Strict control on the spread of retailing activities outside the town centres of Mullingar and Athlone is a focus of the new County Retail Strategy.
For Athlone, an objective is preparation with Roscommon County Council of a retail strategy for Monksland and Bealnamulla.
An update on the new retail strategy was given to Westmeath County Council’s Planning and Transportation Special Policy Committee at a meeting last week by Terry McCague, director of services.
He explained that the plan wants to keep Westmeath shoppers in Westmeath, and to address decline in the town centres, as well as making them attractive for inward investment, for tourists and for locals.
Work on the strategy – still at draft stage – is being done by a consultancy firm which surveyed the shopping habits of 400 households in the county, Mr McCague said.
He said the strategy, when agreed by councillors, is to run until 2026.
“The primary asset of every town is its centre,” Mr McCague said, opining that during the boom, towns across the country could probably have better managed the pattern of retail development in their areas.
He said the new strategy would encourage the use of “brownfield” sites, and retailing activity could help underpin the vitality and vibrancy of town centres.
Mr McCague said an aim of this new strategy for Westmeath, which will replace the present strategy, drawn up in 2007, would be to confirm a county “retail hierarchy” and provide clear guidance on where major new retail floorspace would be acceptable.
Some 85pc of Westmeath’s retail activity is in the two largest towns, he stated, but a further objective would be sustaining and enhancing the vitality and viability of the four key service towns and the retail and services role of rural centres.
All this would help ensure Westmeath residents’ retail needs could be met “as fully as possible” within Westmeath, in order to avoid leakage of retail expenditure from Westmeath, and to cut out the need to travel to meet retail needs.
He said a successful strategy could influence both inward investment, and help attract visitors to the area.
Mr McCague said there had been a “certain level of decline” in towns, and a shift towards what was termed the “evening economy”, which meant restaurants, and businesses covered by the Purple Flag concept.
“There is now an acceptance that during the boom there was an over-provision of retail parks and retail warehousing,” he said, adding that although there were many vacancies in these parks, they continued to exert “a pull” away from the town centres due to factors such as, for example, ease of parking.
“In the last seven years there hasn’t been much retail warehousing development in the county: there’s a lot of surplus, particularly around Athlone, and this is particularly an issue on the Roscommon side of Athlone,” he said.
Concerns were, he continued, the “loss of diversity”, the preponderance of shops such as charity shops and bookies, and the extent to which the council should support independent retailers.
A finding from the work of the consultants to date is that the total retailing floorspace in Westmeath has grown from 71,900 square metres to 93,133 since 2007.
“A lot of that will have arisen from the Athlone towncentre development,” he stated.