Category: The Great Town Award 2011
Assessor: Philip Jackson / Willie Miller
Date of Visit: 2010
2. With the 2000 Westport Plan, the town has successfully maxmised backcourts and backlands behind the principal streets of the original plan creating an alternative business and pedestrian environment that has increased floorspace without damaging the original arrangement of buildings and streets
3. For a town of its size, Westport has been ambitious in terms of new developments building a number of new housing projects in a contemporary style as well as new community facilities, the largest of which is a swimming pool and fitness centre
4. Because some new developments have been abandoned and there are financial constraints on public finances, the council is struggling to play a leading role in the town’s progress and are instead working to an agreed physical plan
5. Westport encourages vibrant streetscapes, through the conservation of protected shop fronts and the creation of new modern shop fronts that sit comfortably into a Heritage town
Westport is a situated in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. It is situated at the south-east corner of Clew Bay, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean. Westport has a planned town centre designed by James Wyatt in 1780 in the Georgian style. The design for the town was commissioned by Lord Sligo of the nearby stately home Westport House as a place for his workers and tenants to live. A particular feature is the incorporation of the river into the composition, contained for two blocks by low stone walls with attractive tree lined promenades (The Mall) with several stone bridges over the river Carrow Beg. The layout further includes several tree lined streets, addressed by narrow fronted commercial buildings typical of Irish towns. The original continuity of the urban fabric is largely retained.
The famous pilgrimage mountain of Croagh Patrick, known locally as “the Reek” lies some 10 km west of the town. The mountain presents a striking backdrop to the town and the church on the summit can just be made out with the naked eye from Westport.
The town has a population of just over 5,000 with an additional 1,500 living in the immediate surrounding area. Westport is a popular tourist destination and has won the Irish Tidy Towns Competition three times in 2001, 2006 and 2008. The town is some 3.5 hours by train from Dublin and could be described as remote and peripheral in comparison to Stroud and Hebden Bridge.
Westport was the final destination of the assessment team and it maintained the high standard set by Stroud and Hebden Bridge. However Westport was substantially different from the English towns in terms of character, the fact that it was planned and the obvious differences we would expect from a different country that perhaps feels more European than the UK.
The town does not have that sense of an immediate and strong relationship with an enveloping landscape that was so marked in Stroud and Hebden Bridge. But neither is the character of the town particularly coastal as the planned centre was built inland from the original site close to Westport House. Instead there is a sort of transect running from the dramatic landscape of the Atlantic coast to the more inland side of the town with the town in a relatively sheltered location.
Westport has a particularly clear and easy to read centre. The original plan has a clarity and elegance which is still obvious today. The town follows the Irish tradition of having many family owned or Ireland based shops and businesses so there is a distinct lack of the chains and international brands common in UK high streets. The impact of the car on the town centre is quite marked in terms of noise and the visual effect of parking but steps are being taken to introduce measures which will start to limit the impact of vehicles.
Much of the strategic effort behind physical change in the town dates back to the adoption in 2000 of the Westport Plan. Perhaps the most important aspect of this initiative was to maximise the use of back courts and backlands behind the principal streets of the original plan. In effect this has created an alternative business and pedestrian environment that has increased floorspace in the town without damaging the original arrangement of buildings and streets. Much of this is now complete, providing sheltered spaces for new businesses, additional car parking and new development opportunities for residential, community and other uses.
For a town of its size, Westport has been ambitious in terms of new developments building a number of new housing projects in a contemporary style as well as new community facilities, the largest of which is a swimming pool and fitness centre.
In common with Stroud and Hebden Bridge, Westport has an enormous range of almost 100 community groups carrying out a wide range of work in the town covering music and arts, care, litter collection, youth organisations and religious groups. The County Council and the Town Council work closely together, encouraging and coordinating the work of these groups and assisting where appropriate. The Councils also establish links with Councils in Europe – for example the Council in Limoges have an exchange arrangement and have provided some of the design expertise for bedding plants throughout the town and the results of this are dramatically different from the norm. The standards of maintenance of streets, footpaths and buildings is very high as was the quality and extent of landscaping and the Tidy Towns team work closely with the Council teams to ensure good results.
Again like Stroud and Hebden Bridge, it seemed to the assessment team that this was a town in which it was possible for individuals in the community to originate ideas and proposals for projects that would benefit the town and find a way to implement them. There seemed to be a genuine pride of place and a shared interest in getting things done.
At the same time, there are some issues which present the town with difficulties. The demise of the Celtic Tiger has meant that a number of key developments have been mothballed or abandoned and there is little prospect of recovery in the market in the near future. A substantial squeeze on public finances may also curtail the leading role of the Councils in the progress of the town. In a number of ways, Westport is a more traditionally run town than Stroud or Hebden Bridge with the two Councils occupying familiar enabling and coordinating roles. Working to an agreed physical plan is one example of this.
Accompanying image by Willie Miller