Athlone: Midlands City Region?
There have been a number of articles in the national press this week concerning the efforts, through the consultation process for the forthcoming National Planning Framework, to review and revise the Midlands Gateway (Athlone-Tullamore-Mullingar).
It is worth noting some of the recommendations of the Expert Group appointed to advise on the early stage reflections of the National Spatial Strategy and to outline how a revised Strategy (the National Planning Framework) might be progressed.
The Irish Government opted to review the National Spatial Strategy 2002-2020 (NSS) in 2013. A highly experienced Expert Group (Sean Dorgan, Berna Grist and Jim Mackinnon CBE) was appointed to offer views on how the revised Strategy might be progressed. The Expert Group met on 4 occasions from September-December 2013. This included 3 meetings with officials from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (DECLG) and 1 meeting with the 3 members present.
Positive potential of the NSS
A record from the Expert Group acknowledges the laudable ambition of the NSS:
“The NSS had a number of practical and positive benefits, including:-
- • It introduced the concept of spatial development to the public policy agenda, for example, aspects of the relationship with Northern Ireland and the wider European Union as well as the balance of development between Dublin and the rest of Ireland and the implications arising therefrom.
- • It encouraged sectoral policy and decision makers to consider Ireland’s long term territorial development rather than just their own particular area of interest.
Undermining of the NSS
However, it is widely held to have had key shortcomings and to have been undermined on numerous occasions. The December 2003 announcement of the Decentralisation Programme saw some Government Departments and Agencies move to Gateway and Hub towns, but a larger proportion were relocated to lower tier urban centres such as Newbridge and Trim. The Expert Group referred to the “logic of the decentralisation programme” reaching its nadir with the Knock Airport debacle – “the proposed relocation of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to a greenfield site at Knock Airport, a proposal that was refused planning permission following a third party appeal to An Bord Pleanala in 2007”.
Mahon Tribunal recommendation
However, the Expert Group stressed that the significance and potential benefits of the NSS “were recognised in the Mahon Report which recommended, inter alia, that the NSS be placed on a statutory footing. In its response to Mahon the Government accepted this and other recommendations in the report and a Bill to achieve this is to be taken forward in the course of 2014”.
Expert Groups view on the NSS Midlands Gateway
The Expert Group reported that: “We favour continuing with each of the National Gateways adopted in the first NSS with the exception of the linked Midlands Gateway. We propose instead that Athlone should be recognised as the Midlands Gateway, because the linked centres approach has not been sufficiently established, diffuses focus, and has proven to be of little substance or value in practice. To a great extent, the Gateways are self-selecting (and this is the case with Athlone) as they have the largest populations, the best transport connections, the highest levels of economic activity and the critical mass of key services such as education and health. They are the key to regional and national success”.
It will be interesting to see how the forthcoming National Planning Framework deals with the Gateways and Hubs concepts, in the interests of balanced sustainable development.
For further reading on the Midlands Gateway, please find link to Irish Times articles and Podcasts below.
https://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/inside-business-podcast-the-case-for-athlone-city-1.3188780 (Podcast – Journalist Mark Paul provides an overview of the NPF; Economist Jim Power calls it “an absolutely magnificent idea” and “creating a counter balance to Dublin is a really good idea”; John O’Sullivan – Hotelier and Chairman of Destination Athlone outlines the vision for Athlone as a Midlands City Region and cites Professor William Hynes/Future Analytics Consulting and Sean O’Laoire/MOLA Architecture as making a submission on behalf of Destination Athlone)