How heritage led regeneration can act as an economic driver for our towns and villages

Speech to Green Party Convention 2016

Our towns and villages have historically been the anchors of a rural hinterland. For centuries they have been places of exchange; of goods and services, of ideas and dreams, of music, of knowledge, art and creativity. Their recent decline can be traced to a number of sources; the use of the private motor car as a primary source of mobility, the subsequent expansion of out of town shopping with masses of free flat surface car parking, corrupt and bad planning or poor political governance, suburbanisation and the changing needs of families and a perception that living in city or town centres is associated with poverty.

As a member of a Local Authority for almost twelve years, I was witness to some very frustrating moments. Setting and adopting Development Plans, varying plans and zoning land is one of the most responsible duties we have as councillors. It was during the making of these plans that a frenzy of activity used to take place, developers, builders and retail consultants dominated proceedings during the setting of the 2007. I took issue with what I felt was a cut and paste approach to retail planning. Consultants told us we needed to prevent ‘leakage’ to other centres, therefore we all needed big box retail and bulky goods retail parks. Then I got in to real hot water. I successfully objected to the development of two Tescos in the County; one in Callan and the other in Kilkenny City on an old brownfield site on the edge of the town.

What followed was a barrage of abuse from colleagues and the general public; Greens are anti business, anti jobs, anti everything. In 2009 as the City’s Mayor I organised a conference ‘Local Economies, Strong Communities’. I brought an independent retailer from the town of Stalham in Norfolk. He spoke to a half empty room about the battle they had against the most powerful retailer in the UK. They lost and it decimated their town.

My campaign against Tesco was based on an awareness that they their objective is not just to decimate the high street but to be the high street.

Fast forward 2016. Next week in Carlow town the Fianna Fail candidate in the General Election is holding a public meeting titled ‘Regenerating Carlow Town Centre’. You have to hand it to them for their sheer nerve.

I was involved in a four year pan European research project under the URBACT programme. While the cities involved were all heritage cites of varying sizes, the challenges remained the same; gentrification, dereliction, transport and mobility, finding new uses for old buildings and managing the constant shift in retail.

One thing i did find was that Irish municipalities and Failte Ireland seem to be shy about promoting our vernacular architecture and urban form. During field studies I was amazed at how our EU partners saw our City of Kilkenny. All the stuff we took for granted they lapped up.

When the project concluded we brought to Council a range of initiatives that we took from our partners that could well form a template for the regeneration of our towns and villages but more importantly to use that regeneration as a means of economic activity in itself; using traditional building skills, insulation of historic buildings using natural materials, lime rendering, stonemasonry, joinery and traditional signwriting.

A report commissioned by the Heritage Council in 2011 stated that Westport’s tourism success was rooted in the conservation of the assets of the traditional planned town. It went on to say that indirectly the historic environment contributes to job creation in the construction sector in that it ‘plays a pivotal role in both the development and subsequent retention of traditional craft based construction skills in Ireland. Using the UNESCO criteria for heritage buildings, ie pre 1919, Ireland has some 160,000 such buildings. That represents a lot of local employment in their upkeep. So why then were all the Heritage Council Conservation grants cut? There are dozens of Westports out there, falling down unloved.

And so on to the housing crisis. Joe O Brien exposed on Vincent Browne the other night what many working in the homeless sector suspected all along; that figures were being underrepresented. This is probably the case in many Local Authority areas. The scale of the problem due largely to Government meddling and inaction is staggering and one of the great human rights issues that this State faces.

On Dublin City Council our Councillors have raised the fact that there are many above shop premises throughout the Capital that could be refitted for family living. This is the case in my constituency of Carlow Kilkenny also. So why has there been such a poor uptake of the Living Cities tax incentive scheme? Could our Local Authorities be doing more? Could we for instance use some of the monies allocated for social housing to buy whole buildings in some of our towns and convert them in to stand alone housing units or apartments for single men? This would bring life back in to our town centres, improve trade for local retailers, reduce car dependency and transform the look and feel of our towns at night.

I would like the Green Party to lead a campaign towards not just the regeneration but re imagining and reawakening of our towns and villages. There are fantastic communities trying to fight back. The recent floods brought out the best in affected communities. If we can present a vision of self reliant, local towns and villages, supported by community owned energy, integrated living, in comfortable warm buildings, supporting local trades, food producers and suppliers, craftspeople and makers, all driven by community owned Local Area Plans then we are realising a Green Vision for Ireland, one that is future proofed and ecologically sound.

Last year the Heritage Council launched a wonderful set of policy proposals for Irish Towns. The Council made the following six recommendations

  • Government should produce an Irish Urban Policy as part of developing the National Planning Framework
  • Extend the Living City urban regeneration initiative for heritage led urban regeneration to include the core areas of all Irish Towns and that specific fiscal measures be tailored more directly to attract people to live and do business in towns
  • That planning authorities, with the support of DAHG should put administrative measures on place to ease the regulatory burden that currently acts as a deterrent to ‘Living Over the Shop’ developments.
  • That the strategic economic role of towns in local economies identified in the CEDRA report should be targeted for support in future funding programmes for rural economic development
  • That these initiatives be monitored for their effectiveness in achieving the aims of heritage led urban regeneration.
  • That the Heritage Council should be provided with the funds to develop a Rural Towns and Villages Network

All very laudable and achievable proposals I think you all would agree. There is one missing link however and that is transport. Rural transport both that provided by bus service providers and LEADER funded Rural Transport projects has been decimated in recent years. Many bus providers are withdrawing from non economically viable routes (as we discovered in Castlecomer last year) and the rural transport service has had its funding cut to the bone. Minister Kelly further undermined our service by pulling some of its route back under the influence of his own constituency, all part of the democratic revolution I’m sure.

There remains an untapped tourism potential in our rural areas. Having transport options available for visitors is vital to this. I would like to see a pilot integrated urban and rural transport service in Carlow and Kilkenny; where rural busses bring passengers to the towns and they can avail of local, electric shuttle busses. Lack of access to transport is disenfranchising many people who live in poverty, those with disabilities and the elderly. Schemes could be subvented from on street parking charges in our towns, SEAI, ERDF funding and other sources. But I have no doubt that it would work and contribute positively towards decarbonising our economy.

I hope that what I have outlined here contributes to our important debate here today. The Green Party has such a positive and empowering message to bring to every doorstep over coming weeks. Let’s get out there and do it!