Proposed centre puts Bray in flood danger

Twenty years since Bray, Co Wicklow was devastated by floods during Hurricane Charley, Bray Town Council has approved plans for a town centre on its flood plain. By Frank Connolly

A flood warning issued by the Marine Insitute (27 August) this week has revived memories of the devastation wreaked on Little Bray when the river Dargle burst its banks 20 years ago. More than 500 homes were damaged and the lives of hundreds more people were seriously disrupted when the after shocks of Hurricane Charley hit the east-coast town on 25 August 1986.

Since then little in the way of flood-protection work has been carried out by the local or national authorities and no emergency plan is in place to deal with any similar event in an area which has been subjected to two major floods in the past 100 years.

The demand by local politician – including the current Minister for the Environment, Dick Roche, who lives 40 feet over the Dargle on the south side of the river – for protection following the 1986 flood has gone unheeded, although Bray Town Council has placed some wire mesh over the north bank of the river to prevent slippage.

There has been none of the promised reinforcement and heightening of the wall along the south bank of the river which is also heavily silted and requires dredging as an additional flood protection measure.

In the early hours of 25 August 1986, the Dargle burst its banks near the small Coburg estate about a mile up-river from Bray town, unleashing a torrent of water which travelled down the middle and lower Dargle roads and into the densely populated, largely working-class area of one- and two-storey homes in Little Bray.

Dozens of elderly and disabled people were taken by boat from their flooded houses, tarmac was lifted from the road by the force of the flood and cars were covered in several feet of water.

Several large trees were carried down river which also burst its banks as it passed through the town centre and the flooding only subsided when the combined waters reached Bray golf course, a natural alluvial flood plain which soaks up the excess waters.

As they await the next inevitable flood with trepidation, the residents of Little Bray, the town quarter on the north side of the river, have an additional cause for concern – plans to build a €2bn town centre on the grounds of the former golf club.

Pizarro Developments – a consortium led by Paddy Kelly and including Durkan New Homes, Newlyn Group, Alanis Ltd and Pierse Construction – has planning permission to build 50,000 square metres of shops, an eight-screen cinema, hotel, apartments, offices and overground car parking in a scheme that is being promoted as a rival to the Dundrum Shopping Centre. The project, due for completion in 2013, will proceed in two phases. A new GAA pitch and a public park are also envisaged on high ground on the north end of the site.

The successful planning application has been appealed by several parties including some commercial rivals as well as concerned residents and Green Party councillor Ciaran O'Brien.

An Bord Pleanála confirmed to Village that it has decided to hold an oral hearing but has yet to confirm a date with the interested parties. The residents of Little Bray have claimed the erection of a two-storey car park and other buildings on the low ground of the former golf-club lands would prevent flood waters from escaping their estate and create far more damage than in 1986.

The campaign, called Swap, is asking Bray Town Council, which granted planning permission to Pizarro in April last, to move the buildings on to higher ground and further from the river bank.

The developers, who are planning to build several metres above ground, want to avail of the site's proximity to the river to increase the value of the proposed hotel, pent houses and other high-rise apartments it plans to build on the 65 acres of land.

The promoters claim they want to rejuvenate Bray and therefore wish to locate as close to the river and the existing town centre as possible. Pizarro has also insisted that it will ensure proper flood-prevention measures are implemented and said their experts are in consultation with the OPW to ensure that all appropriate steps are taken.

These assurances are unlikely to allay the fears of some residents.

"We are asking them to maintain as green space just over eight acres of the land in order to ensure that the flood waters can escape. It is simply a question of putting the development further back from the river," Swap spokesperson Noeleen McManus told Village. McManus, whose home was severely flooded in 1986, has also been critical of local politicians who have failed to ensure that flood protection works were carried out since Hurricane Charley.

"Dick Roche was calling for flood protection after the hurricane but, now that he is the Minister for the Environment, does not appear to be able to do anything about it. There is still no emergency plan for the area," she said.

Rezoning of the former golf club from open space to mixed development, allowing for the commercial development proposed by Pizarro, was also criticised by McManus and Green Party councillor, Ciarán O'Brien.

According to O'Brien, a report commissioned by the local authority from town-planning consultants Brady Shipman Martin in the late1990s specifically ruled out any large-scale residental or commercial development on the flood plain.

However, the proposal to rezone the lands was made by the management of Bray Town Council in the draft development plan published in 2004 and controversially adopted in April 2005. All eight of the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour Party members of the council approved of the rezoning which was opposed by the three Green Party councillors and one Sinn Féin member.

Despite a large public protest outside the council offices, the eight councillors – four Labour, three Fianna Fáil and one Fine Gael – supported the management's proposal for the town centre. The councillors in favour of the proposed rezoning claimed the developer would carry out the long-awaited flood-protection works as a condition of the planning permission.

"We have no problem with a town centre but not where it is currently proposed, which is against all national and international advice on how to deal with flood plains. Planning permission should not have been granted before the approval of the Office of Public Works was obtained, in accordance with the development plan," O'Brien said.

He said a linear park and badly needed playing pitches should be located on the flood plain and the urgent flood protection measures should be completed as soon as possible.

A spokeswoman for Pizarro said the OPW was already in discussion with town-council engineers on the best flood-protection measures, which will be funded by the developer – although the council has responsibility for carrying out the necessary work.

"The OPW will submit its flood protection scheme to An Bord Pleanála after further consultation with the public. Engineering solutions are available to solve the problem of flooding and we are taking the cost of that. To move the project further back would, in our view, divide the town. Our plan is to link the new town centre with the existing commercial centre by pedestrian bridge," the spokeswoman said.

Pizarro acquired the golf club lands in 2003 for a reported €90m from builders Dwyer Nolan, which assembled the site over the previous 10 years.

Eddie Dwyer provided Bray golf club with a new clubhouse and a site on Bray Head in return for their lands which make up most of the site, some of which lies in the bordering Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown council area. p