Ireland's empty towns: Long-vacant sites are a blight on Cork towns

In the second in a series looking at dereliction across Munster, Pádraig Hoare examines the scourge of dereliction and long-term vacancy in County Cork
Ireland's empty towns: Long-vacant sites are a blight on Cork towns

Derelict building on lower Main street, Mallow

A national plan is needed to help turn properties that have become eyesores into homes and businesses, which could include tax incentives for property owners who are asset rich but cash poor and streamlining the complicated and protracted process to allow for easier development, writes Pádraig Hoare

The scourge of dereliction and long-term vacancy is not just confined to major cities in Ireland — it is also pervading our towns.

Visits by the Irish Examiner to four towns in Cork county have shown that while the character and pride in towns remains intact, the scars of dereliction are visceral.

In Mallow, Mitchelstown, Fermoy, and Youghal, there is much to admire. Outdoor dining and the bond between businesses and customers have come to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is a range of measures afoot in each town to revitalise and enhance the offerings of each: Mallow’s main street is alive with activity and impressive outdoor dining, Mitchelstown’s famed square has sprung back to life as a focal point for community life, Fermoy’s river setting and impeccable tidiness are a standout, and Youghal’s feelgood factor in the sunshine is enhanced by the constant buzz of work being done on the main street to resurrect empty buildings.

There are people ready, willing, and able to tackle dereliction in their towns, but they are frustrated at the complications and strangled protracted processes currently in place to do so.

Each town has a housing list for its citizens that gives local councillors and council staff sleepless nights, and while the problem of dereliction may seem unrelated, the two intersect over and over again.

By reinventing long-vacated buildings in town centres, you keep the spirit of marvellous old architecture and designs, while allowing people to do what they did for decades before suburban living became a social norm — living above shops and businesses on main streets.

It is no panacea by any means, but measures such as encouraging main street revamps bring old buildings back to life, while making a dent in a housing crisis that has consumed the entire country.

Cork design experts Frank O’Connor and Jude Sherry of Anois agency have become leading lights in the country for tackling dereliction.

They have shone a light on Cork city, and have recently began to look at various towns across the country.

Mr O’Connor told the Irish Examiner

We have some stunning towns in Ireland, wonderful architecture, representing different historic periods, as well many beautiful shopfronts.

“Sadly, there is a high vacancy and dereliction rate in many of them, which is such a waste on so many levels, and particularly damaging to the local economies.

"We would love to see a rethink of national strategy towards towns and all urban areas and are particularly supportive of the Heritage Council CTCHC programme."

The CTCHC programme is the Collaborative Town Centre Health Check, which aims to “raise awareness, understanding and appreciation of the critical role that historic town centres play and the wide-ranging impacts that their vitality and viability have on overall socio-economic, environmental and cultural growth and development, and on quality of life for citizens and visitors alike”.

Mr O’Connor and Ms Sherry are currently researching on behalf of the programme exploring what “meanwhile use” offers Ireland in bringing properties back to life.

Meanwhile use refers to the short-term use of temporarily empty buildings such as shops until they can be brought back into commercial use, keeping a main street vibrant during the transitional period.

Mr O’Connor said: “We are researching international best practice. We really need to look at rest-play-work for all urban areas, to reimagine them as liveable spaces for eight to 80-year-olds, where everyone has a home, a place to play and create as well as inclusive work opportunities.

“We also need to implement all existing policy measures, and need to introduce a few new ones such as Compulsory Sale Orders (CSOs) and Compulsory Rental Orders (CROs).

"Living over shop offers some great opportunities and it’s important to remember that the most sustainable building is the existing one. 

Our heritage offers so much to all urban areas in terms of wellbeing and sense of place.

“Our research to date has shown that many derelict homes could be turned around quickly in urban areas with the right cultural and political will.

"This would greatly benefit the economy and support our drive towards a circular economy. It makes sense on so many levels to revitalise our towns and villages," Mr O'Connor said.

Sean Sherlock: Time to introduce tax breaks.
Sean Sherlock: Time to introduce tax breaks.

Mallow, Fermoy, Mitchelstown, and Youghal are all in the Cork East constituency, of which Sean Sherlock is a TD for the Labour Party.

He introduced a private members’ bill in February of this year, inspired by dereliction in his constituency, that would allow already precariously-funded local authorities to recoup the costs of making derelict buildings safe.

He said: "One or two derelict buildings in a town can have a tremendously demoralising effect on people. I introduced a bill in the Dáil that would allow councils to recoup the cost of making derelict properties safe for the public. 

"Where the property is the subject of receivership proceedings, when councils make them safe, the taxpayer is unable to recoup the costs because they are way down the pecking order. The Central Hotel in Mallow was a prime example. The bill seeks to address that anomaly.” 

Mr Sherlock said another problem that was going unnoticed was that many derelict property owners simply had no means to revamp and revitalise properties.

"It's time to introduce tax breaks under a new urban renewal scheme that would give an incentive to property owners, who are asset rich but cash poor, to be able to renovate and convert commercial buildings into homes on our main streets. 

"Many property owners are second generation owners and don't have the means to meet the massive costs of renovating buildings,” he said.

Mallow: 'We are moving forward but tackling social ills is cumbersome'

It is finally happening after years of antisocial behaviour, fires, and general unpleasantness — the Mallow Park Hotel is expected to go under major renovation.

Cllr James Kennedy at the fomer Central hotel building on Main street, Mallow
Cllr James Kennedy at the fomer Central hotel building on Main street, Mallow

The hotel, in the heart of the town’s main street, has been an ugly eyesore for more than a decade, sliding more and more into infamy as the arson attacks became frequent, and its appearance more disfigured.

Rumblings that a private developer with a successful track record in enhancing old buildings may revamp the arson-scourged long-derelict hotel into retail with apartments overhead has local representatives buzzing.

Officially, Mallow has three properties on the derelict sites list, according to figures obtained last year by Labour Party county councillor James Kennedy — but even a cursory glance around the town will tell you this official estimate is generous at best.

“We came out of the worst recession in the country’s history back this decade, and then this Covid-19 pandemic has hit us all overnight. However, unlike the last time, we now have an accidental window of opportunity to move Mallow into a modern vibrant place, like a small town or city you would see in continental Europe,” he said.

While there are wonderful business owners in the town that have made outdoor dining a real signature appeal for Mallow, the blight of vacancy and dereliction remains.

“We are moving into a new paradigm where healthy living and sustainable development is the way of the future, but tackling social ills like dereliction is very cumbersome and time-consuming.

“Cork County Council is a huge beast of an organisation, that answers to another beast in Central Government, and Ireland being one of the most centralised governmental nations in Europe leads to glacial change."

Other towns in Europe have their own budgets, their own staff, and projects that they can work on without having to answer to anyone.

However, Cork County Council has stepped up to the mark with recent measures such as redevelopment and pop-up stores and stalls, while a trial pedestrianisation for Sundays on main street will be a tonic, according to Mr Kennedy.

“Mallow has the most wonderful architecture, with features such as bay windows that are gorgeous to observe. If we can grasp the opportunities that have accidentally come with the dreadful pandemic, we can change the town’s course for the better.

“We have seen the historic Clock House totally transformed in recent years, and it has been a wonderful thing for the town. With the Mallow Park Hotel hopefully to be transformed, that will give a huge lift to the town and its people.

“There may be officially only three buildings on the derelict list, but there are buildings idle for decades here that could be put on the list.

"We have a housing crisis in this country, so if we tackled dereliction in towns like Mallow and encouraged living above shops and buildings in the town, we’d not only be enhancing the community feel to the likes of main street, but also providing good quality homes for people.” 

The Mallow Park Hotel is rumoured to have plans for retail at ground level and apartments overhead. It would be a major boon to a town centre that has a timeless community feel to shoppers and revellers alike if it was to pass, according to Mr Kennedy.

Cork County Council was unable to recover approximately €100,000 it spent on making an arson-damaged former hotel safe, but people might consider that money well spent if it results in further development at the site.

Tourism, never considered a major asset in Mallow, is also going to be huge in the future, Mr Kennedy said.

“Works on Mallow Castle are currently being done. The playground is nearly there, and this side of the town is going to bring in lots of visitors. The former Town Hall is set to become an arts centre. We have a lot of things going right for us, but if we got the help to tackle vacancy and dereliction, we’d be flying.”

Mitchelstown: ‘We could turn vacancy levels into a positive for the community’

It was a lucky escape for the people in Mitchelstown when a vacant premises on the Cork side of the main street partially collapsed earlier last month.

Cllr Kay Dawson against the backdrop of a derelict building.
Cllr Kay Dawson against the backdrop of a derelict building.

The building had never shown any signs of decay before it happened, and a new owner recently taking it in charge is said to be blameless as to what happened, given the recency of the purchase.

According to Fine Gael councillor Kay Dawson, Mitchelstown is not as blighted by dereliction as other major towns in Cork, but the partial building collapse put the issue into focus.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also shone a light on the town’s main square, which has become a hive of activity as an uplifting meeting place for local people in recent months.

That kind of community spirit can be built upon, Ms Dawson said, with the square forming a key component of an ambition to be one of Cork’s most walkable towns.

“First of all, we are very lucky that nobody was hurt or killed,” she said.

“It’s a premises that has, along with many others here, a hidden asset in the back that cannot be seen on the main street — fabulous spacious gardens.

“Now, imagine if we were able to take charge of vacant buildings in our towns that had such space, and created new apartment-type living for people. They would be thrilled to have such communal assets that you typically don’t get with apartments.

“Mitchelstown has a lot going for it — it’s so walkable, and measures such as community benches to sit along the streets in recent times have been a big success. 

We have a marvellous business association here, and with a lot of hidden gems here, we could turn the vacancy levels into a positive for the community.

The problem for Mitchelstown, like many other towns, is the cumbersome and painfully slow process in tackling dereliction.

“The legal steps and all the other things that go with it are so slow,” said Ms Dawson. Finding owners of derelict buildings in the first place can be almost impossible, and then you have to balance people’s rights with that of the council’s prerogative, and so on.

“Before you know it, you’re back to square one.”

The processes need to be streamlined to allow local people to tackle local problems, she said.

There is plenty of need for housing in Mitchelstown, and plans are afoot to transform one of the biggest eyesores in the town — the old Presentation convent, which has become a place for vandals and antisocial behaviour.

It really upsets people in the town, lying idle for what must be 20 years.

“The old lodge at the entrance was revamped in recent years, converted into a beautiful home, and it is a shining light as to what can be done.”

There are also swathes of land within the town’s immediate vicinity that could be built upon, but servicing of water and other such essentials are lacking, as Irish Water is struggling to formulate a plan for the town, with the sewage plant at capacity.

Irish Water is planning an interim project to increase capacity at the sewage treatment plant in Mitchelstown, which will hopefully allow a small number of housing projects to get under way in the area, it was revealed in May.

However, that is not a long-term solution to a growing issue, according to Ms Dawson.

She said: “We could have such a walkable town that families wouldn’t need two cars in the driveway.

“It has such potential, but I’d be afraid we’ll lose a whole generation if we don’t get the support and resources we need.”

Fermoy: 'Derelict sites letting our tidy town down'

Overlooking a gorgeous part of the River Blackwater, the town centre in Fermoy has been a source of pride for one of Ireland’s most dedicated tidy towns for generations.

Regular winners of major accolades for its cleanliness and dedicated volunteers, there remains a spectre of ugliness casting a shadow over the town - that of dereliction.

Cllr Noel McCarthy against the backdrop of the empty former Presentation Convent in Fermoy. Picture: Denis Minihane
Cllr Noel McCarthy against the backdrop of the empty former Presentation Convent in Fermoy. Picture: Denis Minihane

For Fine Gael councillor Noel McCarthy, long-term vacancy and dereliction need a comprehensive strategy on a national level.

Junior minister at the Department of Housing, Peter Burke, recently told the Irish Examiner that dereliction and vacancy was a high priority for the Government, saying current processes were too cumbersome and unstructured to make a dent in dereliction across Irish towns.

“A lot of people tell us at the moment is that there are a lot of different grants available, but there is not much structure to wrap around, or to offer those who are thinking of bringing a vacant property or an over-the-shop property back into use. There are a lot of silos in operation," Mr Burke said.

In Fermoy, Mr McCarthy said officials like municipal engineer Brendan O’Gorman can only do so much when their hands are tied to an extent, caught up in a range of legal and commercial realities when it comes to dereliction.

However, safety can no longer be ignored by Government, Mr McCarthy said. He was speaking specifically about the old bar formerly known as The Session, which has had an orange cordon around it for years now.

“I am very worried about the cracks on the building, although I am assured there is no immediate danger. But we really should not have to wait until it does become a clear and present danger.

The former Session Bar and Restaurant is now derelict.
The former Session Bar and Restaurant is now derelict.

“The Session, or The 59 as it was known, was a bar and restaurant but it is derelict now for a long time here on Patrick Street, which is the main street in Fermoy. There are other buildings here that need action, and to be fair, our auctioneers are doing their level best.

“When you think of how many people — around 400 or so — are on our housing list here in Fermoy and the surrounding areas, I think how many could be living in the centre of town if these buildings were taken in hand and revamped.” 

According to the draft Cork County Development Plan for Fermoy, “approximately 203 units, can readily be provided within the existing built footprint of the town using infill sites, opportunity sites, reuse of vacant stock, greenfield sites, and upper floors of shops etc”.

This form of development is highly desirable in terms of supporting existing communities and maintaining the vitality of the town centre area, the plan says.

Just off Patrick Street is the old fire station, idle for years, and up the hill from there is the old Presentation Convent Church.

The old church remains one of the biggest blights on Fermoy, according to Mr McCarthy, having become so dishevelled and dilapidated over the years that it almost appears ghostly.

“It has been the bane of people’s existence in recent years in Fermoy.

People’s hearts are broken worrying about it. 

The Diocese of Cloyne and Cork County Council are carrying out essential works and remedial measures, it was reported last month.

Mr McCarthy said a location like that could be used as a tourism magnet, along similar lines to what has happened in Mallow with the castle.

Youghal: 'Building a community is the key to town rejuvenation'

In a town that has suffered its fair share of dereliction in recent years, there is a wonderful example of what can be done to spin golden silk from rotting hay.

Youghal has a strong history of centre-of-town living and though this has waned in recent years.	Picture: Larry Cummins
Youghal has a strong history of centre-of-town living and though this has waned in recent years. Picture: Larry Cummins

Youghal has long been a haven for tourism, but also for generations had a main street full of vitality with town centre living the norm.

Dereliction has stilted the progress, but has not metastasized thankfully. There is constant work going on in main street to tackle the blight.

A new dedicated heritage tourism office, Youghal Heritage Tours, opened up right next to the famed Clock Gate in recent years, having gone under a starling transformation.

While the office would be a success in its own right, the fact that 15 newly built apartments lie overhead is harking back to Youghal’s heady days, according to Cllr Mary Linehan Foley.

“There are 15 apartments for single men and women, one of the almost forgotten group of people in the housing crisis across the country. Cork County Council stepped up to the mark, it really opened up main street, and with people living in apartments overhead, that means custom for local business.

“We want more of that. Youghal has traditionally been a place where centre of town living was very strong. Community living on main street may have waned in recent years, but the spirit of it never left. If we can recapture that in a major way, through tackling dereliction and vacancy, we’ll be on the right track,” she said.

Those 15 apartments mean an extra 15 people with proximity to a main street every day, and money spent locally, she said.

"When you have a community on your main streets, then those are the building blocks of rejuvenation. We also have private investment coming, with housing a major component of those plans. That is very encouraging.

"But we can never rest on our laurels. The majority of my phone calls as a councillor is in regards to housing. Imagine if all those buildings that are vacant around our streets were a mix of shops and housing? That would give homes to hundreds.

There is huge appetite for town living, especially in a town like Youghal which thrived for decades on it.

There is an ace in the hole coming for Youghal that will be transformational as a town to both live, work, and socialise, according to Ms Linehan Foley.

"The greenway is going to be a massive boost for Youghal. We're already seeing enquiries from businesses about it, and what it will mean for the town. When it is completed, Youghal will have more going for it than most towns — a greenway to complement sandy beaches and great heritage."

Covid-19 delayed the opening of the Youghal to Midleton Greenway by a year and it will not now happen until 2023. However, the Government has committed to fully funding the €19.8m project, up from a previous commitment of €8m.

Once completed, the greenway will provide a 23km-long cycle and walkway along the old disused railway track from Midleton to Youghal through Mogeely and Killeagh.

Such a greenway has done wonders for Dungarvan in Waterford, which has become a must-visit town for families across Ireland in recent years.

"It is up to us as a whole to promote Youghal, and to tackle dereliction and vacancy in a combined effort. It won't be easy, and we will never be going back to the past, but there is no reason we cannot build on those wonderful elements for a bright future," Ms Linehan Foley said.

Incentives for inner-town living and assistance for those prepared to do so must become policy, she added.

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