Where we are with our towns
Are Irish town centres really redundant and vacant, with the future of these once-bustling hubs of economic and social activity needing some ambition and vision?
With any significant modern development apparently happening solely in out of town or main city locations, the usability of our town centre building stock has declined to a point of redundancy, leaving many of our historic Irish town centre buildings empty and unused.
This article will examine the dilemma of whether to demolish and start again or preserve and redevelop these buildings to fit the needs of a modern society while also preserving our town centre heritage.
The Need for Redevelopment
The need for redevelopment is evident, as many traditional buildings and streets in Irish town centres are no longer fit for purpose. The decline of traditional brick-and-mortar stores and offices, coupled with the dominance of e-commerce and the new way of working, has led to an increase in vacant buildings in town centres. Redevelopment is well over-due to adapt these buildings to the needs of modern businesses, including flexible workspace solutions, large floor-spans, green spaces, and improved connectivity.
However, while redevelopment is necessary, preserving the heritage of our town centres is equally important. Many of these buildings have historical and cultural significance, and it is vital that we preserve them to maintain the character and identity of these town centres. The balance between redevelopment and preservation is a delicate one, and it is essential to approach it with care.
Moreover, the cost of redeveloping existing buildings in town centres can be high due to the age and condition of the buildings. Many of these buildings require significant renovations to bring them up to modern standards, including making them energy efficient and compliant with modern building regulations. The high cost of refurbishing existing buildings can make it more cost-effective to demolish and start again, but this approach is often not feasible due to the heritage and character of these buildings. But let us not assume everything has heritage and that everything is worth saving.
Lack of Finance for Developers
The lack of affordable and ambitious finance for developers is a significant challenge facing the redevelopment of town centres in Ireland. It must be appreciated that in many cases these town centre properties belong to local ‘accidental owners’ who may have neither the desire or the financial capacity to redevelop. It also needs to be understood that in most cases to develop to the level required, it will require buying out multiple owners, and perhaps entire streets of properties to achieve the desired modern spaces required.
Mainstream financial institutions are reluctant to fund speculative commercial development in regional locations, which include regional town centres. These inherently smaller scale developments are often perceived as higher risk and less profitable than investments in major urban centres, but the mass reallocation of the labour force due to the rise of remote working has seen a shift in this thinking over the past couple of years. Are massive office blocks in larger cities still the ‘future of work’?
The restriction on finance has resulted in a stagnant regional urban property market, developed in piecemeal fashion, which is detrimental to the future of these town centres. Without funding, developers are unable to undertake ambitious brownfield and redevelopment projects in regional town centres. This lack of speculative investment has resulted in empty and underused buildings in town centres, which has negatively impacted the attractiveness and vitality of these towns.
To address this issue, Government could provide financial incentives and support for developers to undertake regional town redevelopment in tandem with public works URDF funding (Urban Regeneration and Development) to stimulate demand.
Additionally, they could step in and partner with private investors to create more public-private partnerships, which would share the financial burden of redevelopment. In addition, the Government should seek to establish specific regional development funds and low-interest loans to developers to support the redevelopment of town centres in regional locations. These initiatives in themselves would attract more investment into regional town centres and help to revitalise these areas.
However, at a minimum, targeted intervention is required to ensure properties that have fallen into dereliction are compulsorily repossessed and re-sold for immediate redevelopment.
Difficult Economics of Redevelopment
Redevelopment of town centres is not without its challenges, and the difficult economics of redevelopment is one of the most significant barriers. The high cost of refurbishing existing buildings can make it more cost-effective to demolish and start again. However, demolishing and rebuilding is not always the best option, as it can result in the loss of the town centre’s heritage and character.
Therefore, finding a balance between preserving heritage and creating modern spaces can be a challenge. It is essential to consider the long-term benefits of preserving heritage when making decisions about the economics of redevelopment.
Big Fish – Small Pond: The Role of Funds
Large investment and pension funds can play a vital role in the redevelopment of Irish town centre properties. With a lack of affordable finance available for developers, investment funds can provide the necessary capital for ambitious brownfield and redevelopment projects in regional town centres. These funds have the financial resources to invest in properties that may not be attractive to traditional lenders, and they can take a long-term view on the potential return on investment.
Moreover, investment funds can see the redevelopment of Irish town centres as an opportunity for financial gain. With the right strategy and investment, these funds can generate significant returns on their investment. The properties in Irish town centres have the potential to appreciate significantly in value once they are redeveloped and leased out for sustainable long-term yields. The demand for flexible workspace solutions is increasing, and with the right infrastructure in place, these town centres could become hubs for innovation and entrepreneurship.
Furthermore, there are economic opportunities for large investment funds to become a big fish in a small pond. Regional town centres may not attract the same level of investment as larger cities, but they have the potential to offer high returns on investment. By investing in these properties, investment funds can become significant players in the regional property market, which could offer long-term financial gain. Additionally, they can contribute to the revitalisation of regional town centres, which would have a positive impact on the local economy and the wider community.
Importance of Serviced Offices and Regional Coworking Hubs
In recent years, serviced offices and regional coworking hubs have become increasingly popular options for businesses looking for flexible workspace solutions. These spaces provide a range of services and amenities, including meeting rooms, high-speed internet, and access to professional supports. They are often located in town centres, making them an attractive option for businesses looking for a central location.
The benefits of serviced offices and regional coworking hubs go beyond their convenience. They also offer an opportunity to support the local economy and create a sense of community within the town centre. By encouraging small businesses and entrepreneurs to use these spaces, town centres can support a diverse range of businesses and foster innovation.
The redevelopment of Irish town centres is a complex issue that requires a careful balance between the need for modern spaces and the preservation of heritage. While the decline of traditional brick-and-mortar businesses has led to an increase in vacant buildings, it is essential to approach redevelopment with care to maintain the character and identity of these town centres.
The mistakes of the past must be considered when redeveloping town centres. Out of town developments have resulted in the decline of many town centres, and it is essential not to repeat or compound these mistakes. By focusing on redeveloping existing town centres, we can create living, vibrant town centres that support the local community and create a sense of place.
The lack of finance for developers is a significant barrier to town centre redevelopment, and the government must provide financial incentives and support to encourage investment in these projects. Additionally, town centres must remain attractive and viable to generate footfall to support town centre hospitality and retail businesses. By learning from the mistakes of the past and focusing on redeveloping existing town centres, we can create living, vibrant town centres that support the local community and create a sense of place.
Serviced offices and regional coworking hubs are an important part of the redevelopment of town centres, offering flexible workspace solutions and supporting the local economy. Larger corporate and public sector employers also have a responsibility to support the sustainability of living town centres by locating their teams in the centre of towns.
The redevelopment of Irish town centres is a long-term project that requires collaboration between the public and private sectors. By working together, we can create vibrant, sustainable town centres that support the new economy and provide a sense of community for residents and visitors alike.