PLAY TIME Michael Ring TD pictured with Kate Kilbane from Polranny at the opening of the Achill Sound Playground in 2020. There is a major dispute in Mayo County Council over whether funding for playgrounds should be expended on upgrading exisiting facilities at the expense of any new playgrounds. Pic: Jessica Priddy
TEMPERS frayed among county councillors during a fiery debate over Mayo County Council’s proposed strategy for playgrounds.
Following a heated discussion which ran for over an hour, members of the council’s Tourism Strategic Policy Committee voted to evenly split funding between construction of new playgrounds and the maintenance of existing ones.
Independent councillors Séamus Weir and Michael Kilcoyne expressed concerns that no new playgrounds would be built in Mayo for the next ten years if the strategy was adopted.
The strategy, which will cover the period from 2021 to 2031, aims to prioritise funding the maintenance of existing playgrounds over the building of new facilities.
Senior Mayo County Council officials cited financial constraints and increasingly onerous health and safety inspections as part of the reason for the new approach.
MAYO County Council’s Director of Services Tom Gilligan and Parks Superintendent Peter Gill both repeated that the strategy would not prohibit the building of new playgrounds.
Mr Gilligan said that maintaining the existing facilities was ‘an absolute priority which involves significant continuing investment’.
There are currently 122 local-authority funded playground facilities on 80 sites in Mayo, which is the fifth highest number nationally.
Mayo County Council has been ranked by the Department of Children as one of the leading local authorities in the country for developing public play facilities.
Committee chairman Séamus Weir called for ‘clarification’ on whether or not it would be possible for areas like Knockmore to get approval for new playgrounds under the new strategy.
The north Mayo village, where Cllr Weir is based, has had four previous applications for a playground turned down.
Castlebar-based Cllr Kilcoyne said that the new strategy was ‘not acceptable under any circumstances’.
“I know when something is ‘not precluded’, it is precluded,” said Cllr Kilcoyne.
“Money needs to be spent on repairs, but why should a child that’s born today in a village with no playground wait until he’s the age of 10 to have a swing to swing on?”
Achill-based councillor Paul McNamara supported the strategy, citing concerns that existingplaygrounds could close due to lack of funding.
Cllr McNamara said the county had a ‘marvellous’ record of providing playground facilities.
He was supported by Cllr Peter Flynn and Cllr John O’Hara, who both agreed that keeping existing playgrounds open should be a priority.
Speaking remotely, Cllr Flynn said that two playgrounds in the Westport area had been ‘effectively closed’ due to inadequate funding.
Cllr O’Hara said he was not opposed to Knockmore having a playground but acknowledged that new constructions would be inhibited by funding constraints.
Westport-based councillor Christy Hyland said that Mayo County Council had adequate funding streams to provide for new and existing playgrounds through property taxes, business rates and parking charges.
“We had a rates increase, we had a property [tax] increase, and we had new parking charges, and I’m told there isn’t money for playgrounds,” he remarked.
CLLR Weir drew a furious reaction from Cllr McNamara when he accused councillors of ‘looking down a narrow path’ in relation to the strategy.
Cllr McNamara then rose from his seat and demanded that Cllr Weir retract his comments.
“I will not accept this, you take that back chairman. How can you make an accusation like that?” he shouted.
An ill-tempered exchange followed between the two councillors, during which Cllr Weir threatened to ask Cllr McNamara to leave the meeting.
Cllr Weir eventually withdrew his remarks but expressed disappointment with the views of his fellow councillors.
“Westport and all these places, ye have got yer playgrounds … people looking for new playgrounds, ye are just shoving them out,” he stated.
Cllr Michael Kilcoyne proposed an amendment to the strategy that would allocate half of all playground funding for new facilities, with the rest going towards maintenance.
Cllr Kilcoyne’s motion was passed after a roll call, despite Tom Gilligan saying the proposal was ‘not workable’.
Cllrs Weir, Kilcoyne, Hyland voted for the amendment while Cllrs McNamara, Flynn and O’Hara opposed.
The amendment was carried by the casting vote of SPC Cathaoirleach Cllr Séamus Weir and will now be put before a full meeting of Mayo County Council for full approval.