It was Friday, just after 10 o’clock in the evening, when my mobile phone rang. I was in Brighton, relaxing after a long drive which started in the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye where I attended the Hay Literary Festival for a few days. “Francis - some breaking news”. Only two persons called me by that name, my mother who has gone to her eternal award and my friend, Frank English. “The Inner Relief Road has been turned down by An Bord Pleanala”. The message was brief, the reasoning for the decision was not clear but the resulting sense of relief and joy was overwhelming. This, 29 years after the Urban District Council committed itself to an Inner Relief Road “as a short term traffic relieving measure”. That same Council way back in 1976 had expected the road to be constructed within two or three years, and for once, those of us who subsequently came to oppose the Inner Relief Road, have much to be grateful for the unbusinesslike Local Government procedures which left the project, like many other local projects, unattended for long periods.
It wasn’t until 1985 or thereabouts after I was first elected to the then Urban District Council that I asked some questions about the planned Inner Relief Road. Amazingly the information made available to me and the other members of the Urban Council indicated that no development would be allowed along the line of the new road which was to have six foot high walls on either side. The mind boggles at the insensitive nature of such a development running through the centre of Athy. It was the first time this information was made known to local Councillors and through the local press to the people of Athy. The resulting furore not unexpectedly caused the Council officials to rethink the road project and sometime later it was announced that development would be permitted along the route of the new Inner Relief Road.
The interest aroused by the questions raised in relation to the road lead to further questions and to the questioning of the merit of the Inner Relief Road as compared to that of an Outer Relief Road. This soon resulted in an attempt to silence further criticism within the local Council Chambers with the adoption of an agreement, which was activated by Council officials, between Athy Urban District Council and Kildare County Council whereby the County Council would take over responsibility for building the new road. It meant of course that any further questions or indeed criticisms would have to be raised in the County Council Chamber. That forum was not as readily available as the Urban District Council Chamber to the increasing number of persons who felt the Inner Relief Road was not an appropriate development for Athy and so further discussion of the topic was stymied. It was sometime before the issue would again become topical and contentious. The long drawn out saga went through various stages of public debate (remember the Grove Cinema), protest meetings in Emily Square, meetings in the Dominican Hall and a petition for a plebiscite.
As a former Local Government Official I have to say that I was both surprised and disappointed at the failure of Kildare County Council Officials to engage with the local people on the Inner Relief Road issue. Over the years many opportunities were presented to these officials to meet the people of Athy to discuss the proposed Inner Relief Road but these opportunities were never availed of. Instead the County Council relied on the less than satisfactory public consultation process which involved road plans being made available for a specified period and the opportunity for anyone wishing to do so to fill up a pre-prepared Questionnaire. There was little or no interaction between the County Council and the local people and carefully choreographed so called “consultation processes” did nothing to meet the need for discussion at local level.
Turning to the six day oral hearing for an Athy road scheme I have to question why it was held in the Curragh rather than our own town. I asked that question on the first day of the hearing and received a less than satisfactory reply. My understanding is that the venue was chosen by Kildare County Council, and if so, their disregard for the convenience of the general public of Athy is to be regretted.
The decision of An Bord Pleanala is a decision which common sense dictates was to be expected, but to be honest, common sense is not always the predominant feature of planning decisions. I was disappointed by some of the less than credible claims made on behalf of the County Council at the oral hearing. “Decentralisation insofar as Athy is concerned is dependant on the Inner Relief Road going ahead” was one such claim. I was not in a position to refute that when the claim was made at the hearing but since then the Department of Finance has confirmed that it was awaiting a decision on the Inner Relief Road before choosing a site for an office in Athy. Another claim that the I.D.A. supported the Inner Relief Road as an essential piece of infrastructure was backed up by a letter from a Regional Officer of that organisation. The I.D.A. organisation or its board did not make any pronouncement on the Inner Relief Road, and, I am told would not do so.
The decision of An Bord Pleanala was a vindication of the position taken by the majority of the local people on the Inner Relief Road and raises serious questions about the judgment of those Local Government Officials who over the years promoted the scheme, despite local opposition.
I have been very pleasantly surprised at the large number of calls and letters I received since the decision was announced expressing delight at the rejection of the Inner Relief Road. Many were from men and women, who so far as I am aware, had never publicly expressed their views on the issue. These included several businessmen whose previous reticence could well be understood and appreciated having regard to their overwhelming desire not to get involved in local controversy.
Kildare County Council through its spokesman, Charlie Talbot, issued a statement last week claiming that the Inner Relief Road was “vital for the social and economic development of Athy”. All I can say in relation to that is that the Inner Relief Road never was and never could be a catalyst for improving the quality of life in our town or for the regeneration of Athy. The Inner Relief Road offered less in terms of economic and social development than an Outer Relief Road and the latter has also the clear advantage of ensuring the protection of the unique character of our town centre.
Athy’s future insofar as infrastructural development is concerned lies in the hands of the Local Government Officials and our public representatives. It is time to move on and to expedite the building of an Outer Relief Road which given the expansion of the town to date and into the future might now be properly called an Outer Relief Street.