Rejuvenating Ireland's Small Town Centres
Meeting The Challenge
A major new report by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland has said restrictions on out of town shopping centres and the provision of high-speed broadband are just two measures which need to be implemented urgently if the decline of the mains streets of our small towns is to be reversed.
The report also calls for the establishment of an Irish Towns Partnership - to provide local leadership and help fill the void left by the dissolution of town councils - as well as a proactive approach to restoring buildings to residential use and tackling the problem of vacant buildings.
The report, which is entitled ‘Rejuvenating Ireland’s small-town centres’ focuses on 200 towns with populations of between 1,500 and 10,000. It was published to coincide with the SCSI’s national conference which is taking place in Kilkenny today (Friday) and will be attended by over 200 Chartered Surveyors. According to the report the rapid growth of online retail sales and the increasing urbanisation of our population has been having a very negative impact on small towns for some time.
The author of the report, Chartered Surveyor and town planner Stephen Purcell from Future Analytics Consulting, said as a result many towns were ill-prepared for the economic crash when it hit home.
“Because businesses in small towns don’t have broadband they can’t compete with bigger companies and international brands online. The crash when it came pushed more people towards our main cities – or emigration – while the impact of out of town shopping centres exacerbated the challenges faced by businesses in small towns. In fact, many small towns are dealing with the legacy issues associated with these centres as they often put small local businesses out of business – leading to vacant buildings - before becoming vacant themselves due to lack of critical mass and their peripheral locations.”
The report notes that while Ireland’s population grew by 31% between 1996 and 2016, the growth was far from even. The population of Meath for example grew by 78%, Kildare by 65% and Laois by 60%. However, in Sligo, Mayo and Kerry the figure was 17%.
A similar pattern emerged when looking at unemployment figures. Between 2011 and 2016 unemployment fell by 51% in Millstreet in Cork, by 44% in Ballina in Tipperary and 43% in Newmarket-on-Fergus in Clare. However, it increased or fell marginally in several towns in counties like Mayo, Longford and Sligo.
In addition, this study quotes a report from Geodirectory, an affiliate of An Post, which found that 70% of settlements outside Dublin recorded an increase in commercial vacancy rates between 2013 and 2017.
The report highlights the urgent need to inject more residential use back into our high streets to help breathe new life into them. Purcell said that planning and building regulations are important features of change of use applications. “However, in many cases the financials don’t stack up as bringing these properties back to use can be prohibitively expensive. The ‘Repair and Lease scheme’ which provides grant aid to those looking to renovate properties is not delivering a positive outcome and this needs to be addressed.”
‘The Perfect Storm’
Purcell says changes in consumer behaviour, specifically a move towards ‘experiential’ shopping, a vacuum in local government and increased costs for businesses have helped create ‘the perfect storm’ for regional businesses.
“Consumers now spend less on goods and more on experiences such as food, beverages and services. As a result, attractive, vibrant, accessible locations draw visitors, while narrow main streets with lots of traffic and outdated or vacant buildings, deter them.
“Unfortunately, the ability of local authorities to influence the direction of development and the fortunes of their own towns has been dramatically reduced since town councils were dissolved in 2014. As a result, decision making has become centralised or removed from where it is required. Lack of funding has also led to a loss of essential local authority staff such as Town/Municipal architects meaning there is no ‘champion’ to advise on local development.”
“Excessive and inflexible rates valuations, increased insurance costs and additional costs such as bank levies, water charges and other regulatory compliance measures have all contributed towards lower margins for businesses” Purcell said.
Almost 600,000 people or 13% of the population live in towns of between 1,500 and 10,000 residents. The SCSI says the report is a call to action for central, local government and the private sector to come together to rejuvenate the heart of our rural communities.
The report includes case studies from towns such as Westport, Clonakilty and Naas where collaborative efforts involving all stakeholders have delivered successful outcomes for the local community.
Purcell says it’s time for fresh initiatives from local authorities to facilitate community empowerment and collaboration right across the country.
“A common theme that emerged throughout the compilation of this report was the importance of strong and visionary local authorities. While the dissolution of the town councils four years ago removed truly local decision making from the hands of individual towns, more powers were provided to local authorities. Therefore, it is the local authority which must drive forward the rejuvenation efforts in towns within their boundaries.”
“We’d like to see restrictions on large scale retail centres which compete with rather than complement small town centres and the establishment of an Irish Towns Partnership to enable the sharing of best practice, innovation and mentoring from one town to another. Strategies must also be commissioned to create attractive high streets while government can help address the issue of vacant properties by considering the introduction of a Land Value Tax (LVT).
“There should also be recognition of the changing commercial landscape and incentives put in place to attract new high street businesses. There has been a lot of coverage in the media recently about problems with the roll-out of the National Broadband Plan. For businesses in small towns, not having broadband is akin to operating with one hand tied behind their back. The delivery of high-quality broadband connections is fundamentally important for high streets and the implementation and roll-out of the NBP must be prioritised by government” Purcell concluded.