On Monday March 15th 2021 I addressed the monthly plenary of Kilkenny County Council. It was my first time since taking up office as Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform that I had such an opportunity. As well as updating members on my portfolio and work in government I was keen to provide an update on the progression of the northern section and bridge crossing of the Kilkenny Ring Road. There had been some commentary in local media that the Greens in government were delaying the project from advancing further due to a shift in policy towards cycling, walking, and public transport and that I was not supportive of the completion of this long overdue infrastructural project. Considering I campaigned for well over a decade to finish the ring road – taking part in two major public marches in the city and supporting a 10,000-signature petition to complete the ring road – this commentary took me by surprise. The fact is that in 2013 I tabled a motion to both Kilkenny Borough Council and Kilkenny County Council to finish the Ring Road ahead of the progression of the Kilkenny Central Access Scheme (KCAS). Both motions were considered at the respective monthly meetings of both Councils and accompanied by the petition handed over to both Mayor and Cathaoirleach. A majority of elected members on both Councils voted not to support the motion. It was heavily defeated and I accepted it at the time despite its support by an overwhelming majority of people in Kilkenny, conservation groups, and NGOs. Thus, a majority of members of both Councils opted to construct KCAS as a priority over the completion of the Ring Road and decided that all resources and planning would be put into that project. As a project, KCAS had its origins as a service road for the Smithwick’s Brewery, which was in the heart of the city, was expanding, and had a lot of vehicles entering and leaving. This was 1978. It briefly disappeared from the 2002 City Development Plan despite the road-widening of Dean street having been completed to service the project. A spur through Wolfe Tone Street that included the demolition of the 18th century garrison house and a house and a half on High Hayes Terrace was abandoned due to public objections to the then-named Inner Relief Road (IRR) in 2006. Its purpose at this stage was to service two brownfield development sites at the soon to be vacated brewery site and the old co-operative livestock mart - both prime city centre / edge sites in the city. In December 2008, I gave evidence at the An Bord Pleanála oral hearing into KCAS. In my evidence I cited a recently published government policy document ‘Smarter Travel’, which argued the case for moving away from car-centred travel towards increasing the share of cycling, walking, and public transport in towns and cities. Kilkenny County Council were not aware of the document at the time and their evidence at the oral hearing was based on the need to deliver through traffic to the two development sites. The rest of course is academic; despite public protests, petitions, and even an occupation of the construction site by protesters, KCAS was built – cutting through the heart of the medieval core of one of Ireland’s most important historic inland towns. All of the above is important in understanding the context of how everything came full circle at the March 2021 meeting of the Local Authority. The ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) on the northern ring road extension in November 2018 set the project back further. It was a significant ruling in terms of the interpretation of the habitats and EIA Directives. It would be December 2019 before Kilkenny County Council would submit the Strategic Assessment Report (SAR) on the northern ring road extension (a 1.5km) project to the local and regional roads section of the Department of Transport. As well as being subject to the Public Spending Code, the department has notified Kilkenny County Council that the Local Authority must demonstrate a significant ambition towards cycling, walking, and public transport in the town to justify the project. This is very much in line with what we had said at the oral hearing to KCAS in 2008 and indeed since through the ‘Complete the Kilkenny Ring Road’ campaign group: finish the Ring Road and deal with the city core through ambitious plans for cycling, walking, and public transport. We now thankfully have a city bus service, albeit somewhat thwarted in its potential by COVID-19. Kilkenny County Council has a Cycling Officer and there is an emerging cycling strategy. The next development plan could show that ambition sought by the Department of Transport and much needed by the city and its people. As I conclude writing this, the Climate Bill has just been approved by Cabinet. It is one of the most ambitious pieces of climate legislation in the world, aiming for a 51% reduction in emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050. This will require a monumental collective effort but it also provides us with a great opportunity to plan our urban centres differently, to make streets safer, quieter, with less harmful vehicle emissions, and where people of all ages can enjoy well-designed public spaces.
There’s no doubt that serious mistakes have been made in Kilkenny – mistakes that have proven costly to heritage, to economic development, and to people’s health and wellbeing. The completion of the Ring Road absolutely needs to be prioritised, with pedestrian over-bridges on key access points to the IDA Business park and other points along the Ring Road network. The Western Environs needs to have in place an integrated plan for cycling, walking, and public transport and the notion of more flat-surface car parking in the city centre needs to be abandoned. I will continue to support and advocate for the completion of the Kilkenny Ring Road.