Less Talk, More Action

There has been much talk in recent years of the decline of Ireland’s town centres, visible in examples such as that shown above. This house sits in the middle of Erskine Terrace on Farnham Street in Cavan. Dating from the late Georgian period when the Maxwell family, Lords Farnham took an interest in the town, it is today in a state of sad neglect and a blight on the rest of the terrace. Further north on the same street and adjacent to the Roman Catholic cathedral of SS Patrick and Felim is the former presbytery (see below) which it appears was once an early 19th century three-storey house with pitched roof but converted into the present two-storey flat-roofed building in 1962. Like the other property to the south, it stands empty and forlorn, doing nothing to improve the character of the town.
So, what is to be done? The Heritage Council has recently launched a new Podcast series called Putting Town Centres First (https://www.heritagecouncil.ie/projects/podcast-series-putting-town-centres-first). No doubt admirable in its intent, one has to ask what practical difference this series will make. Discussions about urban decline, conferences, reports and analyses: all have been going on for decades with no visible solution to the problem under consideration. There has been much hand-wringing but little real change. Last month in the Irish Times, economist David McWilliams wrote an article in which he stated bluntly that dereliction ‘is vandalism for the property-owning classes’ and that the country’s huge numbers of neglected buildings ‘send out a signal of decay and reveal an enormously wasteful attitude to capital.’ (https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/david-mcwilliams-the-rules-of-the-property-game-have-changed-1.4382088). Returning to the subject a couple of weeks later, McWilliams noted that some 15% of the country’s total building stock, almost 200,00 properties, are at present lying empty and neglected, and that in a little over a year 11 buildings had collapsed in the middle of Cork city. He then proposed a simple solution to resolving the issue: ‘use it or lose it’ legislation. Under this proposal, property that is being actively used, ideally for residential purposes, ‘is rewarded with preferential treatment, but one that is vacant is taxed. If the owner can’t pay that tax, the property faces a compulsory purchase order by the State, which then puts it on the market.’ (https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/david-mcwilliams-a-plan-to-put-ireland-s-200-000-vacant-buildings-to-use-1.4394673). Sounds radical? Yes indeed, but despite all those conferences and reports and now podcasts, no one else has yet come up with a better solution. The simple question is this: should private individuals be permitted to desecrate the public environment by failing to maintain their property? At what point does it become unacceptable for private interest to trump public good? Talk may salve consciences but solves nothing. There is really no need for any more of it. If Ireland’s town centres are to have a viable future, and our collective architectural heritage preserved, what’s required is decisive – and perhaps radical – action. Otherwise the number of buildings looking like these examples in Cavan will continue to rise.

9 comments on “Less Talk, More Action

  1. Patrick says:

    That is indeed a beautiful house in Cavan, so many people do not appreciate how close to Dublin Cavan actually is .
    I wonder if there is any merit in speaking to the owners of such properties, or property developers or property investors about the reasons for this .
    Why not speak to the man who is actually in the arena . While journalism from people who have never built anything beyond there own nest which sits comfortably on a fence has its place , this approach may have more merit and the answers will be clear .
    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

  2. upsew says:

    It always sad to see buildings neglected, especially so when we are in a ‘housing crisis’. I think the use or lose could be useful. I often wondered if it would be possible to introduce a measure where buildings could not be left unused/vacant for more than 12 months, as once a building is left idle, it becomes derilict so fast, and in turn over time allows for the decision to demolish to become easier. (which to me compounds a waste of resources). If buildings (especially in town centres) could do short term inexpensive lets to ensure occupancy, I think this would revitalise small town centres, and ensure buildings were occupied.

  3. Well said! I’ve long felt that unused buildings should be heavily taxed so that neglect becomes too expensive an option. Our built heritage is declining at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, many people are without decent homes and town centres are becoming deserts. Of course, not all buildings are suitable for modern housing, but there are plenty of other uses to which they could be put.

  4. Tim Guilbride says:

    This is a Europe-wide problem. Old city centres across the continent are full of decaying, empty former townhouses, no longer suitable or wanted as offices but in need of planning support to encourage families to return. There is nothing nicer than an old town centre full of families and everyday life, but we all need to lobby for it, nationally and in our own neighbourhood. Creative tax breaks/supported rents/rates exemptions etc., plus active promotion of town life: we haven’t long left to save some locations, so we need to make government sit up and listen, now.

  5. Alison Harvey says:

    Give me a call anytime – Ali Harvey, CTCHC Podcast Co-ordinator and Founder of the CTCHC Programne with the Heritage Council. We set up the programme initially with NO FUNDING in its first year due to the number of people asking for help with their town centres – we have 15 towns in the programme and a further 18 on a waiting list. You really should do more research for your articles to make them more accurate… Best Ali aharvey@heritagecouncil.ie

    • Thank you for your message. If there are any inaccuracies in what I have written, please let me know and I shall be happy to correct them. If, on the other hand, you simply disagree with what I have written, then that is your prerogative.
      I note that you have set up the programme with NO FUNDING, and suggest in return you note that everything I do is undertaken voluntarily and with NO FUNDING, not even the advantage of a salary such as is enjoyed by members of the Heritage Council’s staff. All of us can benefit from more research.

  6. Alison Harvey says:

    Please check out the CTCHC Programme webpage – let me know when you’ve read the information about what we do in the 15 town centres in the programme… you will see we are working extremely hard to create the data baselines that did not exist before we came along. I’m a great believer in doing in-depth research before firing up an ill-informed post. Best Ali

    • Thank you for your message. Indeed I am familiar with the material in question and have read through much of it over the past couple of years. While unquestionably very impressive, it does not alter my opinion that what’s needed to ensure a viable future for Ireland’s towns is less talk and more action. Nor, frankly, will my opinion be altered by snide remarks.

  7. Rose Mary Craig says:

    You are so right. We need pro active action to prevent the crumbling of towns. We need Councils to take responsibility for the things they are elected to do. It is a disgrace that public housing projects are farmed out to developers who sell the built houses back to the Council at a huge profit. Why can’t Councils contract builders to do the work directly for them….like they used to do. When we were very poor after independence we were able to undertake huge housing projects like Crumlin. Why? Because the political will was there. That is what is lacking. Everywhere developers are trying to assemble big blocks to build another giant block and this is what leads to buildings being blocked up and left derelict….sometimes of course renewing and rebuilding may be the best course of action but that’s not correct for everywhere. For instance here in Enniskerry in an ACA area the historic building of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) was arbitrarily demolished in 2018 and I have been in correspondence with Wicklow County Council since then. They say that legal proceedings are being undertaken but in the meantime the building is left to crumble and an increasing danger to pedestrians – many of whom were tourists (until COVID). Life is changing due to COVID and maybe this is a lifeline for the towns and villages of Ireland as people discover they can work from home and start to seek a house and a GARDEN outside the shoeboxes that are called homes in Dublin!

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