Ireland’s town and city centres are not yet facing the same loss of sales to online retailing as those in the UK (now 17% of all sales according to the Centre for Retail Research), but they are extremely concerned about the likely impact of Brexit, still feeling the impact of out of town shopping, and seeing other social and technological change. An event in Sligo last week attracted delegates from across both the Republic and Northern Ireland to discuss the changes affecting town centres and how they can best respond.

Chaired by Bobby Kerr, the Chairman of Insomnia Coffee and a campaigner for ‘Winning Back the High Street’, the event opened by looking at the potentially eventually devastating impact of Brexit on many Irish towns despite the strength of the national economy. Catherine Curran, from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Innovation then presented the Framework for Town Centre Renewal (https://dbei.gov.ie/en/Publications/Publication-files/A-Framework-for-Town-Centre-Renewal.pdf) document that was launched in April 2017. This document was developed by an influential group of interested parties from the public and private sectors, including Dublin Town BID, who came together as the Retail Consultation Forum. Recognising the inherent strengths of town centres and their significant role in the economy, the document proposes a three-stage process for all town centres in the country.

Step One is to develop the evidence base by engaging with stakeholders and undertaking a health check. Guidance on this is provided in the report and indicators, such as footfall, diversity, competition, and vacancy, are described. Step Two is about collaboration and bringing together a group of stakeholders. The document talks about local champions and representation and provides examples from existing Town Teams, BIDs and other partnerships in various locations. The third step is the preparation of a plan for town centre renewal with a vision, strategy and action plan and some key performance indicators. The Framework helpfully highlights the national policy framework within which local action plans will need to operate. It also looks at potential interventions and details how these should be addressed.

Although much of what is in the Framework will be familiar to those engaged in place management in the UK, the concept has not been widely adopted yet in Ireland and the document is well presented and easy to read and will hopefully lead to much wider take-up. It will also act as an excellent reminder for those elsewhere who want to refresh their approach.

Work on the health checks has already begun in Ireland and the results of some of the pilot initiatives were described by Tara Buckley, Director General of the Retail, Grocery, Dairy and Allied Trades Association, who was part of the Retail Consultation Forum.

The work the Institute of Place Management has been doing with data from Springboard and working with other partners to understand town centres and develop new approaches to ensure their vitality and viability was a natural fit into this conference. I was able to talk about how we identified the 25 most important factors for town centre vitality (/media/50610/Executive-Summary.pdf), to explain how retail hierarchies are now redundant and we now need to think about towns in terms of usage (/footfall-signatures/) as this will determine the most appropriate actions to be taken in an individual centre. I also talked about approaches to town centre management in terms of Repositioning, Reinventing, Rebranding and Restructuring which we will be releasing articles on in the next month.

The conference heard from a number of Institute members and past students, including Mo Aswat from Mosaic about the international experience of BIDs, Gail McGibbon about the experience of the BID in Sligo, Julienne Elliott about the development of the Coleraine BID, and Richard Hamilton of Future Analytics on the town planning perspective of a healthy town. Other locations featured included Waterford, Ennis and Enniskillen.

Thanks are due to the organisers and sponsors for a well-designed event. More detail about the summit is available at https://www.thefutureoftowns.ie/.