DublinTown Proposals For Re-Opening Of Dublin City
Covid-19 is first and foremost a health concern. All decisions must be informed by the need to maintain to the greatest extent possible the health and welfare of all.
Within this health context, the guiding principle behind all DublinTown actions is to preserve as many businesses and their staff in situ until normality returns, which we accept may be 12 to 18 months from now, or perhaps longer. This crisis will pass and our objective is to ensure that we maintain Dublin City as an attractive destination. A boarded up and high vacancy city is in nobody’s interest nor will the city remain a desirable destination when the business mix falls out of kilter and important attractions are lost.
Achieving this objective will require compromise from all in order to maximise the potential of most. Difficult decisions will be required on issues that would simply not have been considered in different circumstances.
These are issues which are being grappled with across the globe. DublinTown is an active participant in this global discourse. The UK’s High Street Task Force has established guiding principles for re-establishing town centre vibrancy.
Common plan for public space that is agreed in advance by Local Authorities, Police and Business Community
- Enhanced cleaning and sanitising
- Consistent signage
- Identify hotspots:
- Large pedestrian movements and congregations including pedestrianisation and widening of footpaths together with the implementation of one-way pedestrian routes
- Inclusive social distancing, including measures to support safe movement of people with disabilities
- Walking and cycling
- Access and egress
- Arrival points within the city for public transport together with waiting places, bus stops, car parks, places identified for queueing and waiting
- Communication: this must be clear and consistent
- On street stewarding
- Additional measures regarding social distancing at street markets
While the Irish Government is to be commended for its pro-active approach and guidance provided to date, the business community must also use common sense in addressing issues arising. The Government cannot be expected to provide guidance for every potential situation.
The City Economy
Dublin is Ireland’s economic engine. 250,000 people work in Dublin 1 and 2 alone. On average, 300,000 people visit Dublin city centre each day. DublinTown’s 13 cameras measure almost 160,000,000 pedestrian movements annually. Over half the taxes raised in Ireland are raised in Dublin. As the debate moves from one of solely public health to one of public health and economic recovery, Dublin city centre will have an important role to play.
DublinTown understands the 3 week phasing of the re-opening process, however, within those confines we believe that bars should (with appropriate safety measures such as waiter service and well managed access to toilet facilities) be allowed open with restaurants. Many shopping centres have remained open during the crisis as they host grocery and pharmacy units. It is surprising that they are now being forced to now close until 10th August despite having plans in place to control entrance numbers with clear allocations of space and mobility plans.
Similarly, the differing treatment for large and small retailers requires further clarification. Many larger stores have clearly worked out plans for the numbers of customers that can be accommodated in store together with supervised movement within the store.
Commercial viability of customer facing industries
International evidence shows that footfall has been slow to return to countries which have begun to reverse their lockdown. A YouGov poll in the UK demonstrated that people are likely to remain uncomfortable engaging in shopping and socialising until a reliable treatment or vaccine is found for Covid-19.
People suggesting discomfort visiting commercial outlets:
- Pubs 63%
- Restaurants 57%
- Clothes shopping 46%
- Gyms 62%
- Hair Salons 46%
- Nail bars 60%
64% of 18-24 year olds state that they will be comfortable going out. Overall 56% of men and 42% of women said that they would be comfortable going out. As could be expected, the older one gets the less confident one is about returning to previous activities.
Physical distancing provisions will limit the number of people who can visit a retail store, a restaurant, café or bar at any one time. Hospitality outlets are most vulnerable. Industry professionals estimate that they will operate at a maximum of c.45% capacity. This level of trade means that they will be unable to meet their overhead costs. They will therefore require ongoing central Government supports to keep trading. Local Governments have a role to play in assisting in the survival of trade as well. This is primarily through the provision of outdoor space for the use by local businesses, thereby enabling them to meet more of their overhead cost and reducing the level of subsidy required from the state.
Need to avoid vacancy and poor property uses
We must keep businesses in situ and maintain the appropriate business mix for a district. Where a district reaches a high level of vacancy (generally considered to be 25% or where the business mix becomes poor), neighbouring businesses suffer as customers take their custom elsewhere and previously viable businesses become vulnerable. Therefore, maintaining proven business mixes is essential for longer term vitality and viability.
Use of outdoor space
The use of outdoor spaces for both queueing and also for café, bar and restaurant seating will require careful planning and weather proofing for the autumn/winter. It may be appropriate to seek Government support for large umbrella structures and heaters on pedestrianised streets to facilitate this.
In 2016 DublinTown outlined how outdoor space could be allocated for outdoor seating by hospitality businesses. In essence, traders would be allocated a barriered space which they would be required to manage, clean and supervise and in return, outdoor seating fees would be waived. Where agreed standards are not met to the satisfaction of both the Gardaí and Dublin City Council, the license would be withdrawn. Such a scheme could be piloted on Fade Street for a weekend to show how it would work.
The maintenance regime would include for example:
- Maintaining an appropriate cleaning regime with agreed cleaning targets. This would encompass maintaining the area clean of cigarette butts, glass etc. Traders would be required to demonstrate that they have initiated and maintained a regime appropriate to maintaining those standards.
- Measures to protect the safety and security of customers to be put in place. This is likely to require the area to be manned by business personnel at all times.
- The erection of quality barriers designed to safeguard the area. We believe that there is a role for Dublin City Council’s planning department in specifying the nature and quality of barriers to be considered to create a consistent look and feel to the area. Suppliers to the industry may be willing to assist with the relevant costs. The erection of barriers would assist the Gardaí in identifying patrons of specific establishments and those who are not.
- All service inside and outside would be subject to waiter service only.
- A queueing system would be applied to toilet facilities which would limit numbers to an appropriate level.
Outside queueing will be necessary for many businesses. Businesses will be responsible for managing their queue. There will be limits to the numbers that can queue at any one time and this will also require management. Where space is unavailable customers will need to leave and return. Businesses may wish to allocate appointments to reduce waiting times outside their premises particularly in the winter. A system similar to that employed at Christmas for visits to attractions/Santa may be adapted to meet this requirement. We note that appointment apps are being used for this purpose in China.
Technology can be used to allow for the booking of such spaces and the assessment of its management as an ‘event’ space. Such a system would allow the Council/ Gardaí know the applicant, the allocation of space, table numbers and other conditions by way of QR code.
With space at a premium, we will not be able to tolerate delivery vans or construction vehicles occupying space indefinitely within the commercial district. All deliveries must be made expeditiously and the vehicles must then leave.
Developing public trust and confidence
Generating trust and confidence must be a priority. This will require consistent and clear messaging at National, Local Government and business level.
For customers to return to the city, not only must they be kept safe but they must feel safe. Without a sense of reassurance, people will understandably wish to stay local to their homes.
Given overall concerns, social distancing requirements within the workplace, and reduced public transport capacity, we are likely to see a reduction in the number of office workers coming into the city on a daily basis. The loss of a significant cohort of the city’s 250,000 workers will have a severe detrimental impact on city centre businesses.
Learning from lockdown
Time will tell how successful we are in containing the virus after lockdown. Ultimately customer confidence will depend on actual outcomes. However, we can learn from the experience of essential retail workers in grocery and pharmacy stores, Gardaí and transport workers who have not suffered above average illness during the lock down. There is merit in understanding how this has been achieved and sharing those results.
Communications must be sympathetic to public sentiment. Timing and tone will be of key importance. People have increased uncertainty in their lives, reduced income and increased debts. They have health concerns for themselves and their families, they or their loved ones may have experienced ill-health or job loss so we will need to have considerate and supportive messaging.
Events and larger gatherings in the city would appear inappropriate. DublinTown will not host or support large gatherings for the foreseeable future.
It is highly unlikely that there will be a tourist season in Ireland in 2020. 2021 is also likely to be difficult. Fáilte Ireland should work with its Dublin tourism partners to assess opportunities arising for Dublin in 2021 and beyond and seek to maximise on this potential. As business tourism is likely to be hit hardest, there is an argument that specific focus is given to the longer term re-activation of this market.
The country’s 23 Purple Flag towns should participate at national level in the development of tourism recovery plans. This could be achieved through the ATCM network in Ireland.
In addition, there is merit in promoting Dublin from a domestic tourism perspective and also encouraging Dubliners to see their city as a tourist, engaging with its attractions. This Dubliners’ Dublin could allow venues to remain open while providing additional leisure options for Dubliners within physical distancing parameters.
Reduction in public transport capacity
Each year DublinTown’s footfall cameras record almost 160,000,000 pedestrian movements equating to up to 300,000 people visiting the core city centre on an average day, a figure that concurs with the numbers carried by public transport providers. Dublin Bus carried 138,000,000 passengers in 2019.
In January 2020, DublinTown commissioned Red C to survey the Dublin public. The results in relation to mode of transport used was broadly consistent with previous research findings.
The modes of transport used to access the city were:
- Bus 41%
- Car 22%
- Luas 13%
- DART 8%
- Walk 8%
- Train 5%
- Bike 3%
Despite investments in public transport, more than 33% of people surveyed found the city more difficult to access than 3 years ago, compared with 30% who found it easier. Those most likely to say it was more difficult to access were those over 65 years of age and those with children under the age of 5.
Social distancing provisions are likely to lead to a 20% reduction in public transport capacity. As 67% of people visiting the city use public transport, we are looking at c.150,000 per day who will be unable to use their preferred transport option.
Practical and not ideological debate is required
This is a startling figure that appears to have evaded the discourse to date. The issue is not one of cars vs. bicycles, it is far more significant than that. Two thirds of people use public transport to access the city. 4 in 5 of these people cannot be accommodated on public transport.
City centre businesses rely on their customers being able to access them, without this access their businesses and the districts in which they operate cease to be viable.
Therefore, the business community is calling for a practical discussion around what is achievable. There are immediate issues to be addressed in saving of businesses and the jobs they provide, the potential for the collapse in the economy and a long running L-shaped recovery that will deprive many of opportunity. We have not invested sufficiently in sustainable transport and are now living with the consequences of that policy failure. However, we have certain assets and must sweat those assets to the maximum for the benefit of most. In the short term, all ideologies need to be left at the door and all possibilities considered.
Investment in cycle infrastructure
DublinTown has long called for increased footpath widths and increased space for cycling provision. In the current circumstances it is now understandable that many will choose to cycle to the city and therefore the development of continuous cycle lanes takes on added significance. This development cannot be limited to the city centre but must also include the suburbs that lie within adjoining local authority areas.
The use of e-bikes and e-scooters to allow access from further distances must also be permitted.
Staggering office and retail opening hours
The staggering of office and retail opening hours may assist in the maximising the potential of public transport options and this must be considered. It is also envisaged that many offices will promote home working, which while providing relief to the public transport and result in considerably less commercial activity within the city centre.
Public transport will not be able to meet current demand, and there are those for whom active travel is not a viable option. There are also many who, particularly in the initial stages, will wish to use private transport. Therefore, DublinTown is opposed to a car ban in Dublin City Centre.
Pedestrianisation of certain streets will be required. For example, South William Street has narrow footpaths and cannot accommodate the street’s pedestrian requirements. When queueing and seating space are added, it is clear that use of the road carriage is required. Without this many of the street’s 338 businesses will be unable to open. While this may have implications for certain car parks, there is a strong argument that it is better to have 1 full car park and 300 open businesses than 2 half full car parks and 300 closed businesses. There is majority business and public support for such measures.
DublinTown members have suggested with merit that under-utilised car parking space in adjoining streets and vacant premises could be used to accommodate excess demand for car parking and queueing in the short term.
DublinTown believes that road space should be prioritised and rationed based on need and timing of use.
Investment in public transport
In the medium-term DublinTown supports the call from IBEC to finally invest in public transport options that the city should have had 2 generations ago. This includes Metro Link and DART Underground.
Thus far, deliveries have worked well in the city. However, there are currently very few premises requiring regular deliveries. This will change when establishments re-open. It is unlikely to be possible to have deliveries concentrated on major shopping streets within a 2-hour window each day while maintain social distancing. Without implementing a structured approach to deliveries, photographs and social media posts in relation to same could damage our confidence building measures. DublinTown undertook delivery surveys with members in 2016 in advance of the national celebrations. We intend in updating these and assessing street use at peak delivery times. It may well be the case that certain establishments will be required to take deliveries in the evening or before 7am to allow for safe on street use. Given the limitations on access to the city, there may well be an argument for investment in home deliveries with a number of smaller independent retailers sharing the cost of delivering goods to their customers, allowing those customer access the city by walking or cycling. DublinTown would be willing to reassess the viability of such a proposal with relevant businesses.
The current situation allows for the merging of the day and evening economy as retailers are encouraged to extend their trading hours to accommodate customers over the course of the day, while maintaining social distancing. These customers may also engage in dining and/or visiting cultural attractions. Experience from continental Europe shows that while footfall has been low, spend per customer is higher than normal in the immediate re-opening period. Therefore, we have an opportunity to package the entire city experience for people looking for a day out. As the duration of the visit is spread, we can support greater physical distancing within venues.
This greater evening activity will mean that we can no longer allow streets to be littered with uncollected waste for 6 or 7 hours each evening. DublinTown recommends that all waste removal is undertaken between 7 and 8 pm each evening. Waste collectors should be obliged to allocate sufficient waste trucks to the city to fulfil their obligations in waste collection with the hour available. If waste collection companies are unable to meet this need, then it is recommended that Dublin City Council recommence waste collection within the city to maintain a clean and orderly city for those using it in the early evening.
A Functioning City: Cleaning and maintenance
The city must a clean and well-maintained location. This is important not only for obvious health reasons but also for the essential confidence and trust building requirement. This cleaning must be performed in a sensitive manner. DublinTown will deploy its crews to remove graffiti within its district and also disinfect handles and doors and immediate entrance space to business premises.
In the absence of humans on the streets, the city has experienced a visible rodent infestation that must be addressed. Also, waste has been left uncollected as collection contracts have been suspended by closing businesses. This has given rise to health and welfare implications that need to be addressed. It is likely that a significant proportion of businesses may not re-open giving rise to further similar issues arising. These need to be addressed in a systematic fashion. Particularly on the city’s back lanes.
Management of Homelessness
The levels of rough sleeping experienced on city streets has reduced during the Covid crisis. It is essential for the respect and wellbeing of the most vulnerable in our society that this momentum is maintained. DublinTown advocates that the policies which are yielding results are maintained and that the DRHE is enabled to continue to make progress in addressing the needs of those who are experiencing homeless. This is also an opportunity to address the causes of homelessness so that an integrated service is provided to those who need it.
Ongoing Supports Required
Normal trade is unlikely to return until such time as there is a treatment or vaccine for Covid-19. Businesses are likely to re-open with trade in the region of 40-60% of 2019 levels. Within the hospitality sector some businesses are facing a cap on total trade of 25-35% when social distancing requirements are taken into account and access to toilet facilities are factored in. Therefore, many businesses will require on-going supports to enable them to remain viable until normal trade returns.
Ongoing supports required include:
- There is a need for an ongoing wage support scheme modelled on the current wage subsidy scheme.
- There is a need for burden sharing with respect to overheads. Temporary reductions in rents, rates and other significant overheads including insurance will be required to ensure the longer-term viability of these businesses. There is a general view that all sectors of society need to share the burden. Similarly, businesses are of the view that placing excessive debt on the shoulders of SMEs will result in zombie businesses that are unable to perform or invest in the future. Having considered the matter, DublinTown believes that a system of burden sharing is required. Such a scheme would take gross margins and compare them with previous years and breakeven figures. This could be used to draw down Government grants and allocate a reasonable cost for overheads in the interregnum. Without such supports the State stands to lose a significant proportion of the €6.5bn that it proposes to deploy as businesses may cease trading where overheads cannot be met. This needs a wide circular model. If tenants cannot pay their full rent, then landlords need to be able to reduce their mortgage repayments or roll over interest periods. Banks may require liquidity supports to facilitate this. The ultimate objective is to maintain as many businesses as possible trading and providing employment. The supports and arrangements will reverse when the crisis begins to resolve. A working group at national level must be established to consider overheads arising and the implications of partial payment on the rest of the business chain. This will allow for appropriate supports and liquidity to be provided to help avoid collapse throughout the economic chain. To reduce the overall level of supports required business must be facilitated in meeting as many of their overheads as possible. This will include the allocation of outdoor space as noted above. To participate in any scheme businesses must be able to demonstrate that they were viable at 31st December 2019 based on year end accounts, for example. They must take on some but not all of the burden through state supported low interest loans. However, the burden must also be shared throughout the economic chain also.
- Currently self-employed persons who are trading at a loss due to the Covid Crisis are unable to claim social welfare. We fear that this may persuade some to close their businesses which would run counter to our objectives for the city. Such people should be facilitated on the same basis as directors of close companies.
- Guidance is required regarding the number of people who can be facilitated within a premises.
- Clarity is required as to what constitutes a ‘small retailer’ or a ‘small’ office staff.
- Pubs should be allowed open at the same time as restaurants when appropriate safeguards have been put in place.
- While consistent with other EU countries, no reasons have been given as to why department stores and shopping centres have been delayed in re-opening. Again, we have noted that these outlets have strict systems in place to ensure appropriate in store management. If there are genuine reasons for the current position, these can be considered and addressed.
- Guidance in relation to the re-opening of offices is required. This is particularly true of shared office space. Guidance as to the number of employees per square foot, the use of shared lifts etc. is required.
- The extension of a rates holiday beyond 3 months will be required by most customer facing businesses.
- Guidance on PPE, face masks etc. is required. Businesses may need to assess how customer engagement is best accommodated where both staff and customers are required to wear PPE. Businesses will require financial support to meet the costs of PPE.
- We are conscious that many businesses may find themselves technically insolvent. We note that the Institute of Chartered Accountants has instructed its members to apply going concern principles within audits without modification. We also note that Companies House in the UK has suspended personal liabilities for wrongful trading during the period of the Covid Crisis. The objective being to ensure that viable businesses are not liquidated but are encouraged to continue trading. Similar provisions and guidance in Ireland through ODCE and CRO. Businesses which were viable in February 2020 and who are likely to be viable again in 2021 should not be liquidated because they are technically (but temporarily) insolvent at points during 2020.
Looking to the Future
The Covid Crisis is likely to accelerate trends that were becoming increasingly evident before the advent of Covid-19. We had assumed that many of these trends would impact on engagement with town centres over a period of 5-10 years, we now believe that this time scale will be considerably shortened. Our towns and cities will be very different within 2 to 3 years. In this context it is worth noting that UK High Street commission research highlighted that only 9% of the public wanted their town centres to return exactly as they were before the lockdown, with environmental considerations being evident in much of the input.
Online retail is not a solution to lost retail sales
We have seen some high profile business closures. There are likely to be more. We do not anticipate a pipeline of new ventures to replace them. The environment for retail operators has been increasingly challenging for a number of years and, therefore, there is an expectation that retail businesses will continue to be challenged post-Covid. Commentators suggest that online migration is the solution. However, there is evidence to suggest that online sales may plateau in time. We saw the first signs of this in US in 2018. We noted Dubliners’ intentions to reduce online purchase spend in 2020 in research conducted by Red C on behalf of DublinTown. People may come to associate online retail with the negative experience of the Covid crisis and may come to eventually value the city shopping experience again. An overemphasis on promoting online retail as ‘the’ key solution carries risks for the sector. The promotion of the city centre offer and experience should continue.
The current crisis has shown us how fragile our social and economic models are. We know that our current experience will be mild when compared to the catastrophic implications of climate change. International air quality has improved and biological recovery has been noticed since the crisis commenced. There is considerable online, media and celebrity commentary in this regard. Air travel has reduced. After an initial recovery period, we can expect the public discourse of Environment v Nominal Economic Growth to emerge. City centres have distinct advantages over other locations from an environmental perspective but these advantages tend to be contrary to the actions required in containing contagious diseases. We can expect a vibrant discussion in relation to this to emerge.
After an initial period of adjustment, we anticipate that the growth of leisure and entertainment will continue and that space devoted to retail will be reduced. There is scope of linking the arts with retail and other businesses to the benefit of all sectors. We further anticipate that there will be an increase in residential uses within town centres. Within Dublin, this is likely to concentrate on workable living over the shop schemes and re-allocation of retail space, together with the re-purposing of disused back lanes. This will give rise to management issues as we may see conflicts between increased residential and evening and night time economy uses.
As many of the changes that we can anticipate will also be felt in other jurisdictions, it makes sense to remain engaged in international networks and learn from best practice. DublinTown will remain active within the ATCM, the Institute of Place Management and will forge greater contact with the International Down Town Association.
Within Ireland we see considerable scope for the growth in BIDs and the Purple Flag network. BIDs can work with member businesses in terms of safe access and egress to and within premises. The Purple Flag network already has town teams consisting of businesses, Local Authorities and Gardaí that are ideally placed to devise plans for re-opening and subsequently managing and monitoring those processes.