THE OVERHAUL of local government in Limerick is an opportunity to take urgent steps to save rural towns and villages that are “dying on their feet”, a strategic planning meeting has heard.
Measures such as discounted rates for new town centre shops, relaxed planning rules in farming areas and the potential to attract new large-scale food manufacturing businesses were some of the ideas pitched at a planning and development policy meeting in County Hall in Dooradoyle last week.
However councillors, committee members and planning officials all accepted that dramatic steps need to be taken to stimulate growth in a county “on its knees”.
Tom Enright, council director of planning and economic development, said “there’s no doubt we have to take a stronger role to create jobs”, but cautioned that this has to happen in a sustainable way which balances the needs of city and county.
He said that the most obvious way to tackle unemployment would be via large-scale IDA backed investment, however this would “inevitably” be centred on the city and environs, prompting the need to ensure that steps to “revitalise towns and villages” are taken in tandem.
Cllr Noel Gleeson said that many rural areas are “in dire straits”, with restrictions still making it tough for once-off houses to receive planning in many areas. Cllr Jerome Scanlan said that the restrictions in the National Spatial Strategy have been “a complete disaster for Limerick”, while Cllr Kevin Sheahan said that “serious amendments to our county development plan are required”.
“We have to face up to our responsibilities to our electorate... the only thing on offer at the moment is the willingness of people to build an occasional one-off house”, he added.
Cllr Eddie Wade, meanwhile, said that rules regarding building of once-off houses on family land “should be relaxed” in order to aid farmers whose “backs are up against the wall”.
Cllr John Sheahan said that current criteria used by schemes such as Clár to divert State funding to “structurally weak areas” needs to be reviewed.
Basing funding for rural development and investment on falling population does not go far enough, he said, as “towns and villages all over the county are dying on their feet” and censuses do not always paint a full picture.
Cllr Liam Galvin said that the fact that only a handful of planning applications for new houses have been made so far in Limerick in 2013 “will tell you the scale of things”.
Tony O’Shea, representing the construction sector, said that basic problems such as poor sewer networks in villages and small towns are hindering expansion and investment. “The whole county is on its knees”, he stressed.
Mr Enright said that measures such as the city centre retail incentive scheme, which offers 50% rates discounts for businesses opening in vacant central units, could be extended into the county in future. He said that another potential area to develop is food manufacturing, which would see food produce currently being sold out of Limerick for processing in other parts of the country kept in the county, with job creation possibilities.