14 September 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The annual announcement of the National Tidy Towns Awards results always generates considerable interest in Co Monaghan, which has a long and distinguished record of achievement in this particular field.
The 2012 performance of our county’s participants is an impressive one, with established high achievers maintaining the elevated standards that have become their benchmark, and many locations showing notable improvement as they seek to elevate their standing in what has become one of the most successful channels for the productive utilisation of community energies.
It is particularly encouraging to see high standards prevail in this dimension of local activity at a time of economic downturn.
The encouraging conclusion invited is that the spirit that animates our urban and rural communities has not been significantly degraded by the national and international climate of depression.
In fact, community endeavour has probably taken on enhanced vigour in many of the areas of the county that have done markedly well in the Tidy Towns, in order to supplement the decrease in financial and practical support available to them from national and local government as a consequence of funding cutbacks.
It says something important about the character of our towns and villages that they have continued to exert a pride in place at a time when the significant economic problems they have to grapple with could easily diminish the amount of time, attention and resources necessary to keep our streets and estates looking well.
When it comes to civic pride, it appears the good habits of our Tidy Towns Committees, supported by the commitment and effort of the local authorities, die hard.
Despite dedication of this sort, there are significant blots on local landscapes that have proliferated as a direct result of our once vibrant economy’s calamitous collapse.
Vacant business premises and unfinished housing developments are creating not only cosmetic but commercial and in some instances safety problems for many areas of our county – problems that are beyond the powers of voluntary or community effort alone to resolve.
The problem of UHDs (the acronym favoured by the Dept of the Environment in preference to the more doom-laden label of “ghost estate”, apparently) was discussed at length at the recent meeting of Monaghan Co Council.
A thorough and informative presentation showed that the Council is making dedicated efforts to resolve the particular problems attendant to each of the 38 or so housing projects in the county that come within the designation.
The nature of these efforts, which require negotiation of complex ownership and legal issues, and patient discussion with a variety of parties, are now always such that they deliver immediately visible outcomes that assuage the frustrations of those living within or adjacent to a housing development whose state of incompletion has become problematic.
Hopefully people directly experiencing these problems will be assured by their elected Co Council representatives that their plight is receiving address within the confines of the resources and responsibilities the local authority has been delegated in this area.
And ‘confines’ is the word – there is only so much that the Co Council can do in this regard, and even doing it to the maximum will not address the over-arching question of what is ultimately to be done with all these unfinished building projects that lie scattered throughout the country like debris from the explosion of the over-heated Irish economy.
That is a problem for the Government to resolve, and their approach so far to it has been disappointingly tentative.
Take for example, the patent good sense behind Colr Sean Conlon’s Co Council proposal that unfinished estates be used as a means of providing a transfusion of employment to the construction sector, allowing estates to be completed and many jobs generated as a result, with the finished developments then made available to local authorities to address their often chronic waiting lists for social housing.
What a great idea – and what a bounty in positive PR for the Government to adopt a scheme that would exorcise the ghost estates, put a large number of people back in work and go a long way to solving the huge housing problems throughout the country.
We await the Government’s response to Colr Conlon’s proposal with great interest – but we will be greatly surprised if it is anything other than a negative one.
Implementing such a plan would inevitably involve calling the banks to account in a way in which this Government and its predecessor signally failed to do since the advent of the current crisis, and there is no precedent in the actions of the sitting administration to suggest they have the stomach for such confrontation.
The financial institutions that recklessly bankrolled the building frenzy are determined, it seems, to pursue as much recoupment of their unwise investments as can be gleaned from their debtors, a course that is apparently not compatible with unfinished properties making their way into the ambit of local authorities, no matter how much social good could be generated in the process.
This interpretation seems strengthened by the reluctance of NAMA to engage directly with local authorities on the acquisition of properties over which they have control.
But perhaps it is unfair to attribute the inaction of the Government in this regard to cravenness or collusion where the banks are concerned.
Their approach might be dictated by the ultra-caution that is the natural consequence of an economic disaster, or a simple poverty of imagination – in which case there might be hope for Colr Conlon’s proposal if it receives sustained advocacy from our national political representatives.
Vacant commercial premises are a different sort of problem – unlike all the vacant houses there is not an over-abundance of potential occupants crying out to take possession of them.
One imagines, however, that there would be – particularly in entrepreneurial Co Monaghan – enough people with a small business or manufacturing idea to justify a scheme where the owners of empty commercial properties could be encouraged to make them available as incubation units for a set period to see if such ideas could be nurtured to viability.
In the absence of a structure in this country that invests local chambers of commerce with authority and autonomy in areas of business development, such a project would be dependent upon the support of the Dept of Enterprise and Employment or the involvement of the job creation agencies, perhaps acting through local mechanisms such as the Co Enterprise Board.
A scheme along these lines would, if successful, not only cure the urban blight of derelict and unsightly business units, but would generate at least some small level of employment and perhaps be the seeding ground for greater things once meaningful growth worked its way back into the economy.
Ultimately, there is more than just competitive local pride at work in the processes that have given this county more than its share of success in Tidy Towns.
There is a generous and imaginative spirit, and a problem-solving instinct, which could be usefully applied at national level to “tidy up” the problems of ghost estates and derelict businesses.

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