Wednesday 19 December 2018

Death of the town - 'Perfect storm' rips heart out of rural economies

Report warns of increased costs and high vacancy rates ripping the heart from traditional main street

Some towns are bucking the pattern of decline, including Westport, Co Mayo. Photo: Getty Images
Some towns are bucking the pattern of decline, including Westport, Co Mayo. Photo: Getty Images
Donal O'Donovan

Donal O'Donovan

Small-town Ireland is facing a "perfect storm" which has torn the heart out of life on main street, a stark report warns today.

A lack of local leadership and allowing out-of-town retail developments means that many were "decimated" since the financial crash.

Many small Irish towns were ill-prepared for the recession, and without high-speed broadband they are hamstrung in how they can recover, according to the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland report.

But it offers a roadmap for recovery, including banning out-of-town developments, and making it financially viable to get families back living on main streets.

Taxing owners of derelict properties to force them back into use will also be vital if hundreds of small towns are to stop the rot, it warns.

Seven out of 10 settlements outside Dublin suffered a rise in commercial vacancy rates between 2013 and 2017.

This is evidence of the traditional main street being abandoned, even while the population nationally has increased.

The report's author, chartered surveyor Stephen Purcell, warned that without modern infrastructure, struggling towns don't have the ability to bounce back.

Mr Purcell, a chartered surveyor and town planner with Future Analytics Consulting, said shoppers are increasingly going online and towns are struggling to respond to changes in commerce and consumer habits.

"Because businesses in small towns don't have broadband they can't compete with bigger companies and international brands online," he said. "The crash when it came pushed more people towards our main cities - or emigration - while the impact of out-of-town shopping centres exacerbated the challenges faced by businesses in small towns," he said.

"For businesses in small towns, not having broadband is akin to operating with one hand tied behind their back."

The 'Rejuvenating Ireland's Small-Town Centres' report focuses on 200 towns with populations of between 1,500 and 10,000. The towns are home to 600,000 people, 13pc of the population. However, the results are mixed, with some towns bucking the pattern of decline, including Naas, Co Kildare; Clonakilty, Co Cork; and Westport, Co Mayo.

However, in parts of the north-west unemployment has increased or remained largely unchanged despite national figures showing a plunge in joblessness over the past four years.

The report notes that while Ireland's population grew by 31pc between 1996 and 2016, the growth was far from even. The population of Meath, for example, grew by 78pc, Kildare by 65pc, and Laois by 60pc. However, in Sligo, Mayo and Kerry the figure was 17pc.

A similar pattern emerged in unemployment figures. Between 2011 and 2016, unemployment fell by 51pc in Millstreet, Cork; by 44pc in Ballina, Tipperary; and 43pc in Newmarket-on-Fergus, Clare. However, it increased or fell marginally in several towns in counties such as Mayo, Longford and Sligo.

Local leadership is key to halting the decline, Mr Purcell found, including town/municipal architects who can champion and advise on local development.

The report calls for the establishment of an Irish Towns Partnership to combine know-how and provide local leadership, as well as a proactive approach to restoring buildings to residential use and tackling the problem of vacant buildings: "Consumers now spend less on goods and more on experiences such as food, beverages and services. As a result, attractive, vibrant, accessible locations draw visitors, while narrow main streets with lots of traffic and outdated or vacant buildings, deter them."

While the disruption of traditional retail is a global trend, traders here have been hit with "excessive and inflexible rates valuations".

They also face increased insurance costs and additional overheads from bank levies and water charges, Mr Purcell said.

Meanwhile, the families who once lived over their shops have in many cases moved out.

But even where there is appetite to move back into towns, the cost of refurbishing properties can be prohibitively expensive.

The report is published today as the Small Firms Association (SFA) separately called for tomorrow to be 'Small Business Saturday'.

After the massive commercialism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it has called on shoppers to support small businesses.

SFA director Sven Spollen-Behrens said: "If each adult spent just €20 extra in small businesses this Christmas, this would amount to an injection of over €73m for small Irish firms and would have a huge, positive impact on local jobs and the vibrancy of town and village centres."

Irish Independent

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