Valley Of Boom

 

Next month, the Taoiseach is expected to attend the ceremonial opening of the Liffey Valley Shopping Centre, which began trading yesterday. Mr Ahern's eyes may well be gladdened by the sight of another gleaming new symbol of economic success - and he will undoubtedly welcome the centre's provision of more than 3,000 jobs on Dublin's western outskirts. He may also commend its exemplary attention to the needs of wheelchair-users and its excellent childcare facilities. But he will also notice the routine preponderance of British-based chain stores; and he will also surely be aware of the misgivings shared by many people about Ireland's rush to embrace the Anglo-American culture of the out-of-town shopping mall.

The Liffey Valley centre is strategically sited at the intersection of the M50 and the N4. The first phase of the 180-acre complex comprises more than 70 shops and stores and its developers are able to trumpet several superlatives: the Republic's first out-of-town Marks & Spencer; its first C &A store; its largest Boots. By the time the centre is completed, in about four years' time, a 140-bedroom hotel, a leisure centre, a multiplex cinema and, perhaps inevitably, a vast "themed" pub will have been added. There is already a fast-food zone bizarrely entitled "South Beach", with seating for 600 people.

There are also plans for a "motor mall" housing six car dealerships under one roof - an apt symbol of the new development. For although its promoters are keen to stress that the centre is served by 12 Dublin Bus routes, it is pre-eminently about shopping by car and that fact is a prime source of misgivings about Liffey Valley and the many other American-style malls that have sprouted in recent years. While such places market themselves on their supposed ease of access, they are a proven contributor to traffic congestion on city fringes.

On a broader scale, there are doubts about the wisdom of permitting such developments at a time when the urban renewal policies of successive governments have succeeded in bringing new life to the centres of our cities and towns. And there is concern also about the growing cross-channel colonisation of Irish shopping. Less than two months ago, a report from the Department of Enterprise revealed that Tesco held nearly 25 per cent of the market for groceries just a year after acquiring the Quinnsworth/Crazy Prices chain. According to Forfas, British multiples are likely to increase their share of the Irish grocery market to 50 per cent "in the short to medium term".

Facts such as these clearly weighed heavily with the Minister for the Environment, Mr Dempsey, when he decided in June to restrict the size of new supermarkets to 3,000 square metres pending a review of the implications of large-scale shopping centres. RGDATA, the body representing independent grocers, is lobbying to have this limit made permanent. In the meantime, as shoppers sample the attractions of Dublin's latest mall, many of the questions prompted by its arrival will be explored again next month when An Bord Pleanala hears objections to the proposed enlargement of the city's first purpose-built shopping centre, erected in Stillorgan 32 years ago.