Growth without cities

Notes from the Western Periphery

‘SMALL CAN BE BEAUTIFUL … AND EFFICIENT’ Westport, where the now-abolished Town Council ensured heritage and attractiveness were not sacrificed to facilitate business operations. Pic: Ciara Moynihan (2010)

The future of small Irish towns

John Bradley

Tourism in Mayo is driven primarily by the attractiveness of its towns and of their scenic hinterlands. But tourism alone seldom produces sustainable development. During the high season visitors flood in. Outside that season, or when we suffer a ‘bad’ summer of rain and gales, towns can be less crowded, hotels less full, and shops, restaurants and pubs have fewer customers.
What is important about manufacturing and professional services in small towns is that they are not seasonal, and they sell much of their output outside the immediate region; in the case of manufacturing, outside the country as exports. These activities are not constrained by the small size of the local market. Such firms provide high-quality employment locally and in the wider travel-to-work area. They also generate demand for material and service inputs that spread their benefits more widely throughout the local community.
Mayo has ten towns with populations greater than 1,000. Castlebar is the largest (12,068), followed by Ballina (10,171) and Westport (6,198).
The population of towns in central and south Mayo has been growing rapidly (Ballinrobe by 127 percent between 1991 and 2016; Castlebar by 58 percent). However, towns to the north have been growing more slowly or not at all (Crossmolina fell by 13 percent in the same period). Some explanations lie deep in history. Some are associated with neglectful and negligent public policies. Some are associated with difficulties in mobilising community cohesive action.
Westport, for example, is fortunate in that its tourism, manufacturing and service sectors feed off each other in a mutually reinforcing way. Tourism activities sometimes sit uneasily alongside production and commercial activities. A feature of Westport was that the strict planning laws that were enforced by the now-abolished Town Council ensured that heritage and attractiveness were not sacrificed to facilitate business operations.
The town’s manufacturing plants were designed to blend into the landscape, and its industrial park was located discreetly on the outskirts. Historically, Westport functioned as a port at a time when land transport was less developed. The old warehouses in the quay area, now converted into smart hotels and shops, are a lasting monument to Westport’s earlier trading economy.
The arrival of the first Westport supermarket in the 1980s exposed the town to a potential risk. In many Irish towns of that period, supermarkets were located on the outskirts; they hollowed out the traditional commercial town centre, and the small retail outlets, which often supplied a narrow range of goods, no longer had a role.
In Westport, the consequences were far more positive. As the need for small grocery shops diminished, they gradually transformed into a wide range of more specialised outlets: bakeries, delicatessens, bookshops, fashion shops, specialist food shops, craft butchers, cafés, restaurants, art galleries, antique shops, potteries.
Mayo towns are well known for their friendliness and diversity. What George Monbiot says about ecosystems applies equally to the econosystems of small Mayo towns:
“Healthy ecosystems depend to a great extent on old and gnarly places, that might take centuries to develop, and are rich in what ecologists call ‘spatial heterogeneity’: complex natural architecture.”
As was emphasised by the pandemic lockdowns, what Mayo towns have going for them in spades is this ‘spatial heterogeneity’. Large city population agglomerations are a necessary element of modern societies. But there are other, more desirable ways for people to thrive. Small can be beautiful. Small can be more ecological. And in contradiction to what the national planners seem to believe, small can be more efficient!
The development of small-town economies requires the joint success of its productive sectors (manufacturing and business services) with its tourist-related sectors (hotels, guest houses, B&Bs, restaurants, pubs, bicycle hire, etc.). Each of these two sides of the local economy reinforces the other.
Growth in the business sector spills over into the leisure sector, as purchasing power stimulates demand for tourist-friendly services that is more evenly spread over the whole year.
Business activities can be attracted into Mayo towns because of affordable housing, transport infrastructure, availability of professional and consumer services and a green environment for family life (schools, library, playgrounds, housing, sporting amenities, greenways, woodland walks).
It is essential to maintain this equilibrium between the requirements of the commercial side of any town’s industrial and service economy and the requirements of the social and tourist-related side. The combination of these two complementary aspects in Mayo towns will sustain development that is people friendly, and that balances the well-being of the local population with the ability to further expand an increasingly successful economic model.
We can do nothing to change the fact that history has left a legacy of disadvantage in the north-west region of our island. We can do a lot to demand public policies to promote development in peripheral regions. But the key is to mobilise community-cohesive action.

End note: For a full account of tourism in Westport, see ‘Westport: Where visitors feel at home’, by Fr Micheál MacGréil, published by Westport Tourism Organisation, available at Westport Town Hall and in bookshops.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.