CAS – How is it all going to end?

One thing is certain – like all conflicts it will end. The question must be now, is there room for mediation or compromise?

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It is interesting in situations such as this to look at what the politicians are saying. The attempt to question the validity of the decision, I feel is doomed to failure. There is so much evidence that the public were consulted in the decision over many development plan cycles over many years. Unfortunately, while real and meaningful consultation did not take place, “consultation as set out legally” does seem to have happened. I do not think there was necessarily any railroading, or hidden agendas, just mis-judgements.

However, the big question is how come no-one took notice until the bulldozers arrived on site. As a former official of a number of Councils (not Kilkenny) my belief is that it is sometimes difficult to get the public to engage meaningfully and at the right time, until it is too late as in this instance. I also believe that the general public, and even at times the councillors, view the development planning process as aspirational, and do not think that what is put down on the plan will actually transpire in any reasonable time horizon. It has to be acknowledged that most of what ends up in the development plans in the country, especially in terms of infrastructure, is highly aspirational and often dependent on sources of funding outside the control of the local councils (European or National).  If as has been claimed, the bridge has been part of development plans for almost 40 years, this proves my point. Every council since must have muttered, “here we go again… this mythical bridge.” The time for a valid objection was still available in what is called the “Part 8″ process. This process is basically what the Council do for their own projects instead of applying for planning permission (they can’t apply for permission to themselves). This was the process that could possibly have been more widely advertised and greater attempts made to engage the citizens.

Councillors, in my view, as elected public representatives, misjudged the mood of the people in this instance. The project was sold to them as finally putting in place a replacement bridge for Green’s Bridge. In the context in which it was presented to members of the Council, I’m sure it appeared a non-controversial improvement that was long awaited and badly needed. And now I am sure they regret their hastiness in approving the project, but it appears to be too late to turn back.

All of the above shows how hard it can be to make publicly backed decisions. The consultation processes are obviously not working, even if followed to the letter of the law. But because they seem to have been followed to the letter, the legal position seems to be clear – the elected body given the role of making decisions did just that, in a legal and proper way. Much as many people dislike it, that is what happened and the law of the land will therefore have to back up the implications of that decision.

But it is important to look objectively at the matter, if as residents of the city we can do. The protesters have claimed that the issue is about democracy as much as the bridge itself. And this reflects a general feeling of disassociation with decision making, in times of increasing charges on households. Times are hard and there are many who have lost considerably during this recession. What better way to vent anger than to try and embarrass the states local organs. The crazy decision to abolish the Borough Council must also be a factor, a move which I believe will further disenfranchise the citizens of the city. And yet this seemed to be allowed to happen without an outcry?

Question about the fabric of the city are still crucial in all of this, will the bridge really damage the tourism potential, a vital part of our wonderful city? Some protesters have made the point that the bridge was designed to cater for the large trucks of the brewery, and obviously this design is no longer relevant. There has been mention of the subtlety of design, or indeed lack thereof. The various vistas around the city need to be considered in the context of our Medieval past. There is a fear that even conservationists prefer modernity in design to what they fear as ‘pastiche old-fashioned’. But this view can sometimes go too far, resulting in very modern designs overshadowing older and better looking structures. It can also be said that there is a lack of confidence in the Council’s ability to deliver an appropriate design for the bridge, not helped at all by the monstrosity of a pedestrian bridge that serves hardly anyone, and looks like industrial piping crossing the river.

In an associated aside I think that it is not good for the Council to own a vast site in the town centre as it has the potential to skew planning decisions in favour of the site. In such a situation there must surely be an added onus on the Council to bring about real engagement with the public in any future development of the brewery site.

In this controversy, our public representatives have found themselves in a very awkward position – they must support decisions made by their democratically elected predecessors, they run risks of becoming personally liable if they try to overturn decisions, particularly when contractual arrangements have been entered into.

This issue has given a lot of people who may feel disenfranchised the chance to vent their anger by joining in the protest, even if in their heart of hearts they don’t really object to the bridge.

Is it not time now for some compromises – let there be a pause and an attempt to regain the trust of the people by inviting the peoples representatives to put together a new and appropriate design for a bridge. Spokespersons for the protesters must be heard also, in a coherent and mediated way. After all, the DUP and Sinn Fein, with diametrically opposing views, have become partners in a much more difficult process. And in all of this we can’t lose sight of the fact that there is no doubt that Greens Bridge needs to be replaced