Save Our Floodplain campaign
At the beginning of December, 2017, five of our eight Bray municipal councillors signed a proposal to amend the Draft Local Area Plan for Bray (prepared by Wicklow County Council’s planning officials) so that the lowlands of the old Bray Golf Club lands – a floodplain – would be returned to their original Open Space zoning.
The proposal, by Councillors Joe Behan, Steven Matthews, Oliver O'Brien, Michael O'Connor, and Brendan Thornhill, recommended that the floodplain be retained as a park and playing fields, with buildings stepped back to the high ground. This was in line with all international best practice for flood risk management as well as with the OPW’s (mandatory) ‘Planning Guidelines for Flood Risk Management’- and the express wishes of the Minister of State for the OPW & Flood Risk Management, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran.
On January 15, 2018, the proposal was defeated in Wicklow County Council by a solid alliance of Fine Gael voting with Bray’s John Ryan; an equally solid Fianna Fail alliance voting with Bray’s Pat Vance; and 2 Independents, voting with Kilmacanogue’s Chris Fox. Thus, a majority of Bray councillors were out-voted on an important local issue by a County Council majority voting along Party lines.
It mirrored, to a large degree, the original vote in 2005 by the then Bray Town Council, when Fianna Fail and Fine Gael councillors were supported by Labour - who then held the balance of power - to vote through a Town Centre zoning on our floodplain. Nine weeks later, Pizarro Developers submitted elaborate plans for a 2.2 billion euro development, created around high density building on the floodplain of the old Bray Golf Course.
The Labour councillors who voted the high density zoning through at the beginning were John McManus, Anne Ferris, Ann Egan, and John Byrne.
Of the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael councillors who were responsible for that original vote, only Fianna Fail’s Pat Vance and Joe Behan (then Fianna Fail, now Independent) remain.
Pat Vance has consistently refused to change his vote on this, despite the increase in flooding all over Ireland, and despite the floodplain itself being flooded twice since the erection of the new flood defences. He also failed to attend any of the four regional information nights we held in Baltinglass, Wicklow/Arklow, Greystones, and Bray to inform councillors of the very real possibility of the defences failing at some point in the future – and of the flood waters then being trapped on our side of the walls, with no floodplain left to take them from our homes as they did in ’65 and ’86.
We were forced to organise the information evenings because Wicklow County Council officials refused to allow us make a presentation to the whole Council in the Chamber, where they would have had to debate the wisdom of building on a floodplain with us. Instead, we were told by councillors who had been very sympathetic to us at those meetings that the officials had ‘explained’ at separate meetings how the defences would not fail, and how a floodplain downriver from our homes was of very little use to us anyway…
Joe Behan, on the other hand, fought for our right to address the entire Council, even before committing to voting on our side, and then, following our presentation to the Bray councillors in November, did everything in his power to help us have the floodplain rezoned.
Of the other four Bray councillors two represented political parties who have supported us since the beginning of this 14 year old campaign – the Green Party and Sinn Fein.
In 2005, the Green’s Deirdre deBurca, Ciaran O’Brien, and Caroline Burrell fought to keep the floodplain free, and their Steven Matthews has upheld that stance ever since. John Brady of Sinn Fein voted for the same thing in 2005, and has kept up that fight right throughout his time as a councillor and then as a T.D. - with the backing of his Party. His successor, Michael O’Connor voted our way in 2018...
...While Independents Oliver O’Brien and Brendan Thornhill also provided staunch support since their election. Both these councillors are now standing as candidates for the newest political party - Aontú.
That mixture of parties and independents was reflected at county level, with our five councillors proposal supported by the two Sinn Fein rural councillors; our lone Social Democrat; and five more Independents.
Our community action group - SWAP - was set up to fight that original 2005 vote, and continued for 14 years, including two appeals to An Bord Pleanala, both of which resulted in recommendations that the development be stepped back from the river as we proposed. Despite this, the Board granted Pizarro a ten year planning permission in 2010. Its implementation has been delayed by Pizarro going into NAMA and then into receivership, but the consortium wrote to councillors before the 2018 vote insisting it is still ‘fully funded’ and has new and better plans for the old Bray Golf Club lands – which still include high density building on the floodplain.
We called ourselves SWAP as a clear signal that we were not against the proposed development per se, but simply wanted the buildings planned for the floodplain 'swapped' with the parks and open spaces planned for the high ground. We fought our campaign because we had experienced at first hand the devastation caused to our homes by the floods of 1965 and 1986, and the value of the floodplain as an escape route for the floods from our homes at that time. We were particularly aware of its continuing value, particularly in a neighbourhood such as ours with a high concentration of elderly and disabled people, many of them in single storey dwellings close to the river.
That ‘continuing value’ is emphasised by the OPW in their Guidelines where they insist that floodplains should be preserved even when flood defence measures are put in place.
We followed the Council decision with an appeal to the Minister for Housing, Planning & Local Government to issue a Directive to bring Bray's Local Area Plan into line with the mandatory Planning Guidelines for Flood Risk Management, but without success.
SWAP has now disbanded to allow new people, new ideas and new energy in our community to take up the fight instead. A complaint, however, has been lodged with the Ombudsman against Wicklow County Council, the OPW, and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government for their disregard for planning law during this process. It is currently being examined.
Our final act as SWAP is to use our website for the remainder of its time to record how our councillors – and their parties – voted, not simply what they promised.