The annual Tidy Towns contest, which has run for more than 60 years, is threatened with being “lost forever” if the Covid-19 pandemic forces the competition’s cancellation for the second year in a row, it has been warned.
Casting doubt on the nationwide competition resuming next year, Minister for Community Heather Humphreys said a go-ahead will depend on the public health risks existing in the first three months of 2021.
More than 800 local Tidy Towns committees and their volunteers were left dismayed when the contest was cancelled in April this year during the first lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19.
The competition, which has been running since 1958, encourages communities to work together to improve their local environment. It was launched by the tourist board, then Bord Fáilte, but was later taken over by the government.
Ms Humphreys said her department will be “monitoring the situation on an ongoing basis and a decision on the competition, with any necessary precautions in place, will be made early in 2021”.
But Seán Sherlock, Labour's community spokesman, insisted there was "no conceivable reason" for the contest not to take place next year, and urged the Government to give it the go-ahead immediately to ensure it survives.
“If ever there was a time to facilitate the continuance of the work of the Tidy Towns committees, it is now,” he said.
“It is very easy to adhere to protocols and there should be no delay to the competition proceeding next year. It does not require close proximity between people and it gives people a little bit of hope and optimism in such a dark and uncertain time.”
Given the profile of volunteers – many of whom are older or retired – there is a real danger that a loss of momentum through activities being stalled for more than a year, “could mean that voluntary effort being lost forever,” said Mr Sherlock.
“There is no guarantee the same people will come back in subsequent years. We need to keep volunteers together, because the very future of the Tidy Towns competition depends on it proceeding over the next 12 months and beyond.”
Any move to further delay the return on the competition would also takes it toll on mental health and social solidarity in countless communities, according to the Cork East TD.
“We can’t allow communities that have taken a massive hit already to be diminished further,” he said.
“The impact of the potential loss of this activity would be to the detriment of these communities and there is no conceivable reason why the competition couldn’t be allowed to proceed, if only to send a signal to communities that there is still that social solidarity.
“If we lose that now, one is always fearful that the community effort may not come back as strong, or it could be lost forever. That would be my fear.”
Mr Sherlock called on Ms Humphreys to send a “clear signal from Government now, particularly in the midst of the negativity that exists at present, that people can drive on with the TidyTowns effort.”
“It is a great way of bringing people together appropriately to battle against the lockdowns that are happening, allowing people to get out of their houses and give them some sort of hope and knit people together in outdoor settings in all weathers, and stave off loneliness and isolation,” he added.
“It might also encourage more people to get involved, giving them a social interaction, and allowing them to connect to other people and contribute positively to their community.”
Ray Kelly, interim managing director of long-standing TidyTowns sponsor SuperValu, said the supermarket chain "remains committed to the competition".
“SuperValu will continue to support the Tidy Towns competition, and we look forward to celebrating the achievements of Tidy Towns volunteers across generations when it is safe to do so again,” he added.