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Councillors divided over €10m Ennis plan

Political manoeuvring will intensify amongst Clare county councillors ahead of a council meeting next Monday to secure support for a controversial €10 million loan for what has been described as a new public-private partnership to provide a major development facelift for Ennis.
Ennis 2040 Designated Activity Company (DAC) has been registered as a company to assist in formulating identified opportunities for development and employment in Ennis and making the town an attractive place to live and work.
The new high powered committee, which is chaired by former Roche Clarecastle chief executive, Gerry Cahill, includes TTM Healthcare Ennis chief executive Brian Crowley, Kieran Considine, head of AIB in Clare, Limerick and Kerry, Corporate Excellence Ireland chief executive, Linda Barron, Councillor Claire Colleran-Molloy, economic director of service, Liam Conneally and director of finance, Noeleen Fitzgerald.
It is expected that Councillor Johnny Flynn and Councillor Ann Norton will become members of the board in the near future. This plan is expected to generate some heated debate at next Monday’s Clare County Council meeting, amid calls from some councillors for the provision of a similar package to benefit rural Clare.
Even councillors who have expressed support in principle when contacted by The Clare Champion this week admitted they will not make a final decision until all their questions are satisfactorily answered.
It has emerged that this plan was supposed to be part of the May council agenda, but was withdrawn at the eleventh hour over fears it wouldn’t have secured the necessary support.

Responding to Clare Champion queries, Liam Conneally, Director of Economic Development, confirmed cross party briefings on the Ennis 2040 Economic and Spatial Strategy were held with councillors last week.

“The overwhelming reaction from the elected members was positive and any questions that have arisen during the course of the briefings will be responded to. The Ennis 2040 Economic and Spatial Strategy will be an important mechanism in attracting increased funding support for Clare and Ennis in the coming decades.”

While a lot of councillors support the concept of developing a strong county town, there is disquiet over the apparent inequity where only one municipal district will directly benefit from this new body.
Councillor Gerry Flynn is vehemently opposed to the current plan. “Ennis is thriving, apart from a few tweaks. I don’t think it needs a special purpose vehicle, which could be another ‘quango’.
“The council collects €10.4 million from the Local Property Tax and hand over more than €2 million to the National Equalisation Fund.
“This loan will come from the council’s shrinking coffers at a time of uncertainty.
“If the council budget goes awry, it will be elected members who will carry the can. €10 million will only be the thin end of the wedge, where does it stop?
“Once this group is set up councillors will not have any real say. Councillors don’t realise the consequences of what they are doing. I have to think of all of County Clare having an equal access to funding.
“Setting up this special purpose vehicle to develop the county town flies in the face of democracy. There is no way I will be supporting it.”
Councillor P J Kelly, who is also opposed to the proposal, has sent the council a series of legal questions concerning governance and future liability.
“We are not against the development of Ennis, but some of the new proposals don’t create jobs. I want a balanced proposal for rural Clare.”
Councillor Claire Colleran-Molloy outlined money will be drawn down as required based on projects that are identified by DAC, which she called a public private partnership.
The Ennis Councillor said any new project has to be commercially viable and in the long term the loan has be paid back with a margin.
“This special purpose vehicle will help develop projects on a business case analysis to create employment. This has been used by other local authorities and we have seen how much money the Limerick 2030 DAC has been able to attract.
“Clare has drawn down €8 million in urban renewal development funds, while Limerick has secured €125 million.
“This is considered as an efficient vehicle to attract significant funds. Limerick county councillors were asked to approve a loan of €32 million for the 2030 Limerick DAC.
“Ennis is the largest county town in Munster. We have a council management team that is progressive that wants to attract national and European Investment funds that require a plan and a special purpose vehicle.”
Councillor Johnny Flynn said millions of Euro has been allocated to support rural development under numerous schemes in Clare in recent years.
The Ennis Councillor said this new purpose vehicle was set up to attract significant funding for towns with more than 10,000 people and would help drawn down multiples of €10 million from national and EU funding.
He said a recent economic analysis has shown Ennis provides about 10,000 jobs for Clare people and half of these employees live in North East, North and West Clare who commute daily into Ennis.
According to the executive summary of Ennis 2040 Economic and Spatial Strategy, which was obtained by the Clare Champion, the strategic objectives want Ennis to become a location for investment, grow jobs, diversify its employment base, maintain a high quality of life and protect the environment.
“Providing a diversity of jobs closer to where people live, in places such as designated business parks and education areas will not only help make Ennis more productive and competitive but will also make it a more attractive location for investment from a green sustainable perspective.
“Ennis has the characteristics and potential to lead the way as Ireland’s first ten-minute town whereby a range of community facilities and services are accessible in short walking and cycling timeframes from homes or accessible by high quality public transport to these services in large settlements.”
It identifies Roche Ireland Clarecastle as an opportunity development site, while the waterfront portion could deliver a mixed recreational-led scheme with visitor and permanent residential accommodation, water activities and a strong walking and cycling link along the River Fergus.
While Sinn Fein Councillor Donna McGettigan is waiting for a full briefing, she expressed concern if Shannon and other rural towns weren’t getting any benefit.
Although Councillor Joe Killeen welcomes €10 million for the development of Ennis, he would like to see the development of a similar costed plan to develop rural parts of the county.
Councillor Alan O’Callaghan is broadly supportive once the new company is well managed, while Councillor Patrick O’Gorman is in favour of the plan once satisfactory answers are provided to key questions.
While Councillors Pat Burke and Pat Hayes are broadly supportive, they would like to see a similar package proposed for rural parts of the county.
Councillor Tony O’Brien admitted he had concerns about the proposed loan concerning who will be responsible for the loan.
Some of his concerns were addressed following a recent council presentation.
“I still have concerns and questions which I want answers to before I could fully support this proposal,” said Councillor O’Brien. “I understand Ennis does need investment, but there are other parts of the county that need support as well.
“I have serious concerns about raising a loan and handing it over to a company. It is an abdication of my role as a public representative. Public money should be spent by public bodies and not handed over on a private basis.”
Acknowledging the company will include some councillors, he pointed out there isn’t a requirement on the company to address the council on where money was spent.
While councillors don’t object to the council taking out a loan to improve infrastructure, he questioned the merit of raising a loan for development in Ennis to the exclusion of the rest of the county.

by Dan Danaher

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