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08 Aug 2022

Can the centres hold? Regeneration of Portlaoise and three other Midland towns

OPINION from architect and town planner and a former President of the Irish Planning Institute

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A drawing of Tullamore and Portlaoise town centres

Portlaoise, Tullamore, Athlone and Mullingar are neighbouring but competing towns in the Midlands of Ireland. Due to their location and with good road and rail links, all have experienced healthy growth in recent years. Today, all four have expanding populations, though changing social and retail patterns have brought problems of under use, vacancy and even dereliction to their central areas.

A National Vision

The 2002 National Spatial Strategy envisaged Tullamore, Athlone and Mullingar combining together to form a Midlands counterbalance to Dublin but this concept was abandoned due to a lack of investment and the essential political support. A lesson was learned and Project 2040 -the National Planning Framework (NPF) - a much more credible initiative backed by laws and funding, emerged in 2018

The NPF sets out guiding principles and identifies Athlone as the Regional Centre for the Midlands with Longford, Mullingar,Tullamore, Portlaoise and Carlow/Graiguecullen as Key Towns. The Eastern and Midlands Region Spatial and Economic Strategy translated this national policy into the County Plans of Westmeath, Offaly and Laois. It is now the turn of the individual local authorities to deliver the necessary ground level actions through Local Area Plans.

The avoidance of further urban sprawl is a principal concern of the NPF and to promote compact settlements, at least 30% of all new houses must be built within or beside existing built up areas.

New Plans

Consultants will now bring forward projects which can attract Urban Regeneration and Development Funding. Civic designers will then explore what these might look like. Following a process of public consultation and engagement with stakeholders, each Council will adopt a statutorily binding Local Area Plan incorporating all or some of the ideas.

These Local Area Plans will employ three key devices to revitalise or improve historic town centres:

Opportunity Sites

These are the mostly cleared, ready to go sites in single ownership which are found in all of the four towns and whose regeneration within the context of agreed master plans may attract URDF funding. The redevelopment of the Grand Canal Harbour in Tullamore is a prime candidate.

Architectural Conservation Area (ACAs)

ACAs are the principal tools for protecting, enhancing and promoting a town’s streets and squares of architectural and historical character. The area around the Castle and Cathedral in Athlone is a good example.

Amenity Routes

These will be linked, safe and pleasant cycle or pedestrian routes around each town, well separated from cars. The planned lines along the banks of the Triogue River in Portlaoise and the River Brosna in Mullingar are typical projects.

Where do we stand today?

Some towns are more advanced in their plans than others.

Athlone

Six Opportunity Sites are located on the eastern bank of the Shannon, two of which are outdated shopping centres. Two ACAs encompass the historic Castle/Cathedral area and the Main Street. Pedestrian and cycling routes are planned along the banks of the Shannon with links to the National Greenway cycling route. Important waterside views are identified for protection or enhancement. The town has recently embarked on the preparation of a Regeneration Study to guide its future development. Athlone adopted an LAP in 2014.

Mullingar

Two major sites at Blackhall Place and the Canal Environs are presently the subject of Regeneration Studies and several other Opportunity Sites are designated around the town.The historic centre is contained within an ACA. Planned pedestrian and cycling routes will create links along the banks of the River Brosna and connect to the Greenway. Mullingar adopted an LAP in 2014.

Portlaoise

Two Opportunity Sites focus around the station (both presently partly under development for housing) and a third as an infill of the town centre. A fourth seeks to create a new quarter based on a walking and cycling route along the banks of the River Triogue. The entire town centre is included within an ACA. Portlaoise adopted an LAP in 2018 and aims to be Ireland’s first low carbon town centre.

Tullamore

Seven Opportunity Sites are located in the town centre, two of which are specifically identified as appropriate locations for higher buildings. Though the Greenway cycling route passes along the bank of the Grand Canal, there are no cycleways planned around the town, nor are any significant traffic-free linked pedestrian routes proposed. Surprisingly, Tullamore is unique in being the only county town in Ireland which doesn’t consider any of its streetscapes to be worthy of protection, nor has it adopted an LAP.

Things might be about to improve however, as a brief with a fee of €200.000 has been awarded to consultants to prepare a Regeneration Framework Plan for the centre and separate studies have been commissioned also to determine the future of the Grand Canal Harbour and the heritage value of key streetscapes. It will be interesting to see how outside eyes take a fresh look at the town.

Following the outcome of these studies, the process of preparing an LAP will begin in 2023 which will hopefully be adopted and operational by 2024. Paradoxically, if well handled, coming late to the party may prove an advantage in the long run for Tullamore.

Problems and Complexities

Of the twenty three ‘Opportunity Sites’ identified in the four towns only two have delivered some actual development. A recent case in Tullamore demonstrates the difficulties in implementing this otherwise worthy initiative.

Faced with the ongoing non-performance of a prominent but long underused Opportunity Site in the very centre of the town, the Council recently permitted a stand alone single storey shop with allied surface parking. Hopes for some onsite housing, additional floors, active street frontage and public realm gains didn’t materialise in the face of the developer’s protestations that these were simply uneconomic. Time alone will tell whether the Council’s decision will deliver a short term tactical win by cleaning up an eyesore or whether its conflict with the policies of the adopted County Plan and the compromising of the full development potential of a key town centre site was a long term strategic error.

But urban redevelopment can be fraught with multiple considerations of ownership, planning and byelaw restrictions, site assemblage and preparation, economic rewards or penalties and not infrequently, personality clashes.Tackling vacancy, combating dereliction and breathing new life into town centres, while supporting the protection of the environment and the culture and heritage of towns is a daunting task requiring a rare combination of skills, not necessarily available in each Council. In addition, the Government’s complex package of financial incentives and penalties to encourage repair and renewal while punishing land hoarding and dereliction will require skilled management.

Town Regeneration Officers

Successful urban renewal programmes have generally been those overseen by a single purpose authority or an inspired individual and the recent announcement of the appointment of Regeneration Officers to implement the Governments ‘Town Centres First’ policy is to be welcomed.

This ambitious initiative is being trialled in the smaller county towns of Clara, Moate and Rathdowney and €100,000 has been awarded to each to engage consultants to prepare plans which will unlock funding from the various urban and rural renewal schemes. These will be approved and promoted by local community and business groups and private stakeholders under the guidance of the Town Regeneration Officer. Lessons learnt will then be absorbed and inform the plans for the larger towns in each county.

As has been the experience in Westport and Kilkenny, the wholehearted adoption of this plan led and hands on approach could result in the transformation of our Midland towns also. With imaginative civic designs allied to sound investment and development policies and promoted and managed by young and enthusiastic Regeneration Officers, a brighter future is possible.

We can only hope.

Fergal MacCabe is an architect and town planner and a former President of the Irish Planning Institute

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