Ultimate test of new towns plan will be shop reopenings

The vast majority of the people who live in Boyle and Strokestown are probably blissfully unaware of it, but their little towns are presently at the heart of a bold new national strategy aimed at tackling one of the biggest scourges of rural Ireland at the moment – vacant premises, and dereliction on the streets and town centres – with little but tumbleweeds blowing up and down them all over the country on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

  In driving around Roscommon and the rest of the west and the midlands pretty much every day over the last 30 years in the old day job, I have to say this was one of the most heartbreaking parts of the daily routine – coming up against closure signs on coffee shops and filling stations. These were places where I not only used to spend a few bob on a mug of tea or a can of coke, but where I’d strike up a chat with a friendly owner or staff member, who would inevitably become a contact on my phone and a friend over ten years or more.

  One town in County Meath used to really pull at the heartstrings when I’d drive through it towards the end of my time there. Where once a very vibrant industry existed right in the middle of it, today the gates are locked solid and there’s little but dereliction there, with closed up shops and houses. To make it even worse, even the village church went into dereliction too in recent times!

  It is against this appalling backdrop that something had to be done. ‘Town Centre First’ is the snazzy name of a brand new all-singing and all-dancing strategy launched last week in the town of Moate (which has itself also seen busier days) and containing over 30 actions aimed at giving these small towns the tools and resources they need to become more viable and attractive places in which to live, work, visit and run a business in the challenging years to come.

  The question is – is it already too late for some of the towns in decline, and are these new strategies going far enough in giving enough hard cash and professional support to the locals to make a real difference?

  The Government says the new policy has not millions but billions of euro behind it – coming from investment spread across schemes such as the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund (RRDF), the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund (URDF), Croí Conaithe (Towns) Fund, and the Town and Village Renewal Scheme. These are the rather complicated sounding schemes that have indeed changed the face of places like The Square in Roscommon town and Boyle in recent months – the type of initiative that is taking out the old remains of what’s left of the Royal Hotel in Boyle and going to change it into what we are told will be a bustling new enterprise hub in the heart of the town in the months to come.

  For years now, community workers like Vincent McGowan in Ballyleague, Jonathan Cassidy in Strokestown, Kathleen Shanagher in Roscommon town, and Tony Waldron in Ballintubber, have argued strongly that it’s not just a grant that these towns needed – it’s an actual permanent presence by the county council and the agencies on the ground there – and the establishment of a little office when they can sit and meet the locals every week to work on projects.

  The amount of paperwork and red tape behind an application for funding and putting together a proper strategic plan for a town or village nowadays is gigantic, and usually puts off local volunteers who have no speciality in these admin areas. That’s why I am really thrilled to see that for the first time, designated towns in the new scheme will gain their own dedicated town regeneration officers as part of this new plan. These people will be hands-on and crucial to driving future development.

  They tell us the new policy also contains a range of actions designed to achieve key objectives such as social and economic revival in towns, and the provision of housing, as well as addressing challenges like vacancy and derelict buildings. There’s no end to the wish list in this particular category.

  For the doubting Thomases out there (and there are lots of them, believe me), what happens in the town of Boyle when it emerges from the current spending spree on regeneration will be watched most closely – and will form the basis for the ultimate verdict most people will come up with as these schemes continue to be rolled out.

  Boyle was a pilot town for the first Town Centre Living Initiative (TCLI) project and I have watched the changes taking place there with a great deal of interest. The project focused on the historic centre of the town, recognising the need to support the maintenance of historic buildings. Boyle received funding for two projects: the Boyle Regeneration Project, and a transformation project focusing on the King House Cultural Quarter. Work is underway on both, I believe, but alongside the State investment there’s been a serious amount of private investment there too.

  In 2017, Brian Nerney, the owner of the former Roscommon Herald offices, converted the vacant premises into a remote working hub – giving the building back the name of its previous historical role as ‘The Spool factory’. I have been there a few times to use the meeting facilities and the high-speed broadband, and despite the pandemic, the place is doing very well. To me this is as important, if not more crucial, than the role of the State in town regeneration.

Places like Ballyleague and Strokestown are now targeted for the next stage of investment in some of these schemes, but for the plans to be entirely successful and ‘lift all boats’, we are going to need to see private sector investment too, alongside the State grants.

  There is evidence in both towns that this is already taking place. The individuals who sit on the town teams in both areas are people of great vision – with their hearts in the right place – so I remain absolutely optimistic that, when they get their new regeneration officers in place to work with them, these towns will indeed make great strides forward.

  The Government says it is determined to act on the fact that many of our town centres, unfortunately, are underutilised for housing, and have limited choice. Dozens of flats and former living areas over derelict shops and pubs remain empty, so there’s to be a drive for greater and more mixed supply of private, affordable and social housing in some towns. They hope that by converting empty buildings into housing, they can also attack that staggering housing waiting list issue that persists nationwide, and in turn reinvigorate independent retail and promote town centre living.

  Ultimately, the test of whether or not the new strategy and the lovely language used above is effective or not will be whether or not the next time you drive through the town of Boyle or Strokestown, you see cars and vans and lorries parked up and people going in and out of businesses and spending money (and not just on the weekend).

  I had that most positive experience myself in the last seven days when driving back from Carrick-on-Shannon into the village of Rooskey when we were more than heartened to see a filling station that had been closed down previously now back open and lots of people calling to trade their again. We congratulate the McGuires on their achievement. We wish them well for the future because at the end of the day the old adage certainly applies – “actions speak louder than words”.