Opening Address by
Minister for Housing and Urban Renewal
Damien English T.D
Town Centre Health Check (TCHC) Workshop
16 March 2017
Revitalising Ireland’s Towns: Pilot Training Workshop No. 2 (2 of 2)
Ladies and gentleman, as Minister with responsibility for Housing and Urban Renewal, I am delighted to be here with you this morning.
I would like to thank RGDATA and the Heritage Council for the invitation to be here for what promises to be a very interesting and informative workshop.
I would also like to commend both organisations, and their partners, for their continued work towards the development and creation of a robust Town Centre Health Check mechanism for Irish towns.
I understand that significant progress has been made to date under the programme and I wish to acknowledge the concerted efforts of all those involved in the participating pilot towns across the country.
In particular, I welcome the co-operative and inclusive approach being taken by you and all the stakeholders in developing this training programme.
Town Centre Health Checks
Our town centres are much more than simply bricks and mortar. They are the core, the essence, and the lifeblood of our urban areas throughout the country.
It is therefore imperative that they are preserved, maintained and revitalised so that they can be sustainable for generations to come.
Following our recent economic downturn and the negative impacts associated with it, we now face the increasing challenge of ensuring that our town centres can be viable places which will attract people to live in, work in and visit.
One of the most negative and visible impacts of the recent economic downturn has unquestionably been the large levels of vacancy in the retail, commercial and residential sectors in some of our town centres.
The trend of developing new retail centres on the edge of towns has also led to a loss of trade, footfall and vitality within the inner core areas of towns.
The vibrancy of many main streets and urban centres has been threatened by such past actions.
It is my firm belief though, that we now have a great opportunity to develop and plan for our Town Centres so that they not only survive, but they thrive.
I believe also that the Town Centre Health Check training programme will contribute strongly to seizing the opportunity for our urban centres across the country.
It focusses on utilising best practice, including international best practice, in developing shared and integrated approaches to town centre renewal, across all sectors – retail, commercial and residential – which will also support Government policies and strategies for our towns.
The reality is that if our urban areas are to survive and thrive, they need more residents supplemented by nearby retail units and services – the two are interdependent.
This is largely what the Town Centre Health check concept is aimed at addressing – revitalising our towns and enhancing their economic sustainability – and both Minister Coveney and I are fully supportive of this approach.
Government priority on Urban Regeneration
The Programme for a Partnership Government, published in May 2016, sets out the ambitious priority attached to the area of urban regeneration by the current Government. It includes a series of specific actions aimed at facilitating the regeneration of our urban centres.
The Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness – Rebuilding Ireland, published in July 2016, further reinforces the Government’s commitment to the area of urban regeneration.
This proposes a further range of measures in this area, as does the recent Action Plan for Rural Development – published in January 2017 by Minister Humphries – which has a more specific focus and objective of preserving and enhancing rural towns and villages, as well as their surrounding communities.
In the context of Rebuilding Ireland, I am presently chairing an Urban Renewal Working Group comprising senior representatives from my Department, local authorities and other relevant bodies with a view to bringing forward proposals for new urban regeneration measures.
Measures that will support those already in place, including my Department’s Social Housing Regeneration Programme and the recently announced “Repair and Lease” and the “Buy and Renew” schemes.
Having regard to my Ministerial responsibilities, vacancy and dereliction in urban areas is an issue that I have a particular interest in.
Consequently a key focus of the Working Group has been on measures to address vacancy in urban areas, of both residential and commercial premises, with a view to bringing currently vacant units back into productive use.
We are now nearing the conclusion of the Working Group’s deliberations.
It is my intention to announce the new urban regeneration measures arising from that process in the near months ahead. Measures that will be designed to help our Town Centres to survive and thrive.
Sustainable urban development
The challenges facing Ireland today are undoubtedly complex ones. This is particularly the case in cities and urban areas having regard to:
- the ongoing increase in population,
- increasing migration,
- changing demographic trends, and
- the ongoing increasing urbanisation of society as more and more people gravitate towards living in larger urban areas.
Cities and towns are the main drivers of economic activity, competing to attract skills, investment and employment.
It is consequently important that a comprehensive, holistic and integrated approach is adapted to sustainable urban development.
Enhancing the desirability and “liveability” of our urban centres through good place-making, and promoting well-managed, liveable, safe, socially inclusive, resource-efficient and environmentally sustainable urban areas is key to this.
In this regard, key urban place-making incorporates a range of complex and inter-related issues:
- the design of public spaces;
- the provision of supporting infrastructure and public realm;
- the need for more compact and efficient urban design;
- increased housing density maximizing the use of available land to help combat urban sprawl;
- the provision of necessary facilities, including retail, as well as other supporting amenities and open spaces;
- the prioritisation of sustainable transport modes;
- increasing energy efficiency;
- as well as tackling deprivation and related social issues in communities.
The overlapping nature of these quite complex, distinct and diverse range of issues is such that there is a need to consider an overall strategy.
A national, comprehensive and forward-looking urban policy – that will allow the opportunities in urban areas to be fully realised.
One that will enshrine that the right development will take place in the right location, at the right time.
National Planning Framework – Ireland 2040
All of this requires a comprehensive and integrated overarching framework approach to planning, to design and to the provision of supporting infrastructure and services.
This applies whether we are improving the existing urban environment already in place, accommodating new development, or both.
In this connection, my Department is currently in the process of developing a new spatial plan for Ireland, a National Planning Framework entitled Ireland 2040.
Public consultation has already commenced and which it is intended will be finalised and published later this year.
The new plan will set out an overarching, long-term framework to guide future development in terms of the Government objectives – including in relation to urban development – to be taken account of in the subsequent development of regional strategies, local authority development plans and LAP’s.
In setting out a national vision for the future development and growth of Ireland to 2040, a key policy consideration will be how we best manage our urban centres, development in and around those urban centres, as well as how we control the urban sprawl associated with urban growth centres.
In the last twenty years, 45% of Ireland’s population growth (more than 500,000 people), occurred in just six local authority areas, each of which adjoin, but none of which include, Dublin, Cork and Galway.
Against this background, it is therefore important in the context of our new national spatial plan that the focus of investment and development will be spread more widely than in the past to act as a counter-balance to Dublin, thereby facilitating more balanced regional development of the country as a whole.
By way of conclusion, cities and towns are where most of our population now congregate and it is therefore imperative that in this context, every effort is made to make our urban centres more sustainable.
To make our urban centres better places in which to live, work and do business in for all of our citizens. Together we can put the plans in place to facilitate this and the Town Centre Health Check is important in this regard.
I renew my congratulations, support and thanks to Alison Harvey from the Heritage Council, to Tara Buckley and RGDATA.
I thank you all for engaging in your local Town Centre.
Together we can ensure that or town centres survive.
Together we will help our town centres thrive.