The Retail Grocery Dairy & Allied Trades Association, RGDATA, has claimed that local authorities in Ireland need to up their game when it comes to preventing the decline of Irish town and village centres.
According to RGDATA director general, Tara Buckley, local authorities have demonstrated no vision for town centres and have pursued policies that have accelerated the decline of many formerly vibrant towns.
Ms Buckley commented: “Every week I hear from retailers who express their frustration at the approach of their local authority towards their town centres. The councils penalise people who want to park and shop in the town centre, while at the same time facilitating usually foreign multiples in out of town locations with free parking.
“The councils are also the first with their hand out seeking rates and development contributions from town centre retailers when they extend or renovate their shops.”
RGDATA is the representative association for over 4,000 independent family-owned grocery shops, convenience stores, forecourt stores, and supermarkets in Ireland.
RGDATA’s statement will not be warmly receive by members of Westmeath County Council and Athlone Municipal District, who have had the rejuvenation of Athlone town centre as a major priority in recent years.
Councillor Aengus O’Rourke said: “I am speaking, I suppose, with two hats on. I have a business in the town myself and I am a member of Westmeath County Council and Athlone Municipal District. I think we have made strong and positive moves in recent years to bolster our town centre and interest in our town centre from a business perspective.
“I have to say, I think that along with the tentative recovery that is happening, I am delighted to see that businesses are returning to our main streets. There are now far fewer empty premises on the main thoroughfare than their would have been in the last seven years. There are new businesses continuing to emerge, so that is all positive.
“From the council point of view, we have the rates incentive scheme in place since last year which gives the opportunity to give discounted business rates. Now it doesn’t mean a huge amount of money, but at the same time it does give them relief for the first three years of business. So that is good news.”
Councillor O’Rourke said that the rates system in place today is not entirely fit for purpose in terms of encouraging people to open businesses, and that he feels there should be a change in approach: “I will say that there should be a better way for Government to fund local authorities other than rates,” he said.
“The property tax was one effort, but businesses are still making up too much of the local authority funding. I think a more radical approach is needed. The rates system is a Victorian system that is not fit for purpose. When we had local government reform in 2014 there was a huge missed opportunity that the Government didn’t look to revisit the whole rates system.”
Ms Buckley said that local authorities need to radically change how they view town centres. She said that they need to recognise the contribution that town centres can make from a social, commercial, and community perspective.
“They are a unique and distinctive part of our character and heritage,” she said. “In the context of the current debate on housing shortages, town centres are also places where people can live and sustainable communities can function. Local authorities need to recognise and value the contribution and potential of town centres.
“They need to stop pursuing policies that have the effect of undermining town centres in Ireland and make Irish towns attractive and viable places to live, work, shop, socialise, and visit.”