Could Vacancy and hoarding in Ireland's Historic town Centres be tackled by "Meanwhile Use"

Ground-breaking research by Anois Agency is published by The Heritage Council.

The Heritage Council’s innovative Collaborative Town Centre Health Check (CTCHC) Programme, which is included in the Programme for Government (PfG), has published research into the practice of ‘Meanwhile Use’ in Europe, and how this action-based approach can help Irish towns embrace heritage and community-led regeneration. The CTCHC Programme was established in 2016 by the Heritage Council after calls for help and support from civic and business leaders in Irish towns became overwhelming. The Heritage Council’s CTCHC Programme works with 15 towns and 70 partners in the programme using a methodology to create data-driven baselines for sustainable change in historic town centres (Phase 1 of an envisaged 4-Phase programme). Demand grew significantly during Covid-lockdown and another 45 towns are now on a waiting list wanting to join the CTCHC Programme.

Ireland’s historic towns are experiencing unheard of vacancy rates within a European context. According to Ali Harvey, Heritage Council co-ordinator of the CTCHC Programme, “ground floor retail vacancy rates in many historic towns are 20%+, in one member town in the south-west, the town centre vacancy rate is 31%. The normal vacancy target in Europe is 5% - indeed, ground floor retail vacancy levels are not supposed to ever go above 11%. Worse still, vacancy in upper floors is circa 80%. As a result, innovative and creative ways to tackle vacancy are urgently needed to ensure that unique built and cultural heritage assets are not irretrievably lost for existing and future generations.”

Research from the CTCHC Programme, which commenced in June 2021, is being published to inform the emerging Town Centres First (TCF) Policy, Climate Action Plan and the implementation of Housing for All.

According to the lead author Jude Sherry, co-director of anois, Meanwhile Use is common practice across Europe, where it is seen as an essential policy tool to tackle the scourge of vacant buildings. Jude estimates that Meanwhile Use can potentially bring 30-40% of vacant commercial properties in our Towns back into use, quickly and cheaply.

Jude states, “As highlighted consistently by the CTCHC Programme, Irish Town Centres have very high levels of vacancy and dereliction, which has been proven to be detrimental to our wellbeing, sense of place as well as our mental and physical health. anois is calling through this research for Meanwhile Use to be seen as Public Health Service, as it will significantly benefit the community and local economy in our historic town centres.”

Based on findings from international best practice, anois are proposing that a non-profit intermediary organisation is established to implement a Meanwhile Use Programme in the Republic of Ireland. This type of approach has brought huge success in the Netherlands over the past few decades resulting in significant innovation in business models and use of spaces, as well as very low vacancy rates.

Provisionally titled Leabe Te (hot bed), the organisation will function as an innovation living lab to turn the current challenges of high vacancy and dereliction into opportunities to reimagine our historic Town Centres. Under this framework Dr Frank O’Connor, co-director of anois, believes Meanwhile Use can be truly transformative as a means to stimulate and build the community and local economy, boosting creativity, culture, innovation, and entrepreneurship. If implemented this would be an important step forward in heritage and community-led regeneration of our Towns and Cities.

The Heritage Council-funded report by anois can be accessed below.

Ali Harvey at 087 419 3458

Click here for further details on The Heritage Council's Collaborative Town Centre Health Check Programme (CTCHC)