lowest user rates of all regional transport networks and was the last project to be signed off by Leo Varadkar as Minister for Transport in 2014. The final decision after the oral hearing will probably not be known for some months yet, but even then, the potential for legal challenges may ensue.

The future of the harbour

Galway Docks 1

The other key driver of economic activity in Galway is said to be the extension of Galway’s commercial port, also being deprived of European Ten-T network funding, as the Galway Harbour Company’s plan for its port extension is held up waiting on a decision from An Bord Pleanala after an oral hearing was held way back in January 2015.

'Reduced reliance on bulk fuel imports, and the loss of cruise tourism as a result of Covid-19, means there is little prospect of Galway seeing any port expansion'

It is almost 190 years since the Westminster parliament passed the Galway Docks and Canal Bill, which led to the construction of a new harbour to “facilitate and augment the Trade of the Town and Neighbourhood.” Built in the heart of the city in 1843, the New Docks has since functioned with many ‘highs’ and more disappointing economic ‘lows’. It was not long after its completion that it was recognised the dock was too small to accommodate the growth in size of the ships it had been built to service.

Westminster

A number of subsequent attempts to build deep water piers at locations west of the city all failed to gain traction, or were abandoned as vested local interests, national, or British politics got in the way. Galway would today certainly have looked very different if the Rev Peter Daly had succeeded in his 1852 plans to build his deep water ‘transatlantic port’ at Furbo, as outlined by Tim Collins in his Transatlantic Triumph & Heroic Failure (2002, Collins Press ).

A later attempt was made by Robert Worthington’s Transatlantic Port Committee in 1910, for a port to be built at Barna. There were then more recent attempts to establish a ‘deep water’ port within the inner-bay just off Mutton Island, which today houses Galway’s under pressure waste water sewage treatment plant.

Insider has no time for the port project being pursued today, as it was always his opinion that this was more about promoting private property and development on public lands, than it was about stimulating a return of maritime trade and marine activity to the west of Ireland.

Galway Docks 2

News of proposed visits to Dublin to lobby the Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan, by a delegation of local business interests, regarding the Commission’s decision to continue to exclude Galway Harbour as a Ten-T Port, was worrying. It would represent a return to ‘business as usual’ lobbying which is something the present Government had promised to resist.

The Department of Transport, which is responsible for maritime issues, quickly responded reminding city management that “Galway Harbour Company does not meet the criteria laid out in National Ports Policy to be designated as a Port of National Significance (Tier 1 or 2 )...The Ports average market share of national total tonnage handled since corporatisation in 1997 is only 1-1.5%”. (from the Department of Transport’s written response to City CEO Brendan McGrath, October 6 2020 ).

Little chance of port expansion

Galway Docks 3

Insider believes that with reducing reliance on bulk fuel imports, and the loss of cruise tourism as a result of Covid-19, that there is little prospect of Galway seeing any unviable port expansion. The Department of Transport letter also highlighted that “it is important to note that there is no Exchequer funding for any port company. This is settled Government policy. As stated in the National Ports Policy, the individual port companies must fund development proposals themselves without recourse to the Exchequer with funding to be sourced from a mixture of a company’s own reserves, bank debt and/or potential other sources, eg, private sector investment.”

'There is a preference for continuing with developer led planning, which is not considered the most appropriate way for the decades of city growth ahead'

Recent sale of harbour owned public lands to private developers has resulted in build up of reserves exceeding €10m in recent Harbour Company accounts. Clearly not enough to start building any new port, but with Shannon/Foynes and our own Ros an Mhil having enough space, and the deep water facilities needed to handle most future developments for projects now being designed to harness off-shore wind energy that would meet European ‘Green Deal’ objectives, there is today, perhaps, little chance of Galway Port accessing any of the required EU financial supports?

Communication breakdown

Finally, Insider understands there has been a bit of a breakdown in trust, and frustration is building, between external members of at least one of Galway City Council’s committees and the city executive. Huge changes are expected in city centre areas over coming years, but there seems to be a refusal at executive level to engage in or to allow for any debate on areas of policy formulation.

Issues being highlighted by the community reps on these committees include defining a local policy on appropriate ‘building heights’, where there is need to acknowledge and protect the character of areas within the city centre’s Mediaeval core, unique areas, and streetscapes.

The future development of housing on public lands at the harbour and the current lack of any agreement on a Work Programme for 2020 etc, are all causing aggravation, with the year almost over.

The executive seems to have a preference for continuing with a policy of developer led planning, which is not considered the most appropriate way for the decades of city growth ahead. These committees were formed not just to hear presentations and receive occasional updates or reports. Trust needs to be restored if the city is to move forward.

 

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