— Councillors disagreeing mostly used simplifications of issues already trashed out.
Comment & Analysis / Very long-read: Fingal County Council councillors by a cristal clear majority — 22 councillors for vs 9 against and 5 abstaining — voted for a redesign of New Street in Malahide to suit its pedestrianisation status which has been in place since 2020.
The councillors debated the issue for around two hours at their monthly meeting before the clear-cut vote. I’ve watched it and re-listened to councillors and officials speaking. Paying special attention to those against it.
Because of the claims that were being made that people were not being listened to, I made sure to listen and re-listen to what councillors on both sides said. And the more I listened to both sides, the more the cracks became apparent in the opposing side.
And another thing that became more apparent is some councillors saying some rather odd things. Like acting all supportive of the businesses against the proposal but also saying they avoid the area.
The changes on the street have been contentious but that’s going to happen when pedestrianisation or not is billed as a matter of people can “Save Your Village” from the start. Nearly three years later Malhide seems to be there but some objectors are still holding out.
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(article continues below the artist’s impressions of the new design)
Pedestrianisation was already in place
A firm point made by several councillors who supported the project was that the Part 8 planning application for the redesign of the street was a follow-on from the pedestrianisation which already happened. The street was already pedestrianised.
People against pedestrianisation were trying to use the consultation on the design details as some kind of referendum on not just pedestrianisation but unrelated issues experienced by any busy town, especially a seaside town that attracts a lot of visitors.
Unlike some other situations in other areas, the vast majority of local councillors of different parties and none not only voted for the project but spoke strongly about the process in the lead-up to now. They outline how there has been extensive consultation, how some of them started against it but have come on a journey, and how some non-local councillors were raising issues already trashed out.
Six out of seven of the Howth–Malahide councillors — Cllr Jimmy Guerin (Independent), Cllr David Healy (Green Party), Cllr Joan Hopkins (Social Democrats), Cllr Anthony Lavin (Fine Gael), Cllr Brian Mc Donagh (Labour), Cllr Eoghan O’Brien (Fianna Fáil) — all spoke in support of the project, with Cllr Aoibhinn Tormey (Fine Gael) the odd one out who voted against the project.
One of the main issues with the roll-out of pedestrianisation, cycle routes, bus priority and related measures is limited staffing resources and limited funding. Yet some councillors and some of the media continuously want councils to engage in more and more consultation regardless of how much or how good the consultation has been. They also complain about public spending but want officials to commission more and more research and assessments.
They do this while claiming they are personally all for active travel and branding objectors as all reasonable who just aren’t being listened to. The pedestrianisation of New Street in Malahide is just the latest example of this.
Businesses closed — but why?
One of the more substantive issues raised was businesses closing down and that being linked to the changes on the street. The simplified slogans of the opposition doesn’t allow for discussion of the mix of issues at play including Covid in the early stages, changes in the retail market, retirements, and businesses acting in their best interest.
The popular figure for the number of businesses which have closed in nearly the last three years is 4-5 but some say higher. But there are not many vacant shops now. One of the businesses, Cllr O’Brian, said is a hairdresser who retired and has since been replaced by a thriving business.
As far as I can find out, at least one other business owner retired and that business has also been replaced.
Another, as previously covered on this site, was a pharmacy chain which has another pharmacy 50 metres away. Something I’ve discovered since is that the shutting of the smaller pharmacy was ahead of the whole chain being sold to a larger chain — a typical kind of action getting a business ready to sell.
Cllr Guerin said that in the same timeframe, businesses have also closed on other streets where cars are still allowed.
Hardcore of the opposition
Councillors supporting the project pointed out that most people’s minds locally were changed when they experienced the change and opposition has somewhat subsided over time. What’s left — in my words — is the hardcore opposition. So, who was listening to the hard-core voices?
Besides Cllr Tormey, those who voted against the project were Ongar-based Cllr Tania Doyle (Independent), Cllr Ann Graves (Sinn Féin) who represents Swords, Cllr Brendan Ryan (Labour) who is based around Balbriggan, Cllr Cathal Boland based in the rural north-west of the county, Cllr Dean Mulligan (Independents for Change) in the Swords area, Cllr Joe Newman (Independent) also in Swords, Cllr John Burtchaell (Solidarity) based in Blanchardstown-Mulhuddart, and Cllr Natalie Treacy (Sinn Féin) from the Castleknock ward.
A further five councillors abstained — Cllr Angela Donnelly (Sinn Féin) who represents Ongar, Cllr Breda Hanaphy (Sinn Féin) who represents the Blanchardstown-Mulhuddart area, Cllr Darragh Butler (Fianna Fáil), Cllr Punam Rane (Fine Gael) for Blanchardstown–Mulhuddart, and Cllr Ted Leddy (Fine Gael) in Castleknock.
None of this is to say that councillors from other areas aren’t allowed to vote on projects in other areas — they clearly are. But two things jump out from the two above lists.
The first is that all of Sinn Féin’s councillors voted against or abstained. There’s no other clear pattern along party lines. The question has to be asked if Sinn Féin in Fingal can be relied on to support active travel projects.
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And, the issue second, is that the Blanchardstown-Mulhuddart and Swords areas might be trickier than average areas to progress any projects to which there’s likely to be a strong level of objections.
What is a busy street?
Given that objectors are still spreading misinformation and the media is happy to carelessly echo a whole host of grievances unrelated to pedestrianisation, it’s worth looking back at what was said at the council meeting.
The Sinn Féin councillors’ reasoning for taking their stance isn’t impressive, not even by the usual standard of these things. For starters, Cllr Graves admitted that she knew that An Bord Pleanála had ruled that an environmental assessment was not required but wanted the council to do one anyway but gave no real reason why.
Cllr Graves also said that she visited New Street on a freezing cold day and nobody was out enjoying coffee but she said nobody was able to drive up or down the street. Nobody is using it apart from “those partying at night time”. She said it was a “reasonable” request to ask that the street only be pedestrianised for part of the year.
There’s plenty of places around Europe that have harsher winter climates but don’t let cars back into their pedestrianised areas for the winter months. We’re also maybe way too used to equating successful pedestrianisation as streets which are packed like Grafton Street and Henry Street in Dublin City or Shop Street in Galway.
On streets where cars are still allowed we also see cars filling the street as meaning the street is busy when there can be many more people on the street on foot or sitting down than all the cars parking on the street.
In any case, the argument of allowing cars on the street some of the time falls on its arse when a large chunk of the objectors are actively complaining about people eating and drinking outside on the street — a part-pedestrianised street would not remove those grievances and nor would a redesigned street where there are both cars and outdoor seating.
More engagement, a lot of vagueness and a lot of unconnected things
Cllr Graves wanted further, no she corrected herself, “real” engagement. As if everything that has happened to date wasn’t real.
Cllr Angela Donnelly (Sinn Féin) brought up an email she got from Voice of Vision Impairment. It’s worth saying that Voice of Vision Impairment have objected to a range of pedestrianisation and walking and cycling projects — when cycling is included they say that such streets should be pedestrianised fully and, in the case of New Street, they are still complaining about wanting the pedestrianisation not to go ahead.
What’s the issue for the visually impaired? According to Cllr Donnelly, it’s being unable to cross the street without knowing if an electric scooter is coming or not. New Street never had a mid-block crossing — previously you’d have to squeeze between cars to cross the road with cars, bikes and scooters etc going up and down.
But not only is the former carriageway unsafe according to Cllr Donnelly, she also said it’s also a problem for people with visual impairments that servers from restaurants and pubs to tables out on the street have to cross the footpaths. This seems like clutching at straws if there ever was an example of clutching at straws.
It seems that way because it’s a talking point used against the car-free Capel Street and pedestrianisation in Cork. With both making a street car-free or fully pedestrianised, the best practice in Ireland is seen as keeping the footpaths clear for disabled users of the street especially people with visual impairments. When councils follow this, some people who have weaponised disability against active travel then turn to hyping the unlikely conflict with waiting staff.
The sympathetic ear will be told that waiting staff rushed off their feet will be running into disabled people as they exit the doorway of restaurants.
Too little information or maybe too much?
While Cllr Graves wanted more detailed environmental studies which resulted in weighty documents, Cllr Donnelly complained that the information given to them amounted to 1,000 pages which they only received last Thursday.
The main Part 8 report however is only 16 pages long. The council officials are dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t provide all the information they have. If from Thursday to a meeting on Tuesday late afternoon isn’t enough time to read through and find the important sections, a councillor will likely never have time to do so as the next meeting or issue will come along.
She also brought up improvement works that Irish Rail is planning because one of the concerned residents is also concerned about the traffic this will cause. How likely is it that some of the people complaining are the people who are ultra-focused on anything that even somewhat affects cars regardless of the benefits?
Cllr Hanaphy also said that there has been very little consideration for people who are disabled or elderly, and emails informed her that there was a huge increase in anti-social behaviour. And it seemed to cause so many problems and is of little or no use to the residents. But both other councillors and officials were able to say that disabled groups were consulted with and their points feed into the new design planned. Provisions have been made including age-friendly parking spaces.
These are clear signs of how some councillors are willing to accept something without looking at the details and accept unrelated grievances — I mean, nearly every seaside town in Dublin had a host of problems with anti-social which were especially sharpened around and just after Covid. And the people who are giving out about seats outside pubs will be doing that regardless of if cars are allowed on the street or not.
It’s not a great look for Sinn Féin for voters who want them to support active travel and liveable streets.
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“All for active travel and pedestrianisation”
Cllr Joe Newman (independent) said he’s “all for active travel and pedestrianisation” but voted against the project. Among other things such as outdoor drinking, he said that he has been told that 98% of submissions are against the “closing” of the street — some of the objectors were claiming it was around 60% of submissions but while it’s unclear where any of these figures are were coming from, 98% against seems off-the-wall.
Cllr Dean Mulligan (Independent4Change) said that like Cllr Newman he’s been on study tours to other countries and while they were told that change is difficult, but questioned why people are still complaining when the street was pedestrianised during Covid. I think a quick answer to this is that the media and too many councillors are still entertaining mostly unrelated or dubious claims from them.
Cllr Mulligan said more door-to-door surveys should be done. It’s not a bad suggestion in itself but the way he’s taking it’s clear he’s reading too much into the views of the objectors. By their own count around 125 people objected to the proposal. The population of Malahide is nearly 19,000 people and there are even more people in the urban areas around it who regularly visit the town. A relatively small group have been trying everything to get cars back on the street.
Cllr Mulligan said people don’t feel like they are being listened to but the reality is that they’ll only feel listened to when all of their different grievances — including those not related to pedestrianisation — are accepted and cars are back on the street. As Cllr Guerin said, people objecting have been listened to, but local councillors just disagree with them.
Cllr Mulligan said at the meeting that the Post Office has been affected but it isn’t on New Street and it’s unclear why any of the issues are that he’s talking about. He then went on to say that there are a lot of places where you could start pedestrianisation in Fingal than New Street which he described as “150 metres of a hill”, before making sure also to say Malahide is a lovely place.
In stark contrast, Cllr Howard Mahony (Fianna Fáil) said the project is one of the best things the council has done. A former detective Garda, Cllr Mahony said that, from his experience, New Street always had its policing issues.
Cllr Burtchaell — after listening to other councillors for nearly an hour and also being provided with a meeting pack in advance — said he supports pedestrianisation before saying that he thinks they were not given enough time to make his mind up and seen the pedestrianisation as too focused on business (the street is mainly a commercial street) and then used the objector’s phrase of a mini-Temple Bar.
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Supporting active travel projects “where they are absolutely necessary”
Cllr Ryan– dismissing most of everything said by other councillors including his party colleagues — said he’s convinced by the objectors, some of whom he has known for a long time. Cllr Ryan also mentioned some of the things other councillors said but one of the interesting and unique things he said was that “I am a supporter of active travel projects where they are absolutely necessary”.
I’ve heard a lot of people object to projects while saying that they support such but the “where they are absolutely necessary” is an amazing level of conditionality.
He and others also questioned if this even was an active travel project. This a somewhat understandable question but the places where active travel is strong are places where place-making and the quality of public spaces is also strong.
Cllr James Humphreys (Labour) made the point that it’s usually people opposed to a project who will contact councillors and said he was mainly deferring to the majority of local councillors, which includes fellow Labour Cllr Brian McDonagh who supported the project.
Supporting the businesses but avoiding the place
Cllr Tormey said that the level of damage the changes on the street have caused is beyond belief, the whole thing has been a waste of taxpayers’ money, that when she visits Malahide she has to avoid the place because she says it’s just empty, and she also makes sure to include the Temple Bar comment.
The reality is the level of damage isn’t that apparent at all and talking of avoiding a place because of an ideology against pedestrianisation sounds more like what you’d hear on Facebook than a council meeting.
In contrast, Cllr Brigid Manton (FF), who supported the project, said she visits the street regularly and sees that it is well-used.
Cllr Boland referenced the Sale e Pepe restaurant — also referenced by Cllr Ryan — and there’s an issue with them getting deliveries because it opens later than the morning delivery time. He suggested a special parking area for the owner of the restaurant. The business will close if the plan goes ahead, Cllr Boland claimed as if very similar arguments for access have not been in place for most of the time since 2020. The restaurant is also at one end of the street where there are other options for loading and parking.
As with many things, if there are solutions to be had, it helps when the over-the-top claims against a project aren’t serving as a huge distraction to getting the details right.
Mayor of Fingal, Cllr Adrian Henchy (Fianna Fáil) said it was important for councillors to show leadership and that Malahide’s a very successful town by any metric and other areas look at it in envy. He said that pedestrianisation has been shown to be a success in Dublin and around Europe.
He added that the local councillors have come through a journey and are coming down on the side of pedestrianisation.
Some people find change hard. Others find it yet harder again. Some people are acting in good faith and others not so much. But nobody is helped by some councillors and the media giving undue attention to issues that have been gone over against and again.
UPDATED: References to the contributions from Cllr Humphreys and Cllr Henchy have been added to further show the level of support from councillors across different areas.
CORRECTION: Voice of Vision Impairment, a disabled persons’ advocacy group was incorrectly listed as the Voice for the Visually Impaired. IrishCycle.com is happy to correct this error.