Laois County Council County Hall in Portlaoise.
Apart from a brief period in the mid-noughties, it can be argued that Irish towns and villages have been steadily slipping down the urban hierarchy over the past 60 years or so.
The advent of the private motor car in Ireland in the 1950’s, as with many other countries, meant that larger towns have seen more economic activity and more retail offerings.
In many instances, market towns that formerly performed and fulfilled a local social and economic role are now and have been for some time facing ongoing challenges.
They have been further pressured by the financial crisis of 2008, the massive impact of trading on line, the lure of shiny new shopping centres in Dublin and elsewhere. And then comes a global pandemic.
Over the past number of years there have been ongoing efforts, spurred on by the Elected Members of Laois County Council, to bring new investment into the county and to rejuvenate Portlaoise, Portarlington and other town centres. Under a partnership approach involving Laois Co. Council, local Town Teams, the Local Enterprise Office, the Laois partnership Company and more lately the Laois Chamber of Commerce, significant progress has been made in empowering local communities and providing them with the tools and finances to shape their local towns and village.
Several good examples of community planning and action come to mind; Cullahill, Borris in Ossory, Ballinakill, Durrow, Abbeyleix and so on where local people and local businesses have taken on the mantle of energizing local communities and laying out plans for economic and social recovery.
There has also been a sea change in the manner in which innovators, philanthropists and businesses have turned their hands to the creation of enterprise hubs in the county. Some outstanding examples that have yet to see their full potential include, the Bloom HQ in Mountrath, The Beale Centre in Mountmellick, the Erkina Hub in Rathdowney and Vision 85 in Portlaoise and it is great to see they have come together as one group under the Laois Hubs Collective.
It is entirely possible and feasible that rural hubs will provide readymade solutions for those working from home or near home and for employers dislocating from more expensive and more populated locations.
One gets the sense that for some time many people have been thinking about the future of work in Laois having regard to environmental pressures, climate change, family life and personal lifestyles.
When set against a backdrop of 11,500 people exiting the county for work on a daily basis, life in lockdown and home working has caused a sharp intake of breath and brought such issues into sharp focus.
The current economic challenge posed by Covid gives greater urgency to the imagination of a new physical workplace and the adaptation of public spaces for new norms of social interaction.
While Laois Co. Council and local communities have been working collaboratively for some time the new reality has catapulted us into a scenario where over the next few weeks all stakeholders can show solidarity to ensure that local business has every opportunity to survive and recommence trading.
In Portlaoise, for example, building the very positive engagement by all parties in coming up with “Portlaoise Vision 2040” there is now a real sense of energy in devising a plan for the main street that will:
i) allow traders to uses areas of the public street and public realm to engineer a way around social distance restrictions.
ii) provide assurances to shoppers and members of the public in venturing back to the town centre with confidence.
iii) ensure adherence to public health guidelines by permitting adequate room on the street for pedestrians, and
iv) be attractive in terms of design of street furniture, planting, lighting, and security.
The key to getting it right is to have full and early engagement with residents, retailers and businesses along Main Street.
To date this has been excellent and the Council hopes to put forward proposals in the next week or so in respect of the repurposing of the street. In many ways the Council has been working a “Carte blanche” approach where it invites ideas and proposals from the business owners themselves. It will be up to the Council then working through the Elected Members to resource, legislate and implement.
Clearly we need to keep a close watch on the five stage business reopening plan and time our collective run so that we have the bones of a workable scheme in place by the end of June. The future life of Main Street and its connectivity to other shopping areas in Portlaoise town will be influenced by the success of what is to be put in place this summer.
The Council, the Town Team and the Chamber have collaborated very strongly over the past few months and we are now at the point where a number of regenerative projects can begin to move.
We also have backing finance as a result of grant allocations in recent times, these include:
a) Urban Regeneration Development Fund- ( Car park at CBS Convent site renewal, old fort protector project, Lysters Square and laneways, public lighting, energy efficiency, Triogue Blueway) funded by Department of Housing and Laois Co Co
b) Portlaoise Destination Towns- (new signage, laneway enhancements, placemaking) funded by Failte Ireland and Laois Co Council
c) Paint the Shop Scheme currently underway - funded by Laois Co. Council.
d) Biodiversity Planting on New Southern Relief Road (Portlaoise Tidy Towns)
e) Low Carbon Centre of Excellence (Laois Co. Council)
Much has been said about the impact of Covid on the future of work, business and social life. It is predicted that working from home will become the norm, where this is possible.
It is also said that large cities and urban areas could lose out because of new physical distancing norms , office rental costs, etc. Conversely smaller towns and villages could witness a strong revival as people remain in their local areas and enhance their connectivity to their local place.
For towns in Laois this presents something of an opportunity. With work on the roll out of rural broadband set to commence in Q4 this year, who is to say that small towns and villages will not experience something of a renaissance - places where communities and businesses can thrive, where childcare may be more accessible and where daily mind numbing commutes will become less frequent. Clearly there are some jobs and professions where travel will be necessary (it would be hard to work from home with an electric welder in your Zoom room) but a reduction in traffic volumes especially at peak hours would make a lot of difference for many workers.
Building on progress already made over the past couple of years the Council through the Chamber of Commerce, Laois Tourism and others is currently engaging with business in rural areas with a view towards assisting innovation and transformation for business and retail in small towns and villages. The Council is encouraging people to come forward to explore best use of streets, village greens, etc so as to enable viable models of business at a distance.
In this regard the Council intends to put out a call for communities to apply for support under the 2020 Town and Village Renewal Scheme and under the CLAR programme.
At this point it may be hard to imagine what recovery looks like. There are many “prophets of Zoom” out there who see only very bleak scenarios, we all know we are in strange and difficult times but as a community we must find a way to get back to business. The people of our county have shown resilience many times in the past and I’m sure will work together again and regroup to a position of relative advantage.