A step too far at Stepaside
How the Dublin sprawl is bloating surrounding towns and villages
IT's happening to Stepaside, but it could be any village around the capital. With plans for 2,500 new houses, the population of this south Dublin village is about to explode from around 3,000 inhabitants to over 20,000. And no amenities are being provided. EDDIE LENNON reports
STEPASIDE is a village bracing itself for an urban nightmare. And what's happening to the tiny village of Stepaside, seven miles from the city at the foot of the Dublin mountains, is typical of what's happening to many other villages within a 30-mile radius of Dublin.
The new higher density planning policy by Dublin's local authorities encourages more building within existing towns and villages around the capital. Stepaside is an example of what's happening. It's in the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council area and that council's policy means that a huge amount of new housing is being pumped into the village. With 2,500 new houses to be built, Stepaside is about to explode from being a sleepy village with a population of 3,000 to one with over 20,000 inhabitants.
Local residents, who held a protest in the village at the weekend, say that despite all kinds of promises no amenities are planned that would allow the expanding village to mature into a larger community. Instead, they fear Stepaside is doomed to become yet another soulless, badly planned suburb - just another new town without a heart. A beautiful little village full of character and history will be subsumed into a sea of uniform housing estates.
Everything Stepaside's residents took for granted about their neighbourhood is vanishing before their very eyes. The village had 200 acres of land rezoned for housing five years ago. That land included the junior rugby grounds shared by Lansdowne and Old Wesley clubs. While it was initially planned that this land would be open to the public for recreational use, the plan fell through and the developers who bought the site now have planning permission for 164 houses.
The local Pitch and Putt course closed two years ago. The new County Development Plan calls for it to be developed for housing (and a new call centre).
Most of the in-fill sites in and around the village have been gobbled up for housing development. Even the one remaining amenity, the local Public Golf Course, looks likely to be rezoned for housing after the County Manager recommended this to local councillors - who have the ultimate say on the matter - along with eight acres of land beside it, which residents instead want developed as a sports complex or recreational area. (This is to be discussed at a Council meeting tomorrow evening on the Draft Development Plan.)
Stepaside itself is a two-street affair with two pubs (each with an off-license), a Spar shop incorporating a butchers and Post Office, a chemist, bookie's and doctor's surgery. Its residents are now fearing the worst - a new urban sprawl, growing in inverse proportion to an eroding quality of life. They are up in arms about what they see as the 'pack 'em in' policy of the local authority, with no evidence of any amenities for the area.
Three years ago the local authority passed an Action Area Plan for Stepaside with a view to developing the area over the following ten years. Local residents felt the Plan was being rushed through and that it would lead to misguided property development, with little thought about the need for amenities.
But the Plan was carried, by eight votes to three. All Fianna Fail's six councillors voted for it, as did two of Fine Gael's three councillors. The solitary PD and Labour councillors voted against the Plan. One of the stated objectives in the Plan was to introduce "retail and community services, educational provision, actively managed open space and public transport." Four years later, such objectives remain mere aspirations, as do the envisaged safe walkways and cycle-ways to connect Stepaside to neighbouring areas.
Lettie McCarthy is chairperson of the Stepaside Area Residents' Association, which acts as an umbrella group for residents' committees, and represents over 8,000 people in and around Stepaside, who are predominantly working parents with young children. She says the main concern among parents in Stepaside is the lack of basic facilities for their children. This is worsened by the fact that many of the new high-density houses have relatively small gardens unsuitable for children to play in. And that's when they have gardens at all.
"There is nothing for children of any age in Stepaside," she says. "No playground, no football pitch, no community or youth centre. The kids have nothing to do and no place to meet. If my 14-year-old daughter brings a friend from school, all they can do is go to Sandyford Hall (a 20-minute walk) to get a DVD or video. There's no place kids can go to play sport. The only place you can take them for a walk is on roads that are choc-a-bloc with traffic. And with all the building going on, there are lots of trucks, and the roads are in a terrible state. If you want to bring toddlers to a playground, the nearest one is Cabinteely or Marley Park; and with the traffic it takes ages to drive there and back., Plans to convert the nearby Ballyogan dump into a public park does not impress Stepaside's residents because, says Lettie McCarthy, the council says this won't happen for another ten years. "Even if it does, the kids who are ten years old will be 20. And what about the 70-to-80-year olds who have no safe place to walk? Will they be around in ten years?, In Stepaside itself, there are no schools. Primary and secondary students have to attend schools in adjoining suburbs or, when they can't be accommodated there, at schools in the city. In one Stepaside housing estate, a survey showed the children go to over 30 different schools outside the area. Two sites have been ear-marked for schools, but neither has been purchased yet, says Lettie McCarthy.
"Good planning should build communities, not just housing units," says Lettie McCarthy. "New people in any area make friends through their children meeting at school or clubs, mixing within their own community. If children don't go to school locally, they don't get to know other children in the area., Only one school in an adjoining area, Tiernans Community School in Sandyford, is served by a public bus. The large numbers of parents driving children to school means Stepaside is now choked with time-consuming tailbacks morning and evening.
Neither the Luas nor the South-Eastern motorway are yet a reality. Meanwhile, congestion is getting worse as more houses are built. Lettie McCarthy says: "There will be a population of 20,000 people in Stepaside, larger than most towns throughout Ireland - with no community facilities. Not having the money is a poor excuse. Where will they get the money in a few years when they have to deal with all the social problems?, Stepaside's teenagers are increasingly isolated, restless and disenchanted. "There is nothing for them to do," says McCarthy. "They just wander around aimlessly, or hang out at the local shopping centre. The only bus that serves the area comes infrequently. There is no direct bus to the nearest cinema (Stillorgan) so parents have to drive them there or to the nearest bus stop., Parents are extremely worried about their children slipping between the cracks of increasing boredom. There are already signs of alcohol and drug abuse among Stepaside's bored teenagers, and a recent public meeting with the Drugs Task Force addressed parents' concerns about drug use among teenagers in the area.
A local youth worker says thjat already there are a lot of drink related problems in Stepaside because young people started at a very young age. "That's basically all they had. Now we have masses of houses being built. What's it going to be like in five or ten years from now, with more kids hanging around?"