Mayo County Council have appointed McCarthy Keville O’Sullivan, Environmental and Planning Consultants, to develop a plan around the joint development of the towns of Castlebar and Westport.
The key objective is to develop a feasibility strategy combining the joint development of both growth centres into a focal point, to attract foreign direct investment and employment in the region, and as a result, advance integrated economic development in Mayo.
As part of their remit the consultants will consider: (1 ) The national and regional development policy context and the potential of such a strategy to influence the emerging (RSES ) Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy; (2 ) The Atlantic Economic Corridor and the role of the joined towns in same; (3 ) Identify examples of international best practice of strategies for the joint growth of towns of similar scale and proximity as Castlebar and Westport and (4 ) Identify and liaise/consult with stakeholders, including Mayo County Council, Chambers of Commerce, IDA/EI, Mayo PPN, etc.
Mayo County Council's director of services for planning, economic and community development, Catherine McConnell, said at the announcement of the appointment of the consultants that: "Already Castlebar and Westport are socially and economically interlinked and the enhancement of the N5, which will be under construction shortly, will reduce the travel time between both to 10 minutes.
"It makes socio-economic sense to combine the strengths of both vibrant towns with distinct characteristics to create a joint entity with critical mass of a scale similar to other regional growth centres. This will assist the IDA and other development agencies to attract serious interest and potential investment that will in turn create jobs in the region.”
The chief executive of Mayo County Council, Peter Hynes, at the January meeting of the local authority, responded to criticism from some quarters that Ballina and other areas of the county were going to be left behind following the announcement last week of the appointment of consultants to develop a plan around the joint development of Castlebar and Westport. There has been criticism of the decision potentially leading to a two track development in county following the announcement of the joint development plan.
Speaking at the meeting Mr Hynes said: "The future in a 20 year horizon is very positive for this county - so what is being started in the case of Castlebar and Westport isn't a study or proposal to drive the two right now, it's a study to see what needs to be done to maximise the benefits of two disparate towns in the past who are about to become one town and that poses challenges for us - how we deliver services, where we put offices, how we organise representation from those two areas and they won't be easy challenges in the next five to ten years - but the potential is huge.
"The next phase of development in the island, if we are not going to tip it over into the Irish sea if we keep everything inside the M50, is the Atlantic Economic Corridor and we need a growth centre of the scale to compete on that corridor and the linked Castlebar and Westport is that. So we are starting to tease out what will happen.
"Ballina is a hugely important centre - that fact we are looking at a feasibility to see how we can best develop Castlebar and Westport does not mean that we are forgetting about Ballina in any way, shape or form. It has already got two of the four major foreign direct investment companies in the county based in the town."
The issue was raised again at the meeting of the Ballina Municipal District on Wednesday morning, by Cllr Jarlath Munnelly, who said he did not have a problem with the plan in principle - as long as there was a parallel plan put in place to develop Ballina and surrounding areas. He went on to say that if that did not happen, 'then very easily you could see the county develop at two different speeds'.
This is already happening, the meeting was told by Cllr Seamus Weir, who said that the Ballina area was not getting its fair share in different areas - as he pointed out that the previous week's announcement of funding for greenways and trails, included nothing for Ballina or north Mayo.
Cllr Munnelly went on to recommend that a regeneration plan for the Ballina area be tied into the 300th anniversary of the town, which will be taking place in 2023 - with funding to be sought under the Urban Regeneration fund.
Director of services for the council, Tom Gilligan, told the meeting that the town is not going to be left behind and that there is a lot of good things happening in Ballina and surrounding areas; the council is already working on a number of development strategies around the 300th anniversary of the town and they are not all just based on birthday celebrations.