An architect's impression of the terminal for the proposed airport in Tubber (image, Axis Architecture)
THE plan to build an airport near Tubber looks set to be grounded after Offaly County Council dropped its support for the project.
Last week councillors backed a change to the county development plan following pressure from the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) and the council executive.
The removal of the airport objective was also urged by planning and development expert Fergal McCabe.
Instead of specific reference to an airport, the draft county development plan, which is scheduled for final adoption in September, will say the council supports the provision of a green international trade and distribution zone based on international air connectivity, in either Offaly or the Midlands.
Explaining the change at a meeting of the local authority by Zoom, council planner Lorraine Mitchell said the new policy was “quite similar” to its predecessor.
Ms Mitchell referred councillors to a submission from the company behind the airport proposal, Midlands Airport Development Ltd, which sought to develop an international trade and distribution zone anchored by an international cargo and passenger airport with a 3.5km runway at Tubber “to act as a reliever of pressure on Dublin airport”.
The zone would involve nine “clusters” - aviation, education, intelligent green energy infrastructure, logistics, ICT, food and lifesciences, advanced manufacturing, leisure and conferencing and up to 3,000 residential units in the form of a smart/super rural city.
Councillors were told the Dublin Airport Authority opposed the continued inclusion of the airport reference in the plan, saying “there was no supporting regional or national policy relating to it.”
In its submission, the DAA pointed to the National Aviation Policy, which makes no reference to the development of a Midlands airport, and only mentions the existing airports in Knock, Donegal, Kerry and Waterford.
“Regional airports in Ireland were developed in the 1980s to provide improved connectivity both nationally and internationally and significant social and economic benefits to the regions that they served, particularly at a time when rail and road connections were poor,” the national policy, which dates from 2015, says.
“However, as mentioned, improvements to the surface transport network in the intervening period have impacted on regional airports’ role as regards domestic connectivity. Today, regional airports continue to be important because of a level of international connectivity that they bring to a region for tourism and business. Donegal, Waterford and Kerry airports are important to the area in which they are located. [Knock] plays a more regional role in terms of access than other airports given its location in the North West. These airports should be given the opportunity to grow to a viable, self-sustaining position, particularly considering the contribution that they make to their regional and local economies.”
The Government's National Planning Framework does not refer to a Midlands airport either, but does support the second runway at Dublin airport and backs significant investment in Ireland’s other airports and ports.
The DAA also noted the absence of support for the provision of aviation services in both the Eastern & Midland Regional Assembly Regional Spatial & Economic Strategy 2019-2031 and Ireland's Regional Airports Programme 2015-2019.
In his submission, Mr McCabe said the council's support for an airport in Offaly, in advance of a land use and economic survey with strong environmental inputs, would directly conflict with the principles of proper planning and sustainable development.
He said the Government's Project 2040 and regional policy 2019-2031 both nominated Dublin as the sole commercial airport for the region and “neither make any reference whatsoever to alternative of competing facilities – in particular to any need for an airport in Offaly”.
Ms Mitchell told councillors the wording being proposed in the draft plan was partly based on the submission from Midlands Airport Development Ltd.
The new draft objective reads: “It is council policy to support the provision of a green international trade and distribution zone based on international air connectivity within the county or the midlands where it would contribute towards the proper planning and sustainable development of the county, comply with all environmental legislation, and policies and objectives contained within this Plan and would be consistent with higher level planning documents, including the National Planning Framework and the Eastern and Midland Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy.”
Responding to a query from Cllr Frank Moran, Fianna Fail, Ms Mitchell said Midlands Airport Development had been unsuccessful in an application for a grant under the rural regeneration and development fund.
In a submission to the council in October, Midlands Airport Development chief executive, the Tullamore architect Patrick Little, said the company proposed the development of a carbon neutral trade zone anchored by a new international airport in the centre of Ireland.
The project would create 5,200 jobs directly and indirectly, and through induced employment opportunities.
Mr Little argued that current regional policy specifically calls on local authorities to anticipate and support “emerging innovations and enterprises” and noted a reference to “access to international markets through airports and ports, and serviced lands”.
His company proposed an airport at the centre of a privately funded international trade and development zone connected to the Dublin/Galway rail line which would add €500bn to the regional economy.
The plan said the proposed location, Tubber, is a “rural area in the heart of the Midlands region” and almost equidistant from Tullamore, Mullingar and Athlone.
The company said Dublin airport has 86% of Ireland's air traffic but remains the only airport in Leinster, a province which has 38% of the country's population.
The Midlands region has an airport catchment population of 2.4 million people, compared to Dublin's catchment of 2.1 million, the company added.
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