The challenges facing rural Ireland’s needs centralised decision-making

Fixing rural Ireland is the task of many Government agencies, the responsibility of none

Henry Street in Kilrush, Co Clare. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Henry Street in Kilrush, Co Clare. Photograph: Eamon Ward

 

In a series of articles, The Irish Times explores five challenges facing rural Ireland – diversity and migrationpovertyrapid growthpost-recession recovery; and depopulation – and ways to overcome them.

Kilrush, Co Clare demonstrates many of the assets and challenges facing Ireland’s small towns. Its coastal geography and intact town core give Kilrush its unique character typified by three-storey terraces, a wide main street and Market House.

Kilrush is championed by a committed and ambitious community who want their town to thrive, yet the town struggles with many of the challenges that face other small towns: vacancy, vehicular predominance, changing patterns of shopping and movement, and lack of employment opportunities to retain population.

These challenges, when compounded, can give rise to a sense of frustration within towns that nobody is listening and nothing is happening.

In the Irish National Pavilion “Free Market” at the 2018 Biennale Architettura, a group of six architects and designers (JoAnne Butler, Jeffrey Bolhuis, Miriam Delaney, Tara Kennedy, Laurence Lord and Orla Murphy) came together to study and celebrate Irish towns. They placed particular emphasis in their exhibition on the market places at the heart of towns.

While the market places of our towns do not exist in isolation, they are a symptom and a product of the overall health and vitality of the town. The past 50 years have seen a decline in the function of these places of congregation, the car taking precedence over other considerations. The broader function of exchange – commercial, social and cultural exchange, which are central to the everyday workings and identity of towns – has been diminished in several ways.

Control and decision-making about towns falls between Government departments and agencies (Department of Rural and Community Development, Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, The Heritage Council, Teagasc, the OPW, etc) with no central body taking charge of policy, strategy, funding and research of our towns.

Navigating the enormous raft of mostly well-crafted and certainly well-intentioned policies that affect towns (from Ireland 2040 and the new Climate Action Plan 2019 at the national scale, down to local area plans, development plans and specific planning guidelines) is complex and frustrating.

The funding that follows policy is often annually delivered on a case-by-case basis, meaning that significant time and energy is spent tendering small projects, rather than coherently actioning bigger strategy. For those at the coal face, it often appears like nothing is happening on the ground.

Some towns see up to 50 per cent of the property in the centre of the towns vacant in the long term

Vacancy is a serious concern. In many town cores, it averages 20 per cent, and some towns see up to 50 per cent of the property in the centre of the towns vacant in the long term. This is not normal, and cannot be accepted as such.

A legacy of bad planning which accepted peripheral sprawl of housing and out-of-town supermarkets has caused increased car dependency, with attendant increase in surface car parking within towns, at the cost of quality public space.

So what needs to happen? The good news is that some great work is happening. For example, the Heritage Council’s Collaborative Town Centre Health Check process and the Irish Walled Towns Network, which promote informed, collaborative work to improve towns.

Compact urban settlement, which is at the core of Ireland 2040 and Climate Action Plan policy, will only happen in towns if we address vacancy. Adaptive re-use of empty buildings must be actively supported by local authorities. Vacant building tax is also needed to incentivise sale or re-use of long-term empty buildings. Priority must be given to new homes within town cores over peripheral sprawl.

Public buildings should be located within town centres and be accompanied by new public space. Public-realm plans need to be adopted and implemented, with car parking gradually decreased in favour of better public space, pedestrian connections and cycleways.

The cultural memory of living in towns is in danger of being lost, and with it the inherent sustainability of small town living.

Voluntary groups and town teams need to be supported to improve their towns, to consolidate community, develop economic resilience and adaptability to change.

We can also learn from experience in other countries. For example, Scotland’s Town Partnership is a model we might emulate, taking an engaged, multi-disciplinary approach to the research, promotion and urban design of towns.

One of the main aims of Free Market has been to spark conversation about towns, and their future, to listen to those who know their towns, to find out how they want them to evolve.

We look forward to these conversations in Castleblayney, Macroom, Mountmellick and Killmallock as part of the National Tour of Free Market between July and September 2019.

And, as a nation, we urgently need to consider the question: what are our towns for?

Miriam Delaney is a lecturer in the Dublin School of Architecture, TU Dublin. Orla Murphy is assistant professor in the School of Architecture Planning and Environmental Policy, UCD. See also freemarket.ie

Analysis

Fintan O’Toole: ‘Rural Ireland’ has been romanticised up to its neck

David McWilliams: We need to move public servants out of Dublin

Challenges facing rural Ireland’s needs centralised decision-making

Two-thirds of towns with 10,000 people are in Leinster

Immigration is as much a rural phenomenon as an urban one

The stark problem for Irish towns is simple: they need people

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