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THE GOVERNMENT IS going to spend €2 million on an expanded scheme aimed at enticing people to return to live in town centres.
It comes after the results of a pilot scheme which saw six towns given €100,000 each to try develop plans to bring vacant and derelict buildings back into use.
The results of that pilot scheme will help to inform the efforts of this expanded scheme, which Minister for Rural and Community Development Heather Humphreys said will be used to support another 50 towns making their centres more attractive to live and work in.
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.
Using the money, each town was asked to look at a variety of factors that prevent people living in town centres including the buildings, amenities, public realm, infrastructure and services.
Towns were asked to focus on one specific part of their town centre and, while it was acknowledged that €100,000 wouldn’t renovate a building, it was said that once a particular project was identified funding could be made available through the government’s €1 billion rural regeneration development fund.
In a report published into the pilot scheme in June, it said that to just address the issue of vacant buildings in a town won’t entice people to live back in town centres.
It needs a town to come up with a “master plan” and buy-in from potential investors and existing property owners, according to a government report.
In Banagher, for example, problems identified by the local council the perception there was little to discourage holding on to empty properties; some buildings had been vacant for so long they’ve become uninhabitable and would be costly to repair; and a concern from property developers they wouldn’t get a return on their investment.
One measure taken to try to address the issue was the council negotiating the purchase of a unit with an aim to develop a three-storey town centre building on main street into a community facility, digital hub, office accommodation, meeting rooms and an exhibition space.
The report said: “There is a sense that this innovative reuse could energise the town, attract remote workers to live in the town centre, and provide a strong amenity anchor function for the whole town population.”
It went on to make 15 general recommendations under five headings of providing supports, finances and resources, imagination and vision, confidence and motivation, and approach.
It said: “One clear point that emerges from the six towns is that no single solution can address vacancy. While towns have much in common, they are unique places with unique identities.”
However, the report was completed in February 2020 – before later being published in June – prior to the arrival of Covid-19 in Ireland.
In a recent Dáil debate, Minister Humphreys acknowledged that the pandemic had changed so many aspects of our lives but stressed that rural Ireland “must be a central part of our national economic and social recovery”.
She said that remote working was one huge impact of the pandemic and that this was likely to be a permanent feature from now on. Until the full roll out of the National Broadband Plan, however, remote working in all parts of the country won’t be feasible for everybody.
“As I have said before, the reality is that an office worker with good phone and broadband coverage can do the same job in Ballybay as in Ballsbridge,” Humphreys said. “As a government, we need to seize the momentum around remote working now.”
She said that investment in co-working facilities in towns would be important going forward, along with the roll-out of broadband connection points to serve remote working hubs.
The minister added: “We need to know which ones are working well, which ones are underutilised and most important, we need to raise awareness of what is available.
My vision is that at the end of that work we will have a mobile phone app that people will be able to use to identify a remote working facility that is available for them to go and work at, no matter where they are in the country.
She added that a working group had been convened to work on this as a matter of priority.
Separately, Humphreys said that the 50 towns as part of the new town centre project would be announced early in the new year.
In the meantime, an inter-departmental group has been established to progress on the actions recommended in the town centre report published in June.
A department spokesperson told TheJournal.ie: “The Inter-Departmental Group will consider all of the suggested actions in the report on the Town Centre Living initiative which was published in June 2020, and will report to government on its findings.
This [€2 million] funding forms part of the Department of Rural and Community Development’s budget for next year and further details of the initiative will be announced in 2021.
The Department is guided by public health guidelines in respect of all of its activities, but it is not expected that Covid-19 will impact significantly on the roll-out of this initiative.