How to improve Ireland’s small towns? ‘Irish Times’ readers share their ideas
We asked readers how to reverse the decline of small towns. Here are your suggestions
Premises for sale in Kiltimagh, Co Mayo. File photograph: Alan Betson
A report published on Friday found that small towns in Ireland are suffering a long drawn-out decline and are in urgent need of attention. The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland (SCSI) said action was needed to ensure their survival and warned that factors such as increased costs, the legacy of out-of-town shopping centres, the dissolution of town councils and high vacancy rates have all contributed to a “perfect storm” for regional high streets.
The Irish Times asked its readers for their suggestions and views on what can be done to reverse this decline. We got a huge response to this.
Tom Hayes, Enniskeane, Co Cork
The biggest obstacle to the sustainable regeneration of rural towns and villages is the internationalisation of lifestyles and expectations. Irish people are not happy to be Irish anymore -- we aspire to be like New Yorkers, Sheiks and Los Angelenos! People shop with choice and comfort in mind and will less attention to the impact of our choices. Hence people drive to the suburban shopping centres without awareness of fuel consumption, pollution or impact on the local economy. A traditional tea and cake shop will not survive today unless it has the ability to offer 15 kinds of coffees and 15 kinds of teas and a cake menu that has 15 warnings on it about which ingredients you should not eat. We are driven by a need to have a drink that looks and tastes like no one else’s. And we prefer to have the coffee “in my own space”, be this walking around with a disposable but compostable cardboard container or sitting in a crowded space but staring into an anti-social i-device with apps called “social media”. People flee from the smaller villages and towns under an illusion: they have bought into a myth that urban and bigger are better. And once they leave, they experience an inordinate pressure to not betray the myth even if, like the Irish emigrants of the 1800s, they discover that they were much more content and happier at home. Rather than face back home and learn again to have a conversation with the person at the counter, they opt for intermittent escapes to foreign villas and country cottages designed to accommodate people whose dissonance may be eased by spending a week in a village without having any contact with its permanent residents. The first step in regeneration of towns and villages is an honest evaluation of the enduring quality of life for people who live in and make them sustainable. This also calls for openness to assessing the effects of the growth of suburban townships. We may not be at this open door yet.
In France, there is apparently a government scheme which provides farmers and pensioners with weekly vouchers to eat in their local eateries. If implemented here, it could go a long way to reversing the decline of rural Ireland. The main benefits of the initiative as I see it are outlined below.
• Existing local cafes, shops, restaurant bars and businesses will see an increased footfall as the farmers and pensioners use their weekly vouchers.
• New jobs will be generated as new eateries and businesses will open to get a piece of the increased footfall.
• Construction jobs will be created to build and refurbish buildings to accommodate the new eateries and businesses.
• As the towns and villages become vibrant again, young people will once again start building houses in the area, further increasing local employment.
• Providing vouchers so that people must visit eat-in eateries will go a long way towards tackling the social isolation that many farmers and pensioners suffer from in modern society.
• It will provide a regular social outlet to people who have lost this due to drink driving restrictions.
• The community will be better able to keep an eye on and support frail and vulnerable people.
• Young people will be able to gain employment locally, rather having to commute or move to the larger urban centres.
Rather than the annual token gesture each budget day of giving pensioners a minuscule increase in their pension, why not providing them with vouchers to eat in their local eateries? The vouchers could be posted to them monthly, or automatically loaded onto some sort of payment card, or their social security card, with restrictions that it could only be used for eat-in food within say 10 – 15 km of their Eircode, thereby keeping the money in the local economy.
I would like town planners to have a plan for each town to try and get a complete set of shops into each town and village. Each small town should have a newsagents, baker, butcher, vegetable shop, clothing shop, barber, hairdresser, and a gift shop and cafe. Each should support one another and have no rates and low rent for the initial one or two years to help them set up and establish in the community. Each town should have the same skeleton plan and locals should be encouraged and trained to take on these businesses, through local community boards and county council.
I would like to see all town centres rejuvenated. Add spaces to walk or sit. Have a community cafe at the heart of the town open some evenings too. Have transport to bring rural isolated people into the centre and have social events there. Go back to having a post office with a shop and coffee place all under one roof. Instead of empty shops turn some of these into residential and encourage people working in larger towns to live there. Bring back the pulsing heart of any community by providing a place to meet with others. Get empty buildings remained and encourage others to live in the community. Provide good links to main cities and towns. With rents so high in cities it’s a good time to look at alternatives.
One small step - directly elected mayors in every town. These would be resourced with training and expertise. I know of one small town in France that has been totally transformed by a dynamic and resourceful mayor. At the moment it seems no one is in charge of our little towns, they are being run by administrators and are slowly dying.
Infrastructure: re-open the railroads that were previously dug out as well as train stations in small towns. Longwood has less than five shops and you’ll have to take a 15 minute drive to get to the closest station… I find small towns have issues with isolation especially for the younger generation who don’t have access to their own vehicle, they can’t rely on their busy parents all the time to go over a few towns to see their friends.
I returned to my hometown, Wicklow when we had our second child. It’s a beautiful town with pretty streetscape, a river, lakes, mountain views, pebble beach & stunning headland. It has all the ingredients for a tourist destination but it’s not thriving. There was great hope when the local hotel was taken over recently but it’s now become a direct provision centre, despite there being other State-owned vacant property in the town (disused local hospital). The court closed but the court service has left the building empty. The town hall is empty after the town council was dissolved. All within doors of each other which badly affected cafes etc around them. A hotel in the Main Street is derelict & crumbling. I’d like to see State-owned property used as local resources – as art centres and to encourage start up businesses. I think owners of derelict buildings should be heavily fined to encourage them to sell them on or renovate them. There are a small number of people who own a lot of empty retail spaces. Rates are so high they strangle enterprise. I think certain businesses should be given discounted rents to encourage them while betting shops, off-licences and fast food should be limited. Multi-storey car parks could be built in facades of shop fronts on or near Main Street to encourage people to shop in town - no out of town shopping centres. I’d love to see IDA bring businesses to the town. No employer replaced VEHA or Celmac so if you.
Stop people building one off housing outside the towns. They are like out of town shopping centres. If you live in the town and walk to the shop you will nearly always walk to the nearest shop. If you live outside the down and taking the car, you will go where the parking is the easiest and may even drive past shops as it does not take much more effort to drive a bit further. Empty or derelict houses in town centres should be forced to sell to private individuals who will renovate, not allowed to sell on for another 10 years, grants or VAT back on refurbishment costs.
Firstly, I would dust off a map of the rural railway network that existed throughout Ireland in the first half of the last century and draft studies as to how lines could be reopened. State-subsidised, frequent and efficient transit would in the long term support rural Ireland by allowing people commute to centres of employment in a time and cost efficient manner. Secondly, I would study how people created businesses in rural Ireland such as Kerry Group, Glanbia, Kingspan, Fexco etc to understand what the ingredients and impediments to their respective successes and learn from this.
Limit the amount of fast food restaurant, bookies and charity shops that can open. Make businesses put up quality name plates, not horrible cheap plastic ones. Lower rates, online shopping is a big challenge to small town - help the small shops to compete and stay in business. Provide better parking facilities. Give incentives for business to paint their premises and keep their footpath clean and tidy.
More and better playgrounds for kids.
Dorian van Raat
Keep all the global fast food/coffee companies out...
Ask Clonakilty what they did. It was a reasonably miserable grey town in the 70s and now a buzzing place winter and summer.
Great broadband and Government incentives to work from home so people don’t commute. This would attract business and population out of Dublin. Make road tax and property tax local so towns can control how much the local investment and direct it towards excellent quality standards, more local hospitals, small high standard restaurants...mainly making all towns really 100% self sufficient and attractive for living. Else, Dublin will keep growing and getting more expensive, we need you guys!
Make 12.5% corporation Tax conditional on multi-nationals distributing employment in their companies into regional centres outside of Dublin, Cork & Galway and other measures to decentralise employment. This will also dramatically decrease the national Greenhouse Gas Budget in the runaway Transportation sector in decreasing nonsensical levels of worker commutes.
Why don’t we start a scheme to give older rural people the option to move into nearby towns from the surrounding countryside to live (shared living) in all the empty houses on our Main Streets.
Obviously, these houses will need to be adopted and modified to accommodate our senior citizens.
This scheme will have a triple benefit
1) brings older people closer to amenities - shops, post office and doctors etc. No need for cars, buses etc.
2) Frees up larger houses in the rural area vacated by those that opt for the scheme for young families to buy/rent.
3) Brings more people into town centres thus creating a community effect which will act as a antidote to the loneliness experienced by many of our senior citizens.
Boom! Think I’ll run for Minister me
Thomas Greenan Compulsory demolition of derelict buildings, it’s time we cleared up this country
Plain and simple...invest in transportation infrastructure. If you can’t attract young families / sustainable population growth then facilitating development becomes difficult because there’s no justification for investment. We’re letting Dublin and the GDA cannibalise the potential of these smaller towns as homes / destinations due in part to the difficulty of getting from Point A to Point B.
Some of the closed shops will never reopen - why not do them up and turn them into accommodation for families etc - people can walk to local shops/pubs/restaurants - surely this would be better than seeing neglected properties getting more and more dilapidated as time goes by.
I wonder if a few derelict town houses were set aside for families at a much reduced price (and or a grant available to help rebuild into a family home) to encourage families to live in the town once more. Bring life back with youngsters. Then plan shops and businesses around them.
Clare Brophy Art
This makes me laugh! They should have asked these questions 25 years ago, the death of small towns started with large supermarkets and superstores on their fringes, selling cheaper than any independent family owned shop could even buy the goods. They can cry now towns are dead! I say turn these closed-down shops into houses...give grants to people to paint them up. Broadband internet access is critical for any small town.
Abolish county councils and set up district authorities around every major town. Allow them to set, raise and lower their own land value property taxes that would be on every inch of land in the state. Allow them to run state-of-the-art primary care centres, care doc, fire, ambulance, street lights, district roads, schools nursing homes and hospitals if there is a hospital in the district. They should also provide home help. They should also be responsible for planning.
Andrew Hind, Durham, UK
Prior to retirement, I was Senior Planner to Cork County Council and served as President of the Irish Planning Institute from 2007 - 2009. My suggestions include: Zero VAT on refurbishment of older town centre residential/ small retail properties. Relief from commercial rates on (smaller) town centre retail properties. Supplementary rates on non town centre retail/office properties where car parking provided on site. Funds raised to be ringfenced for town centre enhancement schemes including improved provision of public car parking. Double VAT on on-line transactions. Ring fence funds for TC improvements as above. National programme of town centre environmental improvements so that town centres compete with shopping centres in terms of environmental quality and safety and ease of parking.
I live in Kiltimagh and have had a pub for over 30years. The town is dying slowly, but surely. Everything is against small businesses.
Margaret Moran Co Dublin
Create retirement hubs with a mix of city people wishing to downsize to a less frenetic locality with support services employing local people. Ground floor properties upgraded to provide ease of access for less physically able and upper storeys for the more able.
Lorraine Fogarty, Spain
I used to live in a town in Tipperary. It appears that if you have a strong politician in your area your town will do well. Your local politician should be actively working to make your area better for the people who live there. If they aren’t doing this then they need a mixture of pressure and help to start doing their job properly, or they need to be replaced . . . Work together to show everyone what your community can do when you work together. Use everyone who’s willing. Use your nursing home, schools, playground, tidy towns, doctors clinic, history, etc.
Philip McGovern, Co Donegal
I believe a community hub, funded and run by the community will bring more life into villages and small town centres. The buildings could be used: for just a place for people to meet up; have tea/coffee; read from donated books; have meetings for local clubs/societies; space for yoga classes etc. The spaces should be bright, well kept and warm.
They could be used for all age groups from the elderly for tea evenings to the young for a place to meet. They should have internet facilities and working spaces with access to printing or faxing. In my local town there are older, beautiful buildings falling into disrepair that would benefit from being used and brought back to life.
I see the decimation of many Irish towns. Beautiful buildings left to rot. It has a huge impact on the psyche of the communities. Property owners must be forced to repair, rent or sell and if not pay high penalties. Young, small, indigenous businesses should be given incentives like tax breaks, lower rates when they can be proven to have invested in the area or have created jobs. Proper policy and give the communities the tools to do it for themselves! I’ve just realised I have asked for something that is supposed to be already in place...but it’s not happening...how depressing!!
Derry Mescal, Co Dublin
I watched the 6 O’Clock News on Friday 30th of November and one news item was the depopulation of towns. The news item featured Castledermot but also had pictures of derelict and boarded up shop fronts showing how derelict some of the towns have become. When towns fight back it seems to be the SMEs that band together create niche for arts, crafts and food. But what sticks out is depopulation, with a steady move by the rural population moving to Dublin. The response needs to be bold and imaginative.
Where you have entire streets boarded up the depopulation speaks for itself. So why not give local authorities or co-operatives funding to buy up these traditional shops? They could be transformed by funding.
During the good times our Government took taxes happily from hard working businesses yet rural Ireland is still not on par with rural Europe for infrastructure. Now if you look at Government spending in the regions it is often profitable companies getting large capital grants. Take the Government out of the equation. How about leaving rural Ireland untaxed or taxed at a lower rate so it can mend itself?
Improve broadband and public transport give reduction in rates for shops starting up and business units as well encouraging people to live in small towns.
Fionnbharr Rodgers, Co Down
Restore the railway network to how it was in 1920, when you were never more than six miles away from a station.
Sandra T, Co Dublin
Reduce the tax for shoppers ... reduce tax for business owners...abolish council rates...then you have happy business owners...happy shoppers...simple.
Selma Fleetwood, Co Dublin
One of the great factors for the development of small towns is partnerships between authorities and local community around tourism, for example hand crafts, local food, historical facts, monuments, farms with rural tourism development among others.
Kelly Sheanon, Co Galway
Council rents are too high. There should be tax relief for businesses when they start up for the first couple of years. Support for local businesses who manufacture natural cultural products. High-speed broadband to every part of Ireland. Funding to paint and repair local streets every few years to make local towns attractive and prevent them falling into disrepair. No stamp duty for remote areas. Tax relief/grant to repair old houses to original form.
I think remote worker hubs would be great. Companies are spending a lot of money putting people into expensive city centre offices, and a smaller, shared-services centre in a smaller town would give people s good place to work with great broadband near to coffee shops and restaurants in small towns.
Fiona Farrell Ryan, Co Laois
Abolish all business rates for a minimum of ten years for towns with a population below a certain threshold. Get rid of paid parking in smaller towns. It’s driving people off the Main Street and into the likes of Aldi and Lidl which are usually away from the main street. Stop allowing the main streets to be controlled by a small number of business. In my town most shops on the main street are owned by four families and they are able to block planning applications by other businesses.
Two major retailers were refused planning permission in our town due to objections from local small businesses. Stop focusing on creating all new business in the capital and in the main town of the county. If people live and work in the same town they will also shop in their own town. When people are gone 12 hours every day between commuting and working, they aren’t shopping locally. There is more to Ireland than the m50. Create things for people to do. When I was growing up we had a cinema, now my teens go by train to go to the cinema, open cinemas, bowling ally’s, night cafes safe places for people to go.
Let people who are self employed pay a stamp so they can have the same social welfare and pension rights as an employed person. Put a cap on insurance or provide a Government insurance for business so that businesses aren’t going broke from insurance costs. Several shops have closed because they can no longer afford the astronomical cost of insurance. Between cost of rent, insurance and business rates businesses can no longer afford to remain open and it deters others from even considering trying.
Growing up in a small town i have experienced this issue personally. Everyone in a small town pays their fair share and yet reaps less of the overall benefits.
The consequence is these towns become underdeveloped and becoming less and less profitable over time and this in turn gives ample excuse for why it is not a priory for investment from the Government. The only answer is that small towns have got to stop waiting for Government investment and instead start to invest in themselves.
Co-Ops, where those involved reap the benefits, buying and selling products or services just like any other business. The difference is a co-op is owned and governed by its members, the people who use it.
And, profits are reinvested in the co-op or distributed to its members making it local business where profits will immediately benefit the locals who invest in it
Locals need to empower themselves rather than waiting for a Government that has no idea how to tackle the issue.
Co-operatives have a proven strategy for achieving positive economic and social development outcomes in wide range of settings.
Aisling Casey, Cork
I am originally from a small town. What is killing small towns: transport. In order for small towns to thrive, people and goods need to be easily moved in and out. Younger generations have attained higher levels of education and naturally want to work in bigger companies with career prospects. Bigger companies are in cities. There was a time when a rail network linked small towns with big cities, but the State decided that cars were the future.
Reinstating the rail network is the only way young families like mine can continue to work for big companies in big cities while living and spending in small towns. Young people are now being forced to live near cities because a 3-hour round commute by car is unsustainable. Put the tracks back down, give people the option of living rurally, small towns will thrive and you will solve the housing crisis as an offshoot.
Colin Barrett, Cork
This is actually quite simple, the reason for the decline of towns is jobs, or lack thereof, a town without jobs has nothing. Many Irish towns have heritage buildings or ruins which are currently boarded up, these have tourist potential and can be restored at relative low cost, one restored they can generate jobs in those towns.
Carmel Gallagher, London UK
As an Irish person living in London for over 28 years and a frequent visitor to Ireland, I have noticed a marked difference between some English villages and the decline of small Irish towns. One notable difference in in the UK is pedestrian access to the villages from surrounding areas.
Many small villages in the UK have a pedestrian track running alongside the main roads so that people can walk to and from the village rather than drive. This is not a concrete footpath but a maintained dirt track which is used by walkers and cyclists. It keeps walkers and cyclists safe from speeding traffic and it also connects villages.
I have family and friends who live in parts of Ireland not far from small towns and the only route available to access the town is by driving. A walk/cycle to the towns on most occasions is dangerous with cars speeding and I am sure many pedestrian fatalities in the countryside could be avoided by creating these simple road verge tracks.
I believe the towns are also declining as people choose to drive further afield to larger out of town shopping centres where parking is free and all purchases can be made at the same time.
To counteract this, a free bus service on Saturday from designated pick up points to the towns would encourage people to shop local, reduce car use and connect local communities. I have witnessed this service in isolated villages in North Wales and it is amazing how it has taken off.
Free Saturday buses to Aberystwyth and surrounding villages are packed with shoppers, local business is benefitting and communities are thriving. I am unsure who pays for this free Saturday service but the benefits to business seem to outweigh the cost of the service. I suggest planning for future housing is more about expanding towns with local services which in turn will create business opportunities for local people. Local communities need to come together to decide whether their town thrives or dies. People power is amazing but it takes someone to lead the transformation of these towns and villages. The government can incentivise through funding for small business but if people choose to go elsewhere then I’m afraid these towns will continue to decline. To paraphrase a famous quote, “it’s not what your town can do for you, but what can you do for your town?”
All small towns should have a high-quality, free sports facilities, such as a safe and well-paved running /walking track, an all weather Astro pitch, and a properly surfaced tennis court. These are relatively cheap to build, contribute hugely to peoples physical and mental well being, foster a sense of community and possibly make the town a more attractive tourist destination.
Many of the towns around and about Ireland have beautiful old stone buildings. Unfortunately, in the main, they are covered over with rendering and cladding, and painted in hideous shades. As an example of what towns could look like I would offer Ambleside in the Lake District, where most of the buildings have kept their original stonework exposed.
Zoë Tennyson, Co Cork
Bandon has to deal with large amount of heavy traffic which damages roads and makes the town dirty. It also makes walking unsafe within our small town. One-off developments just outside of town keeps everyone in their cars too. I would like to see out town centres loved and lived in with better facilities, parks, swimming pool, cinema, safe cycle tracks.
Simple: make small towns destinations again. Instead of making them “easy to drive through” make them “easy to park in”. Ireland has rapidly changed from a family car society to a personal car society but urban planning has only focused on the traffic, not the people.
Also, we do not drive to town for the day anymore, we drive to town for a quick shop. If you have to spend 20 minutes driving around looking for parking, why not spend 10 minutes driving to an out-of-town supermarket? Great examples are Gorey, thriving (great, convenient parking) and Enniscorthy, dying hard (difficult to navigate parking).
If you want to see a real “destination” town, look at Wexford. In the 80s a bypass took away all the traffic that wasn’t going to/from the town, and it flourished.
About a mile of pedestrianised shopping with convenient car parks dotted along the route. On Saturdays, South Main Street in Wexford looks busier than Grafton Street. Urban planning needs to focus on people, not traffic. Cars don’t shop.
Ronan Brady, Cork
One of the biggest failures in small towns is the failure to create pedestrian zones in the centre of the town. Create spaces that allow children to roam free and safe instead of allowing traffic to dominate the high street. Councils seem resistant to closing streets to traffic due to concerns about the adverse effect on local businesses which is ironic when so many studies show the opposite. Create a space where people might want to spend time in and they will come.
I’m in my early seventies and considering sheltered accommodation / warden on site, with nursing home in the county for final days.
A small town could be ideal. Local shops, within walking distance, mobile library, regular minibus to transport stations for coach /train, taxi service to GP, or nearest Hospital. Links with local schools, for mutual enrichment between seniors and youth, home help to employ, dinner delivery service.....in fact a co-ordinated, targeted service run as a local business. Small town in rural area pleasant for walks in nature that is Zimmer accessible! Internet of course for Silver Surfers! Local church service a bonus but we can organise prayer service/support among ourselves.
I think isolation is a huge problem in rural Ireland. Free or heavily subsidised buses should be offered to peripheral communities to allow people (particularly elderly people) to socialise with their neighbours. This might include bingo or a trip to the pub on a Saturday night. It might also allow people to access local services such as gyms / libraries / medical services. Economically, it would be a boon for local businesses as people will naturally spend more. The programme could simply follow the local school bus system for example and it could be limited to two or three days a week (e.g. on pension day and on a Saturday).
Retired council architect and director of a SME. Central power is advantageous for large scale operations. It feeds into consolidation of businesses into ever growing big entities with financial specialists managing output, and the regulatory environment.
Strategic planning goals favour private sector developers and large multinational multiples. Same process for very small issues and big regional, national/ international issues. Public procurement T&C’s constantly undermine small business’ ability to participate. Local rates valuations and parking charges big issue. Online shopping, website costs and I believe the quality of the public realm in small towns is very poor. Having good experience in our towns is essential if the street is to survive. connectivity has issues
It’s no good to say that large industry would move to small town Ireland if there was good broadband, because they wouldn’t. They are looking for things that can only be got in urban areas. However, if we look across the water to our American Cousin’s we can see that they are moving in the right direction in some areas. All businesses run on money, if you can reduce the operating costs by reducing rates then you can attract small niche “hipster” shops to open which can reinvent a place. The rise of the supermarket led to the death of the main St, but now Dunnes are trying to make shopping in their store like going to all the different shops you once had. The butcher, the green grocer’s etc. Yes, it was more expensive, but was it better? I don’t know, but cheaper has led to the death knell of small town Ireland. The only way to reinvent the small town is to encourage people to shop local, to buy the artisan products that are produced in an area, and maybe not buy everything in the one supermarket.
Karin Cassidy, UK
In the recent past we have spent time in Ramelton, Co Donegal. I was shocked by the dilapidation of the 18th century stone pub, houses and warehouses at the end of the Quay. Instead of further development why could these not be restored and lived in? I was so shocked that I wrote to the local TD of the time and got a reply but as far as I know nothing has changed. I engaged with some local people and they agreed. It reminded me of the stone villages in Cumbria that are a magnet for tourism in the UK. Ramelton is a beautiful town and also has lovely Georgian architecture. The beautiful river Lennon and iconic bridge. It is supposed to be a Heritage Town but much of it is in a state of gross disrepair. There is ribbon development outside the town where the people seem to now live which is such a shame.
Reduce commercial rates dramatically. Assist business owners in upgrading the appearance of their businesses as part of a town wide project. Broadband needed urgently.