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What can we learn from small thriving Irish towns?


The already significant challenges for the High Street and Towns across the UK have undoubtedly been compounded by COVID. Footfall and spend is bouncing back more quickly in some areas than others as highlighted by Centre for Cities ( but the problems are systemic.


The template for towns and cities needs to evolve and fast. The over-dependence on retail has exposed structural cracks and the fabric of many towns is crumbling as online retail tightens its grip and people still opt for the out of town shopping experience. It’s already clear that most major players have a hybrid bricks and clicks model with some playing catch up on the clicks and divesting the bricks as highlighted by many announced closures in recent months, the most notable for me being John Lewis’ flagship Birmingham store.

There is a level of acceptance that the future for towns cannot be retail dominated – and the new the High Street Task Force will be addressing the challenges and opportunities for individual towns across the UK.

One of the benefits of the staycation has been the opportunity to visit some of the smaller Irish towns, many of them largely untouched by the multiples and chain stores that became more pervasive across the UK as well as larger Irish towns. And even if arguably they appear caught in a time warp, that in itself brings identity, charm, authenticity and attraction as highlighted by places like Westport and Kinsale – which have a strong destination proposition as well as being active hubs for the local community. There are definitely some lessons we can learn for the broader towns recovery model even if there are some cultural differences and practical challenges around landlord leases. These include:

  • The mixed usage of towns: and particularly the residential aspect which has remained a strong feature alongside hospitality, retail and services.
  • Independence: Family run businesses in retail and hospitality are the anchors for small towns in Ireland. The business is more than another unit, the town and its survival is germane to the business so there is a symbiotic relationship.
  • Competition: The log running Tidy Towns initiative has a commercial sponsor but there is extremely high citizen participation and engagement driven by local volunteers.
  • Bottom up place making: Business and residents clearly collaborate to enhance the attractiveness of the place – perhaps most evident through the blast of vivid colours that greet you in many of these small towns.
  • Community: Still evident at the heart of these small towns. Local has its benefits as demonstrated throughout COVID and this is now intersecting with new platforms like Next Door which is rooted in getting communities to work more effectively together for mutual benefit.


All of these factors create a sense of place, differentiation and longer term sustainability. Importantly, an active and vibrant town centre also promotes a sense of security, safety and wellbeing among residents.

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