Retail in the City

Any discussion on the fortunes of retail in Limerick merits some context. In the last five decades Limerick has allowed itself to sprawl outwards by permitting the construction of large suburban residential areas, such as Castletroy, Annacotty, Caherdavin, Moyross, Westbury, Southill and Raheen. A number of large institutions, such as the university and the hospital and large industrial estates were also built on the periphery. And of course shopping centres too. These were planning decisions that led, over time, to the people and their wealth moving from the centre to the outer edges. In the past when living in or near the city people would have walked or cycled in to town and done their shopping, but that all changed from the 1960’s onwards. Society became more suburbanised and more car oriented and with the advent of shopping centres the city centre became less important and also less appealing, and went into decline. If you lived in Castletroy, Raheen or Caherdavin you’d be less inclined to sit in traffic in order to do your shopping in the city centre when you could go to the Crescent, the Parkway or Jetland, for example. The phenomenon is not unique to Limerick. Thousands of cities around the world have followed a similar path and are trying to undo the damage and chart a better way forward.

The development of suburban Limerick would not have had such a detrimental effect if the city got the transport planning right. But it didn’t. Fundamentally, transport planning in Limerick was (and still is) all about deference to the private car above all else. And that simply doesn’t work very well. It means you have to build big (expensive) roads to carry a lot of cars but you’re still trying to funnel them all into a small, medieval and Georgian city centre. For the space that they take up in our cities cars are the worst mode of transport for enabling the movement of large numbers of people. It makes far more sense to build infrastructure to facilitate busses or bikes, because that allows many more people to access the city centre than would be possible by prioritising cars. In other words, by prioritising cars we’re effectively limiting footfall.

We can’t turn back the clock but we can make make good decisions now to revitalise the city centre. Getting the transport planning right is key. The car has been given priority for a long time, but that day should be over if we want to see Limerick city centre survive and thrive. On the access routes, in some places, we are likely to need to take the space away from cars and instead install bus and bike infrastructure. In the centre itself we must do away with on-street parking and use that space better. Wider footpaths, landscaping, street art and furniture would all be better uses for the space because they make the streets more attractive to be in.
We also must incentivise and enable living in the city centre, not just travelling to and from it, because it’s the people who live in it will be the main source of footfall that will sustain local businesses. The principle of ‘compact growth’ underpins good planning. We should want as many people as possible living comfortably in good accommodation in a small area so that they can get around easily (without cars) and so that they are numerous enough to sustain a vibrant local economy. We have to look at where people could live in large numbers in or near the city centre, and we have to make living in the city attractive to people. There’s a number of facets to that, of course. One of them is to create a pleasant and appealing urban environment, so again it’s about reducing the car dominance and all the negatives that go with it. People are much more likely to want to spend time in a city with clean air, less noise, less danger from traffic, more landscaping, better walking and cycling facilities, leisure amenities, etc.

On the question of why family owned businesses are in decline versus the large chains, I would ask if we have good data on that in Limerick. We have anecdotal evidence, but we need hard data to draw firm conclusions. While some businesses are closing others are opening. There are certainly many factors at play. One thing is certain is that the nature of retail is changing and especially so in city centres. Many goods and services are purchased online now, if not in the out of town retail parks. It’s a challenge for any business. Should we resist the change or embrace it? I’ve no doubt that there is opportunity there for both the big chains and locally owned businesses, but they will have to adapt. And the Council should certainly support our local entrepreneurs as much as possible. Research consistently shows a strong link between the presence of locally owned businesses and higher rates of job creation, less income inequality and stronger social networks, so we have every reason to get behind this sector.

East Limerick Greenway

I was happy to receive broad support for my motion asking for Limerick City & County Council to develop a greenway from the city towards Cahir in Tipperary. The idea is that this would link up with the Suir Blueway, which runs from Cahir to Carrick-on-Suir. The “East Limerick Greenway” would play a major part in connecting Limerick with the Southeast of Ireland. Speakers enthusiastically in favor were Councillors Eddie Ryan (FF), Jerome Scanlan (FG), Martin Ryan (FF), Conor Sheehan (Lab), Olivia O’Sullivan (FG), and I hope to work with them in the coming months to develop the plan.

Greenways can be a very significant economic driver for rural areas. We can see this in Mayo and Waterford particularly, where hundreds of jobs have been created and many millions invested in the rural economy. The Great Southern Greenway, towards the west of County Limerick is a fantastic amenity, and it should be connected with Limerick City and with the large towns of County Kerry in time, but we should get the ball rolling on a route from Limerick City towards Tipperary too. The province of Munster has among the most picturesque rolling landscapes in Ireland and I have no doubt that if a route is developed that can enable cycling tourists, both from within Ireland and overseas visitors, to travel across the Golden Vale from Waterford to Clare, they will come in their tens of thousands and breathe new life into our rural towns and villages.

Affordable Purchase Scheme

This scheme applies to ‘affordable’ homes built on publicly owned, i.e. Council lands.

It is designed to appeal to low and middle income households. Single applicants or couples can apply to purchase one of these and if successful the local authority will provide 40% of the purchase cost.

It’s obviously quite an attractive offer, so how does one qualify? There are certain criteria which must be met in the first instance.

  • the combined income of the household must be no more than €70k, or €50k in the case of a single applicant.
  • the applicant(s) must have already secured mortgage approval.
  • the applicant(s) must have been living within the local authority area for at least the preceding 12 months.
  • the applicant(s) must suit the house that is on offer, i.e. a three person household is suited to a two bedroomed house, a four person household is suited to a three bedroom house.

Each local authority, via its elected members, can set further criteria.

  • the applicant(s) must have a child in a primary school within certain radius of the property.
  • or the applicant(s) must have a child in a secondary school within a certain radius of the property.
  • or the applicant(s) must have a child in a third level institution within a certain radius of the property.
  • or the applicant(s)’s place of work must be within a certain radius of the property.

It is a reserved function of the councillors to define these distances. And this is what we did today.

Obviously, having wider bands for the distance criteria renders them meaningless. Effectively, a large radius means that the proximity of the house to your children’s school or its proximity your place of work doesn’t give you an advantage in securing the affordable home over those whose kids are in a school at the other side of town, or whose job is a long commute away.

It is tempting to cast the net wide and not rule anybody out. But where does that leave us? It raises the prospect of having a very large amount of eligible applicants for a small number of affordable homes. Those who satisfy the basic criteria have as much chance as those who have children in a local school or whose job is nearby. And ultimately the decision as to who gets the house, and the 40% support will be made on a first come, first served basis.

It means that if an affordable home becomes available in Adare, then applicants from Limerick City whose child is in a city centre school and whose place of work is in Shannon will be just as eligible for the home as the family who is from Adare, whose child is in the local school and who works in the village.

We set these distance criteria today, and it appears that we set them to be tighter than any other local authority in Ireland. After much discussion we decided that, all other criteria being met, if your child is in a primary school 15km from the home you qualify. If your child is in a secondary school 20km from the home, you qualify. If you have a son or daughter travelling up to 120km daily to a third level institution from the home, you qualify. And if your workplace is 150km from the home, you qualify.

It remains to be seen how this works in practice, but I can see two problems arising. Firstly, as mentioned above, if there are too few homes then we have created a situation where a lot of applicants are eligible for those, and the first come, first served criteria kicks in. That’s really not a good way to decide eligibility. It also means that we are reinforcing some very negative patterns that have developed in Ireland in recent decades. We have an opportunity to disincentivise parents from sending their children to schools far from where they live, and that is a good thing to do for all kinds of social, economic, and environmental reasons.

As it happens, the first sites to come on offer are in Adare and we’ll see how it plays out. At any time the Council can revise the distance criteria and we may have to do just that.

Moneypoint

Combustion of coal at Moneypoint is to end by 2025. From an emissions point of view, this is to be welcomed, and by right it should be happening sooner.

However, while the station has been a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, it has also significantly contributed to our power generation needs and the economy of County Clare and therefore to the livelihoods of many thousands of people who live there.

While it is clear that we must stop burning coal in Moneypoint, it is equally clear that we need new generation capacity and we also must protect the workers and the economy of Clare.

Moneypoint has excellent infrastructure. Ireland has only two 400kVA transmission lines. Both begin in Moneypoint.

That suggests it still could have a major future in power generation. This is especially important as Ireland moves towards an increasingly electric economy. Currently, oil and gas are the fuel sources for home heating and transport, but in the coming years electricity will power both these sectors to a far greater degree. There is no doubt that we are going to need to generate a lot more electricity than we currently do, and it must be electricity that has zero or near zero emissions.

A question worth considering is what kind of power generation facility could be located at Moneypoint. We are quickly moving away from coal, peat and oil-fired power generation, but combustion of methane, commonly known as natural gas, also has large CO2 emmissions and we should not be switching to that either. Biomass power plant could be a possibility and some would argue that the deep water berth enhances its potential at Moneypoint. But there is a huge embedded energy and emissions cost in importing biomass from overseas. Recently we have seen An Bord Pleanála shoot down similar proposals for the ailing peat-fired power stations in the Midlands.

A developing technology is hydrogen power generation plant. Large scale projects are being trialled overseas. We could be considering the same in Moneypoint. The basic principle is that hydrogen is created using water and electricity, via the electrolysis process. It can be stored in liquid form and at some future point changed back to electricity (and water) via a turbine and generator.

One of the limitations of some renewable energy technologies, particularly wind and solar power, is that we might not need it at the specific time it’s generated, and traditionally we had no way of storing it. It’s been a case of use it or lose it, and that has been a disincentive to widespread roll out of these forms of renewable energy plant. But hydrogen could be used as a medium for storing great quantities of renewable electricity. Perhaps there is a scenario where very large offshore wind farms and land-based solar farms would send power to Moneypoint, where hydrogen is produced, and in turn used to generate electricity, as it’s needed by the national grid. Or perhaps, in order to mitigate transmission losses, hydrogen would be generated offshore and shipped to a terminal and power generation facility at Moneypoint.

No matter how we harness energy, the conversion of it from one form to another inevitably involves losses and these proposals would be no different. Ultimately the case for renewable energy paired with hydrogen would be political and economic rather than technical, and it is worth examining, especially if it could allow us to dramatically reduce emissions from power generation.

Hydrogen is also likely to be an important fuel in transport. There are lots of trials into hydrogen fuelled vehicles, particularly busses and trains, but also cars. Some breakthroughs recently suggest that the future of shipping may be powered by hydrogen. Could the west of Ireland, with its vast renewable resource, be home to a major hydrogen production and export facility?

To consider further prospects for Moneypoint, whether linked with hydrogen or not, there are certainly opportunities in the offshore wind sector. Currently, all proposals to harness this abundant resource are to develop projects in the relatively calmer and shallower waters off the east coast. But advances are being made in the durability of offshore wind technology and the Atlantic coast presents a major opportunity for Ireland.

With its deep water berth, could Moneypoint become a base for offshore wind deployment or as a hub for maintenance and repair of turbines? Or has it a future in wind turbine manufacturing? It is argued that as an island nation, without the necessary industrial base and supply chains it makes more sense to import our wind technology. But in an era of wind becoming a major part of the energy mix in Ireland and internationally, should we be reconsidering this position? We have a choice now of letting the Danes and the Germans dominate this lucrative sector, or we can begin to look at doing it in Ireland with a view to developing a healthy and profitable sector in the coming decades. With its long jetty lending itself to blade construction and transport, Moneypoint may be the place to do it.

We can and should be hopeful for Moneypoint, but we must also make courageous decisions to help it transition to a clean, rewarding future. Nearly a century ago, with the development of the Ardnacrusha power station at the other side of the county, some visionary politicians and engineers set County Clare as the stage for one one of the greatest achievements of the new nation. Might Clare once again be the backdrop for the great, new challenge we face?

Lyric FM

Much of the discussion nationally around this issue has been about the crisis that RTÉ finds itself in. However, what is not being discussed in the national conversation to date is the impact the proposed closure of the Lyric studio will have on the city of Limerick and the Midwest region. 

Lyric FM is an exemplar for decentralisation of State services. It has had an enormous positive effect on Limerick City and surrounding counties in the past 20 years. The principal reason to locate Lyric FM in Limerick in 1999 was to breathe new life into our third city. And that is exactly what it did. Amidst all the poorly managed and failed decentralisation projects by successive governments, the decision to locate Lyric FM in Limerick was a good one and it stands apart as a true success. 

While it provides a much-loved national service, the presence of Lyric FM at the Cornmarket Row studios, located beside the city’s historic Milk Market and just 5 minutes walk from O’Connell Street, is finely interwoven with the story of Limerick in the last two decades, and that has been a remarkably positive and successful story of which both Limerick and Lyric are very proud. 

Over its 20 years in the city the station has won numerous international awards for excellence in radio production, among these the Prix Europa (“the Oscars of Radio”), the Gold Medal at the New York radio festival, and countless others. The city and county of Limerick has been the backdrop for these honours and distinctions. Examples include the ‘Hearsay Audio Festival’ which brings the world’s top podcasters to the village of Kilfinane, and now has a massive international reputation. Another example is “Mighty Mac” – one of RTE’s most downloaded radio documentaries of all time. It was made by Lyric and features the story of Ger McNamara, a powerlifting champion and upholsterer whose workshop is around the corner from the Lyric studios . Impact Prize winning author Kevin Barry’s story is linked with that of Lyric Fm too. The list goes on. Limerick and Lyric have embraced each other and have a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship which would be wrong to break apart.

To consider taking the service away on narrow cost grounds (which really don’t stack up in any case) is to not see the full picture and recognise the value of this service to the city and the region that very proudly hosts it. 

There is a broader point about balanced regional development. For all kinds of very good reasons we should be looking at growing our regional centres, not pulling everything away from them and towards Dublin. We should be talking about decentralisation not recentralisation. Our economy is heavily lopsided and that is neither good for Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Waterford or Galway. Nor is it in any way sustainable. On cost grounds alone there is an argument to expand RTE’s services in Limerick. It makes no sense whatsoever to diminish them, as is being proposed. 

The unanimous message should go out loud and clear from this Limerick City and County Council that we are totally opposed to this decision, and we insist that the Executive of RTÉ reverse it, and that the Minister spares no effort in encouraging them to do so. 

Budget 2020

Thank you to Director Seán Coughlan and his team for preparing the Limerick Council budget for 2020. There is a huge amount that is positive in it with increased spending in many areas that require it. Councillor John Sheehan referenced climate change in his remarks. It is the most serious issue facing humanity. It is not an abstract concept. It will impact us here in Limerick as much as it will impact other nations around the world. I welcome Councillor Sheehan’s commitment to work with us in the Green Party. We will reciprocate and commit to working with all parties and none.

It is fundamentally important that we change how our society works such that we are not making the problems we face worse, and leaving ourselves needlessly exposed to increased risks. This is where the planning and the funding comes in. It is said that if you want to measure a government’s or a local authority’s commitment you look at where the funding is going.

In many respects this is a ‘business as usual’ budget which reinforces the travel and settlement patterns that have contributed to the crisis that we are in. This must change. However, we recognise that it cannot change overnight. While it is critically important that we transform our society we should do so in such a way that we don’t impact the mobility of our citizens or their quality of life. This is why we must work together and make those changes work for everybody.

Limerick Council is a large administration. It is like a big ship, and turning it is not easy, but if we can shift direction a few degrees we will certainly be in a better place in the future.

Time to allocate 10% of Limerick’s transport funding to cycling

The following text is a speech I gave at the Travel & Transport Strategic Policy Committee meeting, in support of a motion I had raised that 10% of the transport budget in Limerick should go towards cycling. The motion passed unanimously and goes forward now to full Council in November.

This motion is not simply about providing infrastructure for cyclists. That would be to misunderstand the issue. This is about enabling the effective movement of people. It is impossible for a city, or indeed a town, to grow unless it tackles and solves the mobility challenge. We saw this in Utrecht at the weekend. Netherlands fastest growing city is growing, in large part, because it has enabled cycling. That is to say that it would not be growing at this rate if it had not taken the decision to invest heavily in cycling infrastructure. It is a key point. Cycling and economic development go hand in hand because cycling enables the free and easy movement of people over short to medium distances, much more than cars or even busses do. And it does so at low cost to the individual and also to the State, notwithstanding multiple other benefits. Indeed, a 2014 report commissioned by the UK Department for Transport assessed cost benefit evidence for walking and cycling interventions. Almost all of the studies identified demonstrated ‘highly significant’ economic benefits, while the mean cost benefit ratio for the schemes identified was 6.28:13. In general investment in cycling projects provide the highest rate of return of all transport projects.

[Researchers who analysed the cost-benefit frameworks currently used to assess bicycle infrastructure projects in Copenhagen reported that the cost to society of 1km of car driving is more than six times higher (Euro 0.50/km) than cycling (Euro 0.08/km), when collisions, climate change, health and travel time are considered. And this does not include the cost of urban sprawl and dispersed settlement, which is a feature of investment in car infrastructure. ]

Referring back to Utrecht, it is a city of 300,000 people with a similar climate to ours. Councillor O’Donovan and myself can attest to that. My shoes are still drying out! In Utrecht 70% of all local journeys are made by bicycle. In Limerick, a city one third the size in population and similar in area, 70% of all journeys under 3km are made by private car. It is a staggering contrast. And this is not because the people of Limerick will not cycle. It’s quite simply because we have not provided sufficient infrastructure to enable them to do so. Would you let your children cycle to school these days? Few parents will, and who could blame them. There has in fact been a total collapse in Ireland in the number of children cycling to school since the 1980’s. It’s currently about 1 in 200 girls and about 1 in 50 boys. According to the last census more girls are driving themselves to school than cycling. Think about that. Even though only the 17 and 18 year old girls are legally permitted to drive by themselves there is still a greater number doing so than the combined total of girls aged 4 to 18 who are cycling.

Acknowledging the reality of funding mechanisms, this motion is not about berating the Council for lack of action, but rather about imploring it to increase its efforts and getting Limerick quickly to where it needs to be. It is also about seeking the support of my esteemed colleagues across all political persuasions. I would acknowledge the Council’s efforts and it is true that progress has been made. Go on to the Park Canal any morning before 9am and the number of cyclists heading to and from Castletroy will amaze you. A brave decision was taken by the last Council and it has paid off. A simple, well deisgned path through a beautiful amenity is fundamentally changing the relationship between the city and the university, after decades of disconnection. The path is so successful that we should probably be talking about widening it.

In 2015 the Council commissioned the Limerick Cycle Network Study. It is a good document and it lays the blueprint for developing an excellent cycling city in a short timeframe. We really do not need to wait for the Transport Strategy to make good decisions and good progress. We have excellent people in our Council and they can achieve this ambition. This Council must mandate them to do so.

We are currently at 1.4% of Capital spending on cycling specific infrastructure.

Make Limerick Ireland’s Cycling City, Ireland’s Utrecht, in 10 years. If we do this we solve the mobility challenge and we make ourselves well placed to also be Ireland’s fastest growing city and the best place to live, work and visit. Let’s make every town and village in County Limerick a place where parents let their children cycle to school, confident that they will not be injured. We have a great opportunity, let’s seize it. I beg you to support the motion.

Urban Design & Planning

At today’s Metropolitan Council Meeting I called for Limerick to employ an urban designer (in house) for professional input into all capital projects. The reason for submitting this motion is that there is a gap at a high level in the Council at the moment, and very important decisions regarding the future of our city are being made without the right professional input. Engineers or architects should not be expected, on their own, to make fundamental decisions about our city, whether it be where we build new roads, how we use our streets, where we put bus and cycle lanes, etc. If we are to create “Great Streets”, as the Limerick 2030 plan insists we should, then we need urban design at the heart of this process.

If we want our city to be able to compete for investment and offer quality of life to its residents, we need expertise to deliver Great Streets. When the IDA are bringing companies around the city we want them to see a high quality urban environment, a vibrant place that can attract the best talent. A great street is where people come to meet, to socialise, to play. It makes the best of our fantastic heritage, it encourages people to linger and chat. Great streets combat loneliness: when a street is designed around people it encourages interaction.

We have some great people working in the Council but the focus has been traditionally on roads and the private car. We need new skills, preferably from someone who has worked internationally in fast-growing regional cities that are designed around people. I think many of us agree in this chamber that the time has come to start making some difficult decisions to allow our city to compete and thrive. We need to make sure we have the in-house expertise to make those decisions count.

An urban designer would focus on how our streets would be used. I know there is sometimes a fear that our streets might feel “dead” without cars. That can be a danger if streets are not designed to encourage people to congregate and linger. An urban designer would work with retailers, disability groups and other stakeholders to maximise the accessibility of a street and make it an environment where retail of all types could thrive.

An urban designer would perfectly complement an active travel officer, they would work together to promote safe walking and cycling environments as well as an urban landscape designed to attract people.

Shannon LNG

PRESS RELEASE:Shannon LNG driving damaging fracking industry abroadSpeaking today Green Party Energy spokesperson Brian Leddin said: 

“Just two weeks after the Global Climate strike highlighted the urgency of transforming our energy system and reducing global carbon emissions the government is determined to continue with new fossil fuel infrastructure on the Shannon estuary, driving international demand.
 

Government plans to have the project, which would see fracked gas from the United States imported, designated as a Project of Common Interest (PCI) by the EU this Friday 4th October would result in a free-hand to by-pass the conventional planning process. This project will lock Ireland into continued fossil fuel use just as we desperately need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels if we are to stand any chance of meeting our international obligations and mitigating the onset of climate change, and the global chaos that would come with that.
 
“The problem with fracked gas is that its extraction is leading to the leakage of much higher levels than expected of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is about 87 times more potent a green house gas than carbon dioxide and some scientists have suggested that methane emissions from the fracking industry in the US is leading to the increased warming we are seeing compared to what was expected from previous climate models.
 
“The government is supporting and pushing the project despite no high level assessment being done to compare it with reasonable alternatives. There has been no assessment of fracked gas in the Irish energy mix. Despite Ireland having declared a climate emergency, and having banned fracking on our soil, in advancing this project and setting Ireland up as a terminal for fracked gas, our government is being duplicitous. In doing so they are not only condoning the pollution of communities in the United States they are condemning our children to a turbulent changed world caused by climate change.”

Limerick Shannon Metropolitan Area Transport Strategy

The Limerick Shannon Metropolitan Area Transport Strategy will set out the major transport infrastructure projects in this region for the next 20 years. It is currently underway with consultation taking place with key stakeholders, such as transport providers and campaign groups. The public consultation phase is expected to begin in the new year with the Strategy due to be published in the summer. We will be concentrating our efforts on ensuring that the strategy priorities sustainable transport infrastructure, i.e. rail, tram, bus, bike and walking. Green Party policy is to push for a 2:1 split in favour of sustainable transport spending over road spending.