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.