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

Our population grew by 31 per cent over two decades, but the growth was far from even

Gort Square, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

Gort Square, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

 

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.

In late 2018, Future Analytics co-ordinated a research project on behalf of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland. Its brief was to explore Ireland’s regional town centres, focusing on the 200 or so settlements with a population of 1,500-10,000. These account for 13 per cent of the population, or 600,000 people.

Trends influencing the high street were identified, as were barriers to vibrant regional centres and the factors animating these centres. Practical recommendations and policy suggestions for revitalising these towns were included in the final report.

Population

The stark problem for our towns and villages is really quite simple – they need people, a resident, working and visiting population. For any such community to survive and thrive, it needs local services and facilities, the basic social infrastructure for a sustainable settlement, proportional to the population.

Footfall equals custom, and can make or break the viability of a local business such as a butcher or independent retailer.

There is a global trend towards more people choosing to live in larger urban settlements. In Ireland, almost two thirds of us now live in urban areas, according to the 2016 census.

Ireland’s population grew by 31 per cent between 1996 and 2016, but the growth was far from even. The population of Meath grew by 78 per cent, Kildare by 65 per cent and Laois by 60 per cent. However, in Sligo, Mayo and Kerry the growth was about 17 per cent.

Irish planning policy includes a focus on “compact urban growth” in our larger towns and city regions, but we have also witnessed a proliferation of one-off housing in the countryside, culminating in the “doughnut effect” or hollowing out of our town and village centres.

John O’Connor, chief executive of the State’s Housing Agency, recently called for stronger planning controls on single dwellings in the countryside, and concerted action to encourage the use of vacant buildings and undeveloped plots in town and village centres.

How do we retain the educated talent of young people from a town or village, who typically go off to third level but do not return to settle locally? If we can stem the dispersed pattern of rural living, we can renew a population base that makes our towns attractive places that can sustain businesses. If our towns and villages can be repopulated, it greatly enhances the prospects of delivering on a core facet of the 2017 Rural Potential Action Plan.

Commercial viability

The traditional model of the functioning rural town or village saw a locally-owned department store draw the community to visit the town centre. This gave smaller businesses a viable customer base through passing footfall. Social infrastructure – banks, post offices, medical care, community facilities – were actively used and accessible to all.

However, we now have well over 200 shopping centres throughout the country.

In many instances, these have been located on the edge of towns or in out-of-town locations. Typically, these are professionally managed and modern buildings, benefiting from co-ordinated marketing budgets and expansive surface car parking – often free. Meanwhile, in the town or village centre, independent retailers struggle to survive on narrow streets with limited car parking – often with charges.

Many of the shops and businesses that have managed to survive in town and village centres remain at the pin of their collar owing to excessive and inflexible local authority rates valuations, increasing insurance costs, and landlords unwilling to negotiate realistic rents.

It is time for a serious conversation about the merits of a land value tax to replace the contentious property tax. Widely seen as a more equitable means of reducing land hoarding, a land value tax would apply to all land, but would be based on a proportion of the current rental value, so that more rural locations would not suffer from excessive costs.

Investing in infrastructure

Despite the Government’s recent announcement of its ambitions for national broadband coverage, it is embarrassing that businesses in small towns do not have broadband and so are unable to compete online with bigger companies and international brands. The absence of quality broadband greatly disadvantages our towns and villages in attracting businesses.

The delivery of high-quality broadband connections is fundamental for high streets and the roll-out of the National Broadband Plan must be prioritised by Government.

Governance

The importance of strong and visionary local authorities cannot be underestimated. As the guardians for the proper planning and sustainable development of our settlements, the dissolution of the town councils through local government reforms removed truly local decision-making from individual towns.

There is no sense of local government abdicating on their responsibilities, but there is a limit to the resources and finances available to the local authority.

Communities must show leadership, and community champions must be supported, such as through the Town Teams model, to have a credible influence on the future of their town or village.

Stephen M Purcell is co-owner of Future Analytics Consulting and lead author of the SCSI report Rejuvenating Ireland’s Small Town Centres.

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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