OMINOUS signals had been coming from the Limerick Regeneration Agency in recent weeks.
Set up to redevelop some of Limerick’s rundown estates and crime blackspots, there were rumours the Government was not going to deliver on its side of the deal.
So the announcement over the weekend from Minister for Defence Willie O’Dea that the Government will not be able to deliver the €1.7 billion it promised will come as no surprise to the residents of Moyross, Southill, St Mary’s Park and Ballinacurra Weston.
For many years, the estates have featured – mainly for the wrong reasons – in news headlines.
A master plan unveiled in October 2008 proposed a huge programme of housing renewal over the period 2009 to 2018.
The plan involved the construction of more than 7,000 homes to be financed by public sector investment of €1.6bn with a further €1.4bn from the private sector.
Now, more than two years down the line, not one single house foundation has been prepared.
The only “progress” to date involves the demolition of more than 400 houses. And in many instances, they already had been vandalised and burnt-out shells.
Brendan Kenny, chief executive of the two regeneration agencies overseeing the mammoth task, summed up the frustration when he commented: “Endorsements from the government are great, but we need to see real action and real money.
“We can understand people feeling despondent – so are we.
“The early months of this year are very important, and as we approach the third year of regeneration in June, it is crucial that greater progress is made on the physical and economic aspect of regeneration.”
His comments came prior to the announcement of a €25 million allocation for this year for the regeneration programme. When this money comes through in the coming weeks, it will bring to about €50m the government’s allocations to the regeneration programme to date.
There hasn’t been one cent of private-sector involvement. So a 10-year, €3bn, plan launched in October 2008 has had to splutter along in hope, rather than real evidence of progress.
Many now feel the regeneration plan has more the appearance of a displacement operation with scores of families moving out of the designated areas into the wider city environs. They are being moved into houses purchased by the City Council, Limerick County Council and Clare County Council.
Of the €25m approved for the regeneration programme this year, the city council will get about €10m, the county council will possibly get €5m while Clare County Council expects to get about €1m.
This will leave the regeneration agency itself having to work with about €9m.
So most of the regeneration fund is not being used to build new homes in the regeneration area, but rather to buy houses in the city and suburbs which come under Clare and Limerick County Councils.
Brendan Kenny said all the necessary ground work has been done and they are ready to move into the house construction phase.
He said: “The people have got behind us in all the regeneration areas but they want to see something happen; they want some signal.”
And that signal can only come through bricks and mortar.
The regeneration agency has done a lot of work creating new links between the many bodies which have been working in the regeneration areas for years. Its most tangible work is evidenced by the network of CCTV security cameras it has placed around Southill and St Mary’s Park at a cost of €850,000.
The regeneration agencies have also been helping various education and health programmes and paid for the conversion of a vacated factory building in Galvone industrial estate into an indoor sports centre.
The regeneration agency itself has a five-year remit. It had been hoped that during that period, the huge plan of action would have gained sufficient momentum to see it through.
The fact that the regeneration agency and three local councils, in Limerick, Co Limerick and Clare, are involved in the spending of the government allocation, illustrates the shambolic management of the greater Limerick city area from a local government point of view.
For instance, during the recent flooding, Civil Defence personnel travelled from Ennis to help in the Westbury suburb of Limerick (which is in Clare County Council’s area). Limerick City Defence personnel are based just a mile down the road from Westbury.
The author of the regeneration master plan, John Fitzgerald has strongly criticised the failure to restructure local government in Limerick.
He said restructuring was necessary to deal with the city’s severe social problems and put Limerick in a position to absorb the work of the regeneration agency during the next three years.
“It is inexcusable in my view – it is a critical issue. Everybody recognises that the local government structures that are there are not the right local government structures to take Limerick forward. It should have been sorted out long before now, but it hasn’t.”
Mr Fitzgerald said the regeneration programme is now at a crossroads and the reorganisation of local government in the greater city area needs to happen to move the project on.
On the political front, the Minister for Defence Willie O’Dea insists that the €25m government allocation for 2010 is evidence of the government’s commitment to the Limerick Regeneration Programme.
However, the regeneration agency is holding out hope that the Department of the Environment will give them an additional allocation to get some houses built this year.
Proposals drawn up by the agency are due to be discussed at a cabinet meeting on March 31 when a government decision will be made on further money from the Department of the Environment to get things moving in the four regeneration housing estates.
Mr O’Dea warned last month in the local press that he was going to the Department of the Environment “to kick some ass”. March 31 should, however, reveal the effect of the ministerial posterior-kicking exercise on the release of funds.
Mr O’Dea said he was also working to get unnamed private investors on board as part of his mission to kick- start construction in the housing estates with a “big bang approach”.
It emerged he has been charged, by Taoiseach Mr Cowen, of get a building programme underway in early spring 2010.
Spring has arrived and the long suffering residents of Moyross, Southill, St Mary’s Park and Ballinacurra Weston still calmly await the arrival of the cement mixers.
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