Monday, March 24, 2014

The future of High Streets in Irish provincial towns

‘Living Towns – A Case Study’ was the title of the talk given to an interested audience by Offaly’s Heritage Officer Amanda Pedlow in the Clanard Court Hotel last Wednesday evening.  Organised by Honor McCulloch of the Friends of Athy Heritage Centre it proved to be a stimulating and thought provoking look at the future facing high streets of Irish provincial towns.  It was of particular relevance to Athy where vacant ground floor premises, once retailing outlets, have added to the vacant first and second floor accommodation which a few decades ago were the living quarters of shop owners families and shop assistants.  Our main streets were up to three or four decades ago thriving centres of retailing activity and centres of ‘live in’ communities which made our town centre vibrant places to shop and live.  The first change noticed was a gradual one occasioned by a move away from the tradition of shop assistants ‘living in’ and the subsequent move by shop owners to live in the suburbs.  Nevertheless shops and public houses continued to thrive on the main street, but as shopping habits changed the traditional make up of the main street started to change.  It was the rise of the supermarket which spelt the death knell of the small grocery shop of which there were once many located on Athy’s main streets.

Change in our drinking habits, prompted in part at least, by tougher drink driving laws, gave an impetus to the development of off licences, but also inevitably led to the closure of several public houses.  Athy, which in 1914 had forty public houses catering for a town population just slightly in excess of 4,000, today has sixteen public houses for a population of 9,000 or so. 

The dominant use of cars by shoppers is another factor in Athy’s town centre struggle for survival.  When the local Town Council implemented a pay parking regime in the town inevitably it acted as a deterrent to would be town centre shoppers.  Our Town Council brought in pay parking some years ago ostensibly as a traffic management scheme but within months of doing so the scheme was extended to every road way and lane in the town in an obvious attempt to maximise revenue.  The implementation of pay parking in Athy accelerated the rate of abandonment of the town centre and in my view contributed to the high rate of vacated premises on our main streets.
The talk by Offaly’s Heritage Officer brought home to her audience the urgent need for local people to take an active interest in the future development of their town and the need for cooperation between the locals and the local authority in planning for the town’s future.  Unplanned change has come to our town centre, but we must plan for the future and ensure that the once thriving town centre does not further deteriorate to become rows of empty shops slipping slowly but inevitably into a state of sad dereliction.

Vacant premises give rise to empty streets and empty streets in the town centre do not give us safe public places.  We need to recreate living and working spaces in our town centres and in that regard we should follow the example of French municipal authorities.  Those authorities consistently strive to maintain their town centres by ensuring the retention of traditional retailing and service outlets to the extent of refusing to follow EEC decisions to the contrary. 

Athy town centre is slowly degenerating and urgent action must be taken by the local authority and by the local community to halt its destruction.  Local businesses need to be encouraged and incentives provided to stimulate the reinstatement of living accommodation in the town centre.  A good example is given by Dublin City Council which in an attempt to reenergise the inner city provide financial incentives to bring vacant buildings and empty sites back into use.

One thing which the local authority could do immediately is to provide for three hours free parking for local shoppers.  That in itself would encourage people to shop locally.  The more people shop locally the better the prospect of local shops remaining in business and improving the range and quality of goods offered for sale.  With the imminent disbandment of Athy Town Council responsibility for the future development of the town will pass to Kildare County Council.  However, our local Chamber of Commerce must play a more active role in promoting Athy and ensuring its future as the commercial heart of South Kildare.

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