IT IS A bright and chilly Friday morning in Tulla and there’s a buzz of activity about the place as locals stock up on the shopping and catch up on the news ahead of the weekend.
“Ideally, we’d love to see this level of activity every day of the week,” says Councillor Pat Hayes who is taking The Clare Champion on a short walking tour of following the news that over 40 vacant premises have been identified in the area.
While the heart of Tulla is beating strongly, as we make our way down Lower Main Street, the evidence of a report compiled by Clare County Council from Geo Directory statistics becomes more apparent.
“We are coming to an area where there would have been busy pubs and shops, as well as a cinema,” Cllr Hayes explains.
“But, you know life has changed and times have changed. Still it is hard to be looking at buildings lying idle and empty when people are looking for homes in this area. It’s kind of criminal that we have houses here and they’re fine structure and we have people who want homes to rent and live in, and these aren’t suitable.”
After the Fianna Fáil councillor tabled a motion seeking an update on the number of vacant and derelict properties in the Killaloe Municipal District, council officials presented a report showing 530 units in total. The statistics, which come from Geo Director, show 65 homes recorded as vacant in Sixmilebridge; 11 in Broadford; 22 in Tuamgraney and a total of 49 in Tulla. Of those, 26 are in the town centre.
Tulla, a major presence on the traditional music map of Ireland, can trace its heritage as a settlement back to the 1200s, and before that to the Church of St Mochuille, founded in the seventh century. Boasting a proud and world-renowned musical tradition, Tulla is also home to two thriving schools and high quality sporting facilities.
“There is a wonderful community here,” Cllr Hayes observes, as we continue down Lower Main Street, “with lots of people doing great work to enhance the area.”
“Áras Mhuire is a lovely development for older people and you’d love to think that other areas could be more vibrant. O’Reilly Park is another area where people have made great strides in terms of the upkeep of the place and it’s superb. The periphery is fine, it’s the centre that has an issue.”
The most recent County Development Plan 2017-2023, which contains a written statement and settlement plan for the Killaloe District, acknowledges the potential of Tulla in terms of its core, and providing incentives for those who own the vacant properties to bring them back into use is something that Cllr Hayes is keen to see.
“I don’t blame the property owners because a lot of the time, people simply don’t have money to actually develop them. What I’m looking for is a national incentive scheme to focus on the centres of towns and villages to offer people funding. Whether the council take the building in charge and does the works or people get support to do the works themselves. We really need something to focus on the centres of towns and villages.”
The schemes that already exist don’t go far enough in Cllr Hayes’s opinion. Among them is the Buy and Renew Scheme (BRS), administered by the Department of Housing and designed to support local authorities in acquiring and refurbishing vacant homes with a view to converting them to social housing.
It is an initiative that Clare County Council has successfully availed of in 25 cases around the county, but its limitations, as outlined to the Killaloe Municipal District meeting, have prompted frustration on the part of Cllr Hayes and his colleagues.
“When you’ve talking about the numbers that have been refurbished under the [RBS] scheme – maybe 25 or so, in the context of up to 2,500 to 3,000 people on a housing waiting list. It’s a drop in the ocean. It really is minimal. And there is also the issue that the Department imposes a ceiling on the cost of acquiring the houses and the value of the refurbishment works.”
Cllr Hayes also notes the significance of funding awarded to Tulla’s Cnoc na Gaoithe centre, and the importance of the €900,000 it is to receive under the Town and Village Renewal Scheme.
“We’ve been very lucky to get funding recently and it will be very significant, but the government needs to realise that we have to make towns liveable places.
“Community projects are wonderful and very necessary, but we to have viable homes around them in the town centre.”
The data on the number of vacant homes in the heart of the town is all the more stark, Cllr Hayes feels, in light of a major new social housing development due to come on stream over the coming couple of years.
Our tour of the town takes us down the hill to the Doonaun Road. On a 1.83 hectare site, the authority plans to build 22 new social houses and the aim – subject to a Part Eight application – is to go to construction next year.
“There’s a total contradiction to my mind in the fact that we are getting funding from the Department for €3.5 to €4 million for new houses, but if we had another million to put into the existing street, we could create a different landscape altogether.
“While there is a need for new housing, you have to be mindful of the fact that you could take a section of the town and concentrate on it and deal with it.
“There is an issue clearly that it is easier to develop a green-field site and the council get more bang for their buck by doing that, but it still doesn’t address the issues in the town centre.”
And Cllr Hayes is keen to stress that with over a thousand vacant homes in the Killaloe District, the issue is not confined to Tulla. He notes that Clare County Council has undertaken further analysis on the vacant homes identified in Sixmilebridge, Tuamgraney and Broadford.
Responding to Cllr Hayes’s request for information on the council’s proposals in relation to vacant housing, officials said they are actively tracing the owners and encouraging them to avail of a number of Department-funded schemes to bring them back into use.
“At the end of the day,” Cllr Hayes says, “funding has to be made available, ultimately, to support communities and support individuals to bring about what ever is best needed for the property and the community.”