9 February 2022
By Tom Collins
Strategy to tackle vacancy, combat dereliction and breathe new life into town centres in County Cork – Network of Town Regeneration Officers to drive future development – Suite of supports and tools to help businesses and local communities deliver on their unique vision for their area – New Policy to deliver on the objectives of ‘Housing for All’ and ‘Our Rural Future’
The Government has recently published Town Centre First – a major new policy that aims to tackle vacancy, combat dereliction and breathe new life into town centres across Ireland. Here in County Cork, the West Cork town of Skibbereen (pop 2,788) is the first to be selected. Towns for this first phase were selected based on submissions received from the Local Authorities and further phases will be announced in due course.
The National Town Centre First policy can be viewed at https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/473d3-town-centre-first-policy/
Town Centre First contains 33 unique actions which will give our towns the tools and resources they need to become more viable and attractive places in which to live, work, visit and run a business.
The policy is underpinned by multi-billion euro investment spread across major Government 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.
For the first time, designated towns will gain their own dedicated Town Regeneration Officers, who will be crucial to driving future development.
The policy also contains a range of actions designed to achieve key objectives such as social and economic revival in towns, the provision of housing, as well as addressing challenges like vacancy and derelict buildings.
The actions also support the protection of our environment, as well as the heritage and culture of our towns.
Town Centre First was launched recently by the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Heather Humphreys TD, the Minister for Planning and Local Government, Peter Burke TD; and the Minister for Heritage and Electoral Reform, Malcolm Noonan TD.
The policy was launched at Moate library, a former Courthouse building. The formerly derelict building, dating back to 1828, was converted by Westmeath County Council.
The library was officially opened in 2016 and is a vital resource for young and old, bringing people back into the town centre.
Town Centre First, which supports the objectives of Housing for All and Our Rural Future, is a commitment under the Programme for Government.
In December 2021, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Heather Humphreys TD, announced €100,000 in funding for Cork County Council to support the development of a Town Centre First Plan for Skibbereen. Towns for this first phase of funding were selected based on submissions received from the local authorities. Further funding phases for Town Centre First Plans will be announced in due course.
Announcing Town Centre First, The Minister for Rural and Community Development Heather Humphreys TD said:
“‘Town Centre First’ represents a new approach to revitalising communities the length and breadth of this country.
“This is about bringing together our businesses, our local authorities and our town teams – so that they are at the fore when it comes to planning for the future development of their communities.
“It’s about ensuring our towns have the tools, resources and investment they need to tackle major issues such as dereliction and vacant properties.
“We know that so many of our towns, particularly in rural Ireland, face considerable challenges.
“But they also have extraordinary potential.
“With investment under the likes of the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund and the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund, we will ensure our towns become even better places to live, work and raise a family.
“’Town Centre First’ will arm our towns with the ability to map out and deliver on their own unique vision, helping to revitalise Rural Ireland and deliver on the objectives of ‘Our Rural Future’.
The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Darragh O’Brien TD, said:
“This Government is determined to act on the fact that many of our town centres, unfortunately, are underutilised for housing, and have limited housing choice.
“That is why this Town Centre First policy is so important. It will support different types of development proposals so that there is a greater and more mixed supply of private, affordable and social housing in our towns.
“It will also help reduce vacancy and dereliction in our towns, converting empty buildings into housing. It is another contribution in our absolute commitment to increase housing supply.”
The Minister for Planning and Local Government, Peter Burke TD, stated:
“Local authorities will play a vital role in assisting towns shape their futures. Town Regeneration Officers and technical expertise will assist local Town Teams in formulating their local responses and accessing regeneration funding.
“The National Town Centre First Office will help drive this new approach to revitalising town centres and bring together the stakeholders who can help towns realise a vision for their future.”
“I know there is great enthusiasm within local government, and among community, voluntary and business groups, for the Town Centre First approach.
“I look forward to seeing towns across Ireland producing ambitious Town Centre First Plans focused on delivering regeneration projects that can transform communities for the better. I want to thank all on the Town Centre First Advisory Group who helped shape this policy and all who will help to put the policy into practice.”
Among the specific actions contained in Town Centre First include:
· Town Centre First Plans: Support for towns in producing their own Town Centre First Plans, produced by a local Town Team drawn from local community and business representatives. These will identify challenges, actions and integrated responses across a number of themes (business/commercial; community/cultural; housing; built environment; heritage)
· Investment: Implementation of plans will be supported by a targeted investment programme across Government, including through the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund (RRDF), Urban Regeneration and Development Fund (URDF) and dedicated funding streams to tackle vacancy and dereliction in particular.
· A network of Town Regeneration Officers: who will bring a coordinated approach to Town Centre First delivery across the country and support local Town Teams
· A National Town Centre First Office: that will drive implementation of Town Centre First actions and coordinate stakeholder engagement at a national level and across the local government sector. This office will also be a forum for best practice
· Capacity building programmes for Town Teams
· Health Check Programme: a national, integrated and scaled-up programme for towns
· A Town Centre First toolkit (including web portal): this will provide access to all resources, funding information and best practice models for developing Town Centre First plans
· Identification of ‘pathfinder towns’: to act as demonstrators of the Town Centre First approach and lead best practice. Towns requiring more support with local stakeholder collaboration and access to investment programmes will be identified at an early stage
· A Town Centre First National Oversight and Advisory Group: the group will ensure cross-government focus and policy alignment. It will monitor and guide policy delivery and annual implementation plans.
· Impact assessment methodology: this will help assess the impact of development and investment on town centres. It will be applied to the statutory planning system.
· A research and evidence platform and agreed data measurement requirements: these will relate to key social and economic outcomes and ensure there is an evidence base for the ongoing evaluation of the Town Centre First policy.