Wednesday, 24 October 2018
I emphasise the need for refocused efforts to progress the Athlone to Ballinasloe greenway. The project was paused in 2015 and it is important to see progress now. A report was completed on route selection and a number of options have been identified. The national greenway strategy was launched a number of months ago and it is important that this project benefit fully from the available funding of €53 million. The Mayo greenway has been hugely successful, while the Waterford greenway has attracted 250,000 visitors this year alone. It has led to the economic revival of the region. The greenway from Ballinasloe to Athlone and on to Dublin could also provide a boost for south Roscommon and east Galway region. I am regularly in the area which has a lot of potential. The Athlone to Ballinasloe greenway can rival the greenways in counties Waterford and Mayo. The River Shannon runs through the region and there are also the Wake House at Nure, the Clonmacnoise viewing point across the river and the historic village of Shannonbridge across the border in County Offaly. The new tourism brand for the region, Ireland's Hidden Heartlands, places a strong emphasis on being active in nature. This project, with the Beara-Breifne Way and the Shannon blueway, should be at the centre of the brand.
Route selection has been an issue in greenway development across the country and the Minister will be very aware of issues that can arise. We need to learn lessons from these experiences and ensure final route chosen is the one that will best utilise the amenities in the region. This can be done through proper engagement with local landowners and communities and each local authority, as well as other relevant stakeholders. I understand much of the route could cross State lands. Engagement must occur as early as possible and in the most open manner possible. We need the greatest possible buy-in by the local community to support the successful development of the greenway. There is significant untapped potential in the region and it is essential that we see further progress in the development of this section of the greenway between Athlone and Ballinasloe.
I thank the Senator and congratulate her on the case she has made for the development of this greenway, to which we are equally committed. I acknowledge that there have been difficulties and welcome the opportunity to recommit ourselves to it. We will all move in the same direction because greenways are a very important part of the tourism strategy the Government has promoted. We are very keen that this greenway be expedited.
As I am sure the Senator is aware, on 20 July this year I launched on the Old Rail Trail in Moate, County Westmeath the strategy for the future development of national and regional greenways. The strategy provides a framework for the development of Ireland’s greenways and will determine the type of project to be funded by my Department in the coming decade. It is a long-term strategy, with the aim of increasing the number, length and regional spread of greenways across the country. It sets out guidance for project promoters on various matters, including strategic nature, length, design standards, accommodation works and early consultation with communities and landowners along proposed routes. The strategy sets out the general high level criteria on what we think makes for a good greenway - one that is scenic, provides access to things to see and do, is sustainable, substantially segregated or where there is shared use, and is strategic. This is based on Fáilte Ireland research and experience on the ground of what has and has not worked in previous investments.
I was delighted to secure funding of €53 million for greenways projects to be constructed in the period 2019 to 2021. In addition to the strategy, the application form for this funding call has also been published. The closing date for the receipt of applications is 30 November. The quality and deliverability of projects will determine whether the full amount of €53 million will be allocated following this funding call. If the full amount is not allocated, there will be further funding calls. With regards to the Senator's specific query about a greenway between Athlone and Ballinasloe, as the Senator will be aware my predecessor paused work on the Galway to Athlone route in 2015 until a number of issues were clarified. Those issues were set out in detail at the time. They essentially related to the need for a reconsideration of the route, with the need to minimise the impact on landowners emphasised and consideration given to levels of compensation for landowners while also maintaining the goal of creating a coast-to-coast, off-road greenway from Galway to Dublin. The strategy has addressed a number of those issues and the Department is currently in the process of setting up a group to develop a code of best practice for developing greenways that will look at the remaining outstanding issues. This group will look at consultation, route selection, land purchase and compensation matters, and should hopefully lead us to a position whereby an agreed route can be found between Athlone and Galway.
Progress on the construction of the eastern sections of the route has continued and I expect that the section from Maynooth to Athlone will be completed in 2019. This should significantly increase the numbers using the route.
I understand that there was less opposition to the original preferred route between Athlone and Ballinasloe. However, we need to start again and look at all route options for the entire Athlone to Galway section. I will not pre-empt the work of the group devising the code of best practise and it would not be appropriate for me to go into any great detail about the specific route between Athlone and Galway. It is important to reiterate, however, that we have ample evidence from the current long distance greenways, such as those in Waterford and Mayo, of the economic benefits that accrue to the towns and villages along these routes. Jobs have been created in cafés, restaurants, hotels and bike hire companies that would not otherwise have been created and those jobs support other jobs and households in the locality. This has assisted in retaining people in their own locality rather than them having to leave for jobs in our larger cities. That is why we regard greenways as so important for regional tourism development as well as health and well-being. The benefits to the entire local community are significant and finding agreed routes that respect the rights of landowners while providing a sensible route for greenway users will be a key goal of the group developing the code.
We continue to view the Galway to Dublin greenway as the most likely national greenway of scale and international appeal and are committed to its construction should an agreed route be found. I do not want anybody to get the impression that we lack determination or there is any diminution in our determination that this greenway will go ahead. The Senator's contribution today will assist us in our resolve to finish this project.
I thank the Minister. It is positive that the Minister is keen to see the greenway being expedited. However, I emphasise the need. When we are aware that there has been less opposition with regard to the Athlone to Ballinasloe section, I am a little concerned when the Minister stated, "we need to start again". I would like to see progress in terms of that section, particularly when it forms part of the new tourism brand, Ireland's Hidden Heartlands, and offers a significant amount of untapped tourism potential at present.
The Minister mentioned the group that will devise a code of practice which is positive in terms of ensuring proper engagement with all relevant stakeholders but I am a little concerned when he states that ""we need to start again" with regard to looking at all of the route options, particularly when we know that there is a high level of positivity towards developing that greenway section between Athlone and Ballinasloe.
Senator Hopkins is understandably impatient when we say this but she will also be aware as much as anybody else of the sensitivities surrounding this and the difficulties that we ran into. Rather than say "start again", maybe I should say "a fresh start and a fresh attitude and fresh outlook", because there were difficulties and sensitivities in which we, as much as every other side, made mistakes. We want to ensure that those mistakes are not repeated and that we are aware of those and prepared to take careful but prudent steps to avoid those sensitivities being aroused again so that we get the result that we want.