Councillors claim plan will ensure town is ‘ready for upturn’
Westport Town and County Councillors have voted against recommendations to rezone land in the town and its environs – despite having enough land zoned to cater for a population of 15,000 and 20 industrial parks. The town’s current population is 5,543, according to the recent census.
The councillors made the decision following special meetings of the Electoral Area and Town Council, during which the council management and planners recommended the proposed variations to the Westport Town and Environs Development Plan 2010-2016 and the rezoning of land.
Under the 2010 Planning and Development Act, the planning authority had to prepare a core strategy for the town’s development and to take into account the projected population for the next five years. The current plan has enough land zoned for a population of 15,000 – a fact that prompted the planners to accuse the council of planning for the next 30 years instead of five.
Council officials and planners warned the councillors that the current plan would lead to urban sprawl, that it would have a negative ecological impact on Clew Bay and that the town’s services would not be able to cope with the number of houses proposed.
However, both the county and town councillors voted against the Manager’s recommendations and argued that their rationale for rejecting the variations was that there was no development in the town and that keeping the land zoned residential/commercial would mean the town was ready for an up-turn in the economy.
“Let the market decide what happens,” argued Fianna Fáil councillor Margaret Adams at the electoral area meeting. She said that she felt they were right to zone the land in the first instance and they should not change it. “People do not know if they are coming or going with this, and we should just leave it alone.” She later added; “We are experiencing a downturn but we need to be ready when the market changes and the market will decide that.”
One in four Westport houses empty
Fine Gael councillor, Peter Flynn was the only councillor in either the town or electoral area to support the Council’s proposal to rezone land, saying that one in four houses in Westport were already unoccupied.
“We have zoned for 15,000 people and 20 industrial parks and that is the reality of what we did. One in four houses are unoccupied, and we have one industrial park which is empty and another half empty. We are acting irresponsibly and lacking in leadership and backbone … We are jeopardising the future development of the town by not having the courage to make the right decision,” he said.
In giving his reason for not accepting the variations, Cllr John O’Malley said developers have no intention of building because the banks are not lending and are using the zoned land as ‘bank drafts’ to keep people in employment.
There was a similar tone from the town councillors who said they were happy with their original plan and did not want to change it. Cllr Ollie Gannon said the councillors in Westport knew what was best for their town and not the civil servants in the Department.
“A lot of thought was put into this, and we did it right. We planned for the future and the upturn and when it comes Westport will be ready for business,” said Independent Cllr Martin Keane.
Senior Planner, Ian Douglas explained that if the variations were rejected it will be forwarded to the Department of Environment with the reasons for the rejection and these according to Director of Services, Joe Beirne had to be ‘proper planning reasons’. It will then go for submissions with the Minster for Environment for a Ministers Direction.
Cllr Michael McLaughlin described as ‘apocalyptic’ the scenario outlined by planner Tanya Stanaway when she said she was obliged to inform them of the effects the plan could have on the town. He said there could be no urban sprawl because no development was taking place.
Following the rejection of the proposed variation, Mr Beirne said the councillors had ignored advice from Council officials when they initially devised the plan, and they were doing so again. They would have to live with it, he said.
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