Action plan to make
recession-ravaged towns thrive

Free parking for selected periods, rate cuts and high visibility policing are among a raft of measures being proposed by a committee of TDs and Senators to reinvigorate business in towns and village centres across the country.

Business groups have long been flagging up problems facing small firms in main streets across the State, including energy costs, property taxes and rates, regulation and issues surrounding the black market. Research from commercial property experts CBRE, cited by Retail Ireland, shows a vacancy rate of 21.6pc in Athlone on its main street early last year, as well as 14.3pc in Patrick Street in Cork and 16.3pc in Limerick.

On foot of these concerns, the Oireachtas Jobs Committee held several public hearings between July and September last year and yesterday published a report outlining 15 key recommendations to tackle the issue.

Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy, committee chair, said job creation and retention at a local and rural level is one of the key issues facing towns and villages.

"It is vital that we formulate the necessary policies and legislation to best support local business. Growth and job creation at a local level contributes not only to community economies by bringing growth and innovation to the area, but it also supports our national recovery," she said.

Key areas examined in the report include commercial rates, the creation of a digital high street and the management of town centres.

Commercial rates are paid by businesses to councils to fund services like street cleaning and public lighting and the report pointed out that along with rent, wages and electricity, they are the biggest costs to a small business.

The report noted that during the public hearings, lobby group the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME) and others highlighted the success of an incentive run in Limerick to provide grant relief, based on certified fit-out cost, up to a maximum of 50pc of annual rates in year one, and 25pc in year two. The committee recommended that a scheme based on the Limerick model should be more widely rolled out.

It also separately noted that while Irish consumers are now spending more than €6bn online every year, less than a third of this goes to Irish retailers, and just 23pc of small companies here have a digital presence. The committee has called for the Government's trading online voucher scheme, which provides grants to small businesses of up to €2,500 to create an online presence, to be more widely publicised.

Other recommendations include having Tourism Ireland promote towns and villages as shopping destinations, the Government to monitor banking service costs and a campaign be rolled out to encourage businesses to switch energy providers.

John Lyons, committee vice chair, said the report offers practical solutions to bring life back into towns and villages ravaged by the recession.

The 15-Point Plan - to boost business growth and job creation in towns and villages

  1. Introduce grant relief schemes to encourage business to take up vacant properties on high streets.
  2. Consider rate cuts for small, independent businesses in town and city centres.
  3. Ease the burden on business of upward-only rents.
  4. Vary commercial rates to take account of the size and scope of businesses to make them fairer and more flexible.
  5. Enhance public awareness of the Government’s trading online voucher scheme, to boost the number of companies doing business via the internet.
  6. Local Enterprise Offices and Chambers of Commerce should provide further training on sales and benefits of social media.
  7. Continued engagement between banks and government on charges levied on businesses for banking services.
  8. Co-ordinated campaign to encourage businesses to switch energy providers.
  9. Tourism Ireland should strongly market towns cities as shopping destinations.
  10. Widespread roll out of Town Teams Model, to bring joined up thinking in town centres involving LEOs, Chamber of Commerce and others.
  11. Business improvement district model should be more widely adopted in towns.
  12. Introduce a High Street Innovation Fund, providing funding to local authorities to carry out improvement and regeneration projects.
  13. Free parking periods for several hours during a day in town and village centres.
  14. Wider use of strategy policing operations in urban and town centres.
  15. Encourage high-visibility policing in town centres and shopping districts.