Labour launches plan to revitalise Ireland’s towns and villages
Launching Labour’s vision for towns and villages post pandemic, enterprise spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said it’s time for a new deal for communities throughout Ireland. Outlining the need for increased local democracy, a just transition, the importance of public space and civic leadership, Deputy Ó Ríordáin said the time is rife to tackle key issues that stunt towns and villages sense of community, enterprise and growth. Senator Mark Wall, from Athy, called for greater investment in our towns and villages, citing the positive impact of town planners in towns like Westport.
Deputy Ó Ríordáin said:
“We have developed our vision for a new deal for towns and villages following consultation with over 1,000 people across the country. Many towns and villages thrived throughout the pandemic with people working from home and embedding themselves in their local communities. Many others, however, were not so lucky. We developed these policy proposals on the basis that we couldn’t return back to normal as ‘normal’ was the problem.
“Anchored in local democracy, our proposals are structured around four key themes: optimising town development and growth, supporting business, retailers and enterprise in our towns, incentivising central, sustainable and green development and making towns more attractive and inclusive places to live.
“Our towns are the local and regional drivers of economic development, place-making and good, sustainable planning. Yet Ireland remains one of the most centralised states in Europe, with our local authorities having few powers and almost no real financial autonomy. According to 2018 OECD data, only 8% of Irish public spending occurs at local government level, compared to an EU average of over 23%. Too much power is concentrated in central Government, and not enough with local councils to be the engine of economic and social development in Ireland.
“Our plan would redirect more power and resources to local government and restore town councils. This would provide more local jobs and opportunities for public servants to relocate outside of Dublin. To encourage structured development, Labour would ensure that each town council has a designated town planner and the support of a local authority architect to optimise sustainable growth.
“SMEs offer great potential for our towns and villages. OECD data estimates approximately 250,000 active enterprises in Ireland in 2016; 92% of which had less than 10 employees (micro), 6.8% had between 10-49 employees (small), 1.2% had 50-249 employees (medium), and only 0.2% had 250 or more employees (large). SMEs account for as much as 56% of manufacturing employment and 74% of services employment in the country.
“Change is possible and there are so many examples of towns and villages throughout the country that successfully reinvented themselves through considerate, sustainable planning that understood the needs of its community. Westport is a great example of an area that adapted to ballooning population growth, from 3,688 in 1991 to 6,198 in 2016. Through the implementation of an Action Plan that considered factors unique to the local community including its historic core, tourism, control of peripheral development, residential and commercial development, Westport has become a thriving community. The success of Westport’s revitalisation has not gone unrecognised, receiving numerous awards such as the Retail Excellence Best Town in Ireland and the Best Tourism Town 2014, Best Place to Live in Ireland in 2012, Ireland’s Tidiest Large Town 2012, Ireland’s Best Kept Large Town 2012.
“Main streets are the focal point of our towns and villages. The 2008 recession and continued cuts from Government in terms of post offices and Garda resources has brought many of our main streets to their knees. We need to tackle the by-product of this – derelict and vacant units – which have a hugely negative impact on the image, social cohesion and prosperity of our towns.
“Stockton-on-Tees in Northern England is a great case study of local councils tackling this head on. By purchasing a largely vacant 1970’s shopping centre on the high street, the council will now have it demolished and repurposed as a park with a new library and leisure centre. Remaining stores are to be relocated to another shopping centre to backfill empty units there. The new green space will link the town centre to the river and provide new cultural spaces for festivals and events. This will be financed with support from the UK government’s Future High Streets Fund.
“The council has also restored a 25-year vacant theatre that will now host gigs again increasing footfall, and it financed a new town centre hotel. As in Ireland, the decline of British high streets, accelerated during the pandemic with the closure of many large department stores and well-known clothing shops. In Stockton an empty department store was transformed into an enterprise arcade with space available at rates of as low as £10 a day for start-ups. 15 former tenants of the arcade have already moved into larger retail units in the town centre with the support of council grants to refurbish vacant shops. Ireland needs to look at examples like this and learn from them. We should be able to tackle derelict buildings through being strategic in our planning and being ambitious in our vision.
“The results of our national consultation, conducted in April 2021, brought to the fore the passion and pride that people have for their local community and their hopes for a prosperous community into the future. However, there are challenges that must be tackled head on. Notably, Ireland’s towns and villages do not have enough supports for people – and particularly young people – to succeed in enterprise. 61% of people believe that there are not enough supports in their town or village to start up a new business, while an overwhelming 70% believe that it is not easy for young people to start a business. Locals deserve real opportunities to grow and succeed.
“In recent years there has been no shortage of plans, strategies, and proposals from government but what has been lacking is an urgency of implementation. The pandemic has changed our lives and our perspectives, and there can be no going back to the way things were. Over the months ahead the Labour Party will continue to engage with local communities and campaign for the solutions and real change needed to transform our towns and villages.”
Senator Wall said:
“We need more resources and facilities at a local level. If we are going to reimagine our towns and villages we need to ensure that the social contract is at the heart of this and that town and county plans reflect what communities need. This includes things like playing fields, pitches and parks. We need to ensure that communities have public hubs where people can bring their dog for a walk or practice their soccer skills. Take Newbridge for example, for a town with 23,000 people there is only one playground. It’s just not acceptable in 2021 that community resources could be so sparse. This should be the work of town councils and instead, much of what keeps our communities vibrant has fallen to community volunteers themselves.
“Tidy Towns do huge work in their communities to keep their local areas vibrant and buzzing but they need more support. Most of the Tidy Towns committees are made up of three or four people. They need Government investment to ensure that their towns are presented in the best way.
“There’s also a huge issue with integration. We’re here in Athy today which went from a population of approx. 4,000 to almost 11,000 within 10 years. When I knock on doors during election time, there’s still people that tell me they leave their home at six o’clock in the morning and they don’t get home until seven o’clock in the evening. Then, they’re up in Dublin visiting friends and families at the weekend. So they’re not integrating within their community, they don’t have an opportunity to do so. We’re calling for Government to ensure that integration is fast tracked, and that can be done through extra community facilities like parks, pitches and playgrounds.
“We need a New Deal for our towns and villages – one that revitalises and empowers communities to create thriving areas where people can live, work and prosper.”
A New Deal for our Towns and Villages – Labour’s plan for revitalising Ireland’s urban centres is available here: https://www.labour.ie/assets/files/pdf/a_new_deal_for_our_towns_and_villages.pdf