Wanted - equal rights for town centres

On a recent day of torrential rain and high winds, I found it necessary to take a letter, which had to meet a postal deadline, to the post office in Clonmel.

On a recent day of torrential rain and high winds, I found it necessary to take a letter, which had to meet a postal deadline, to the post office in Clonmel.

I do not drive, and as a dedicated pedestrian (good for me and good for the environment), I would normally take the short 20-minute walk from my home to the office. But this was not a day for walking and husband drove me to the post office where the very limited free parking facilities were already occupied, so we parked in the nearby College Avenue.

“Won’t be a minute,” I said as I headed to the post office. In fact, it just took me seven minutes to walk there, buy a stamp, post my letter, and walk back to College Avenue. Husband, familiar with queues in the post office and my cavalier attitude to time, had already purchased a parking ticket, value €1, and placed it in the requisite location on the dashboard, obvious to any parking inspector who might pass by.

It had cost me 96 cent to post my letter, but effectively it cost more than double that amount when the €1 was added. When I complained about this to some friends, they implied I was more than a bit foolish. Wasn’t it a day when you wouldn’t put the dog out, they said, and why did husband anticipate that an inspector might come snooping about College Avenue in all that wind and rain.

I replied that some things become automatic in life. Things you do out of habit and repetition and which become second nature. Things like getting up every morning and brushing your teeth and putting the kettle on and making tea. And I assumed that putting euros into parking meters when you drove into the town of Clonmel had become so much a part of people’s lives that it was done automatically.

SINISTERLY SIGNIFICANT

But the more I thought about it, the more sinisterly significant and discriminatory that euro became. In effect, the parking charges imposed, for even a short stay in the streets of the town centre, are a punishment and a deterrent to trade on the business people, including many old family businesses, in Clonmel. And they are a fine on ordinary people who would like to shop and conduct their business in the town centre: not just because it is vital that that centre should be maintained as a lively interesting place, but because of the importance of the social, economic, architectural and historic fabric of the character of a place.

That aspiration is enshrined in the Town Plan of Clonmel, and is identified in a study by experts undertaken some decades ago and which was adopted by the Corporation. But what has that Corporation - now the Borough Council, and in its twilight months, done, to convert that aspiration into a reality? Very little (if anything), it seems to me.

In fact, the reverse seems to be the case. The Council, in its practical implementation of planning, has discriminated against the town centre. Peripheral development has been facilitated in street structures, in the realignment of roads, the provision of roundabouts, the erection of traffic signs, the designation of pedestrian crossings. In fact, a whole new pedestrian-way has been installed, with excellent protected crossings, from Parnell Street to The Showgrounds Shopping Centre. While I personally, as a committed pedestrian living in the eastern suburbs, find this a safe and convenient facility, it was not specifically done with ordinary citizens in mind, but (according to a report in this newspaper) with the objective of making the shopping centre more accessible.

NO POLICY, NO PLAN

The Planning Authority (The Council) imposed very heavy fees on developers to cover much of this work, but was any of that money re-invested in upgrading and enhancing the town centre? There is no evidence to support any such investment and, in fact, the contrary seems to have been the case. Not only was the periphery developed at the expense of the neglect of the centre, but there seems to have been no policy, no plan, to try to achieve a balance, a compensation. And as for the tender loving care of an old town! Forget it!

There was, in fact, no practical, imaginative, creative approach taken to the challenges of changing patterns in merchandising. Practically, the Council did not make any concessions to new start-up businesses in the town centre, by giving an amnesty in the payment of rates for a few years. The improvement of premises was punished by an increase in valuation, instead of being rewarded by a rates relief.

The function of a town centre (any town centre) as a place for socialising, for meeting friends, for recreation, was never acknowledged. If it was, why was a substantial fee imposed for such things as a table on the sidewalk outside a restaurant? This was a fee which could never be recouped especially in the context of the Irish weather. The conversion of the over-the-shop accommodation into offices or apartments, areas of premises largely unused, was never adopted as a planning policy, or encouraged by grants or taxation reliefs, yet it would have brought life back into the town centre, especially at night.

And parking fees and fines? Yes, these are necessary to regulate traffic, but surely there should be some concessions especially for accessing essential services. It should not be necessary to pay more than twice the cost of postage on a day when, as I said, you would not put the dog out!