PRESS RELEASE: Taoiseach-led “Town Centre First” Initiative vital to national economic recovery stimulus package

Taoiseach-led “Town Centre First” Initiative vital to national economic recovery stimulus package

In a submission to An Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Chambers Ireland today (30 July 2020) calls for the establishment of an inter-departmental National Town Centre Taskforce to revive urban centres, address the issues of vacancies, incentivise brownfield development and ensure that our cities and towns across the country are supported through the post-COVID recovery.

The Programme for Government committed to a ‘Town Centre First’ policy approach, founded on the Town Centre Health Check research, to ensure that our cities and towns become vibrant places for living and working in by removing the blight of underused and vacant urban building stock.

Even before Covid-19, a Town Centre First programme was critically important and urgently needed attention with Irish national commercial vacancy rates at 13.3% (GeoDirectory). Meanwhile, research from the Parliamentary Budgetary Office, published 28 July, demonstrates that at least 18,000 new homes would become available if vacant properties were activated.

In the wake of Covid-19, with the global economic downturn likely to gravely impact our economic performance, a well-resourced Town Centre First programme would serve as a platform for a counter-cyclical economic stimulus – supporting jobs while carrying out much needed public works at a cost-effective point in the economy cycle.

An impactful Town Centre First programme would position Ireland to be more competitive, with sustainable housing and resilient local economies and communities, and would allow us to take better advantage of the rebound to the global economy, which may be another three years away.

Speaking today, Chambers Ireland Chief Executive Ian Talbot said

“As part of last week’s July Stimulus, €10 million was allocated for Town and Village renewal schemes. With 300,000 people living in over 600 small towns and villages this will not have a noticeable impact at the national level, and it neglects the urgent needs of over 3,000,000 people who are living in the urban areas of our cities and towns across every county.

The Heritage Council’s town centre health checks have demonstrated that our urban spaces are among the least active in Europe. The economic burden of vacancy is felt very heavily in our towns and cities. The Covid-19 crisis is already making the vacancy problem in our town centres worse. Business owners are experiencing significantly reduced footfall and business activity.

The Programme for Government makes a commitment to a ‘Town Centre First’ approach. If this objective is to be successful it will require the Taoiseach’s leadership and a cross departmental approach. Coordinating the policy activities of the departments of Planning, Housing, Enterprise, Transport and Finance with the actions of Local Authorities is too broad a brief for anyone minister and will require the Taoiseach to lead the way if we are to make the necessary changes to change a system that has led to vacancy rates that are far higher than the EU average.

More attractive urban spaces that support active transport can revive our high streets through supporting increased footfall which leads to higher levels of local spending. Beyond the immediate commercial concerns, making urban living viable will be key to creating sustainable communities that can succeed under the Climate Action Plan.

There are billions of euros of works which Local Authorities have identified that need to be completed as part of the National Development Plan. Now is the time to make progress.”

In a submission to Department of Taoiseach, Chambers Ireland identified several issues which require intervention and has made recommendations on policies that should be adopted, some of which are noted below.

  • Create an Urban Living Initiative for urban spaces across the country, focusing on the development of healthy streets as in the London model.
  • What is now the Living City Initiative (LCI) should be expanded to include long term vacant commercial properties built post-1915 in the cities and towns specified in the NPF and reformed to include acquisition costs of LCI qualifying properties.
  • Introduce Section 28 planning guidelines that support prioritisation of town centre over greenfield sites.
  • Incentivise the upgrading of existing buildings as they are an essential part of conserving our carbon budget over the coming decades.
  • Empower local authorities and state bodies such as the Land Development Agency to actively manage, and masterplan, underutilised land with an effective compulsory purchase regime.
  • Reskill affected workers to make the upgrade and retrofitting of vacant properties economical.
  • Enact legislation that will empower and resource Local Authorities to establish one-stop shops to guide property owners through the planning process.
  • Streamline the planning and regulatory regime for change-of-use construction projects and above-the-shop conversions to expand the availability of housing.
  • Renew the Derelict Sites Act 1990 to strengthen its elements to incentivise infill and brownfield construction.
  • Better resource Local Authorities to initiate street improvement and active travel investments.
  • Ensure that our Local Area Plans require the people-friendly pedestrian infrastructure, segregated cycleways, and rest spots that are needed to support active transit while linking our residential areas with our civic and economic centres.
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