RETAIL CENTRE The Hopkins Road area of Castlebar. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
The CEO of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly has defended the selection of Athlone, Sligo and Letterkenny as ‘strategic growth centres’.
The NWRA’s Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy (RSES) has identified Galway as the region’s metropolitan centre with Athlone, Sligo and Letterkenny identified as second tier growth centres following consultation with all the local authorities in the region.
Mayo’s three largest towns – Castlebar, Ballina and Westport – are classified as third tier ‘key towns’ in the strategic planning document but David Minton said they were not being ‘left out’.
“If anything, our RSES embraces the strength of key towns and villages and paints a picture of a really vibrant future; if we can make some brave decisions.
“The National Planning Framework determines which urban areas were selected as metropolitan areas, as strategic growth centres, and then key towns and key settlements,” David Minton told The Mayo News.
“A lot of those drivers were driven by population demographics and trends over the last two or three census periods. It’s also driven by inherent risks associated with health, climate change, changes to future employment patterns and economics.
“For potential growth within Mayo the primary clusters are obvious, you’ve got Ballina in proximity to Sligo, you’ve got Westport and Castlebar who are individually very strategic towns but what you have there now is that growing linkage between Westport and Castlebar. At a very strategic level, Castlebar is intrinsically linked to the nearby town of Westport and the commute time will reduce significantly with the upgrade of the N5 reaping the potential for a real cluster effect. Add in GMIT and the Innovation campus into the burgeoning development of the Technological University and the area could be a big winner from changes to work and education patterns associated with digital remote working/learning.
“The RSES is a document that is going to be reviewed every five years so the stronger the connection between Castlebar and Westport can be, the stronger that population can become as we use the term, an agglomeration … That has huge potential.
“The RSES is an enabling strategy. It’s not disarming anybody. Should a particular sector take off or remote working take off … All of our population measurements are targets. They can be amended.
“If a town grows … it’s (the RSES) an extremely flexible document but the reality is the larger urban areas were selected for that purpose because they are larger urban towns in the West and Northwest. And that’s the reality. I don’t think Castlebar, Westport and Ballina were necessarily left out. They were identified as key towns. Ballina has a strong focus on commerce, services and manufacturing whilst the core town has a thriving retail sector. It’s also unique as it’s a centre for public administration with a number of public bodies located in the town. That is supported by a strong rail network for both passenger and freight. Rail is a criticial artery to the town but the wider western region as we transition into a low carbon economy.”
Canvassing and co-operating
Minton said it took work on behalf of the NWRA and its local authorities to include Athlone, Sligo and Letterkenny in the National Planning Framework after it was left out of an early draft. He said the local authorities in the region reached a consensus on what towns should be included and said getting the towns added to the NPF was key.
“This was a big win for the members of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly.
“Within the NPF then, there was recognition that the region has a weaker urban infrastructure and to address that, then, the government adopted the approach of Letterkenny, Sligo and Athlone as growth centres. This was a very mature approach and demonstrated a wider understanding of spatial dynamics, population shifts and regional development.
“What we found there was, back in 2001, when I came out of college, that every town and village in Ireland, as part of the National Spatial Strategy, wanted an IDA Park, a hospital, a multinational and we all want these kind of phenomenons in our towns, which is fair, we all want the best. But the reality is very different.
“We found this time around the general consensus in terms of population and our public policy people, civil servants, industry, was that not not all our towns and villages can thrive like that and we need to support our urban areas.
“We found the likes of the Mayos, Leitrims and Roscommons understanding that Athlone, Sligo and Letterkenny are larger urban areas and that we need to support these larger urban areas to grow in the region. For the first time, we got consensus on where that growth should go but this does not limit growth in other areas,” he said.