Thinking twice about Contravening the Sligo Development Plan?

We seem to lurch from crisis to crisis with ever increasing rapidity these days. Wars, inflation, a pressing housing crisis. There is perhaps a general tendency for Irish public opinion to veer somewhat wildly from one extreme to another. Although the atmosphere in the realm I am about to address is somewhat superheated at present, I would argue that, despite the pressures and genuine difficulties faced by many families, cool heads are needed around decision making. In this regard I would like to try and address in a balanced way, the question of the proposal by Sligo County Council to contravene their own County Development Plan in a period of hiatus when another such plan is due. This would permit the building of a high-density housing development on Cairns Hill, behind the Carraroe Retail Park. This would occupy a higher point on the landscape of Cairns Hill than any other current development.

My argument is that there are other options for development that should be taken up before changing the rules to allow further building on Cairns Hill. Some time in July – following a vote on the contravention of the development plan – we anticipate an announcement that ‘The passage Tomb Landscape of County Sligo’ has been selected by the government to be on Ireland’s UNESCO WHS Tentative List.

A Tentative List is an inventory of properties which each State Party intends to consider for nomination to full UNESCO WHS status. This Sligo bid is focussed in particular the Irish Passage Tomb tradition sites, in which we are particularly rich. Sligo Neolithic Landscapes group, in partnership with Sligo County Council, have been deeply involved in the making of this application. The next phase, led by the Council and the relevant Government department, will be one of consultation, planning and the assembly of a dossier. This, hopefully, with all in agreement and all the proverbial ducks in a row, will lay the groundwork for an impressive and successful application for full WHS status for County Sligo. 

County Sligo stands to gain significant financial, economic and cultural benefits from becoming a World Heritage site; implemented properly, it would be a game changer for the region, for Knock airport, etc. 

There are seven key sites in the County that constitute this serial bid; they would each be marked as part of one extensive unit for the visitor, with a comprehensive overall plan for their sustainability. The core sites which make up the WHS bid are; Carrowmore and Carrowkeel, Knocknarea and Cairns Hill, the Ox Mountains and part of the Ballygawley hills, plus an area around Keash. The argument for WHS status is that visitors are already attending here in large numbers in an uncontrolled context. What is needed is a structure placed on this. 

Plate 1: ‘Archaeological and historic landscape of the Cuil Irra Peninsula’ – from the Sligo County Development Plan 2017-2023, Fig. 7.A. Note, Cairns Hill area in purple to the right of the image. Click for larger view.

With the plan in place, administrators can set targets, monitor and guide our visitors. Some places can be visited. Others not. Some may have staff present, others not. Some may be made accessible on a limited basis, etc. But lip service will not be enough. That the new comprehensive management plan is developed in wide community consultation and then followed is essential to avoid the situation where tourism interests and others take all the benefits of world heritage status without carrying the responsibilities that attach

Consequently, this is an unfortunate time to decide to hastily unravel our existing protections to these places, as in the Council deciding to contravene their own Development Plan to allow a housing development to proceed on Cairns Hill. It sends all the wrong signals to those making decisions pertaining to the status of Sligo in the future, both in Ireland and abroad.

Such a decision should not be taken lightly or in haste. Why have a Development Plan at all if you are able to contravene it? What is sacrosanct? This is not for a moment to diminish the plight of those who are so in need in the housing market. We do need to address these issues. But I would still advocate balance, and a reasonable degree of caution, in light of the poor quality of planning choices made in County Sligo in the past, the results of which blight our countryside. Ballisodare village is one such example. 

Historically, the County Development Plan has saved us from bad planning choices before. Without a robust plan (or with a contravened one) Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, one of our prime visitor attractions and a hugely important archaeological site, would now be adjacent to the town dump; in the nineteen eighties the council had a pressing need for landfill and only the determined efforts of local residents and legislators in the Supreme Court upheld the 1980’s Development Plan and put a stop to this ill-considered initiative.

In 2008 in a draft of the Sligo and Environs Development Plan 2010-2016, planners proposed a roadway (T2.11) from Carraroe Retail Park across Cairns Hill. Following public consultation and submissions from the Department of Heritage and Failte Ireland at the time this proposal was reversed. Councillors in their wisdom recognised the importance of Sligo’s archaeological landscape and voted unanimously to remove the road from the Environs development plan. This land was at the time rezoned Strategic Land Reserve and part of it is now the subject of the proposed contravention of the County Development Plan. Councillors are being asked to reverse a decision they made 14 years ago on the eve of an important World Heritage Site announcement. Apart from the archaeological question, each planning proposal needs to be examined on its merits. Is it too dense? Are there alternative sites? What are the views (both opinions and visual) of the residents of the place?

Cairns Hill, with its two unopened passage tombs, is a key element in the World Heritage bid; the sites are close to the town yet visible from afar; they should both be developed as public amenities and tourist attractions, leading the visitor from there into the wider landscape.

There will no doubt be planning recommendations of a more coherent nature put together, in consultation, by the WHS nomination team (to be assembled in the next twelve months or so) as regards the boundaries inside which new housing developments might be restricted. This will no doubt also be addressed in the New County Development Plan, whose first draft publication is imminent. 

In my view we ought not second guess these recommendations and decisions. We would be advised to postpone the decision for the Cairns Hill site until this process is complete (and try and hasten the process and widen the consultation). By doing that we leave more influence over the process open to local residents, businesses and other key stakeholders. 

Councillors will vote on this matter is in the first week of July. They have difficult choices to balance.

I am in agreement with Dr Stefan Bergh when he says:

‘I wish to reach out to (the Sligo public) to emphasise the importance of Cairns Hill in this (World Heritage Bid) and ask them to let their Councillors know the importance of thinking twice before developing land in such a highly sensitive location. With the current county Development Plan there is (already) land zoned and available for development and other land within the strategic land reserves that poses no threat to the integrity of the ancient landscape. This to my mind these would be much wiser choices than adding another development in the already over-developed Cairns Hill’

Stefan Berg, NUIG

Click here for a list and contact details of Sligo County Councillors. The vote on the contravention plan takes place on July 4th 2022.

Pádraig Meehan (on behalf of Sligo Neolithic Landscapes)


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