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pilot scheme

Six rural towns were given €100k to try rejuvenate their town centres. Here's how they're getting on

The towns were chosen last year, and the local councils have been planning ways they might entice people to live in town centres.
Please God we are all fortunate to have children who get to go to college, but we want them to come back and they want to come back. If there were high-quality jobs in rural areas, that would allow them to come back.

HOW DOES RURAL Ireland rejuvenate its towns?

Six towns across Ireland were chosen by the government last year to act as pilots for programmes that could help move people back into town centres across the country. 

One year on, that work is most certainly under way but it’ll take some time before it’s known if that work will be successful. 

In October 2018, the government said that six towns in rural Ireland had been picked to receive €100,000 as an invitation to “develop innovative proposals to encourage more people to live in rural town centres”. 

The towns chosen for the scheme were Boyle, Co Roscommon; Callan, Co Kilkenny; Ballinrobe, Co Mayo; Banagher, Co Offaly; Castleblayney, Co Monaghan; Cappoquin, Co Waterford. 

Announcing the move, Minister for Rural and Community Development Michael Ring said these six would act as a pilot scheme for far more funding to be provided to rural Ireland in the future. 

This week, officials from the local councils in these areas spoke to the Oireachtas Committee on Rural and Community Development to provide an update on their progress so far.

A year on, it’s clear from the representatives from all areas that there’s no silver bullet that will make people move to town centres but there were several common threads among them.

Firstly, measures at addressing vacant sites was required – whether that’s through levying property owners who leave sites vacant or incentivising them to bring it back into use. Furthermore, local jobs in centres away from the outskirts in towns has also been identified.

In each place, it was noted how over the years businesses had closed and people had moved out of the town centres. 

A survey was carried out in Cappoquin in 2018, for example. Of the 505 premises in the town, 86 were vacant and 37 of these were derelict.


“Much of the building stock is not attractive for modern residential needs,” Waterford council said. “There is 40% vacancy on Main Street.”

In terms of the “key problems to address”, the council was clear that much needed to change if Cappoquin was to attract people back to living in the town centre again, such as a lack of economic activity in the centre already and a lack of housing available for people to live in. 

The other towns involved in the scheme were faced with similar issues. 

In Ballinrobe, Mayo County Council noted that if the problems there were solved it could provide a template for how other towns solve the problem of vacant town centres.

“Ballinrobe is typical of many other Irish towns in terms of architecture, development pattern, and the issues facing it; correspondingly solutions that can be identified for Ballinrobe would apply equally to other similar towns,” it said. 

Detailed analysis

In his opening statement to the committee, Department of Rural Development official William Parnell said that it wasn’t necessarily new houses that were needed to attract more people to town centres but “rather how to make best use of properties that are available and encourage people to live in them”.

“Apart from issues that can arise around the property itself, other factors such as the availability of services, recreational facilities, civic space, and a good retail mix, all need to be part of the offering to encourage people to want to live in town centres,” he said.

It is also important to recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to rejuvenating towns and villages in rural Ireland. Each settlement is different, each with its own strengths, as well as issues that need to be addressed.

In Castleblayney, the committee heard that the council had undertaken a property identification survey and a town centre land use survey. A regeneration study will also take place to identify areas it can collaborate with local property owners. 

Architects have worked on this analysis and have met with property owners to discuss redevelopment of the area.

The council said: “A key recommendation will be to identify the need for a designated role for a dedicated person to work with the property owners to work through the complex process and regulation of development, such as planning permission, building and fire regulations, energy ratings, access to grant funding supports, etc.

With a dedicated officer to support the property owners, there is a stronger chance of the private sector contributing more to regeneration.

In Ballinrobe, discussions have also taken place with local property owners with a view to bringing vacant buildings back into use. So far, however, there have been problems.

“Initial consultation with owners of vacant buildings indicate barriers include cost of renovation and repairs and anti-social behaviour in the town centre at weekends discourages residential use,” Mayo County Council said.

“However, they also indicated a willingness to bring the buildings back into use if appropriate support was in place (e.g. low rate loans, tax incentives, partnership with council, more secure landlord entitlements, more control of anti-social behaviour specifically).”

Addressing the committee the previous week, Annmarie McHugh from the Castleblayney Regeneration Committee said that “everyone should think about how we can make the town centre more vibrant”. 

“For example, if the HSE is planning a new building, it should go in the town centre and not outside the town,” she said. “Initiatives such as VAT refunds for any buildings that are happening in the town would be helpful.

If we do nothing, the towns will go into disrepair. People will not want to live in a town that does not look right, does not feel right and does not have a good vibe about it.

In each town, the potential is there to make the centres more attractive for people to come and live according to the councils. Each area has submitted progress reports to the government, and the Oireachtas Committee on Rural and Community Development will also compile a report on the progress to date and what can be done in future. 

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