Future-proofing Regional Towns

(Part Two):

The National Planning Framework (NPF) is, by and large, a laudable document. Like many previously published Government reports, it’s Himalayan in aspiration, but the proof of the pudding will, as always, be in the eating. Come 2040, by which time this report will have nominally fulfilled its primary objectives, it will be of interest to see just how many boxes have been ticked in reality.
I for one hope that National Policy Objective 7, for example, will have been honoured in full including this noble sentiment: “Reversing the stagnation or decline of many smaller urban centres, by identifying and establishing new roles and functions and (through the) enhancement of local infrastructure and amenities.”

National, regional and local reports regarding the futures of our provincial towns are high on aspiration.

National, regional and local reports regarding the futures of our provincial towns are high on aspiration.

Wexford County Councillor Michael Sheehan (FF), who is currently devising a ‘2020 Vision’ urban/community renewal document, believes there are three principal areas which need to be addressed to revive towns of a similar scale to his native New Ross.
“Firstly, we need to sort out the employment situation, which we will,” he stated. “We’re currently in the process of developing two advance factories and an Enterprise Centre, and that leads onto the second issue. We need to rejuvenate the town centre and to do that, we really need to push the boat out. If New Ross is going to be a tourist destination as well as a commercial destination, then we need all of our streets to be in pristine condition and that, for me, involves uniformed design. We also need to put the people who live in the town at the centre of what we’re doing; we cannot design the future of New Ross, no more than we can for towns like Carrick-on-Suir, Tramore and Dungarvan, and do all of that work with only tourists in mind. We have to pay regard to the 32,000 people living in the greater New Ross area as well.”

Cllr Sheehan continued: “And the third area involves connecting people to the area; young people ought to have a strong link with the place they’re growing up in. When they go to college, they should want to come back once they’ve graduated, but to do that, we need to create the atmosphere to bring them home again, to pursue careers here, to raise their own families here. For decades, the South East has been drained of tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of talented young men and women who pursue third level education outside of the region and we never get them back in a civic or community sense, let alone from a professional or economic perspective. And according to research conducted by Wexford County Council research, once somebody leaves (New Ross), only about 40 per cent of them ever come back, so there are a significant amount of graduates going to Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway and because of the nature of the university, research and job prospects beyond graduation, that’s where they end up settling. And they’re gone from us for good.”

With that in mind, a University of international scale in the South East would surely serve to reverse such a long-standing trend?
“Ray Griffin of WIT has estimated (via the South East Economic Monitor) that the annual cost for a student from South East living away from home is in the region of €11,000,” said Cllr Sheehan. And when one considers this accounts for almost 14,000 students, the financial drain, in addition to the brain drain, comes into sharp focus.

According to the July 2017 Economic Monitor: “It is estimated that the additional cost per annum of a student living away from home is €11,000, which suggests an annual transfer of €148m (after tax income lost) to other regions… “If we had a Technological University in the South East, with satellite campuses in Wexford, Carlow and Kilkenny in addition to Waterford, we’d undoubtedly retain many of the students currently leaving the region. The more students you have would create the critical mass to deliver additional Degree, Masters and PhD programmes, and research in turn would latch onto that expanded programme delivery. So if we had a TU, then New Ross would work with such a body and add a Research Centre to the Enterprise Centre I mentioned previously, along the lines of the RIKON (Business Technology Management) model at WIT. There are huge opportunities there which will eventually ‘envelope out’ of a having a TU, and it’s key. If we can stop the haemorrhaging of students, then we’ll be making an investment in our best resource: our own people. That would be better for the region, better for the economy and it would be a hell of a lot cheaper on parents too. It would also boost the intellectual capital of the South East and it’s certainly something we all need to concentrate more on than we have up to now.”

Michael Sheehan’s call for an Enterprise Centre for New Ross is echoed in the (2016 published) Carrick-on-Suir Strategic Vision 2030, which also calls for a “rolling fund for derelict property renovation”, the development of the Ormond Castle Quarter and the redevelopment of the Wicklow Gardens site (which flanks the River Suir). The long-awaited re-opening of Carrick Town Hall this coming Thursday, in addition to the restorative works at the Tudor Manor, represent significant public realm investments for a town which has been historically shy of investment.

The delivery of the Kennedy Homestead and Emigrant Trail, in addition to the Dunbrody Famine Ship Experience, has enhanced New Ross’s tourist offering. Meanwhile, the Waterford Greenway has revitalised Kilmacthomas and further increased Dungarvan’s already superb profile. All are proof of how a local vision, backed by national investment, can deliver real, tangible and positive outcomes for our towns and adjoining villages; the recently expanded Piltown Enterprise Centre also springs to mind. It’s now time for central Government to step forward with cold, hard cash and make real its 2040 ambitions.

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