Malachy Quinn strode through the tall grass and curled dock.
It was a bright cold Sunday afternoon on the outskirts of Balbriggan. Behind him was the Hamilton Road. In front of him was a vast expanse of rough parkland and the coast.
In the distance, at the very edge of the Castleland Park estate, he spotted his two sons. They were playing football on the well-kempt green, using an orange traffic cone and somebody’s jumper as goal posts.
Their kickabout was right beside where a future municipal indoor swimming pool will be, according to Fingal County Council’s masterplan for the Castlelands area.
Just north of it would be a recreational building, says Quinn who is a Sinn Féin local area representative and deputy chair of the Castleland Park Residents Association. “And then there are going to be pitches behind that.”
Quinn’s tour was playing out in his imagination. There isn’t a construction hoarding in sight yet.
He pointed in the direction of the sea. That horizon will be behind 377 houses and 440 apartments that the Land Development Agency is delivering as part of the major Castlelands project.
In a masterplan for the lands – a document drawn up by the local council over years with input from the local community – the indoor swimming pool, the first council-owned one in all of Fingal, was supposed to come before the first tranche of homes.
But whereas the LDA is expected to commence work on their side of the project next year, the council is trailing with the pool.
It is in the early stages of development, with a feasibility study now set to be carried out in 2024 for the Castlelands site, the council’s chief executive, Ann Marie Farrelly said at its monthly meeting on 9 October.
“We don’t know how much it’s gonna cost in terms of construction. So we haven’t looked further than the feasibility study,” said Farrelly at the meeting.
A spokesperson for Fingal County Council didn’t respond to queries as to why the council is only now at feasibility-study stage with the swimming pool when the masterplan has been in place since March 2021.
It isn’t just Balbriggan that has been waiting on a pool for years. It is the entirety of Fingal, says local independent Councillor Tony Murphy.
While there are pools in the likes of Swords, Coolmine and Dublin Airport, Fingal County doesn’t have a single municipal pool, he says in the reception of the Bracken Court Hotel in the town centre on Friday evening. “Every other local authority has at least one.”
Facilitating an indoor pool in the town is one of the objectives in the council’s development plan for 2017 to 2023,
The demand is there for one, Murphy says.
When the council launched its Our Balbriggan rejuvenation plan in 2019, its report found that, of more than 4,000 people surveyed, 70 percent highlighted the need for “leisure experiences”.
In response to a question on whether the survey missed anything important, 56 percent of participants agreed, with a pool being the most frequently named omission.
Many locals bring their kids out of the county to swim, he says. “The pools in Drogheda are at capacity. I know parents who’ve queued to get their kids in on a timeslot.”
In what order?
On Sunday, Quinn stood on the top of a slope on the northern periphery of the Castlelands site.
The entry point was a rugged path made of gravel, spotted with clumps of grass, and situated between the Castleland Court and Castleland Park housing estates.
Below him was the unfinished roundabout at the end of the Hamilton Road. “You’re going to have that coming in here,” he says.
The first phase of development in the masterplan was for a Castlelands Link Road to be developed, joining the Hamilton Road with the Skerries Road that runs along the coast.
The second phase was then supposed to see work start on amenities like the swimming pool and recreational facilities, as well as walking and cycle links to the Skerries Road.
Afterwards, the higher density residential core was lined up in the masterplan’s third phase.
Given the length of the project’s timeline, it was important to the sustainable development of the lands that key structural elements like the links road and facilities such as the pool be delivered early, according to the council’s masterplan.
But, when the Land Development Agency lodged its planning application for the houses and apartments with An Bord Pleanála, this didn’t include the pool or playing pitches at Pinewood, which sat outside the boundary of the application.
The An Bord Pleanála inspector’s report noted the pool omission as a concern, and acknowledged the third-party submissions that said the proposal wasn’t compliant with the masterplan.
But, because a site for the pool was earmarked, it considered it sufficient to give permission in March.
The LDA was never under an obligation to adhere to the phasing in accordance with the masterplan, because it is a non-statutory document, says Murphy, the independent councillor.
“A Local Area Plan is statutory,” Murphy says. But Balbriggan doesn’t have a Local Area Plan, he says.
In response to a query about what discussions the LDA had with Fingal County Council about the phased roll-out of amenities as part of the development, an LDA spokesperson said there was extensive engagement with the council during the planning process.
The spokesperson said it also engaged on a number of occasions with local councillors, “who provided feedback in relation to local community feedback, which the LDA has sought to address in the Castlelands scheme”.
But there’s little discussion about the pool between the council and the LDA in correspondence and meeting minutes released recently under the Freedom of Information Act after a request for related records.
Expectations in the new year
In a presentation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Land Development Agency has said it plans to start work on the Castleland site in the first quarter of 2024.
A spokesperson for the agency said on Tuesday evening that pre-construction surveys and investigation works for the new link road have begun.
Construction of the Castleland Link Road is scheduled to start in mid-2024 and will be the first element of works to commence, they said. “The residential component of the development will be delivered on a phased basis.”
While the pool is on lands that are outside the LDA’s ownership, they said, “importantly, the LDA’s development makes provision for the facility by ensuring the proposed site is future-proofed in terms of infrastructure and connectivity”.
Would the LDA follow the phases set out in the 2021 masterplan for delivering the homes and amenities? A spokesperson said the phasing plan for the Castlelands development and lands within its ownership is as set out in the planning application.
This application, they said, aligns with the principles of the masterplan, which says to ensure that development is phased to coincide with infrastructural upgrades, specifically the provision of the Castelands Link Road to the R127.
But although the residential side of the project is set to move forward in the new year, the pool is some ways behind this.
Fingal County Council’s Capital Programme for 2024 to 2026 sets aside €100,000 for a feasibility study for a swimming pool in 2024. But no money to build it in future years.
At a council meeting on Monday 9 October, Fine Gael Councillor Tom O’Leary asked why there is nothing more in there for the pool in Balbriggan over the next three years.
A spokesperson for the council told him they are in a position to plan the feasibility study, but that they don’t yet know the construction costs.
The council should have a better sense of that ahead of the next capital programme, for 2025 to 2027, they said. “When we complete the audit, we’ll have a better understanding of what the next step might be for swimming pools in the county.”
On Saturday, O’Leary called the promise of a new study progress, and said that the council is anticipated to take on a design and project management team in the coming months.
One option that the council is now considering is a modular pool, which is built overground, he says. “It is much more eco-friendly, much cheaper and much more energy efficient.”
A modular pool wouldn’t require digging a foundation, he says. “The ballpark figure would be €2 million versus €15 to €25 million for the normal construction.”
David Flynn of the North Fingal Pool Campaign said on Monday that the feasibility study is a positive thing overall.
There was a previous feasibility study, promised in 2018 and published in 2021, which identified the need for a pool in Skerries and Balbriggan, he says. “Now, we’re seeing a study on Castleland. Nowhere else. So they are really going to hone in on Castlelands.”
It’s no longer a question of whether a pool is needed, he says. But what type of pool. “And if they build the modular pool, happy days.”