A new working group comprising Courtown/ Riverchapel residents, local groups and councillors will soon be established in an effort to pave the way towards local development that is sustainable, democratic and transparent.
On Monday, a large gathering congregated in the Ashdown Park Hotel to learn about Courtown Community Council’s (CCC) Courtown and Riverchapel Smart Village Strategy – a LEADER-funded project informed by surveys with community leaders, residents associations and members of the local community. Through engaging with local stakeholders in this way, CCC have prepared a blueprint for future development in the area, which they hope can be used in tandem with the local area plan.
Chairperson of Courtown Community Council Linda Sinnott acknowledged some challenges that have arisen in the area in recent times, saying that the new plan is aimed at moving on from that.
"If there’s one thing we’re not lacking in this community, it is passion. Mistakes have been made on both sides but we need to learn from them and move on. That’s what tonight is about,” she said.
The backbone of the Smart Village Plan survey asked people how they imagine Courtown and Riverchapel in five years’ time, she explained, adding that the plan recommendations focused on three key pillars: environment, community and sustainability. She noted that, while the population of the Courtown Riverchapel area has grown to approximately 7,000 residents, this growth has not been matched by an investment in services and infrastructure.
The findings of the Smart Village Strategy made it abundantly clear that there are some key issues facing members of the Courtown Riverchapel community, explained trustee of Courtown Community Council, Lorna Fitzpatrick, who helped to develop the Smart Village Strategy.
"The lack of planning and investment in services and infrastructure such as healthcare, education, housing and transport was noted throughout as the greatest challenge in the area,” she said. “The lack of healthcare in particular was a massive theme throughout the report. Of course, we have the new pharmacy in Riverchapel now and we welcome that but healthcare goes far beyond that.”
Other key challenges highlighted by respondents concerned crime and anti-social behaviour – from general safety to increased drug use – and the lack of safe water/ sea access and poor beaches.
Natural amenities such as the beach, woods, harbour and biodiversity were noted as the greatest assets in the wider Courtown/ Riverchapel area. The second most popular asset was the people and sense of community, followed by businesses and commercial activities and amenities such as the community complex, sailing club and sports clubs.
Healthcare was recognised as the most urgent gap in the community and came top of the list of things that need to be prioritised for investment within the next 12 months. This was followed by community facilities, cultural sites, education and childcare.
While the report led to many recommendations, the overarching theme that needs to be adopted going forward is the need for communication, said Ms Fitzpatrick.
"There is a need for continued engagement and communication with the community, residents and people who live, work and enjoy the community. This is the foundation of all other recommendations,” she said. “We all care about the area that we live and work in. It’s important that we acknowledge that and try to work together.”
People also highlighted the need for future developments to be sustainable and proportional within the area.
After a run-through of the Courtown Riverchapel Local Area Plan, Ms Sinnott said that they hoped that the Smart Village Plan and this can be amalgamated to create a “blueprint of where we go from here”.
"To our mind, the next step has to be the setting up of a working group of all stakeholders involved to drive this forward,” she said. “I’d like to propose it tonight.”
This proposal was seconded by Tony Clyne.
Chairperson of Gorey Kilmuckridge Municipal District Council, Donal Kenny congratulated the group on their work, saying that the members are “here to listen and work with you”.
Meanwhile, Councillor Diarmuid Devereux said that the plan does spell out the “stark reality” of what is needed on the ground, saying that the concerns around a lack of healthcare were of no surprise to him.
"I agree that I think we need a forum to give voice to everyone,” he said. “I don’t believe the local councillors will be hiding behind screens. If you want help, you will get it.”
Councillor Fionntán Ó Súilleabháin also commended the plan saying “this is how community development should be done”.
"It is completely democratic. I can’t think of a more democratic system,” he said. “Having a vision is the first big hurdle. Once you have a vision, it is far more likely to become reality.”
Cllr Ó Súilleabháin noted the urgent need for a GP in the area, saying that there should be a campaign to acquire one now that the pharmacy was back up and running.
The councillor also pointed towards the need to nurture tourism in the area, along with the importance of protecting Courtown Woods. Ms Sinnott informed him that they were currently engaging with the forestry department with the aim of getting the woodland included in the NeighbourWood scheme. A decision on this is expected in July.
"To get the scheme in would rejuvenate the woods again,” she said. “It looks more than likely that this will happen. We would also hope to include the woodland in Ardamine in this.”
Councillor Andrew Bolger said that it was great to get the information together, noting that listening is the easy part but delivering is the hard part. Meanwhile, Councillor Joe Sullivan acknowledged the readjustment period that local residents had to go through when the population expanded during the Celtic Tiger years.
"You have come to the table with a plan and it is up to the councillors to run with it,” he said.
The report on the proposed marina and coastal protection plans is set to be published shortly, said Councillor Pip Breen, who said that the key moving forward is to bring Courtown back to the “haven” that it once was.
Acknowledging some concerns from attendees, Ms Fitzpatrick said that the soon to be formed working group will be “a space where we are sure we’re heard and a place to hold us all to account”.
The meeting on the launch of the Smart Village Plan was, according to Senator Malcolm Byrne, “the most positive meeting” he had attended to date regarding the Courtown and Riverchapel area.
“In many cases, it’s been reactive, reacting to something that happens or to a rumour. This is proactive. There were mistakes made but we’re not going to be able to change that. The key to moving forward is this working group.”
Senator Byrne said that it was important that decisions that are made about funding in the area are based on the data. He highlighted the future role that offshore renewable energy is set to play in the locality, saying that this will “shape how the community is built”.
Ms Sinnott said that they expect to form the working group in the coming weeks and that they hope that some councillors will sit on it to help to drive their plan forward.
The meeting marked a positive step forward in the communication between Courtown residents and members of Gorey Kilmuckridge Municipal District Council. In recent months, there has been widespread discussion over a proposed land swap between the Old Bayview Site in Courtown and the current public car park to pave the way for a new hotel in the area. This land swap would be subject to a Section 183 decision, meaning that the full Wexford County Council must vote on it for it to go ahead. The swap would also be subject to planning permission being granted for said development.
Aware of the upcoming briefing and subsequent vote on this swap, Courtown Community Council had requested that they present their Smart Village Strategy to the members prior to any decision being made. The Council agreed to do this prior to any further discussion on the matter.