Huge China trading hub in Athlone approved by planners


AN BORD Pleanála has ruled that the first phase of an enormous Chinese trading hub on the edge of Athlone, Co Westmeath, would be “in accordance with the proper planning and sustainable development of the area”.

The four board members unanimously granted permission for the proposed development by Athlone Business Park Ltd on the basis that it would be in line with the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) regional planning guidelines and a local area plan for Creggan.

In their decision, the board members noted that Athlone – along with Mullingar and Tullamore – was designated as a midlands “gateway” in the NSS while the regional planning guidelines envisaged international trading as a desirable form of development.

The first phase of the proposed Euro Chinese Trading Hub would include three major exhibition halls, nine minor ones and other facilities totalling 102,348sq m (1.1 million sq ft) as well as underground parking for more than 1,300 cars.

In her 61-page report to the board, planning inspector Pauline Fitzpatrick said it was “inevitable” that the buildings of up to 25m in height “will have a profound and permanent visual impact”, but she did not believe they would “dwarf” the area.

Taking into account plans to upgrade the N62 (formerly the main road between Dublin and Galway) and the environmental impact assessment, An Bord Pleanála said the proposed development “would not have a significant adverse effect on the environment”.

Subject to compliance with 37 conditions, the trading hub “would not adversely affect the landscape, would not seriously injure the visual or residential amenities of the area [and] would be acceptable in terms of traffic safety and convenience of road users”.

Because it would also “not give rise to any significant impacts on the natural heritage of the area or affect the integrity of any European site or any protected species”, it would be in line with the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.

One condition specifies the omission of a proposed wind turbine, to which some local residents objected, because “the board is not satisfied that adequate monitoring has been completed to confirm the protected bird species would not be adversely affected”.

Prior to starting the scheme, the developers must submit a phasing programme for agreement by the county council, including a stipulation that the nine smaller exhibition halls would not be developed until at least two of the major halls had been completed.

The developers must also ensure the provision of a frequent coach service between the Creggan site and Dublin airport to meet the needs of visitors, and a local bus service between the development site and Athlone town to cater for employees.

The board also specified that the buildings “shall not be used for any other purpose, including manufacturing, industrial use or retail use”, other than ancillary retail use, and the overall site at Creggan must be operated as a “single entity” by the developers.

They must lodge a cash deposit or insurance bond to secure the completion of roads, footpaths, watermains, drains and other services, as well as paying unspecified development levies to Westmeath County Council for public infrastructure, including cycleways.

An Taisce, which appealed the council’s decision to approve the scheme, said it was “the first stage of a proposal of staggering size and scale that the promoters claim will be the greatest commercial and trade centre in Europe”.

Having compared its scale to 14 times the combined size of Liffey Valley and Blanchardstown shopping centres, the heritage body complained about the “vague nature” of some conditions and “the lack of global consideration of sustainability by An Bord Pleanála”.

It was also a “serious omission” by the board not to specify a minimum frequency for bus services and to leave the amount of the completion bond unstated, An Taisce said.