It’s a tale of two new ‘rail-based towns’ - both with ambitions to be models of sustainability - but the one in the capital on the fast track to delivery with the other, in Cork, apparently stuck in the sidings despite leaving the station first.
The recent approval by government of some €186.3m in funding to help create a new town for 23,000 people on a 280-hectare greenfield site in Clonburris, between Clondalkin and Lucan in west Dublin, has thrown into sharp focus the lack of progress on a similar SDZ residential project first proposed for Metropolitan Cork over two decades ago.
While housing Minister Darragh O’Brien last month hailed Clonburris as “a once in a generation project”, the Monard SDZ in Cork was first mooted in 2001 but it has emerged now that the first homes won't be built on site before 2028 amid ongoing uncertainty over funding for vital rail, road and other infrastructure.
By contrast, the Clonburris SDZ plan, which was approved by An Bord Pleanala in 2019, had its €186m funding package for enabling infrastructure approved by government last month, and which will be used to build the new streets and transport infrastructure, new parks, community centres, and utility networks that will enable the delivery of 8,700 new homes, for some 23,000 people over the next 10 years.
Almost 20 years it was first mooted, more than a decade since the vast landbank was declared a SDZ, and almost seven years after An Bórd Pleanála approved a detailed blueprint to guide development there, the Monard plans for 13,000 people, with homes, schools, shops and offices all based around a new commuter train station at Rathpeacon, gather dust.
Cork county is planning for a 17% increase in its population, that's an extra 60,000 people, by 2028, in line with forecasts in the National Planning Framework's Ireland 2040 plan, which has positioned the county as a counterbalance to development along the eastern seaboard.
That means the county needs 22,000 new homes built in the next six years, with Monard designated as one of the county's strategic housing delivery sites.
But in the midst of a housing and climate crisis, there are renewed calls for the frontloading of the estimated €40m required to deliver the vital infrastructure that is required to unlock Monard’s potential.
One of the country’s largest developers, Michael O’Flynn, who owns a 30-acre landbank in the SDZ, says he fears nothing will happen on the site without a concerted effort by various state agencies to kickstart development.
“We are very committed to delivering on the strategic land that we own at the gateway to this development but nothing will happen here without serious leadership from Cork County Council, the government, in terms of investing in and delivering infrastructure, Irish Water, Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII), and especially Irish Rail, as well as the various landowners. We need a collaborative approach. We need leadership,” he said.
The Monard SDZ is a near 1,000-acre landbank located to the northwest of Cork city, around four kilometres northwest of Blackpool and about the same distance northeast of Blarney village.
In the administrative area of Cork County Council, its southern boundary flanks the northern extent of the city’s 2019 boundary extension.
The area, which comprises just over 20 separate landholdings and around 70 homes, is dominated by undeveloped ‘greenfield’ agricultural lands interspersed with clusters of one-off rural housing and individual farmsteads, set amongst low hills and shallow river valleys, with the upper parts forming part of the backdrop to the city.
Rural and blissfully remote, it has nonetheless been identified in various local and national planning documents as the site for a large sustainable town thanks to its location alongside the main Cork to Dublin railway line, which runs along its southern boundary.
In Dublin, a similar 'new rail town' vision was outlined in 1998 for Adamstown, 16km west of the capital, because of its location on the Dublin to Kildare rail line.
The idea was to create a planned suburban community of up to 10,000 residential units, home to around 25,000 people, with supporting infrastructure including public transport links.
It was declared Ireland’s first SDZ and the provision of a new railway station was a key part of its development plan. The foundation stone was laid by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in February 2003 with infrastructure works officially starting on site in early 2005, with the first houses going on the market in 2006, and the developer-funded railway station opening in April 2007.
In February 2009, Adamstown won a ‘Sustainable Communities’ award from the UK's Royal Town Planning Institute - the only non-UK project to pick up a prize at that year's awards ceremony.
But then the economic crash hit and development effectively ground to a halt. Only 20 homes were completed between 2010 and 2014 and the project missed its '10,000 homes within 10-years' target by almost 1,500.
The fallout from the crash led to the sale by some banks of a lot of largely undeveloped zoned lands in the area but house building later resumed, and people began buying again.
By mid-2020, just over 2,600 homes had been built, with 3,500 more covered by some form of county council permission.
But the Monard timeline is even slower though.
The proposal to create a new town here was part of a wider planning process that followed the 2001 Cork Area Strategic Plan (CASP) which established the case for a suburban rail project in Cork, selecting areas like Midleton, Carrigtwohill, Blarney, and Monard, for urban expansion along the rail corridor.
CASP essentially said that future development in the Cork Metropolitan area should be focused on the Mallow to Cork, Midleton, and Cobh rail corridor, where a high-frequency service would serve residents living in these areas.
It was hoped that Monard could become a flagship development, subject to detailed assessment, with a provision that it could take between 15 to 20-years to deliver.
The vision was big and bold: it was to be a new rail-based town of up to 5,000 residential units, home to 13,000 people, with four villages, each with a village centre providing basic convenience retailing and community facilities, including primary schools, and a secondary school, with suitable bus routes linking the four villages.
It was proposed to provide sports fields on the eastern side of the town between an existing 110kV powerline and the Whitechurch Road, with a country park to be developed in the Blarney River Valley to the west with trails connecting it to the wider town area.
But to make the entire plan work, a new railway station would have to be built at the southern side of the town centre, on the section of the Cork to Mallow rail line between the Country Squire Pub and Casey's Cross, with a suggested layout discussed following talks with Iarnrod Eireann.
It was stated from very early on that the opening of this railway station would be required to coincide with the first substantial block of development within the SDZ and that while it would be undesirable for the station to open prematurely, it would be similarly undesirable for a substantial resident population to be in place before the station was built.
The fear was that if that station wasn’t built first, Monard’s first residents could form established travel habits in which public transport played little part - they would use their cars because there was no rail option, adding to the chronic traffic problem planners were trying to avoid.
In July 2003, Cork County Council engaged in public consultation on the distribution of growth along the proposed commuter rail corridor, and of the 108 submissions received, 39 related to Monard.
The following year, the then Transport Minister approved the Cork Rail Project which led to the two local authorities in Cork adopting a ‘supplementary rail contribution scheme’ which imposed a planning development levy on planning approvals within a certain distance of the rail lines. The idea was that this levy would help fund future rail improvements.
In 2005, the planning process which led to the creation of local area plans for the Blarney-Kilbarry areas, and for Midleton and Carrigtwohill, was largely complete and was partially implemented by 2009, when the rail line to Midleton was reopened.
At this stage, Monard was already slipping and it was seen as being in the second phase of this overall programme.
A CASP update in 2008 accepted that development of Monard would not be complete by 2020, but it planned for around three-quarters of its population to be in place by then.
Following a request from Cork County Council in 2008, Monard was designated by government as an SDZ in 2010 - a designation that was designed to make it clear to other public bodies, at least on a policy basis, that their co-operation in effecting the scheme was expected.
The various planning policy commitments came as the economic crash hit, and the banking and construction sectors virtually collapsed.
The 2010 Regional Planning Guidelines described the settlements along the suburban rail corridor – including Monard – as the main locations for population growth in the Cork gateway.
Armed with its SDZ status, the council prepared a draft planning scheme for the zone in 2012.
Two appeals against it were lodged with An Bórd Pleanála, and following an oral hearing, the board refused the scheme in September 2013.
It said notwithstanding the council's long-term commitment to the development of land at Monard as a new town, it had to have regard to the lack of certainty in relation to essential elements underpinning the scheme which are not within the council’s control - in particular the delivery of national road infrastructure and operational railway links.
The board said in the absence of these critical transportation elements, the development of the SDZ would be reliant on limited improvement of the local road network only, which would give rise to serious traffic congestion in the surrounding area, would endanger public safety by reason of traffic hazard and obstruction of road users.
It said the planning scheme had adopted a "low-density" approach to urban development on a site that requires "significant public capital investment" and the scheme would not achieve the efficient use of land given the scale of public investment required.
It also flagged concerns about the topography of Monard presenting considerable challenges and physical constraints to the development of physical infrastructure, and it said given the fragmented pattern of land ownership in the area, the terrain difficulties and the multiplicity of land owners involved, it was not satisfied that the implementation mechanisms as set out in the planning scheme were sufficient to ensure the timely and efficient delivery of land and infrastructure.
The planning scheme, it said, would not provide “a satisfactory framework” within which to realise this outcome.
The board did, however, decide not to accept the reporting inspector’s recommendation to seek further information regarding a more complete transportation assessment.
It noted that the inspector who examined the case was considering limiting development in the zone to 3,800 residential units in the absence of the provision of the proposed Northern Ring Road.
But the board said one of the purposes of SDZ designation was to give certainty that infrastructure would be provided.
The board said the delivery of the Northern Ring Road was crucial to ensure that 5,000 residential units could be provided at Monard, thereby giving effect to the various planning policies which had been published in the years before.
But that major road project was at the time, and still is, a suspended project.
In the absence of certainty about future access from any new town at Monard to the proposed ring road, the board said it did not consider that additional information on transportation patterns would be necessary for the decision making purpose at this stage, and given the scale of public investment required to implement the SDZ, the board said it did not consider it appropriate to limit the development to 3,800 residential units.
Crucially, the board’s decision to refuse the plan at this stage did not affect the SDZ status and the process allowed for another planning scheme for the area to be prepared.
Work began almost immediately on a revised scheme while subsequent planning policy continued to support the development of a new town at Monard.
The 2011 Blarney Electoral Area Local Area Plan saw the objective for Monard as ‘a Metropolitan Town with good access to the Cork Suburban Rail Network’, and described the detailed planning underway at that time as appropriate, given the ‘lead time of three to four years between the start of detailed design and the start of any housing construction'.
The 2014 County Development Plan sought to ‘maximise new development, for both jobs and housing in the Metropolitan Towns served by the Blarney-Midleton/Cobh rail route - including the proposed new settlement at Monard’.
In 2015, the council prepared a second SDZ planning scheme, with certain modifications, and this plan was also appealed to An Bórd Pleanála and became the focus of another oral hearing.
Among the concerns raised by groups like the Monard Concerned Residents Group were the board’s previous concerns about the ‘lack of certainty in relation to essential elements underpinning the proposed planning scheme which are not within the control of the applicant’ - the new railway station and access from Monard to the proposed ring road again - because there were still no indicative timelines or funding security in relation to either project.
Combined with a raft of other concerns about the inadequate road infrastructure in the area, critics of the new SDZ plan said in the absence of an agreement to deliver such vital infrastructure, the new Monard town runs the risk of becoming a “disjointed suburb of Cork city rather than a new town”.
The board however, approved the council’s revised plan which it said had addressed the grounds for the previous refusal including the lack of a Northern Ring Road and a rail station at Monard.
The inspector advised the board that TII had seemingly acceded to a request from the council since the last plan was shot down to permit the provision of a single junction onto the proposed ring road to serve Monard and the surrounding area.
It had even gone so far as to include a preferred and indicative schematic for a junction from Monard onto the proposed road route in the revised SDZ planning scheme.
The inspector said the council had emphasised the difficulties it had in providing ‘absolute’ certainty about specific items, including the provision of infrastructure, because many were reliant on other state agencies and subject to other influencing factors such as the availability of funding.
But the council had argued in the revised scheme that the designation of the SDZ in the first instance places a considerable expectation on the cooperation of such bodies in order to fulfill government policy.
And it said given this ‘certainty’ issue around delivery of infrastructure, it had incorporated into the revised plan a series of ‘brakes’ or ‘back-stops’ to ensure that development in the SDZ could not progress in advance of the critical infrastructure necessary to support or sustain it.
The board's inspector said on balance, it was his opinion that “there is a sufficient basis on which to draw the conclusion” that rail services will be developed to serve Monard within the first phase of development and that “adequate protocols” have been included in the scheme to avoid any development in the SDZ in the absence of a clear business case having established the viability of any such rail service.
The revised plan also addressed the planning board’s previous concerns that the low-density nature of the original proposal did not achieve efficient use of land given the scale of public investment required to make the site suitable for development.
Seven years on, Mr O’Flynn says his firm is still committed to investing in their strategic landholding in the SDZ. But he says the delivery of key infrastructure, especially a new railway station, is vital to unlock the development potential of the entire SDZ.
“Monard is a really good concept. It is one of the few development growth areas within the Metropolitan Cork area with Cork County Council. It is a very important strategic zone for them,” he said.
“But nothing will happen until vital strategic infrastructure is in place.
“Other SDZs around the country are in or are close to built-up areas. This site is not. It needs forward infrastructure. It just can’t rely on the existing infrastructure.
“Something of this scale doesn’t happen without a strong level of public commitment in terms of timelines and funding around delivering that infrastructure.
“That’s why we need serious leadership now, we need a collaborative approach.
“It needs a strategic plan with timelines and funding to get buy-in from private developers and other land owners.
“Development could happen here within five years if the local authority is given the go-ahead, but more importantly, funding and a timeline, to deliver infrastructure and I can guarantee you that the private sector will react accordingly.” He suggested a potential role for the Land Development Agency (LDA) in helping to broker an agreed way forward.
“There is a lack of public land ownership in this area, which is normally the LDA’s entry point, and which is probably why this is not on their radar,” he said.
“But this type of site is right up the LDA’s street. Perhaps there is a role here for the LDA - it could be the ideal solution broker for making this happen, in conjunction with Cork County Council and the city council.
“But one does have to question why, at a time of housing and land shortage, this site isn’t elevated in public policy.” There have been some signs of progress since the publication of the Cork Metropolitan Area Transport Strategy (CMATS), the major transport blueprint for Cork up to 2040, which is being delivered in the context of the National Planning Framework (NPF) 2040 which anticipates that Cork will become the fastest-growing city region in Ireland, with a projected 50-60% increase in its population by 2040.
CMATS included a massive investment package for improvements in commuter rail services that would provide for a potential tripling of service frequency, enhanced reliability, and an increase in passenger capacity.
The first public signs of that investment came this summer when Iarnród Éireann announced a doubling of off-peak services from Cork to Cobh/Midleton followed soon afterwards by the launch of public consultation on the proposed twin-tracking of the 10km section of the rail line between Glounthaune and Midleton.
The delivery of this project along with the completion of a new through-platform at Kent Station, to allow direct services through the station from Mallow and on to Midleton or Cobh without terminating and requiring passengers to change service, combined with signaling and communications upgrades and the delivery of additional rail cars, will facilitate the operation of a 10-minute service frequency compared to the current 30-minute service, with up to six trains per hour per direction from the current two.
A planning application has been submitted for the new platform, with construction expected to start next year for completion in 2024.
The application to An Bord Pleanála for a railway order for the twin tracking project, in a process broadly similar to the planning process, is expected to be made within weeks.
And while there is mention in the various CMATS commuter rail plans about proposed new stations at Blarney/Stoneview, at Monard, at Blackpool/Kilbarry, and east along the rail corridor at Tivoli, Dunkettle, Carrigtwohill West, Water Rock, and Ballynoe, some of which will have park and ride facilities, we are told that these elements “are at an early design stage and will be developed further in the coming years”.
Residents in the Monard SDZ say they remain extremely concerned about the scale of the plan, and about the delivery of infrastructure to support it.
Tim Butter, who attended the two previous oral hearings on the council's Monard SDZ planning scheme as part of the Monard Concerned Residents Group, said the same issues they had then, remain.
“We appreciate the need for housing development but this always struck me as a poorly planned town. There was a certain ‘cart before horse approach’ we felt,” he says.
They flagged the lack of certainty around the delivery of public transport to serve the SDZ - not just a rail option but bus routes too - concerns about the provision of water and waste water infrastructure, the need for new schools, and the absence of a north ring road.
All big ticket items, and all still valid concerns today, Mr Butter says. And that’s before you even start to talk about power requirements, broadband and right down to the basics like footpaths, “For example, the wastewater treatment plant in Lower Killeens is already just 100 homes from capacity and Rathpeacon NS is almost at capacity too,” he says.
“Again, we appreciate the need for housing but this plan effectively seeks to plonk a new town down in a rural area. You’d have to ask if the people who need this housing would even want to live in a location that is not properly serviced.” One woman, who lives in Rathpeacon, says a lot of major housing developments have been built on the northern outskirts of Cork city, south of the SDZ site in recent years, without supporting infrastructure.
“You can’t just expect to put up thousands of homes and expect people to just get on,” she says.
“Forget about the new train station for the moment. We can’t even rely on the water supply. We have been losing our supply for at least a day a month every month for the last few months, and we have to deal with the consequences of that for a few days afterwards.
“The water and sewer pipes in the area now are insufficient for the residential development that’s in the area at the moment, let alone a new town. And the primary school is at capacity too.” Another resident, who hopes to build a house within a few hundred meters of the rail line, said many people in the area who have lodged planning applications for homes in the SDZ, resent the fact that they have had to pay, in some cases several thousand euro, in development contributions, to fund improvements to the commuter rail line.
“We are starting to see improvements on the east Cork side, but there is little or no talk, let alone any sign of improvements on the rail line in this area. We don’t even have a bus service,” she says.
Cork County Council says it is satisfied that Irish Rail is committed to “service delivery” at Monard. Irish Rail itself wasn’t available for comment.
A spokesman for the council said since the 2015 SDZ planning scheme was approved by An Bord Pleanala in 2016, Monard has been designated a ‘key enabler’ in the National Planning Framework, a status that is reflected in the Cork County Development Plan 2022-2028 and is further supported in policies of the CMATS and the Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy for the Southern Region.
He said the local authority is satisfied that with collaboration between the various agencies of the type envisaged in the National Planning Framework, Monard can be substantially delivered by 2040 and in a manner that constitutes high-quality placemaking and community building.
But development is unlikely to commence before the next development plan period 2028 to 2034, the council admitted.
“A project of this scale and investment profile takes time to progress to implementation, particularly given the introduction of the more immediate-term Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund (LIHAF - a state fund used to fund infrastructure to help unlock certain landbanks for housing) in the period since the SDZ scheme was made, and to which council brought considerable focus to enable the delivery of housing in the Cork region,” he said.
“It is considered the status of the Monard SDZ in national, regional, sub-regional and county level strategies and programmes will help ensure the necessary investment is made available.
“Having made the Cork County Development Plan in June, and with the remaining LIHAF project in County Cork due to commence in the third quarter of 2022, it is envisaged the necessary Monard SDZ inter-agency coordination will have commenced by quarter four of 2022.
“The council is satisfied that Irish Rail, a key infrastructure delivery agency, is committed to service delivery at Monard.
“While there has been no formal pre-planning as regards the implementation of Monard SDZ, the council can confirm there is developer and investor interest in the scheme.
“Cork County Council can further confirm high-level discussions and communications have taken place with government departments regarding the project.” Fine Gael Cllr Damian Boylan, who lives in Blarney, where housing demand has surged and where recent massive investment in the nearby Blarney Business Park is helping to create hundreds of new jobs, said with all the plans and policies in place, the time has come for delivery.
“Building a new railway station at Monard, on the existing line, could possibly be the easiest, quickest and least expensive railway station to deliver in Ireland,” he said.
“It could become the beating heart of a new town at Monard. It will cost a few million euro, but in the context of local authority, Irish Rail or government budgets, it’s a pittance really.
“We can’t build a new town on promises of what might be. There has been entirely too much talk about this Monard town plan over the years. It’s time to get on with it now.”