Tuesday, 8 March 2022
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English. I congratulate him on the launch of the new Town Centre First policy, which is going to be transformative. Of course, I am here today as a Senator based in Dublin West and I want us to be part of that. Town Centre First, for anyone who does not know, is a policy where local communities and businesses will be supported in revitalising towns and villages through tools and supports. It is about revitalising our communities and, of course, we want to create stronger and safer communities. This ambitious and far-reaching policy contains a range of measures and funding supports aimed at making towns in the various counties more viable and attractive places in which to live, work and visit, while ensuring they are social, cultural and services hubs for the local community.
It is not just rural areas that can benefit from this. As I said, I represent Dublin 15 and Dublin West, which is a collection of various different villages. They are real villages, like Castleknock village, Blanchardstown village, Clonsilla village, Ongar village and Ashtown village. During Covid, we saw how people were closer to home. They were shopping and supporting local, and areas like Blanchardstown saw their greatest footfall ever in the Bank of Ireland and in Supervalu. We could see the effect this was having on the main street. The main streets in these areas often suffer because of their proximity to the city centre and they are not an entirely separate entity, as they might be in rural areas. I do not think we want to go back to a place where those main streets do not get an opportunity to revive as well. There is an opportunity around ensuring we get the benefit of the digital transformation that we saw in Covid, with people working remotely at home. We want more people be able to work remotely but, again, we are missing out on the opportunities in these areas.
I see the Town Centre First model working for areas like this but it is not open to them at the moment. If we look at the funding streams, there is the urban regional development fund, the rural regional development fund, the town and village renewal scheme and the towns fund for servicing sites for new homes and for the refurbishment of vacant homes. We do not get access to those. It is frustrating when we are meeting people from the Tidy Towns or from local groups who see money from these programmes going into other areas but not theirs.They want their community co-working hub and to see community childcare. They want those things to see the transformation on the main street and to retain people who have been working in the area to keep them coming into their shops, whereby the traditional shops can benefit from it as well.
In conclusion, the model around town teams and the fact there is a regeneration officer and a health check could apply here. Mobilising different groups and organisations around this model would have a hugely beneficial effect on suburban areas too.
I thank Senator Currie for raising this issue, which I will answer on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Peter Burke, who could not make it today. He is glad the Senator raised this issue, however, because it is certainly something he would like to talk about to focus minds.
The whole idea behind the Town Centre First policy initiative and framework was to maximise the investment of State resources in our towns and villages right across the country, be they urban or rural. We would then have a process to maximise that investment and be able to see positive outcomes that benefit the whole town, village and community. Again, I thank Senator Currie for bringing the focus to the suburban town initiative. I also recognise her work in this area in making sure we provide our towns and villages with the option of remote working, working from home and in trying to do away with that commute. Bringing the heart back into our communities and lives is something she has been championing for years. This initiative should be able to assist with those plans.
The Town Centre First policy raised by Senator Currie today was launched on 4 February. It provides a co-ordinated, whole-of-government policy framework to address the decline in the heart of town centres, to provide support measures to regenerate and revitalise them, and, as I said earlier, to maximise the investment in our towns. The Senator mentioned Blanchardstown and villages like Clonsilla. All these different villages are part of the initiatives that could come through under this policy. A key feature of the policy is the preparation of a Town Centre First plan for a town, which will be developed by the local community, supported by the local authority and local business organisations, to identify and analyse the challenges facing the town and to propose initiatives and projects to address them.
The Town Centre First initiative, therefore, recognises that a solely top-down approach to the development of our towns is not appropriate to the challenges they face. This is about trying to bring the community together with a list of actions that will help develop our towns over a period and make them much more attractive places in which to live, invest, create jobs and grow a business, as well as in which to raise a family and to be able to naturally expand our community services. Instead, this document sets out an innovative approach whereby local communities and local businesses can be central to reimagining their own towns and planning their own futures.
With regard to suburban villages located within the five cities, as Senator Currie quite rightly referenced, these centres are recognised as being the heart of their local communities. They provide a focus for local activities, allowing sustainable urban living and facilitating people’s access to local shops, services, community services, information, healthcare, amenities and the ability to work locally. They are essential to the economic well-being and quality of life of the city.
The individual development plans of the metropolitan local authorities include important policies related to regeneration of these areas, which also will tie into the Town Centre First initiative. Their importance and the need for the strategic regeneration of urban and suburban villages is also strongly reflected across the regional spatial and economic strategies, RSESs, and related metropolitan area strategic plans, MASPs, that have now been produced by the three regional assemblies.
A number of funding sources are available to support the development and regeneration of such suburban areas including the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, as well as funding for local sustainable transport infrastructure, community facilities, heritage and economic development among other areas available from various Departments and State agencies. To be clear, that urban regeneration funding should be available to those towns the Senator referenced today. It absolutely is about developing these plans in conjunction with local authorities to be able to draw down this competitive funding. Applications for these funds are primarily the responsibility of the relevant local authorities, which, as the planning authorities, are best placed to prioritise and integrate proposals in their operational areas, as advocated by the Town Centre First policy.
Funding has previously been provided through the urban regeneration and development fund to a number of regeneration projects in suburban village areas to date, including Inchicore in Dublin city and Stillorgan and Dundrum in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area, as well as a range of integrated regeneration projects in Tallaght, for example.
There will be a third call to the local authorities for project proposals for the URDF in the second half of 2022. This will include inviting projects specifically focused on implementation of the Town Centre First policy. In addition, the establishment of a national Town Centre First office will support the achievement of impactful regeneration nationwide through the development of a Town Centre First toolkit, bringing together all the best people and the vested agencies to work with local people to maximise their actions and approaches.This toolkit of best practice will inform the local approaches to regeneration and will encompass specific strands targeting key factors such as urban development, economic enterprise development, community engagement, digitalisation, climate action and others.
As towns or suburban areas and communities develop their town action plans, different funding streams will feed into them. The focus through this framework is that we get all the agencies and stakeholders together on the one pitch and buying into the one plan for their town. It does not mean that the results will be seen in year 1 but over a couple of years, as one wins and secures funding from different Government initiatives and funds to feed into the plan to make it happen over a period. All the areas that the Senator mentioned earlier will be quite capable of being able to draw down that funding.
When I talk to local authorities about access to town and village and the urban regeneration development fund and even the regional enterprise funding that is available, they say they are not able to get support from those schemes. Will there be new schemes or will the schemes be tweaked so that areas such as Blanchardstown and Castleknock get access to them? I agree that bringing together the stakeholders of a village is great. There is a development plan. There will be an urban planning framework for those different areas and hopefully between the development plan and this work and connecting the two there could be some great proposals that we can apply for funding under.
As I am no longer the Minister of State with responsibility in this Department, I do not want to rewrite policy while I am here. I will certainly bring back the points raised by the Senator to the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. To be clear, the understanding when we set up the urban and rural regeneration funds was that they would achieve the same thing in different settings because they are funded by two different Departments. The majority of towns and villages, and certainly the ones mentioned by Senator Currie, are meant to be part of that. That was always my understanding when it was done and talking to the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, before today's debate, and based on the response to the Senator's question that I read, that is the aim.
We can engage with local authorities to see if there is misrepresentation or misunderstanding. In some cases, towns and villages are grouped together to ensure that they come under the different population numbers. However, Blanchardstown, Clonee and Castleknock are areas that would need intervention by the State in conjunction with local communities and businesses. The Senator is right to call them out here. She asked if we will see tweaks to the Town Centre First initiative. I would imagine that in the coming years different schemes and funding measures will be brought forward as well as tweaks. Even with existing schemes, there are mechanisms there to find the funding that is needed for towns and villages.
I will bring this back to the Minister of State who can probably talk to the Senator about this directly.