Today I return to a subject which has exercised all of our minds over the past few years. The inner relief road saga is about to take another step on the way to oblivion or completion depending on the outcome of next Saturday’s meeting of Athy Urban District Council. The elected members of the Council all true and trusted warriors of local democracy have the responsibility every five years of adopting a town development plan for Athy. This time round, the Council’s deliberations take on a significance which it has never before enjoyed. The reason can be found in the exceptional growth of building development in and around Athy and the expectations raised by the prospect of urban renewal status for Athy. Even this would be sufficient to give the planned Council meeting an importance far beyond its normal worth. However, the inclusion on the agenda of the proposals for an inner relief road through the centre of Athy gives the entire proceedings an importance seldom before equalled.
By now I must assume that anyone with a morsal of interest in Athy and its future must be acquainted with Kildare County Council’s plans for the new roadway. The issue to be decided by Athy UDC is whether the planned inner relief road should proceed or whether Athy’s future is best served by a by pass or an outer relief road.
It was 23 years ago that the proposal for an inner relief road was first mooted. That was the time when there was little environmental consciousness in Ireland. Thankfully there have been changes in that regard since then and town communities are no longer prepared to have their towns mutilated in order to facilitate traffic movement. It is a well known fact that traffic will always increase to meet any extra roads that may be provided. It is for this reason that road planners in recent years have acknowledged the necessity of preserving urban areas as free as possible from vehicle traffic, and why by pass routes are being built with greater frequency throughout Ireland.
Advocates of the inner relief road claim that the free movement of traffic in Athy necessitates the building now of such a road with a by pass being required in another fifteen years. I can visualise the scene in twenty years time when Athy will begin to take on the appearance of Los Angeles suburb geared to accommodate the local people so long as they are travelling in cars.
By the time you read this the Heritage Centre, the latest addition to Athy’s facilities, will have opened its doors to the general public. Located in the ground floor of the Town Hall the centre is a visual feast of Athy’s past showing the town’s development since it was founded 800 years ago. That such a centre should be located in the middle of the town in a building flanked on all sides by such important urban spaces as Emily Square is a happy coincidence. The substantial Town Hall building forms an important back drop to the cobbled plaza while its rear environs provides a sense of spaciousness which is both pleasing and environmentally important in the context of a town centre.
The inner relief road, if built, would occupy the back square obliterating that fine urban space and replacing it with a spaghetti type junction serving approach roads on four sides. The tenacity with which the project is being pushed is surprising. Opposition to the County Council plans has been steam rolled into oblivion over the years and in more recent times consultants have been engaged presumably at enormous expense to get around the growing local opposition to the roadway plans. It is therefore of some satisfaction to find that the consultants having reported back to Kildare County Council and Athy Urban District Council have found themselves at odds with those who commissioned the report.
An interesting fact about the relief road plans for Athy is that nominally responsibility for same rests with Kildare County Council. However, the County Council will not proceed with the inner relief road plan if the majority of the people of Athy are opposed to it. This in some quarters has been taken to mean a majority of the elected members of the Athy Urban Council. The town Council comprises nine members all of whom are elected for five year terms by the townspeople. During that five years the elected representatives take many important decisions and generally do so having regard to the best interests of the town and its people. Politicians local or otherwise are smart enough to work within the parameters set by their supporters and understandably always strive to act in a way which would meet with general approval.
The decision on the inner relief road is the most important decision to be taken in the life of this or any other Council. The local people have amply demonstrated that they do not want the inner relief road which would destroy the amenities of the town and turn this most attractive of towns into a twin highway. Despite this the elected representatives or at least some of them would deny the townspeople the right to express their views on the issue and certainly would not permit them to participate in the decision as to how Athy town is to develop in the future.
It has been suggested in the past that the Urban District Council might take a vote of the local people to assess the strengths of those in favour of or opposed to the inner relief road. This proposal never got the necessary backing of the Urban Council and indeed attempts were made to copper fasten the inner relief road supporters case by a snap decision which would not allow further discussion on the merits of the issue.
The shifting sands of the Sahara are brought to mind when observing the moves and counter moves of those who promote the inner relief road project. Pedestrianisation, partial or otherwise, a new roadway, which might be a street or might not, are all part of the features of the Inner Relief Road which have been given to us in recent years. Even urban renewal status has been brought into the frame by officials who eager to stifle opposition to the plans hold out the possibility of such status not being granted unless the inner relief road goes ahead.
This is reminiscent of the claims made last year that funds were then immediately available if the people of Athy would only support the inner relief road. Those funds we were told would be lost to us if we did not row in and support the savage mutilation of our town centre. It was not of course described in such terms and now it is clear finance was not available at that time.
I have been questioned by many people over the weeks as to what local men and women can do. Is there any way of expressing their feelings on the issue I am asked and what affect, if any, will those views, once expressed, have on the local government officials and public representatives who are pushing the inner relief road project. My answer is simply to remind everyone that Kildare County Council and Athy Urban District Council are all part of the democratic process which is called local government. In other words its government by the local people and unlike national government it is the one area of activity where local people’s views and opinions must have a say. So do not be afraid to voice your opinion on the relief road proposals for Athy and do so on or before Saturday 23rd May when the local Councillors will meet in special session commencing at 10 a.m. to consider inter alia whether Athy’s future is as a motor way site or a heritage town.
If you wish to influence the Council decision on the 23rd May why not contact your local Councillor and let him know your views. It may be too late on the 24th May.