16 January 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

One of the temperature gauges of the state of economic and community health of our towns and village settlements is the condition of its physical, particularly its trading, landscape.

The prevalence in all Co Monaghan’s towns of closed business premises, some in advancing stages of dereliction, testifies to the austerity-driven times of recent years – like pockmarks or amputations, they are the residual traces of the widespread economic blight that has swept the country.

If the current fragile shoots of economic improvement take root, the resultant growth will efface some of this unsightliness – and a plan for its systematic removal, perhaps through a revival of the incentivised urban regeneration projects that assisted town development in this county and others in past decades, would seem essential if the putative recovery is to be made sustainable.

A restoration of confidence in the economy, allied to proper planning and investment, can remedy the physical afflictions of the downturn – less amenable to cure, however, is the more subtle but no less debilitating deficit many of our smaller towns in particular have suffered by the loss of municipal stature when it comes to the removal of important services.

The closing period of 2014 and the early weeks of the New Year have brought an accentuation of the siege on their esteem a number of towns in this county are suffering – the future of the Dept of Social Protection office in Ballybay and the location of its important jobs remains uncertain; the closure of bank branches pending in Castleblayney and Clones have been the subject of concerted community protest, and last week’s news of the planned closure of the Social Welfare Office in Clones was received with shock and anger.

Ballybay, Clones and Castleblayney have also suffered the loss in recent times of their District Court sittings, and the sweeping reforms of local government have taken away not just the Town Council tier of administration from all our urban locations, but in the case of our smaller towns in particular have seen the relocation and centralisation of services that have placed them at a physical remove from the constituency of their remit.

When a business premises closes, there is the hope of more favourable future fortune that could bring its eventual reactivation or its replacement by another commercial entity. When State, financial or local government services are removed from a town, there is virtually no hope of their future return – particularly, as has been the recent case, their removal has been precipitated by the new gospel of rationalisation insisted upon as vital to putting the country back on a proper footing.

Just about any cut or closure can be justified in the current climate by reference to facts and figures – but what has not been factored into the equation is the acceleration of urban decay that the removal of important services from smaller towns contributes to.

The removal of court sittings from our towns constitutes a good example of this. Where the administration of justice is concerned, there has been no particularly conspicuous impact on efficiency by concentrating hearings in Carrickmacross and Monaghan – the system itself has sustained the change. The accentuated inconvenience to the public who use the system has no mathematical or statistical measure and therefore goes unaccounted and unrecorded. Trade lost to certain sectors of the towns where court sittings no longer take place is also hard to quantify, although it is undoubtedly there. And the lowered stature of the towns in question has no effectual scale of reckoning, but its existence is equally unquestionable.

Towns thus deprived become lowered in visibility, and are the more likely to be passed over when it comes to businesses seeking fertile ground for investment. Their populations tend to decline rather than thrive, with existing residents having to move away to avail of employment opportunities or to be near to important services – and the reasons that force people to leave an area also act as repellents to their replacement by others. Population decline eats away at community vibrancy, and creates a breeding ground for social malady. A depressing cycle is set in place, and becomes hard to break.

The process was described with an appropriately graphic metaphor this week by Sinn Féin public representative Pat Treanor, when he spoke at Monday’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council of it “sucking the soul” out of the parts of the county affected. And Fianna Fáil’s Seamus Coyle also hit the nail on the head: “We are draining the life out of our smaller towns,” he stated.

The context for these remarks was the passing of an urgent business motion protesting the Clones Social Welfare Office closure and seeking a meeting with relevant Government Minister Joan Burton to seek to have it reversed. It was a worthy gesture by our local public representatives, although likely to be an unavailing one – decisions of this nature tend less to be committed to paper than they are graven deep in stone before they come to the attention of the public. Such is the devotion to the “less is more” creed now demanded of those who sit in Cabinet that it is hard to imagine Ms Burton wielding the chisel in the favour of a small town on the eastern Border fringes of Co Monaghan, far removed from the epicentre of policy-making.

But towns like Clones, and Ballybay, and Castleblayney, should matter greatly in the scheme of things if we are serious about learning from the lessons of the recent past and putting this country back on a viable and commonsense path of progress. This country never more needed a healthy and sustainable small town environment – there won’t be any “balanced regional development”, an oft-cited phrase in the economic recovery mantra, without it. Instead, the rush to rectitude that has given free rein to self-justifying policies of rationalisation and centralisation threatens to make both the visible and subtle processes of urban decay even more deep-rooted.

Colr Coyle may have pointed, if somewhat obliquely, on Monday to a possible remedy that is in the gift of the local politician, one more efficacious than petitioning immovable Ministers.

He contrasted with feeling the anticipatory excitement some local councillors might have felt about the new Municipal District structures that have replaced Town Councils with the threat of cuts and closures that have preoccupied much of their early business. But this could be a structure that offers our smaller towns in particular some salvation.

These new Municipal Districts are somewhat strange beasts as yet. The elected men and women who sit upon them are only beginning to test the full flex of the structure’s functioning, and how these bodies sit in relation to their Co Council overlord in their practical operation has yet to be fully teased out (and may, as the undercurrent to much of the debate at Monday’s Council meeting on the St Tiernach’s Park issue suggested, be a source of recurrent conflict).

But Municipal Districts have designated responsibility for our towns, and an obligation to enact the greater economic and social development function that is now the remit of our local authorities.

We would suggest as a priority to those Municipal Districts in whose charge lies the towns of Clones, Castleblayney and Ballybay the drawing up of economic and social development plans for these locations that take account of the reduction in status and stature they have suffered and are threatened with.

While Development Plans for all our towns currently exist, these statutory documents are largely aspirational in nature and preoccupied with technical planning detail. What our smaller towns need are practical programmes of measures that can be delivered in the short-term: small community renewal and enhancement projects, perhaps, or co-operative ventures with local clubs and groups, steps that in themselves might be small but that would accumulate in a year or so into an effective bulwark against the more insidious effects of urban decay.

Our smaller towns must be nurtured and protected – in so doing, our new Municipal Districts might achieve a meaningful identity and a worthwhile raison d’etre.

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