Last week I ran a consultation with primary schools from across Cork South-West on the draft county development plan. Of the 35 schools participating, two thirds identified the need for safe crossings near their school and nine out of ten wanted cycle paths.
When young people live close enough, they want to be able to walk or cycle to school, to go in with their friends and have a sense of independence. This also brings many health and environmental benefits. However, to make this possible, we need proper infrastructure that can ensure the safety of children. This is severely lacking in so many places across west Cork and rural Ireland. Belgooly needs investment to safely connect the school and village, and Ballyheda and Dunderrow national schools are just two examples of many that need traffic calming measures.
While this is a matter for many communities, my question today relates to Kealkill near Bantry. Getting to school there involves crossing the main street in the village which is also the primary route between Beara, Bantry and Sheep’s Head to Cork city. There are many lorries coming through from Castletownbere and last week community members showed me and my colleague, Councillor Ross O’Connell, where the children have to cross. There are literally no traffic calming measures, no footpaths or pedestrian crossings and no legible road markings. There is absolutely nothing. Furthermore, as with many towns and villages, traffic goes through dangerously fast which increases the risk for the 190 pupils in the school in Kealkill. This is incredibly dangerous.
While all schools need and should have proper infrastructure, Kealkill is an outlier that requires immediate intervention to have a safe crossing and footpaths in place for September. We will be pursuing this matter at council level but given the immediacy of the need, I ask the Minister to ensure a safe route to school is provided to the children of Kealkill. It is a small but vibrant community that is trying to retain its population and ensure economic viability. Local groups have done incredible work in developing facilities and a parkland and they have highlighted the pressing need for a safe crossing to school as a priority.
The Minister will no doubt outline the safe routes to school initiative which specifically funds footpath upgrades and new cycle lanes to encourage more active travel to school. I can assure him that Kealkill is in desperate need of this type of investment and would greatly benefit from the programme. Last year, Belgooly primary school, which also needs support in safely connecting the village and school, showed me the significant difference that simple interventions such as bollards can make to empower children to walk and cycle to school, while in Skibbereen there is a successful cycle bus which can act as an example for other towns. We all want this type of activity and infrastructure for as many primary and secondary schools as possible.
In talking with primary school classes, over one third felt that although they were close enough to walk or cycle to schools, they did not do so because it was not safe. We need to work to bring that number down. Kealkill is one school where we can make a substantial difference. I know there are lots of areas that need these kinds of works but Kealkill is in a league of its own in terms of the risk to people’s safety. I urge the Minister to act to help put proper infrastructure in place and have it ready for students in September.