COMMENT & ANALYSIS: A recent article in The Irish Times — “Costs of greenways could rise due to Kerry ‘template’, officials warn” — takes an understandable, but most likely flawed look at the apparent rising costs of greenways.
At the end of the article, it states that the estimated cost of the South Kerry Greenway “has now reached more than €20 million, a hearing of An Bord Pleanála was told in November 2019. A decision from the planning board on the project is due shortly.” The next and final paragraph stated: “The 42km Co Mayo greenway, which opened in April 2010, cost €5.7 million to develop, while the 46km Waterford Greenway, which opened in March 2017, cost €15 million.”
The figures for Mayo’s Great Western Greenway and the Waterford Greenway great on a per km cost compared to the costs of the Kerry Greenway, but those figures are not correct and not even comparable if they were.
Also in The Irish Times, back in 2018, a great feature article on greenways by Manchán Magan (which is worth a read), quoted Brian Quinn of Fáilte Ireland as stating that: “They [greenways] are catalyst projects that have been shown to rejuvenate communities and offer genuine high-value experiences for tourists. The Mayo Greenway cost €7.5 million and the Waterford Greenway cost €20 million and the return on investment was almost immediate.”
So, now we have the €7.5 million and the Waterford Greenway cost €20 million. But is that it?
At this point I should say that even with the return on investment being “almost immediate” on greenways, it’s still a valid issue for journalists to look at but care must be taken if we’re comparing like-with-like otherwise valid issues found can be dismissed.
In this vain, in November 2018 the last transport minister issued a strange press release titled: “Ross finds extra funding for Waterford Greenway” with no details of funding amounts or what the extra funding was for. So, due to the lack of detail in Ross’s short press release, we lodged a freedom of information request.
For now, this is a key bit from the FOI — a council request for extra funding to the Department of Transport shows that, by 2018, the council had spent €20 million but the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (DTTS) it seems had — with the approval of the extra funding — now spent around €5 million in total on the project.
In Mayo, the Great Western Greenway was put in place with amazing work by determined council staff. But it has been improved a number of times since opening — as a resident of Mayo, I can tell you that extra funding announcements for funding of the route have been on-going. For example, one of the larger amounts was in June 2019 when an extra €3.2 million was announced to extend the route into Achill.
A lot of the work on the greenway has been done in a very low key manor compared to other councils which small bits of progress on social media.
The Great Western Greenway was a former railway but, as with many abandoned railway in Ireland, the land was sold or otherwise fell into private ownership, sometimes the State gave away the land so it was no longer responsible.
In Mayo, the council did not buy the land back, it was built and is maintained using what is called ‘permissive access’ agreements, where landowners agree for the land to be used but they maintain ownership. The route was first established, with hard work by council officials. As explained by The Irish Times feature article mentioned above: “…ultimately it took the walking development officer, Anna Connor, knocking on each and every door of the 161 landowners to allay their fears about security, insurance liability and access issues.”
From talking to people who understand the issues, ‘permissive access’ does not seem to be a sustainable long-term route to build a network of greenways. It’s problematic if one landowner does not agree and it is too labour intensive and also sometimes problematic to keep the agreements in place — for example, a section of Mayo’s main greenway was closed due to a disagreement the landowner had with the council, apparently over a different issue in another part of the county which had nothing to do with the greenway.
Greenways built on state land should costs a lot less, and this should be the case for the Waterford Greenway, also built along a former railway but which was still owned by the State transport company, CIE.
The South Kerry Greenway includes buying the land using Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs). The question of if greenways should be built using CPOs is a controversial issue — my view is that a special report on the South Kerry Greenway by journalist Michael Clifford shows that CPOs are a must if Ireland has any chance of building a network of greenways and other interurban routes.
Greenway costs will also differ and some will require more high-cost elements such as bridges or underpasses than others.
I’m purposefully not writing down exact final figures for the greenways mentioned in this article and even more so not a per km figure. As academics say, more research is needed on this issue. But, on the face of it, €20 million for the South Kerry Greenway seems like a bargain if that includes buying the land for the route.