How Portlaoise went from litter blackspot to cleanest town

‘Being bottom of the league was a huge incentive for us,’ say local activists

 Vincent Booth, secretary Tidy Towns, Mark Healy, Downtown Portlaoise, Gerry Browne, chairman Tidy Towns and Alison Browne, president Laois Chamber of Commerce at Fitzmaurice Place, Portlaoise.Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Vincent Booth, secretary Tidy Towns, Mark Healy, Downtown Portlaoise, Gerry Browne, chairman Tidy Towns and Alison Browne, president Laois Chamber of Commerce at Fitzmaurice Place, Portlaoise.Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Being rock bottom of the Irish Business Against Litter (IBAL) league 10 years ago was the incentive for a diverse range of business and community groups in Portlaoise to join forces to create a Town Team.

This week the Laois town topped the IBAL rankings which was based on a survey carried out by An Taisce which praised Portlaoise for “years of concerted effort and steady improvement”.

Husband and wife team Gerry and Alison Browne are the chairs respectively of the Portlaoise Tidy Town Committee and Laois Chamber of Commerce, they are also members of the Town Team.

The dismal ranking 10 years ago was the main driver for getting all the organisations and community groups working together, says Alison Browne. “Being bottom of the league was a huge incentive for us, because we believe Portlaoise is the reception desk for the rest of the county. It was the main driver for getting all communities working together to start building a community spirit that I don’t believe was there before.

“It definitely was the catalyst to get us where we are today.”

Another Town Team member, Mark Healy said that in the 13 years since the Downtown Traders Association was set up there have been great efforts to revive the town centre and “to create an environment that supported the businesses in the town and to make it more appealing to passersby, to new businesses looking to set up.

“The presentation of the town was a huge part of attracting people to the town, Portlaoise Tidy Towns have been very active in that and Downtown Portlaoise, the Chamber and Laois Co Council have given every support they can over the last 10 years to support the town,” he adds.

Alison Browne points out that sometimes it is the simplest of measures that work the best. Every local business is encouraged to clean outside their own shopfront. “That could be a couple of times a day, you could just clean it and someone would drop litter again — so it’s the community that is staying on top of litter 24/7.”

“From our point of view it’s having a scheme in place to keep the town tidy and the business community mixes in with the Tidy Towns and everyone cleans outside their own shopfront.

“I also think building the relationship with the Council has been fantastic. In the olden days Tidy Towns and traders used to fight with the Council, but our groups don’t see it that way, we feel working together through the fantastic Town Team has been hugely successful because somebody from every group is on the town team so there’s joined up thinking and we feel that has been a vital lifeline for Portlaoise and has benefitted Tidy Towns groups across Laois who are growing in strength.

“We feel that having a clean town is going to entice, grow and attract businesses into Portlaoise and Laois. Now is the time because we’ve shown that we’re a great community working together. Also we’re a very diverse and inclusive society, we’ve more nationalities here in Laois than anywhere else in Ireland. We’re very welcoming as a county.”

Mark Healy explains that the Town Team has been very active in bringing the diverse groups together. “It contains representatives from Laois Co Council - officials and elected members, members of Downtown Portlaoise, Laois Chamber of Commerce, Laois Tidy Towns, Age Action, arts and heritage groups. It’s an actual team that meets frequently and then the work is broken down into segments — there might be a marketing committee, town development committee, an arts committee — everybody pulls together to focus on individual areas.”

All the members of the Town Team pay tribute to two deceased local representatives Kathleen O’Brien and Jerry Lodge, who were the original founders. “They set it up, they were the driving force — they put in a huge body of work, it’s a credit and a tribute to them.”

Laois County Manager John Mulholland is also praised for his support which the Team says enables them to focus on the voluntary aspect of the project.

“Instead of going to the council and giving out, now it’s everyone working together,” says Alison Browne.

“It really feels like everybody is working together now, and everybody knows what each committee is doing so there’s no ‘us and them’, it’s really just us throughout the town. That’s a very pleasant change and move we’ve noticed,” adds Healy.

Ms Browne also feels that the pandemic has had an impact as it led people to focus on what was important in the community. “It’s one of the few ups from Covid.” There is a social aspect, with volunteers going for coffee after their shift which is good for wellbeing, she says.

For Tidy Towns chairman Gerry Browne learning that Portlaoise was bottom of the IBAL league 10 years ago led him to join the local Tidy Town committee. “Hearing that was like a kick in the stomach and that energised me. It was a case of either do something about it or not, so I decided I would do something about it.”

Finding volunteers has not always been easy, he admits, but his philosophy is not to ask people but to encourage them. “To ask somebody to go out and pick up someone else’s rubbish — it takes a special kind of person to do that. I think we’re dead lucky with the people who have come forward, people come to us, we’ve learned that you don’t ask somebody to volunteer, if they come to you they come for their own reasons, they want to do it.

“There’s no point in trying to get somebody to do it. We’re so lucky with the volunteers we have. I think we’ve had a great crew for a good few years, even before Covid, it’s only through Covid that we realise how committed they actually were. Even during Covid, we would go out and do our litter picks (socially distanced), on Wednesday and Saturday, they kept the whole thing going.”

Tidy Towns Portlaoise secretary Vincent Booth who works for the HSE in the area of mental health tells of the importance of the work to the people with whom he works. “We have had some of the lads out on occasion. To feel part of the community is immense for them.

It’s great to involve people who may be on the fringes, we’re open to all people, we’re non discriminatory – that’s the good thing about Tidy Towns, it’s open to everybody of every background.”

Gerry Browne adds: “We’re part of the restorative justice programme as well - we get people from the courts that help us which is of great benefit to them and to us. Generally it’s a positive thing.”

The Tidy Town group also works closely with local schools which they say pays great dividends.

There are also biodiversity plans for the town. “Great things are going to happen,” says Booth.

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