Saturday, 9 March 2013

"Consultations" & Proposals

Well, the 3-days of consultation are over. This long awaited and much anticipated event took place from March 5 - 8. It was advertised in the local media the week before and the BWRA promoted it on Facebook. 

Residents of the targeted "regeneration" area received their personal invitation the day before with a leaflet, the first one since the last Regeneration Newsletter in 2009. The leaflet had promised to dispel rumours and reveal all, so naturally there was a lot of interest from residents, with 70 attending during the opening night.

If the intention of the public consultations was to antagonise and demoralise residents, then Limerick City Council can be consider their efforts to be a resounding success. The proposed plans were more or less what the BWRA had informed residents of on page 15 of our Christmas Newsletter.

The proposals that were presented to residents were vague and unimpressive, consisting of an aerial photograph with proposed new roads, a new path, sites for medium-long term development and a site for short term new-build crudely indicated. Click on the image on the right to view the proposals (reorganised by the BWRA for online viewing - includes complete text), or on the link below to view a pdf of what residents were physically given: Proposals for Ballinacurra Weston March 2013 (pdf)

What we hadn't anticipated was that these proposals would be presented to residents without the inclusion of any recommendations from the National Crime Prevention Office (NCPO). From our discussions with the NCPO we have learned these are the same proposals that were received by the NCPO in October 2012. Requests for additional information by the NCPO in November 2012, such as site maps, went unanswered by Limerick City Council until the end of January 2013. The NCPO will present their report to the Office of Regeneration at City Hall on Thursday 28th March.

Some residents were informed during the consultation that their homes were targeted for demolition. Residents were also asked to give their feedback by filling out a form on the day and signing their name to it. There were no independent experts on hand to help residents interpret what they were being shown, only Office of Regeneration staff – none of whom have a background in planning. Indeed, it was reported to the BWRA that one Regeneration Official was unaware of the area under the remit of the Southside Regeneration Agency, which continues to define the target area.

A delegation of BWRA committee members (Matt Collins, Martin Woodland and Cathal McCarthy) attended the consultation on the last day during the last hour to seek clarification on the proposals. Sile O’Brien of the Office of Regeneration was on hand to answer our questions.

When asked why a CCTV camera that was already installed was part of the proposal. Ms. O'Brien told us that this was to ask residents if it is in the right location. It’s hardly likely that it would be removed if residents objected. Surely the best way to “ensure optimum location” for the camera would have been to consult with a security expert before it was installed. We highlighted the fact that the CCTV cameras on the Southside were not monitored and cited the Crime Prevention Office view that such unmonitored cameras "are not worth the money that was paid for them".

Ms. O'Brien was asked what was meant by “take houses out of dereliction” when pointing to the boarded-up houses in Weston Gardens. We were told that this could mean demolition or refurbishment. Ms. O'Brien was informed that residents there wanted the houses refurbished in line with the plans that were put on hold in 2007, that the expert view was that there should be no demolitions unless it involved an immediate re-build, this was the view of former City Engineer John Breen.

Ms. O’Brien was informed that residents in Beechgrove Ave were opposed to the proposed “new street from Beechgrove Ave to Crecora Ave” and that this was also the view of community GardaĆ­, who felt that it would create a “rat run” for joyriders. This also applies to the proposal to remove the wall at the side of the church to “allow both visual and physical access” and to the proposed “new streets” in the empty site where Clarina Park once stood. We asked why all these new roads were being built on an empty site. Ms. O’Brien said that it was to allow residents from Byrne Ave and Clarina Ave better access between the areas. We expressed the view that this was totally unnecessary and was not something that residents actually required.

We asked what was meant by the phrase “new build” in the “short term” and in the “medium-long term”. We were told that in the “short term” could mean 2-3 years and that it would involve the building of 4 houses for tenants to rent. In the “medium-long term” meant 8-10 years and that nothing had been decided regarding the type of “new build” on those sites.

We asked what was meant by “home for home in areas proposed for demolition” and expressed our concern for the family whose home was singled out on the proposal by a black dot. We were told that 40 boarded-up houses had been identified as suitable for refurbishment, the cost of which was capped at €30,000, and that home owners that were targeted for demolition would be offered one of these. Many residents have invested more than €30,000 in their homes over the years and Limerick City Council haven't exactly the best reputation when it comes to getting value for money (they paid €7,000 to have one bathroom refitted for an elderly tenant, who was left without a working shower for 4 weeks and numerous other problems after the job had been "finished").

We asked what conditions home owners could expect if they were offered a new house. We were told that “consent to sale” and “affordable housing” conditions would apply. We expressed the view that this was unconstitutional as it would change their status as home owners. We also expressed the view that many residents had been forced to leave and take what they were offered by the Council's policy of depopulation and boarding up houses one by one. This put pressure on residents living next to them to leave as the houses were left to be looted and eventually burnt out. We were told that that was our opinion. We informed Ms. O'Brien that the policy had been condemned in the Feeling Safe in Our Community Report (2011). Two more houses were boarded during the 3-day consultation period.

We expressed the view that the proposals were disappointing and informed Ms. O’Brien that many residents had contacted us and expressed their disgust and anger. Ms. O’Brien said that although it didn’t look like it, a lot of work had gone into producing the proposals in consultation with the “residents committee”. We informed Ms. O’Brien that the reps on the committee were hand-picked, did not consult with or keep residents informed, were not elected by residents and therefore did not represent us. Ms. O’Brien said that that was our opinion and that we were entitled to it. We informed Ms. O’Brien that it was not merely our opinion, but a matter of fact.

We asked if the Office would take on board the concerns of residents and amend their plans accordingly. We were told that “our input was welcomed”. We asked why residents were being ignored when reporting rubbish being dumped in council owned boarded-up houses. Ms. O’Brien said she was unaware of any such complaints. We informed Ms. O’Brien that we didn’t have any confidence in the consultation process as residents would have no say in the final decision and given the fact that Regeneration had commissioned numerous reports from experts over the years, none of which were ever implemented. If they won’t heed the expert opinions that they paid for what are the chances that they will heed resident’s views?

Finally, we asked why the proposals were presented to residents without including recommendations yet to be made by the National Crime Prevention Office. Ms. O’Brien said that she was unaware of it but that they “would welcome their input”. We said that we hoped the report would made available to the public and that the proposals would be revised to include recommendations to design out anti-social behaviour.

Ladder of Participation
Before leaving we presented Ms. O'Brien with a copy of the Nexus Report, another expert opinion paid for by the taxpayer, this one makes recommendations to reform the failed structures for community participation and local estate management. This report is so damning that the Council are not content to simply ignore it, they have refused to publish it. 

If anyone in the Office of Regeneration takes the time to read it they will learn that, “Consultation should not take place after the decision has been made: independent community consultation should take place from day one.” and that “There can be a high level of frustration from residents when there is ‘no response’, or when they see that the results of consultation is being ‘ignored’" Consultation is considered to be meaningless unless it is part of a progressive process that leads to real participation.

The whole consultation was little more that a Public Relations stunt.