A STRONG RETAIL sector is at the heart of every thriving community. A prosperous town centre creates jobs, promotes a shared social life, and is a source of pride for all residents. Healthy retail is the life blood of rural and urban villages all across Ireland.
Unfortunately, the retail sector in many of our towns and villages is impoverished and sickly. Empty retail units on our high streets and in our shopping centres are a blemish on too many of our town centres. A recent CBRE survey showed that five out of nine towns still suffer from double digit levels of ground floor vacancy on their high streets.
My own area, Ballymun, is an example of the challenges that towns all over Ireland are facing to keep retail in the community. Tesco, the anchor store in the local shopping centre, will close its doors for the last time this weekend. This move throws the future of the shopping centre into doubt, and will have serious implications for the residents of Ballymun, who have submitted a petition with 7,500 signatures to Dublin City Council calling for the maintaining of retail services in Ballymun. Local Councils all across Ireland need to take action to safeguard retail in the community.
Large, high-profile empty units are devastating for a community. They are an eyesore for residents and, even more damagingly, they may act as a deterrent for other businesses to set up in the area. Lack of local amenities hurts residents, especially older people and those without cars, who may be unable to travel elsewhere to shop.
Athlone is a town which is particularly afflicted by empty retail units. The CBRE survey found a 21.6% ground floor vacancy rate on the high street. The Midlands Gateway Chamber has been working to attract large employers and multinationals to the area, but more needs to be done to support SMEs, which are the businesses that will occupy high street locations.
One concrete way in which we can address the issue of empty units is by tackling rates. Rates are too high in many areas, especially when there are so many empty units. At a recent public meeting in Ballymun, Cllr Paul McAuliffe called for Councils to be given the power to set rates for their wards. Often rates are set without consideration for the specific areas in which they will apply. Giving Councils the power to set rates would allow them to take into account the particularities of their area, and provide them with a tool which they could use to help fill empty units.
Councils do at the moment, however, have powers which they can use to tackle empty units and attract businesses. Good planning and improving how Councils plan for our towns and villages is essential. This is an area on which the Council has failed in the past in Ballymun, where housing has often been built without due consideration being given to retail, transport and leisure services for residents. Both urban and rural developments need to be planned with the needs of residents in mind.
Maintain retail services in our communities
The importance of image, and of ensuring that the built environment of towns and villages looks good, cannot be underestimated. Initiatives such as Tidy Towns help to promote a good image for communities. Tidy Towns committees in towns such as Westport and Clonakilty have helped to transform these environs, and make these places more desirable for businesses to locate. Councils can take practical steps to improve the image of their areas, and to maintain a high standard for all developments.
Ballymun was promised a shopping centre by Dublin City Council. This promise must be kept. In a competitive economic environment we have to fight to maintain retail services in our communities.
The solution of building more housing, and expecting people to commute to out-of-town shopping complexes is detrimental to life in the community and unfairly disadvantages people like the elderly, who need access to local amenities. In towns and villages across Ireland we have to fight to keep retail services in the community. We need incentives for new businesses and support for existing ones. We need to listen to the needs of shoppers and residents, who want local services, who want local jobs, and who want local retail.
Laura Reid is a Fianna Fáil Local Election candidate running in the Whitehall-Ballymun ward in North Dublin. She grew up in Santry and has served as a Fianna Fáil Local Area Rep in Dublin North East. Laura is a graduate of European Business and French (DCU and Reims Management School, France) and holds a Masters in International Relations (DCU). She is currently a sales manager for a large department store in Dublin.