An aerial view of the Twin Tonwns of Ballybofey and Stranorlar
Only 19 houses have been completed in the Ballybofey-Stranorlar urban area between 2012 and 2021 yet 71 houses are needed for 147 people who are currently on the council’s housing waiting list in this area.
This startling figure comes on top of a number of revelations to emerge at a meeting held in Kee’s Hotel, Stranorlar on Tuesday night to plan for the future economic and housing development of the Twin Towns.
Council planner, John McFeely said apart from a period of population stagnation in the 1980s and more recently between 2011 and 2016, the numbers living in the towns had generally grown since the 1970s.
He added the area had low levels of housing completions over the last decade and according to the Central Statistics Office, there were only 19 houses completed between 2012 and 2021 in the town’s urban areas.
This lack of housing development coming during the current housing crisis in Donegal was further compounded when a map supplied to the meeting revealed that approximately 30 hectares (74.1 acres) inside the town boundaries earmarked for housing and economic development are lying idle.
The meeting also heard the towns had plenty of potentials but needed support from Government and the other regulatory bodies to create an environment for it to develop.
Potential sites not used
Seventeen potential sites zoned for economic and housing development covering approximately 30 hectares (74.1 acres) in the centre of Ballybofey and Stranorlar are not being used.
This was just one of many interesting facts to emerge during a meeting organised by Donegal County Council. The gathering of business people, developers, and community and sectoral groups was aimed at identifying land for housing and economic development for the Twin Towns to complement the preparation of a local area plan.
This is also a part of the new County Donegal Development Plan process which will set out the goals for the county from 2024 to 2030.
It is understood the sites highlighted on a council map produced at the meeting were purchased years ago but due to a combination of factors, they were never put to the use intended. Some felt they are investment opportunities that didn't materialise or owners were waiting for higher land deals.
Indeed a variety of problems associated with the lack of progress in the towns were highlighted and it appears the path to town centre development and regeneration of the area in general coupled with the development of a bypass is going to make for challenging times ahead for the council's planning and policymakers.
Undeveloped land will now be taxed warns planner
Those holding on to development land but not using it are going to be subject to a Residential Zone Land Tax.
That was the message from Donegal County Council's senior executive planner, Paul Christie at Tuesday night’s meeting.
He said the Government is introducing a Residential Zone Land Tax which was designed by the Department of Finance and Revenue in consultation with the Department of Housing, Planning, and Local Government.
“There is going to be a 3% tax on zoned lands that are suitable for housing coming into force in February 2024. It is something to be aware of when we are trying to identify suitable sites for housing. Those sites, if they are zoned ultimately will be subject to a tax and it's a tax that is going to be lifted by the Revenue Commissioners. It is to try and stimulate activity. The Department of Finance and Revenue Commissioners are taking it very seriously,” he said.
Donegal Road outside Ballybofey identified as an area with potential for economic development as it is so close to the proposed new bypass
Outlining the other aspects of their local area plan Mr Christie explained it had to have regard to national planning, and regional and county policies including compact growth from the town centres outwards, and admitted this could present challenges.
They also had to consider the regeneration strategies which had been put forward recently, both of which would require significant funding so a balance had to be struck to allow for all these things.
He added the draft plan to incorporate all ideas would be published in February 2023 which would allow for submissions and a public consultation both then and again in early summer.
Another council planner who contributed to the meeting, Mr McFeely outlined the planning context for the identification of housing and economic lands pointing out that Ballybofey-Stranorlar is the third largest urban area in the county and according to census figures from 2016 had a population of 4,852.
He added apart from a period of population stagnation in the 1980s and more recently between 2011 and 2016, it had generally grown since the 1970s.
He pointed out the area had low levels of housing completion over the last decade and according to the Central Statistics Office, there were only 19 houses completed between 2012 and 2021 in the town's urban areas.
Mr McFeely also highlighted the fact the towns had a high commercial vacancy rate of 14% and a residential vacancy rate of 8.5%
He said in terms of positives it was felt the new Ten-T bypass would bring new opportunities in terms of strategic access, economic development, and easing traffic congestion within the town centre.
There was also a positive in terms of spare wastewater treatment capacity which could cater for an additional 3,179 persons in the towns while Irish Water was also doing additional work upgrading the sewer system.
Mr McFeely said in relation to schools, the Department of Education had informed them that there is the existing capacity to meet the existing school-going population and a capacity that reached up to 2030.
“The actual school population is going to decline, however, if we do have significant additional residential developments, we will need some additional capacity, particularly some additional classrooms at primary level.”
He also told the meeting that it was an objective of the national planning framework to achieve compact growth focusing on brownfield and infill developments (transform abandoned and underused sites into community and economic assets); focusing on sites on the edge of the urban footprint rather than more peripheral or greenfield locations.
The council planner said there were also a number of constraints on where they could put new housing and economic developments in Ballybofey-Stranorlar such as the River Finn Special Area of Conservation (SAC), amenity areas like Drumboe Woods, the golf course of Dunwiley Woods or the flood zone which had been identified through the CFRAM (analysis of potential flooding areas)study, the established development already there and the local built heritage and archaeology.
He added they also had to consider the enabling infrastructure that would facilitate development at certain specific locations but not everywhere in terms of the wastewater network, water network, public transport, and for the future where the Ten-T strategic road project is going to go.
Mr McFeely said when they took the planning constraints into consideration, there was less land to play for than initially thought and a more limited set of opportunities.
He also challenged the meeting to answer why existing housing sites are not being developed and asked them to use maps provided, to identify the most optimal areas where new housing lands should be, remembering the best practices, planning constraints, and enabling infrastructure they had talked about.
Feedback from the meeting included various reasons for the lack of housing development over the past ten years or so.
Problems galore identified at the meeting
There were no shortages of challenges posed when it came to trying to initiate development in the Twin Towns, the meeting was told.
These included ownership of land; what it had been zoned for; rejection of planning applications for housing development; tough planning conditions and the expense and detail these required.
Issues also raised included the non-availability of cash from the banks for these investments; the constraints imposed by Part V of the Planning and Development Acts 2000 to 2021 which dictates that local authorities can obtain up to 10% of land zoned for housing development at “existing use value” rather than at “development value”.
Ballybofey is suffering from dereliction and a high commercial vacancy rate
Others pointed to development charges; no IDA/Enterprise Ireland interest in the towns; the need for low-density housing sites as against estates that were too large; the need to identify the future type of the industries that might be attracted to set up in the towns; the opening up of current unused town centre buildings for small businesses; town centre development; Irish Water and VAT.
Speakers also identified the problems a recession brought, the crash in 2008, the lack of a Donegal County Council landbank in the area, the need to extend the town boundaries to plan for future growth and allow more land to become available; the construction costs; the need to protect both towns after the bypass came into operation; a perception that one business is being allowed supply everything in the towns; current traffic problems
The possible rebranding of the towns in the post-Covid era where remote working and a better quality of life were now important factors was also discussed.
The meeting also heard about the conflict between housing and industrial development; the derelict buildings crisis; a drop in availability of not only construction workers but architects and engineers coming through the system to get involved in development works; unfinished housing estates; no public toilets; the contradictions in planning permissions granted and refused for different supermarkets over the years; a need to development Ballybofey and Stranorlar as unique stop off points for tourists with things like a bus park; prohibitive insurance costs for commercial outlets with living quarters above; the fact the bypass would take traffic away from the towns.
Those in attendance also raised the need for incentives for smaller businesses to grow without the many charges and restrictions currently in operation; the number of undeveloped areas in both towns that had been identified for economic or housing purposes and the possible need for Compulsory Purchase Orders to progress projects.
Concern was also expressed at the drop in the number of people actually living in the town centres at the moment and the fact that large areas of land, particularly in the McClay's Corner-Meetinghouse Street (above) and Mill Brae areas in Stranorlar that was adjacent to the Main Street, were underdeveloped.
A number of contributors identified different areas in the Twin Towns for economic development including Trusk Road, Donegal Road, Glenfin Road, Lifford Road, Dreenan, Drumboe and lands straddling the proposed bypass route as it was felt connectivity, particularly for any future industrial developments was important.
One speaker said it didn't matter what proposals were being put forward at the meeting or on a map, until "blockages" were removed nothing would happen. The meeting took this to mean the bureaucracy and red tape surrounding development in general.
"It's not viable to start up a business at the moment because of all the costs. Nobody in their right mind would do it," he said.
Other speakers disagreed saying there were incentives out there being used by other towns and perhaps the people locally should be searching out examples of these.
In terms of the high energy costs being experienced locally by everyone one speaker lifted the mood with a comment saying: "It's amazing how the price of the wind had gone up".
Another said he felt Ballybofey-Stranorlar had lost too many potential businesses due to planning decisions in the past and if this continued the towns would be regarded only as satellite towns for places like Letterkenny or Donegal Town and lose out as a result.
Mr Christie said if that was a perception the council needed to face up to that and that could be a starting point for looking at development for the Twin Towns.
One of the most hard hitting comments on the night said it all came down to one thing: "There is massive development potential here but the biggest impediment, barring all the costs, is the will to get things done by everyone.
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