Dublin needs big ideas. It also needs people with imagination, creativity, bravery and hope to bring forward those ideas without fear of instant attack and condemnation and to help create the sort of vibrant, living city that I know Dublin can be.
This is one of the reasons why I am supporting the proposed white-water rafting centre development for Georges Dock.
During the debate at the city council I couldn’t help thinking back to the first meeting of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority in the late 1990s. Sitting in a makeshift office in the middle of dereliction we collectively envisaged a bright future for this then significantly deprived and disadvantaged part of Dublin.
Thanks to the enthusiasm and creativity of Ruairí Quinn, the then finance minister, and Brendan Howlin, then environment minister, the authority, comprising city councillors, community representatives, business leaders and others, was given the task of agreeing a master plan that would reimagine the area. We were told to let our ideas flow and we did.
Harnessing the benefits of the River Liffey, bringing in local employment quotas, opening up the Campshires and establishing new community facilities were all part of the plan. We also wanted a third-level college in the area and a mandatory 20 per cent social and affordable housing requirement. Many thought these ideas could never be delivered. In most cases they were, and today the Docklands is a totally different place.
New offices, parks, community facilities, hotels, a theatre and thousands of new homes. In particular I remember the discussion on a third-level college. We weren’t sure if it could be delivered, but we knew it should be. And now the National College of Ireland is based on Mayor Street Lower.
More than 5,000 new homes will be delivered in the area over time, with nearly 3,000 already occupied. There is still not enough social and affordable housing, but I reckon there is an awful lot more now than would otherwise have been the case.
The white-water facility is but the latest in that line of “big ideas”. Critics have bemoaned the cost. They caustically criticise investment in a “tourist facility” that “will only be visited by Dubliners at most once a year”. They claim it is an ego trip for canoeists and kayakers or a pet project for Owen Keegan, the city council‘s chief executive.
Anyone who knows my record will know I am not a “yes” man for any official. Nor am I a canoeist. What I am is someone who passionately believes in securing the best for Dublin and doing what is right for the city.
The critics tell us the centre won‘t be used. They say it will only be for visitors and that it will be too expensive. Yet, how many times a year do families visit Dublin Zoo, the National Aquatic Centre or many such similar facilities? These are special occasional-visit destinations. The white-water canoeing, kayaking and rafting facility will be the same.
All studies and experience at similar facilities in Cardiff and Glasgow show that it will also be a destination for tourist and high-spending groups. It will create jobs and generate economic activity. This is the job of Dublin City Council.
People who have never shown an interest in solving our housing crisis seem to claim that the expenditure on this project could eradicate homelessness. It should be noted that the funding that the council is attempting to secure for the facility is already ring-fenced for sports and tourism projects and as such is not available for housing and homelessness interventions.
Some councillors, who every time they had the chance have voted to reduce the local property taxes of valuable property owners at a cost of nearly €100 million to the city, now say that spending at most a quarter of that on a new recreational facility is wrong. Never mind the approximate €30 million lost because the Minister for Finance will not bring properties built since 2013 into the local property tax net.
Let me repeat some facts. The total cost for the complete project, comprising the white-water facility, two new quality buildings and a training centre for the emergency services is estimated at €25 million. That is why there is a tender out seeking expressions of interest.
Dublin City Council is seeking grants of about €15 million for the project from various sources. This includes sports and tourism funding as well as for the emergency services element of the project.
So, put that in context. Since the rejuvenation of the Docklands area commenced, nearly €3 billion of private investment has been made with more to come. Last year about €65 million was collected in local property tax in the Dublin City Council area, of which the net benefit to the city €3.9 million. Commercial rates now collected in the rejuvenated Docklands area amount to well over €60 million per annum and development levies to be collected are expected to exceed €50 million.
The money proposed to be spent on this innovative centre is a fraction of that.
We are now heading into a new round of public consultation on the new city development plan to chart a way forward for Dublin for the next six years. I hope people who have ideas are not put off by the naysayers and those who know the price of everything and the value of very little.
Dublin needs big ideas. And yes, the white-water rafting centre is a big idea. It is one I am proud to have voted for and I look forward to it opening.
Dermot Lacey is leader of the Labour group on Dublin City Council, a former lord mayor of Dublin and member of the Dublin Docklands Development Council.