A Government planning blueprint for the future of the country up to 2040 has come in for criticism after it ignored calls for Athlone to be developed as a regional city for the Midlands.
The draft document, 'Ireland 2040: Our Plan', was published in late September but contained no reference whatsoever to the possible creation of a new city in the Midlands.
When the plan was being prepared, the Destination Athlone group hired consultants to work on a detailed submission which made the case for Athlone to become a regional city.
That submission argued Athlone had “the population base, the transport connections, the level of economic activity and the critical mass of key services which are highlighted as being key to regional and national success.”
However, the draft plan which ultimately emerged contained no strategy specifically for the Midlands. Instead it linked counties such as Westmeath, Longford, and Offaly with Dublin, as part of one large 'Eastern & Midland Region'. Roscommon was designated as being part of a 'Northern & Western Region'.
The plan stated that assemblies in these regions would go on to “prepare a regional strategy in accordance with the framework set by Ireland 2040.”
Worringly for Athlone's city prospects, the draft document suggests the population of large towns in the Midlands should not be allowed to grow by more than 20-25% over the next 22 years.
This would potentially mean that the growth of Athlone's population beyond 27,000 - by the year 2040 - would be discouraged by Government planners. In contrast, the plan calls for accelerated growth, of up to 60% of the current population, in the cities of Galway, Limerick, Cork and Waterford.
Athlone's city status bid was supported by Roscommon and Longford county councils. Last week, the chief executive of Roscommon County Council, Eugene Cummins, told RTE's Six One News that it was “unfortunate” the bid had been ignored.
“Athlone has all the attributes that are necessary to grow as a sustainable city and it would have great implications for the rest of the region,” he commented.
Athlone Chamber of Commerce President John McGrath also said the “lack of focus on the Midlands” in the draft 2040 plan was an “extreme disappointment”.
A public consultation on the draft plan was underway in recent weeks, and the deadline for submissions was noon today (Friday, November 10).
Ericsson executive John O'Regan, a member of Destination Athlone's Industry group, told the Westmeath Independent last week that the group would be making another submission as part of the consultation process.
“More generally, industry and business have made our inputs and now it is over to the political domain for final decisions,” he added.
Mr O'Regan said Athlone could become a city without any official designation if sufficient investment was made available by the Government.
“The ten-year investment plan which is the first phase towards 2040 is the key instrument. Given the appropriate scale-up in infrastructure of all ilk, we can become that city without any official designation.
“(The designation) can come in time when the scale and volume of economic activity justifies such a classification,” he said.