The Phoenix opinion column has been running in the Waterford News & Star for more than 30 years
FOR almost as long as this column is in existence, there was an agreed policy between Waterford City Council, Waterford County Council and Kilkenny County Council that no comparison shopping retail (high value items normally sold in the city centre) would be allowed in the suburbs of Waterford city.
This agreement lasted up to the Celtic Tiger when Waterford County Council gave planning in an amazing six-week period for the development of the Waterford (Butlerstown) Retail Park.
Subsequently Kilkenny County Council gave permission for the Ferrybank Shopping Centre. The latter centre, which has never opened, was never tested at Bord Pleanala, although two previous applications for the same site went to Bord Pleanala and were refused on the grounds of impact on Waterford city centre.
‘It’s almost like doublethink in Orwell’s 1984, where people are able to hold two completely different ideas and believe both simultaneously’
Kilkenny County Council asserted that the surroundings of Ferrybank were a separate town to Waterford city, but the Bord held the line that they were the suburbs of Waterford city (as does the CSO), even though under the administrative control of Kilkenny. Waterford County Council and Kilkenny County Council were willing to engage in predatory planning and breach the policy agreement on confining comparison retailing to the city centre, when major rates income was apparent. TK Maxx set up at Butlerstown and subsequently moved to Railway Square when Waterford Shopping Centre Lisduggan sought a Bord Pleanala ruling on whether their operations in Butlerstown complied with planning policy and the Retail Planning Guidelines. The Lisduggan centre, which is badly in need of a major makeover, had been refused planning for a major redevelopment, which included comparison retailing.
In a replay of what happened a decade ago Waterford finds itself again in the same retail quandary. Ferrybank Centre has been bought in its entirety, reputedly by Dunnes Stores. It is unknown what the new owners will do with the centre. It is unclear as to whether any new operator must seek planning to open. That does seem to be the case. When it does open, it is fairly certain that the owners will seek a certain quantum of comparison retailing.
In general there has never been any objection to convenience retailing (food etc) or to retail park type activities (sale of bulky items, white goods and furniture) in Ferrybank. Original proposals for the North Quays contained a massive retail element. That has been much reduced in the current plans. When that development goes ahead the question will be whether the North Quays are part of the city centre or not. If they are and comparison retailing is announced, the impact on the historic city could be severe and the contingent ability of Waterford City Council to oppose substantial comparison retailing in Ferrybank, a few hundred yards from the North Quays, would be problematic.
The development of City Square post-1993 created retail momentum for a while, but the crash of 2008 and the loss of Waterford Crystal put a dent in activities. The sale of the centre to US owners and the development of new units gave hope that things would change, but the national closure of Debenhams ended that. The rise of on-line retailing has caused massive problems. It is almost embarrassing to hear and read people moaning about the loss of bricks and mortar shops when online retailing is endemic across the population. It’s almost like doublethink in Orwell’s 1984, where people are able to hold two completely different ideas and believe both simultaneously.
Recent news from Dublin City Centre Business association suggests that Grafton Street, supposedly Ireland’s premier retail street, is back to full occupancy. They believe that online retailing may have plateaued. The closure of Greenway Couriers in New Ross (losing 140 jobs) may be indicative?
Debenhams opening in Waterford was part of a major expansion by UK retailers across Ireland. Brexit and a move away from town centre retailing have damaged that model in the UK where many town centres have been decimated. The closure of Argos in Ireland as announced last week is part of that ongoing shake out. It creates further difficulty for retailing in Waterford where the quantum of comparison retailing in comparison to other urban areas has been constantly criticised.
Interestingly, Marks and Spencer have announced store expansion, as have the UK company Frasers, owned by Sports Direct, who have opened in Newbridge. They will soon open in the former Debenhams in Patrick Street, Cork, and may be interested in Debenhams, City Square, Waterford. They are based in the 30,000sqft unit in the Whitewater Shopping Centre, Newbridge, once occupied by Debenhams. They stock premium womenswear brands, including Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Barbour, Self Portrait, Sporty & Rich, Good American and Agolde, as well as menswear and children’s wear brands, including Hugo Boss, CP Company and Barbour. The store also stocks beauty products from Estée Lauder, Clarins, Clinique, Dermalogica, Creed, Chloe, Boss, Paco Rabanne and Jimmy Choo.
The proposed opening of B&Q and Decathlon at Waterford Retail Park has stirred the local retail pot. Apparently the owners of the Lisduggan Shopping Centre have indicated opposition as Decathlon may be allowed 20% comparison retailing, as has happened in Limerick and Blanchardstown. Presumably Lisduggan is defending its own property interests. Wouldn’t we all? That group also own the old Waterford Crystal offices and showrooms. I understand they don’t propose to sell these to SETU (if that ever comes to pass) but will retain them for their own development. They have planning permission since 2019 for a major re-development, but it has not progressed. One might question the willingness to do any development, other than housing, at this stage?
That is a familiar problem in Waterford, which we see with the Ardree site, the foundry site at Bilberry, at Exchange Street, the Yellow House and Park Road, among others. People are “going” to do something. It is so long since any local developer actually developed anything in the city centre, that it defies understanding. A visit to Wexford town shows a different story, with local developers and property owners taking an active interest in developing their own town. Unfortunately conflicting planning and property development interests may once again lead to a situation where the only loser is the retail offering of Waterford city.