PLANS for a Retail Outlet Centre for East Cork have become bogged down in paperwork, with 41 submissions to the public consultation process.
County Hall’s chief executive, Tim Lucey, is arguing for the project but Minister for State Damien English has signalled his intention to pull the plug.
In December, Cork County Council voted by a majority to pass variation two of the County Development Plan, with just four councillors against and one abstention — from the then-county mayor, Christopher O’Sullivan.
This vote meant County Hall would now provide “strategic planning policy support” for the provision of a Retail Outlet Centre in a specific area in East Cork, between Carrigtwohill and Midleton.
In February, the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) wrote to the Minister for State for Housing and Urban Development Damien English asking him to reverse this decision and in March, the minister wrote to Cork County Council stating his intention to do so.
At present, the council is defending their decision, with County Mayor Ian Doyle calling the OPR intervention an “unprecedented and historic” challenge to the council’s democratic right to carry out an essential service.
The OPR has said the decision to amend the County Development Plan 2014 was premature, inconsistent with the office of the Planning Regulator and should not be made prior to a joint retail strategy for the Cork Metropolitan Area.
County Hall Chief Executive Tim Lucey has said the decision of the Regulator to write to the minister was “fundamentally flawed’ and he was satisfied the variations (1 & 2) of the County Development Plan were in compliance with the Retail Planning Guidelines for Planning Authorities.
Among the 41 submissions that will be sent to the Regulator, alongside the chief executive’s report this June, were arguments against the proposed project from Waterford City and County Council, Cork City Council, the National Transport Authority (NTA), Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), all expressing concern about negative effects.
Independent county councillor Marcia D’Alton and Green Party county councillor Alan O’Connor also made submissions against the Retail Outlet Centre.
Cork City Council cited a potential negative impact on the vibrancy of Cork city centre and said the variation was not aligned with local, regional and national policy in relation to protecting the role of the city centre and town centres in metropolitan Cork.
Along with Waterford City and County Council, Cork City Council said the proposal was contrary to the Retail Planning Guidelines 2012 and the South West Regional Planning Guidelines.
City Hall also expressed concern for the soundness of the study carried out, saying out-of-date data was used and highlighted that the changing dynamics of retail, such as online shopping, had not been taken into account.
A study, carried out by consultants for Cork County Council, also assumes 35% of the Outlet Centre’s trade will be diverted from the city centre, a figure which Cork City Council has expressed concern at.
Cork City Council also questioned why the proposed location on the N25, which had the largest traffic impact of all the areas assessed, was chosen.
Before the variation vote was carried, public relations company Fuzion Communications made representations on behalf of the developer, Rioja Estates, on the project.
Former chief executive of County Hall Martin Riordan also made representations on behalf Rioja prior to the vote as well as after, informing certain members of the progress of the proposal.
Rioja Estates made a lengthy submission via the chief executive’s report to the Regulator on the benefits such a development would bring to the area and also asked for a “minor modification” to the variation to ensure that any planning application would not be considered a material contravention of the County Development Plan.
Rioja said the centre would bring between 2 million and 2.5 million people to the area every year and would provide a catalyst for further regeneration in the Cork Metropolitan Area.
The company said the centre would be an excellent complement to the local towns and Cork city, creating 1,200 jobs in the area and attracting €100m in investment.
The UK-based company said it will fill a long-standing gap in Cork’s tourism infrastructure and will be a “unique and complementary addition” to the growing range of visitor attractions in East Cork.
Rioja Estates also said the project would “justify the proposed investment in the upgrade of the traffic and transportation networks in the Carrigtwohill area.”
Councillor Marcia D’Alton made the point that the project was an entirely car-focused development at a time of acute climate awareness.
She said to encourage development that relies so heavily on the private car is entirely contrary to national policy.
Ms D’Alton also said there was no assessment of the carbon impact and all local authorities in Ireland recently signed a charter committing to decarbonising their activities, pursuing sustainable development and putting in place a process for carbon-proofing decisions, programmes and projects.
Cork County Council is also the lead authority for the Climate Action Regional Office (CARO) for the Seaboard South covering Cork, Limerick, Kerry and Clare.
Ms D’Alton pointed out there was no meaningful Strategic Environmental Assessment and mentioned that generating some 35,000 customer trips each week was a very clear and significant environmental effect.
And finally, the Independent councillor, who is also an environmental engineer, highlighted that only one of the bodies consulted in the course of the study is supportive of the proposed retail outlet.
West Cork Social Democrat TD Holly Cairns and councillor Ross O’Connell have also submitted a joint objection to the OPR regarding the proposed ROC.
The submission states that town centres are at the heart of our communities and we should be protecting them. Ms Cairns and Mr O’Connell also cited a lack of sustainability as a concern and said the variation to the County Development plan also was in breach of the Retail Planning Guidelines.
Within the Chief Executive report, Mr Lucey said a study was carried out in 2019 by consultants and based on that report, County Hall was satisfied that there was “scope and retail potential capacity” for a Retail Outlet Centre in the Cork Metropolitan Area.
According to the study, the cumulative retail impact of a retail outlet centre on Cork City centre, the district centres and the metropolitan towns would be 1% or less.
The chief executive’s report also states that different goods would be sold at the ROC which would not be in competition with those currently on sale.
Rioja Estates had previously said it would like to lodge a planning application in mid-2020, with the retail park expected to take 24 months to build. The company had hoped to open the retail centre by March 2024.