‘If you don’t have a strong city all of Limerick suffers’
A merger of Limerick’s city and county councils could deliver benefits for both areas
An aerial phptpgraph of Parkway Retail Park in Limerick. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22
County boundaries are normally invisible. In Limerick, however, the concrete hulk of a half-built shopping centre marks the fault-line that divides the city and county council.
Parkway Valley, once set to be a mammoth shopping mall on the Dublin Road, is located on the outer edge of the Limerick County Council boundary.
The site is opposite two other large shopping complexes: Parkway Retail Park – with outlets such as TK Maxx – and the Parkway Shopping Centre – host to Dunnes Stores and about 30 other shops – are located just inside Limerick City Council’s boundary.
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The controversial development, in a city already saturated with out-of-town shopping centres, reflects how the county and city boundary transformed into a flashpoint where the opposing interests of both local authorities repeatedly clashed.
While the county was keen to maximise its incomes from commercial rates by encouraging these developments, the city was busy objecting to plans that threatened to suck even more life out of the city-centre.
“Every major road into the city has a large shopping centre,” says Diarmuid Scully, a Fine Gael councillor who was against the Parkway Valley development. “And this is in a city with about one million square feet of excess retail space. It was crazy.”
Soon, these boundaries will disappear from view – on maps, at least. Following the local elections in May, the city and county councils will formally merge as part of a series of reforms aimed at driving economic development and introducing a more unified approach to decision-making in the area. A combined city and council chamber will be based at Limerick’s city hall on Merchant’s Quay.
In a move aimed at placating fears the city could be dwarfed by the larger county, an expanded metropolitan district for the city will be established with a population of 100,000, cementing Limerick’s status as the third-largest city in the State.
The city will retain its mayor, an institution with roots reaching back several hundred years. This might sound like deckchair reshuffling, but Tom Enright, Limerick City and County Council’s head of services for economic development and planning, insists the reforms are already bearing fruit.
Commercial rates are now the same across both city and county, resulting in a 16 per cent reduction for city-based premises this year alone,which means the city is now the cheapest in the country to do business in. There is also an incentive scheme which provides relief on rates for businesses that open in vacant premises. All these steps are seen as crucial in attracting shops back into the city.
“If you don’t have a strong city, then the whole of Limerick suffers,” he says. “We’re already seeing results. Over the past 18 months or so, there’s been more footfall and more business in the city.”
As well as rate cuts, there are plans to draw more life into the city. The University of Limerick, located on the outskirts, is due to open a small city-centre campus, while Limerick Institute of Technology has similar plans.
There is a long way to go, though. The scars of the city – with empty stores and neglected communities – show how it has suffered over the decades.
Families voted with their feet and left for the suburbs. Businesses that closed in the city weren’t replaced.
Instead of a sad history of inevitable decline, there was a sense that public policies hastened the decline. The failure to extend the city boundaries to include the shifting population hit the city, depriving it of revenues and heaping up social problems. The city had the highest concentration of social housing of any city in the State, while the corrosive impact of gangland crime and institutional neglect of some of the poorest housing estates left a toxic legacy which is only now being properly addressed.
The regeneration of the city’s estates remains one of the steepest challenges of all.
Once ambitious plans totalling €1.5 billion to change the faces of these communities have been slashed and now amount to €250 million.
For many of the communities, it has felt like yet another broken promise.
The new unified local authority will include a new directorate for regeneration which, officials say, will keep the focus on regeneration over the coming years.
Some involved in regeneration say it may well prove a blessing in disguise, allowing them to address underlying social problems rather than throwing up shiny new housing.
Its success will hinge on fully regenerating neglected areas and offering meaningful opportunities for people who have had little reason for hope. It is the kind of work that could take generations to complete.
As the city suffered over the years, many representatives looked in envy as the county thrived by comparison.
It became one of the richest local authorities in the State and was able to maintain some of the lowest commercial rates in the country.
It’s hardly a surprise to learn, then, that the reforms don’t have universal support.
Some in the county feel they stand to lose more than they will gain under the new administrative structures. There are also those in the city who feel a simple boundary would have made more sense.
Outspoken Independent councillor John Gilligan was one of many sceptics over the reforms, and still has his doubts as to whether it will save money.
“No one’s sure what will happen, and it all seems a bit of a mish-mash,” he says. “ Look at the savings: were were told it would save €20 million. Wonderful. But it was never explained how. Then, it fell to €15 million and, more recently, €5 million. Now there’s talk an overdraft might be needed.”
Nevertheless, he says he supports the project as it’s the only game in town. Most councillors in the main political parties – once heavily sceptical – have also swung in behind the changes.
Not all blueprints go according to plan, however. Shortly after an ambitious Limerick 2030 strategy was launched during the summer – with pledges to revitalise the city centre and cease the glut of out-of-town shopping – came news that Marks & Spencers was to open a flagship store in the area.
It was good news – but there was a problem: it would be located in Parkway Valley, the unfinished shopping centre on the edge of town.
If it does go ahead, it will be a poor start for a new era of sustainable planning.
Behind the scenes, however, there is still hope it may open in a revitalised Arthur’s Quay development in the city centre, assuming it gets the go-ahead.
It’s a reminder, if one were needed, that changing boundaries is a far more complex business than simply redrawing some lines on a map.