Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Whites Castle and Inner Relief Road following High Court Decision

The tricolour was raised over White’s Castle last weekend.  The last time a flag flew over the ancient fortress was the day the Royal Irish Constabulary vacated the castle and marched through the main street to take over the military barracks in Barrack Lane.  The flag flown that day was of course the Union Jack and the R.I.C. who had occupied the castle as the local R.I.C. Barracks for the previous fifty years or so were moving to the more comfortable and more commodious facilities afforded by the military barracks.  The military barracks had been built in the early part of the 18th century to house a cavalry troop and it had lain largely unused following the withdrawal of English troops from the town at the end of the Crimean War.  The decision to move the R.I.C. from the town centre location was not met with favour and letters in the local Press of the time confirmed the townspeople’s opposition to the move.  It was felt that Barrack Lane was too far removed from the town and that the R.I.C. would not be able to provide from their new base sufficient patrols to service the main streets of the town.  The complaints went unanswered and the R.I.C. station remained in the old military barracks until the disbandment of the force in 1922.  I have seen a photograph of the take-over of the R.I.C. Barracks in Athy following the Treaty but interestingly enough the new Garda Siochana were not located there when they arrived in Athy in August 1922.

I had my first view of the interior of White’s Castle about two months ago and in that regard I was one of the many thousands of local persons who had never previously had the opportunity to view the interior of the building, which with the neighbouring bridge, is the iconic representation of our town.  The interest in the building as demonstrated by the many thousands who queued patiently last weekend to pass through the doors of White’s Castle owes much to the heightened interest awakened in recent years in our local history and the sense of pride of place which has resulted.

Plans for the future use of White’s Castle are for discussion between its new owner Gabriel Dooley and the Town Council and I hope, as I am sure all of you do, that our local representatives have the foresight to do whatever is necessary to ensure the future use of White’s Castle as a civic amenity for Athy. 

The saga of the Inner Relief Road continues in the High Court on the 14th of this month.  You will recall that An Bord Pleanala held a six day public hearing on the issues involved, at which a number of expert witnesses retained by Kildare County Council gave evidence, as did a number of local objectors.  The Planning Board subsequently issued it’s decision and in so doing handed down a decision which for the first time in it’s history went against a County Council road scheme.

The County Manager took an executive decision to seek in the High Court a judicial review of the Board’s decision on the basis that the Board’s procedure in arriving at this decision was somewhat imperfect.  In doing so the County Manager did not seek the approval of the elected members of the Council but acted, as he was quite entitled to do so, by way of a managerial order.

The Council’s case includes a claim that while An Bord Pleanala found the Environmental Impact Statement prepared by Kildare County Council deficient in terms of alternative route proposals, the Board did not request the Council to submit such additional information as might have cured those deficiencies.  In not doing so the Council claims that An Bord Pleanala acted unfairly.  The Council also claims that the Board’s decision flew in the face of reason and common sense and was irrational.  I suppose I could make exactly the same response to the County Council claim that despite the fact that 60% of the traffic in Athy was local traffic, the remaining being “through traffic”, the construction of a bypass “would not solve in any way congestion on the main street”.

The admission that 40% of the traffic is “through traffic”, when for years we were told that the figure was 18% or thereabouts gives me grave reason to question the veracity of any information coming from official sources from within the local authority.  The 40% admission was literally dragged out of the Council at the oral hearing but even now the Council refuses to accept that the removal of the through traffic, including as it would all the lorries which daily pass up and down Duke Street and Leinster Street, would alleviate traffic congestion in the town centre.  The County Council’s claim in that regard are as absurd as it’s outdated and as of now, rejected road plan.

In response to submissions made by Kildare County Council An Bord Pleanala points to the fact that the necessity for the new road in the context of potential alternatives was central to the arguments put forward by both the County Council and the local objectors.  The submissions lodged by the various objectors were sent to Kildare County Council well in advance of the oral hearing and consequently the Council were well aware that the issue of alternative routes was one of the most contentious issues raised, especially by Athy Urban Development Group and also by this writer.

I understand that the Town Council within the past week met to consider the adoption of the Town Development Plan which will operate for the next five years.  Rather strangely, given that large portions of that development plan is based on the implementation of the Inner Relief Road project, the Council by a majority of six votes to three nevertheless decided to proceed with the plan as drafted.  If the High Court, following the hearing next week, rejects the County Council’s judicial review application, then all references to the Inner Relief Road will have to be removed from the Town Development Plan.  This will necessitate a major revision of the plan and further public consultation before its eventual adoption by the same elected representatives who last week rushed to judgment on the present development plan knowing that the High Court case was scheduled for hearing two weeks later.

In the meantime the Outer Relief Road still remains an objective in the Town Development Plan and I am told, although how reliably I cannot say, that Kildare County Council are moving ahead with the design work on that road and that the construction of the Outer Relief Road could commence in two years time.  There is no question but there is an urgent need to deal with Athy’s ongoing traffic problems but the solution to the problem lies not in the Inner Relief Road which would only create more traffic chaos in the town.

There is a common misconception that Kildare County Council is “appealing” An Bord Pleanala’s decision.  This is not so.  The decision of An Bord Pleanala is final insofar as the planning process is concerned.  What Kildare County Council is seeking to do is to have the Planning Board’s decision judicially reviewed by the High Court.  Judicial review is not an appeal from the decision already made but a review of the manner in which the  decision was made.  If the High Court finds in favour of Kildare County Council the Planning Board’s decision will be voided and the matter sent back to An Bord Pleanala to start all over again it’s review of the process in relation to the Athy Inner Relief Road.  Incidentally, Kildare County Council is only the second local authority to ever judicially review a decision of An Bord Pleanala in the thirty years of the Board’s existence.  Kilkenny County Council commenced a similar action in 1991 but later withdrew before the case came on for hearing.  This, however, is the first time a County Council has challenged a ruling by An Bord Pleanala over a road scheme.  The outcome of the High Court hearing will be awaited with much interest, not only in Athy but elsewhere throughout Ireland wherever local communities opposed the sometimes unacceptable decisions of local authorities which have done little to protect and nurture the principles of “local Government”.

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