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Will Dublin City Council's white-water rafting plan leave us up the creek without a paddle?

Explainer: Why is Dublin City Council (DCC) coming under pressure to justify or scrap one of its most spectacular projects?

The proposed White-Water Centre at George's Dock in Dublin

The white water rafting facility proposed for the Dublin Docklands.

Andrew Lynch

Why is Dublin City Council (DCC) coming under pressure to justify or scrap one of its most spectacular projects?

Because some Dubliners fear a city centre white-water rafting facility would be an expensive white elephant.

Last week, DCC issued contract tenders for the development in George's Dock, seeking expressions of interest from builders who could do the job.

Since then, the council's plan has been slammed by senator and former tánaiste and justice minister Michael McDowell, who called it "a political obscenity" and "a grotesque vanity project".

With nagging doubts over how the estimated price tag of €25m will be funded, it's still far from clear whether the idea's backers are waving or drowning.

First of all, what exactly is white-water rafting ?

Basically, it's an outdoor extreme sport that involves using an inflatable boat to navigate through turbulent water. It appeals to thrill-seekers and is usually performed by a team.

As anyone who has seen the 1994 Hollywood movie The River Wild starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon knows, white-water rafting can be highly dangerous without an experienced guide.

What would the Dublin facility look like?

George's Dock is currently lying empty, apart from the occasional Oktoberfest celebration or Christmas market.

DCC's plan is to transform this 100 metres by 70 metres basin into a mechanically operated water area with a central pool, providing all the excitement of rafting in a safe environment.

The white water rafting facility proposed for the Dublin Docklands.

If all goes according to schedule - and that's a really big if - construction will begin in the autumn and the facility will be open in early 2023.

Who's expected to use it?

First and foremost, paying customers. Under the proposed price structure, people would shell out €50 each to hire a raft carrying eight passengers.

With the facility predicted to attract 36,000 visitors a year, it should in theory start making a profit by 2024.

DCC also promises that its new design will serve as a canoeing centre, water polo venue and tourist attraction.

Most importantly, it could be a useful place for Dublin Fire Brigade and other emergency services to carry out training exercises.

The plans include a "flood- able urban street" and "mock rescue village" for that very purpose.

How long has it been in the works?

Inspired by a similar facility in Cardiff, the scheme was first put forward by assistant chief executive Richard Shakespeare after he joined DCC four years ago.

Council officials worked hard to convince councillors of its merits and their campaign was successful.

In December 2019, the project won formal approval by a vote of 37 to 19.

Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin councillors were nearly unanimously in favour.

The main opposition came from the Green Party, with current Lord Mayor Hazel Chu rejecting it because she thought the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Speaking of money, where's it going to come from?

This is where the water gets murky. The original budget was €12m, but by the time councillors voted, it had rocketed to €22.8m.

Council officials explained this by saying the design had expanded to include a water treatment plant, flood defences and two new buildings.

According to DCC in 2019, the funding would be made up of €13m from government grants, €4.9m from development levies and €4m from capital reserves.

Since then, however, it has emerged that the Depart- ment of Transport, Tourism and Sport actually refused a €6.6m grant application early last year.

Not only that, DCC also offered to drop claims that it was owed around €12m by the Department of Housing over the wind-up of the Dublin Docklands Authority (DDA) "in return for grant assistance".

This has not happened yet. Meanwhile, last week's contract tenders suggest the budget has crept up again - to €25m.

Does all this uncertainty explain why there's now a backlash against it?

Yes, not least because Dublin has such a serious housing crisis.

Michael McDowell has become DCC's loudest political opponent, claiming it has "lost its way completely" and should concentrate on "the day job".

"I've no problem with the development of the docklands area," McDowell said on Monday.

"I'm just saying that DCC should not waste between €25m and €30m on this project at this time when it is failing miserably to do its primary function - look after the people who are looking for homes in Dublin."

Will McDowell's attack actually change anything?

That's not clear yet, but he certainly has some vocal supporters.

"Mother of God, how is this still proceeding?" the former Fine Gael TD Noel Rock tweeted last week.

Independent councillor Anthony Flynn has called DCC's tender "an absolute joke".

His fellow independent, Christy Burke, voted for white-water rafting in 2019 because he thought George's Dock was "the ugliest site" and compared it with "a huge open grave".

Now he feels its rising cost "cannot be accepted" and the development "just has to be rescinded".

Is DCC taking this lying down?

Not at all. Last weekend, DCC's docklands area manager Derek Kelly wrote to councillors, admitting that there has been some "especially hostile" commentary but also reminding them of the facility's benefits.

He stressed that the facility could play a key role in rejuvenating Dublin's north-east inner city.

The area, Mr Kelly said, "is still experiencing significant levels of deprivation, with certain groups lacking soft skills such as confidence, leadership, teamwork, self-esteem".

Finally, what does the white-water rafting controversy tell us about how Dublin is being run?

That depends which side you're on.

For critics, it shows up our lack of local democracy, with too many sheep-like councillors simply rubber-stamping decisions made by unelected officials.

For the project's supporters, it shows that politicians should stop interfering with the experts who actually understand proper planning.

Either way, the closing date for construction firms to express their interest is February 22 - and then we should know whether this grand design is destined to stay afloat.

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