Saturday 15 December 2018

Old Main Street is a dead end, let's look for another way ahead

There is no point harking back to a 'golden age' when modern life makes different demands on our space

The population of Charlestown, Co Mayo, has been growing steadily in recent decades — even as the population of the overall county is reducing. Photo: Keith Heneghan
The population of Charlestown, Co Mayo, has been growing steadily in recent decades — even as the population of the overall county is reducing. Photo: Keith Heneghan

Conor Skehan

'Yugoslavia 1976' is the title to my smudged pencil sketch. It shows a small boy minding big black cattle beside the halted train. I was an 18-year-old architectural student on the train to Greece for my pilgrimage to the gleaming white ruins of ancient Athens.

It reminded me of my surprise on seeing that the huge flat landscape seemed to be filled with people as far as every horizon. This was to be my only glimpse in Europe of the realities of a labour-intensive pre-agricultural society, until I began to see undeveloped agriculture again during my work with the UN during the last ten years.

Only about one-twentieth of Ireland's employment is now engaged in agriculture and this figure is constantly falling. Over the last century, the number of people working in agriculture dropped by three-quarters - as did the number of farms.

These reductions are good news, as they mean that far fewer people on far fewer farms now produce far more food that is affordable, nutritious and reliably available.

Most of the fabric of rural Ireland - houses, shops, pubs, roads, villages and towns -date from a landlord-led town building period in the late 17th and early 18th Century that grew to match Ireland's growth of rural population, until the dramatic and tragic century-long population collapse after the Great Famine.

Post-Famine emigration blurred and hid a world-wide rural depopulation that was due to agricultural modernisation and that had been happening all over the world.

The result of these developments is the reason for the disappearance of the towns and villages that had sprung up to serve these large agricultural populations.

In remote rural villages in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar and Afghanistan, I have heard old men mourn change. They point to abandoned fields and houses, telling stories about closing shops and cancelled bus routes.

Their eyes light up as they tell me about weekends and festivals when all of the young people return from the big towns and how the place fills up again with life and crowds.

They always say the words, "Like things used to be, before they all went away." The conversations also always end with the same contradictory twist. They say that they can't blame their children for wanting a better life, but then they add "but surely the Government could have done something to stop them?"

If this sounds familiar here in Ireland, it is not only because of the frequency with which articles, speeches, policies and promises speak about 'rural decline' and how it is a tragedy that must be stopped. This is not a recent development.

John Healy (1930-1991) was a journalist from Charlestown, Co Mayo, whose writings championed the views of communities in declining rural economies.

Fifty years ago, he published No One Shouted Stop (Death of an Irish Town) which made the same plea as I heard in all of those villages around the world. He too blamed Government policies - believing that emigration and rural decline arose from neglect of rural areas - rather than resulting from the worldwide agricultural revolution that reduced the need for the massive rural manpower such as I had witnessed in the fields of Yugoslavia.

The closure of a post office or a well-known traditional pub or shop are regularly reported as clear and continuing evidence of the death of another town or village, rekindling loud local complaints and extravagant political promises, policies and plans that this will be dealt with once and for all.

However, the story of small towns is much more complex. For a start, while they are intimately entwined with their agricultural hinterlands, they have very different trajectories.

Healy would be surprised to learn that the population of Charlestown, Co Mayo, has been growing steadily in recent decades - even as the population of the overall county is reducing. All over Ireland rural counties are urbanising, some of them even as shrinking. So, it's not a lack of people that is causing closures on Main Street.

Main streets are full of charity shops and closed business everywhere - not only in Mayo and Kerry but also in Dun Laoghaire and Swords and also in Manchester and Lyon. Shopping was the glue that bound Main Street, but shopping is changing all over the world.

Aldi and Lidl, Tesco and SuperValu are moving from Main Street in response to the evolving demands of dual-income couples who want convenience and car access - as well as modern standards of hygiene, fire safety and energy use.

The reality is that there is money, custom and people in these settlements, large and small; it's just not where it used to be. Mostly it has moved from Main Street to the edge where sites are large enough and have good access and ample parking.

It is naive to think that these could be 'fitted-in' to the delicate fabric of the fine-grained 18th Century Main Street - that is mostly made of protected, small, low, stone-walled structures. These are more suited to other uses - but have neither the scale nor suitability for the economic 'heavy-lifting' to sustain the Main Street as it used to be.

It is an irony that there are new uses that want to use the Main Street - such as many different types of branded coffee shops that are being derided and resisted - because they are generic and not traditional. The irony arises because policy-makers and planners remain in hot pursuit of the long-extinct butcher, baker, candlestick-maker vision of Main Street. These people fail to see that the coffee shop is not a place where coffee is consumed.

A new generation want to live their lives in company - though not necessarily or always with company. Those lone teens wearing headphones hunched over a laptop are not alone. They are connected to their friends and the world. They see the branded coffee shop as reassurance that they are part of a wider world - not the alien threat as seen by conservationists and planners.

The planners have missed a beat. Main Street's role has ceased to be a place of commerce, it is now a social space - critical for social cohesion, online economic activity and creative communities.

But these are lighter loads that can only bear lighter costs - so traditional expectations of rates and rents will need to adjust to this new reality.

Most demands for government interventions claim Main Street would thrive if only they had access to more population, broadband, better transportation - perhaps a rail station and nearby industrial jobs.

Well, if this were true how would it explain the state of the Main Streets of places like Dun Laoghaire, Swords or Dublin itself - which all teem with people, pipes, parking and public transport? They have all of the same problems of shop closures, vacancies and charity shops.

A lifetime of working in the planning of urban centres has taught me that highly conservative patterns of ownership and desires to retain value and increase income are the hard knots that most often tie down and restrain the capacity of Main Street to respond to changing needs.

Many landowners need to co-operate to clear the huge sites' need for car parks or large floor plates needed for multiples - all assuming that the local business isn't fiercely resisting the loss of its local monopoly. Collective action - often forcefully led by the benign dictatorship of a wise local authority - has produced Ireland's more successful Main Streets in places such as Kilkenny, Clonmel and Sligo where the Main Street is augmented by large stores and car parks developed on large sites assembled directly adjacent to the Main Street.

So, yes, there are challenges but there are also solutions, there is hope but the real issues must be addressed.

The challenges will not be answered by asking the wrong question. We will never bring the past back. We will never get back our 'Old Main Street'.

There is hope. A new town latent in every almost every small town and village - often struggling against misplaced and now irrelevant expectations of appearance, conservation, use, rent and rates.

One thing that will not address these challenges will be the National Planning Framework that seeks to over-ride these processes by using legal bullying to try to counter and deny this series of long-term, deeply embedded global processes.

Once this fallacy is exposed to the reality of implementation, the evasion and denial will begin again - trying to square the impossible circle of countering what people want to do with what abstract reasoning says they ought to do.

Once this happens, once it is realised that compromises and tweaks are required, then the rule of law begins to be eroded. This is how we backslide into banana republic territory again.

Are we about to witness a return to the bad old days where clientist politics clumsily interfered in planning? If it does, it will happen in a much more complex and fraught context.

Political interference will be resisted by highly knowledgeable activist citizens and their NGOs using judicial reviews and their knowledge of EU directives about constraints offered by EIA, habitats and flooding to thwart them.

Trying to stop the unstoppable is futile. King Canute got his feet wet to show his loyal, but noisily demanding, subjects that the tide doesn't respect royal authority. He was trying to stop them from asking the impossible of him.

John Healy's question will never be answered unless we start to ask the right questions, instead of answering the wrong ones.

Conor Skehan is chair of the Housing Agency

Sunday Independent

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