I thank all the witnesses for attending and bringing with them their experience and evidence regarding the town centre living initiative and their wider experience as key stakeholders in trying to regenerate our towns in the various local authorities around the country. I also thank the Department for its input in assisting people.
One recurring theme that came up from all the evidence was the cost and viability of the regeneration of town centres. Identifying these barriers is the first step, but the biggest challenge we all face is how we actually address them to move beyond that. We should work with the witnesses as key stakeholders, the voluntary committees, representatives of which attended last week and gave very substantial evidence to the committee, and this committee, which is trying to assist in providing recommendations on what is working and not working and how best we can move on regeneration of our towns and villages around the country. I am conscious we are talking only about a pilot scheme today, but in the back of my mind I am considering all the towns around the country that need help and assistance. I have some notes made. If the committee can bear with me, I have some general questions and then some more specific ones.
The Department is represented today by two officials, Mr. Parnell and Mr. Mulherin. I acknowledge the work of the Department and the Minister, Deputy Ring, in taking the lead on the regeneration of many of our towns and villages. I am conscious it is a new Department and that it had to get up and running from a standing start only a short few years ago. I acknowledge the substantial funds coming through the Department to assist towns and villages around the country. Having said that, and this is partly the purpose of this meeting, we still need to identify how best those funds can be targeted to get the best outcomes for the various towns.
Whether it is rural regeneration, town renewal, town centre living initiatives, CLÁR areas or otherwise, substantial funds are coming through the Department, which I acknowledge. Is it intended to extend the town centre living initiative beyond the pilot or is there more work to be done in it is reshaped, given the evidence we heard evidence from the voluntary committees last week, which I presume today's witnesses have read? It is important information coming from the ground up. There is also information from the local authorities today on how best we can retune that initiative and perhaps extend it for local authorities and towns throughout the country.
Local authorities have specific regeneration teams. Where does the priority on regeneration lie within the local authority system? I have specific questions on how that manifests itself. For example, two quotes from the local authorities stood out. The first was that councils are not responsible for buying properties, which I accept. However, it depends on why properties are lying vacant and derelict, and there has to be a reason that is happening. Who will take the lead with regard to moving on those properties? Is it the council or is it somebody else? The somebody else is the private investor and if it is not viable, private investors will not come in.
It is the responsibility of the local authority to buy the property. Local authorities have good tools and mechanisms available to them, and I refer to three in particular. The derelict sites legislation gives local authorities good functions and powers to address dereliction on main streets. The vacant sites levy, which was introduced only a short few years ago, is another important tool that local authorities can use if properties are not being moved on. Of course, the long-standing powers under CPO are another. I understand local authorities can be cash strapped and that funding is an issue. However, if there is strategic thinking and priority thinking, and if we mean what we are saying about prioritising our town centres, then we need to put funds into them and that needs to be matched by State funds to move everything on, using the levers and the tools that are available.
I have a question for the CCMA and perhaps for the departmental officials. Is there a measurement of the success among local authorities in how those tools are used to move on sites that are vacant or derelict in our town centres? If there is a measurement, how does the performance of local authorities compare? While understanding the barriers and costs, we do not want inactive local authorities. I want to qualify this in that all of the voluntary committees that contributed last week spoke highly of the local authorities in respect of their action and support. However, there are many reasons these properties are lying vacant, for example, economic reasons and the very reasons towns were formed in the first place, such as to be market towns and so on. Society has changed and the economy has changed, and the need for jobs to keep people living in towns is important. However, we need to measure what is working and what is not, and that is one way of doing this in respect of local authorities.
The statement that commercial activity has moved to the outer areas of towns was attributed to Mr. Hynes. That did not happen by chance; development plans and planning policy allowed it to happen. I will not blame local authority officials as the elected members of councils who adopted development plans have a significant responsibility in that regard. However, if that has happened and it is negatively affecting our town centres, surely we need to learn from that and change that mindset. This is going back to the strategy that was proposed last week in that we need to have improved priority thinking and strategic thinking for our town centres. We need to point to where mistakes have been made and to good examples. I gave one good example last week and, luckily, it is Dungarvan in my county of Waterford, where the planning authority insisted that a new supermarket be established in the heart of the town, which has rejuvenated the town centre as a result. There are good and bad examples. Are we going to move on and learn from our mistakes to bring vibrancy back to the centre of our towns? I am practical enough to understand we cannot put supermarkets where we have streetscapes. However, there are opportunities where brownfield sites present themselves in towns and that should be the priority.
The third issue of concern regarding local authorities, which I presume is down to financing and funding, is the location of social housing. I have seen this in Waterford, where the easy option is taken, and the greenfield site at the edge of town is taken by the council as well as by private developers, because the more difficult option of addressing dereliction, ownership issues or CPO is not tackled. It is easy to parcel up a greenfield site at the edge of town and make a submission to the Department for funding, and build the ten or 12 houses there, whereas it might take much more hard work to acquire the properties on a streetscape, regenerate them, and make the argument for additional funding to get those houses lived in again. Mistakes have been made in that regard. I believe there are opportunities for local authorities, the Department and elected representatives to address that anomaly. There are bad examples of this around the country but there are opportunities to correct that. What are the views of the councils on that issue?
I have listened carefully regarding the cost element, in particular that it is more costly to regenerate properties due to conservation, legal and ownership issues and the building standards of older properties. On the other hand, there are savings to be made where existing services are available such as where sewerage, water, roads and lighting are in place and we have vacant properties sitting beside them. We need to square that one off. This is why we need to focus on these areas and see what we can do better to make regeneration happen.
With regard to Cappoquin, which I know well, it is a problem when one block of the main street has a vacancy rate of more than 40%. There have been difficulties in the town in terms of employment and change of use, which is recognised. I welcome the fact this pilot initiative has focused on residential areas and Mr. Maddock outlined what he hopes to happen. He said a philanthropic organisation, Tomar Trust, is supporting the community in Cappoquin and it has stated publicly that, where it provides funding, if the Government matches that, it will provide more funding, although I stand to be corrected on that.
I have a question for the departmental officials in this regard. Philanthropy contributions are noted specifically in the rural regeneration fund model and, where such funds exist, we are all agreed it would be very beneficial to match them with State funds because there would be a better outcome. What is the Department's position on such contributions? Perhaps they should be prioritised in order that additional funds could be accessed to make these projects happen. That might sound like a loaded question but it is not; it is a genuine question. Where private investment and philanthropy steps up to invest in community initiatives, the State should stand by to support them. Cappoquin is a perfect example of that. The town was supported under the town renewal programme, which is welcome, but it was not successful under the rural regeneration programme and I hope it will be in the future.
I have touched on many questions. I compliment the local authority officials who are present and who are working on regeneration. I know it is not easy. There are many aspects to it, including legal, ownership, cost and viability aspects. However, we need to come up with a model that works so we can convince officialdom and whatever Government is in place at the time that it is worth investing in our towns and villages in a co-ordinated way. I support Deputy Smyth in that we should consider the establishment of a national centre of excellence for town renewal. We do not want an architect or an engineer with specialties and expertise in every town. However, we want it to be possible for local authorities to go to such a centre and get that expertise to assist them in regenerating towns. I know every town is unique and has its own selling points and assets.
Something like that would certainly help local authorities where they are stretched for funds or resources. It might be something at which the committee would look in making recommendations to the Departments. I mention incentives. I have heard about the cost and viability of regenerating old properties in towns, even of the architectural work involve, for example. Even if the work of the assigned certifier in signing off on the regeneration of those properties was provided and funded by the State or local authorities, it might make it attractive for young couples to develop a property because it would take out a lot of the cost element. We will have engage in that type of thinking and initiative because the private market will not do it. I have heard today that the local authorities state it is not their responsibility to do it. That means that it will never happen if something does not change. I would like these angles to be addressed, if possible.