Brave leadership from Michael Walsh, Waterford City & County Council CEO
The Phoenix opinion column has been running in the Waterford News & Star for more than 30 years
OUR brand new and improved Waterford City and County Development Plan 2022 – 2028 is now out for consultation. From the first line onwards, it is a properly ambitious document for Waterford, and if even a fraction of what is suggested comes to pass it will radically improve the lives of everyone who lives in the South East.
Waterford has never lacked ambition, and this document brings a lot of that ambition into one place. It is available on the council’s website, in libraries, and in the Council offices in Waterford or Dungarvan. It is a massive body of work and congratulations are in order for those who put it together.
It’s easy to be cynical about such colossal planning exercises. As the old Yiddish saying goes, “Man Plans, and God Laughs.” Did not Stalin love a good five-year plan? Plans also have to genuflect to a lot of agendas; those writing plans often have to say lots of well-meaning things they have no intention of implementing. Our last plan was actually two plans, the city (2013-2019), and the county (2011-17). We have been without a plan for a few years, and these pre-council merger plans got overtaken by events. Just as the previous generation of plans were framed during the Celtic Tiger and implemented in austerity. So, this new plan is the first, full-throated statement of ambition of our new merged Council, and has the imprint of council CEO Michael Walsh.
‘One thing is certain, our plans, ambition, and leadership are brave’
Given the sheer length of the document, much of it legally required, it is hard to quickly split the real plan from the fluff. Avid readers must wade through pieces on the UN sustainable development goals, on biodiversity, intricate material on flood defence, particulars on when you can widen a driveway, the ideal lettering on shop fronts. All this is important, but it is a feature of every other plan in the country. It’s best to think of the plan as a list of things that might happen, stuff that is important to say, and lots of practical rules and regulations about planning.
You do not have to read far into the plan to hear the full-throated, aggressive vision for Waterford. It says that, “By 2028, Waterford City and County will have continued to grow and will be evolving to become an even more attractive, prosperous, resilient and sustainable place, anchored by Waterford City as the Regional Capital, a University and Learning City, and an economic driver for the region. It will be an excellent place to live, visit and do business.” There is the ambition. Waterford needs to step up as the regional capital, a university city and drive the regional economy forward.
The plan predicts that the core of the city’s population will soar by 40% in the fifteen years between Census 2016 and 2031. Massive new housing is proposed for Kilbarry and Carrickphierish, much of it underway, to absorb this population growth. If you are from that area, pay close attention to the special design framework for Kilbarry, Ballybeg, and Lacken, it will remake that entire area. For inspiration, the Council is drawing on the new Adamstown district of Dublin.
Although the Government is dragging their feet over investing in the main campus of the new technological university, witness the obscene delay in the new Engineering building, Council is committing to a university district four times the size of WIT’s existing Cork Road footprint. The whole crystal site (deal between Noel Frisby and WIT permitting), RSC, Yellow House, and the city end of the Nature Park is to become a university mile. If this comes to pass, the whole South East will prosper.
Considerable effort will be made on making the city more walkable, cycle friendly, and improving public transport options. This chimes with current Government thinking. Roads, politically out of favour in these green times, are not enthusiastically explored, but the lifeblood of Waterford is the N25. The M9 and N24 are vital. The national routes N25 and N24 are wholly inadequate for the job of a regional capital. Mixing local traffic with fast-moving long-distance traffic is a recipe for accidents and unpredictable journey times. The plan gives full council backing to the port and airport. Our council has a track record of delivering exceptional public realms works, tourism, and heritage projects like the Viking Triangle, along with the Greenway, Mount Congreve, Lismore, and little joys such as the improved coastal walks from Dunmore East to Ardmore. Tourism gets significant weighting and is well catered for in the plan.
Tramore and the west
It is commonly believed, with good reason, that the city as council HQ has lacked full focus in recent years. The failure to complete the Greenway into the city centre being an upsetting case in point. It will be contentious, but the plan has little to say about the county. Dungarvan, which traditionally had an outsized place in planning, is less emphasised here. It is in rude good health and is in truth without significant asks. Tramore is simply forgotten, left to enjoy the gentle dilapidation of the iconic Grand Hotel, visionless town core and a charmless Celtic tiger era ring road, framed with ugly concrete block walls and complete with half-built ghost building shells. Its future lies in closer integration with the city.
But the big questions around Waterford’s ambitions will not be answered locally. Our problems continue to rest unanswered in Dublin. Will our airport survive the push to shutter it for good? Will the North Quays get built? What about the boundary extension, and the tiny MASP district? Any sign of investment into WIT from FG’s Simon Harris, who has talked the talk but utterly failed to walk the walk? Are the M24 Limerick to Waterford motorway and an Eastern river crossing to complete the Outer Ring Road going ahead? Is there any word on the proposed independent hospital grouping for UHW? Dublin’s slow-walking of Waterford projects continues and this is the greatest threat to our status as a regional city.
Meanwhile, our tax money pours into Cork and Dublin, as fast as it can be spent, from every Minister unsure if they will be a cabinet after December 2022. Nutty money on more new hospitals in Cork and Dublin is just the latest. €10 billion will be spent by Government on capital projects this year. How much in Waterford? By 2025 the Government will be spending €15 billion a year on capital projects. The South East has no friends in this Government which is now one year old. What has it delivered for Waterford? Much of our county’s political ire was aimed at the last Government and its vitriolic joy at preventing our development and progress. The cath lab and mortuary were perfect examples of that. But similarly the technological university, slow-walking the airport and North Quays until private capital could wait no longer, shows how Waterford has been kicked around. Expectations are high that the two Government TDs Minister Mary Butler and Marc Ó Cathasaigh deliver in the coming months.
Pascal Donohoe was here recently to open the wonderful Silver Museum, an effort of national importance built without real support. Another senior politician given the red carpet treatment in Waterford but without anything for us? He came, he saw and he went back to Dublin to contemplate spending another billion on a new maternity hospital at St Vincent’s. He could have cruised by to open the new mortuary in UHW, but presumably was too mortified.
One thing is certain, our plans, ambition, and leadership are brave.