Proposed Docklands Water Rafting Facility in Choppy Waters

Image courtesy of Dublin City Council

Peter McNamara

The proposed white-water rafting facility in Dublin’s docklands has had to wade against much public acrimony since the project was first mooted in 2019. Now, faced with another funding set-back, the tide may be turning even further against it. 
Dublin City Council is currently gauging expressions of interest for the construction of a €22.8 million ‘flagshipʼ rafting facility planned for the Custom House Dock, which has been strongly criticised for being developed in the midst of a housing and homelessness crisis. 
The project, which has been delayed last year because of the pandemic, will include a white-water rafting course, swift-water rescue training facility and a kayaking and canoe polo pool area at Georgeʼs Dock on the River Liffey. The Dock – which previously hosted events like Oktoberfest and Christmas markets – at the IFSC area in the centre of Dublin. The centre is expected to take between 18 months to two years to complete. 
The white-water course is designed for use as a tourist attraction and by sports clubs but will also be made available to Dublin Fire Brigade and other emergency services as a training resource. If built, it is expected to draw thousands of visitors on an annual basis. 
In December 2019, councillors voted 37 to 19 (with 3 abstaining) to approve the plans. Later that month, they voted on a motion to rescind the decision, but a majority rejected that move. As new funding issues loom, the future of the centre is far from certain. 

What is Proposed and Who is it for?
The white-water course is designed for use as a tourist attraction and by sports clubs but will also be made available to Dublin Fire Brigade and other emergency services as a training resource. The plans consist of an inner reservoir of water surrounded by the white-water rafting course. Cafes already located along the CHQ building will overlook the attraction. The dock, which runs adjacent to EPIC, The Irish Immigration Museum, has been lying unused in recent years. It was previously used to host Christmas markets and Spiegeltent concerts in addition to the annual Oktoberfest. 
Dublin Fire Brigade (DFB) has supported the plans from the outset, and said this type of facility has proved to be invaluable for other emergency services around the world, including emergency services in parts of the UK and in New York. 
Speaking to council members, Greg O’Dwyer, Senior Officer at DFB reiterated the benefits of the facility to emergency services nationwide. “Two things we need for training, and two of our biggest concerns, are water quality and water quantity. Water quality is a health and safety issue and we have had a number of people taking ill on courses so we have to stop using the upper Liffey area,” he said. 
“This facility will give us two big advantages. Once the quality of the water will be guaranteed for our members, they won’t be getting ill from training… we will also have the required amount of water we need and when we need it.” 
According to Dublin City Council, the urban flooding streetscape will be the most unique feature of the facility as it will be a very realistic and probably the only practical way to simulate a sense of what a flooded street with fast moving water looks and feels like, but achieving it in a safe and controlled manner. 
Kayaking and canoe clubs weighed in during the public consultation stage of the planning process with many saying this type resource is unheard of in Ireland at present leaving many clubs travelling to facilities abroad. 
David Henry, of the Silver Bridge Kayak Club said: “I am a recreational kayaker and in the past have had to travel to Britain to avail of similar facilities in preparation for expeditions further afield. Such a scheme would be invaluable for local and national recreational water-sport users, youth clubs, scouting, kayak clubs, and most importantly, our athletes who regularly travel to Europe to train for international events,” he added. 

Rising Costs: From a Trickle to a Flood
If the project secures sufficient funding, private construction companies will be invited to submit bids for the contract – at present the Council is seeking expressions of interest from six companies. The price tag has already gone from an estimated €12 million to an estimated €25 million. 
Owen Keegan, CEO of Dublin City Council, has said that the plans could come back to councillors again for another vote if the costs increase more. “If the cost is higher than we indicated in the capital programme, we will bring it back.” Another vote would see councillors voting for a third time on the project. 
The council’s past plan was to pay for the estimated €21.9 million cost of the project with €5.9 million in development levies, €4 million in borrowing, €4 million from the capital reserve, and €8 million in grants. The Capital Programme 2020–2022 states that, to date no grant aid has been approved for this project. 
The rise in the cost of the project, originally costed at €12 million, has sparked renewed concern about its viability. According to, Derek Kelly, Docklands Area Manager, explained that the initial figure cited earlier this year “excluded the design team fee, cost of developing two new buildings, and VAT.”
“I’m happy that as we stand the figure is robust… we’re working on €22.8 million all in, including design fees,” Kelly said. The current costing includes these omissions as well as the cost of developing a water treatment plant which was not part of the plans originally. Kelly said a minimum of 36,000 visitors per year is expected to attend and the facility will become profitable in the second year of operation.

“A Grotesque Vanity Project”
Coming in the midst of an ever deepening housing and homelessness crisis in Ireland’s capital city, there has been severe criticism of the proposal. Former Fine Gael TD Noel Rock has described the project as an “expensive gimmick”. Sinn Féin Councillor Janice Boylan said there are “serious questions raised by locals” about the project. The fiercest criticism has come from Senator Michael McDowell. 
In a statement this January, McDowell, the former leader of the Progressive Democrats, who served as Tánaiste and Minister for Justice in the 2000s, said the facility “is a political obscenity in the context of the calamitous failure of the Council to address the crisis of housing shortage for many years.” 
He claimed this is not an idea that came from councillors, but from the executive of Dublin City Council itself. “This is a project which is vanity-driven and at the peculiar interest of some people in the executive of Dublin City Council.”
In his statement, McDowell called the justification of Fire Brigade training a “threadbare excuse”, and then called on the Government and the Housing Minister Darragh OʼBrien to withdraw the tender process and to indicate that there will be no funding to the council as long as the tender project is proceeding. “More than €1 million has already been wasted… shame on the craven councillors who have not stopped the process months ago.” 
Speaking to Newstalk later in January, the Senator insisted the council should focus on its primary duty of housing. 
“I think Dublin City Council has lost its way completely – one of its primary functions is to address the housing crisis. Under the Housing Act, as a housing authority, it has a direct responsibility to provide homes, social housing and to make available and to re-organise the planning of the city so there is actual housing available… Instead of that, they are engaging in a tendering process for a project, which is peripheral to their function.” 
Senator McDowell said he is not against development, but this is not the time. “I’ve no problem with the development of the Docklands area, I’m just saying that Dublin City Council should not waste between €25m and €30m on this project at this time when it is failing miserably to do it’s primary function – which is to look after the people who are looking for homes in Dublin.”
“It’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of money – Dubliners will not pay €50 per head to participate in it, and it’s about time it was called out for what it is.”

“Dublin Needs Ideas”
On the other hand, councillor Christy Burke described the current state of George’s Dock as “the ugliest site” and expressing hope that the new facility will bring the area to life. “It reminds you of a huge open grave that’s just left there. So I welcome this with open arms,” he told 
Writing in the Sunday Business Post, Dermot Lacey, a former Lord Mayor of Dublin and member of the Dublin Docklands Development Council, has given the project his full support. Lacey, the leader of the Labour group on Dublin City Council believes the city needs big ideas like this which will generate jobs and economic activity. 
He said he was “proud to have voted for it and I look forward to it opening.” Lacey believes that Dublin needs people with imagination, creativity, bravery and hope to bring forward those ideas without fear of instant attack and condemnation and to help create the sort of vibrant, living city that the capital could be. 
The Labour councillor cited parallels between these latest proposals, and those regarding the Dublin Docklands Development Authority in the late 1990s. “Sitting in a makeshift office in the middle of dereliction we collectively envisaged a bright future for this then significantly deprived and disadvantaged part of Dublin. We were told to let our ideas flow and we did.”
In that instance, new offices, parks, community facilities, hotels, a theatre and thousands of new homes were envisioned – there was even discussion of building a new third-level college.
“Many thought [our] ideas could never be delivered. In most cases they were, and today the Docklands is a totally different place.”
Councillor Lacey sees the white-water facility as “the latest in that line of big ideas”. Addressing criticisms that the centre will hardly be used, he points to the ever-popular Dublin Zoo and the National Aquatic Centre. In response to those who cite the housing crisis as a reason to halt the project and re-direct funds, Lacey notes that the funding that the council is attempting to secure for the facility is already ring-fenced for sports and tourism projects and as such is not available for housing and homelessness interventions. 
Putting the centre’s current €25 million price tag into context, the former Lord Mayor cites the nearly €3 billion of private investment has been made in the Docklands, and the €65 million collected in local property tax in the Dublin City Council area last year. Commercial rates now collected in the rejuvenated Docklands area amount to well over €60 million per annum and development levies to be collected are expected to exceed €50 million. 
Difficult Waters Ahead
Given the optics of opening a high-end recreational facility during a time of widespread privation in Dublin, it’s no surprise that the rafting facility proposal has become an emotive issue. Added to this the increasingly precarious nature of international tourism – not just due to the as-yet unresolved pandemic, but also due to climate change concerns regarding air travel – this project is easy to disregard as out of step, and more subtle arguments are being shouted down. 
It has also emerged that, according to Independent Councillor Anthony Flynn, councillors were misled on the amount of money spent on training Dublin Fire Brigade at special facilities abroad. To induce them to vote in support of the project, the council was advised of high annual training costs that could be saved had DFB the use of a facility in Ireland. On inquiry by Flynn, it emerged that the Dublin Fire and Ambulance Swift Water Training unit had no such expenses in the period 2015-2019.
Such confusion will only deepen the division around this issue. As final costs are estimated, one thing is certain: the rafting facility faces choppy waters ahead.