The President of County Wicklow Chamber of Commerce, Rory Benville, has called for ‘vision and action’ from the Chairs of the various Municipal Councils if the Main Streets in our towns are to be saved.
Mr Benville, who as County President represents Bray, Greystones, Wicklow and Arklow chambers said “There is a widespread acceptance that the traditional town centre is in crisis primarily due to the development of large out of town shopping centres with free car parking. In an unintended way local town officials and councillors have facilitated this decline by introducing car parking charges and traffic management designed to discourage cars from stopping either in or near the centre of towns.
“ The importance of free and easy access is recognised by developers of these large shopping centres where parking is brought up to, under and above the shops- Dundrum Shopping Centre is a case in point. In Carrickmines the traffic is brought right into the development and the shops are built around the car parks which are, of course, free.
The introduction of parking charges in our towns should have been accompanied by the construction of large public car parks which would allow all day parking and ideally free parking in the town centre. But the required infrastructure was never provided and it appears the Local Authority is not now in a position to address this issue in any meaningful way.
The adverse situation is compounded because the revenue stream generated by these charges is regarded as an essential part of the Local authority income. This is misleading in that as shops and offices close, the local authority is losing rates income and have to deal with a build environment of empty and derelict shops. There is also the relentless knock-on effect on other shops and businesses in the town.
If the main street is to work it requires good town centre planning and the cornerstone of this is common sense. On the continent they do not have the same crisis because they have embraced a culture where the town is valued and its environment is enhanced. Pedestrians are accommodated and encouraged with easy and planned access, there are public car parks, pedestrian only streets, markets and cycle-ways – cycle ways that are properly designed and with purpose. In Ireland we tend to build cycle-ways that go nowhere and in many cases are so badly designed they create a danger to the user rather than creating a safe route to and from schools, shops etc .This must stop.
More and more people are spending most of their working time in front of a computer screen which suggest to me that they will not, and do not want to do their shopping online. Why would they? They will want to go to shops where they can socialise, meet friends, relax or chill out. Our town centres could provide the required experience with good planning and common sense.
We can help create a shopping experience which is different and unique to each town. We should encourage small shops;- cafes, art galleries, antique or curio shops along with traditional small shops such as butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers, bakeries, book shops, pharmacies and services such as medical, accountancy, legal to locate in the town centre. The sale of locally produced foods and products should also be encouraged.
We should have variety as variety is the spice of life. Elected councillors need to move in a coordinated way to ensure that this vision can be realised. They need to provide free car parking in the town centres of our county, rates need to be reduced and in due course eliminated where the shop owner agrees to upgrade his/her premises to a style standard and plan approved by the local planners. There has to be action, a sense of urgency and a plan.
This leadership must be provided by the Chairs of the various Municipal District Councils. We in the Chambers of Commerce will work with the councillors and officials and do our part to ensure that the current downward spiral is halted and reversed progress is made.