It’s time for some innovative support for heroic Tidy Towns’ volunteers

The celebrations may not have been boisterous or indeed prolonged, but I can assure you that a hardcore group of modest volunteers from a series of villages and towns around County Roscommon (and indeed all over the country) have been enjoying a well deserved ‘day in the sun’ and toasting their success in the National Tidy Towns competition over the course of the last six days or so.

In parish hall committee rooms, corners of local pubs, and even in school classrooms around the region, small groups of usually quiet-spoken men and women have been huddling together and spending an hour or two studying the three pages of A4 paper, most likely downloaded and printed from the adjudicators’ reports page on the National Tidy Towns website, with all the meticulous details of how their own piece of rural Ireland has fared in the 2021 event.

Let’s get one thing out of the way firstly before we delve into the nitty-gritty of Tidy Towns work. None of the people who volunteer to pick the litter, tidy the streets or develop all those fantastic environmental or community-driven projects around Roscommon, do so for the want of praise or a massaging of their ego. ‘Tidy towners’ are in fact, in my experience, a different breed of people altogether. Often tagged unfairly as ‘do-gooders’, not a single one of them does it for the limelight or the picture in the paper – instead it’s the very proud sense of belonging and pride of place that is achieved by being part of a Tidy Towns group that drives them out into the wind and rain week after week in their yellow fluorescent jackets.

They do so to create a wonderful welcoming atmosphere for both residents and visitors alike when they drive through the streets and greens and squares of these towns, witnessing the fruit of the volunteers’ labour – such as beautifully manicured and landscaped gardens and greens. The ‘Tidy towners’ are turning a precious corner of their own home town into a mini ring of Kerry or a Donegal-style rolling mountain view landscape.

Last Friday the same hardy groups of volunteers would have gathered in their usual place and at the usual time to review the annual reports and points awarded after what has been a really difficult couple of years for Tidy Towns workers. Many of our best volunteers in committees are already over the age of 60. Many are retired, and a big percentage of them have had to cocoon in their homes for over a year, thus missing their daily and weekly duties with the Tidy Towns committees. Now, thankfully, they are back out. Even though there was no actual judging in the majority of towns this year – a series of photographs and written reports were submitted instead – the volunteers were out in numbers and still did the work over the summer. I saw them in every town in Roscommon as I drove around in July and August. I must say the county looked superb.

Despite the effects of the pandemic and the committees being driven indoors for well over a year before that, we were told that the level and quality of the projects that were delivered across all categories was astounding. Each parish and village had their own line by line analysis of their efforts to read over the weekend, with critical comments and objective proposals being taken account of for the future. RTE presenter Anne Cassin was on stage in the RDS last week to laud their outstanding efforts and the achievements of the category winners (and indeed all of our committees across the country) with prolonged and significant praise and recognition.

1,022 groups engaged in the competition this year, with a record 847 entries. The thought struck me on Friday as I watched some of the awards ceremony online that the volunteers behind these award-winning projects in Castlecoote, Keadue, Roscommon, Cloontuskert and every other town and village around the country really deserve a lot more than just a passing mention in terms of real support in return for their fantastic work.

What I am thinking about here (and am indeed proposing for the future) would be a meaningful ‘rewards system’ for every person who gets up on a Saturday morning at 9 am and goes out on the streets in their hi-viz jacket to spend hours picking plastic bottles, coffee cups and cans, cutting and strimming grass, sweeping footpaths for the dog poo some of your beloved pets left behind, and generally contributing to the building of thriving, sustainable communities.

The first real and meaningful reward would be a properly arranged insurance scheme subsidy for each committee. As it stands, each group involved has to go and fork out between 200 euro and 800 euro every year to try and get insurance cover for their own lawnmowers, equipment, and their volunteers. I believe that instead of throwing more prize money into the competition, the Department of Community & Rural Affairs (which runs it with the help of SuperValu) would be better served in trying to establish or at least promote the development of a group insurance policy – a GAA-style county by county player registration system that would provide cover for every volunteer who is properly signed up.

The key to this is the scale of the numbers involved. I would argue that there are more than 10,000 volunteers involved nationwide in Tidy Towns. It surely would be possible for somebody to negotiate a proper group cover premium that all Tidy Towns committees could feed into.

It’s not as if the Government departments don’t already work closely with the big insurance brokers. Each local authority takes out an annual insurance premium for their own activities, and I know that, in return, some of the brokers are involved in supporting such community initiatives as the ‘Pride of Place’ awards (with prize money). What would be wrong with these awards being suspended for a couple of years and the money used instead to subvent or subsidise each Tidy Towns committee in the country with some help to pay their annual insurance bill? At the end of the day, these committees are not-for-profit community groups. Nobody is commercially trading. They deserve Government support. I know that in recent years a small grant is available from time to time for the committees but these barely cover the other running costs like petrol, etc. All of the activists I know in Tidy Towns would far prefer if a national group policy was in place for insurance cover as it would save them the nightmare every year of trying to raise the money.

I have argued before that if the state was really serious about promoting volunteerism, it would also reward the selfless men and women who take to the streets by giving them a simple tax break in their annual returns every year. It could be something as low as just a hundred euro. I cannot see any reason why in the present age when the state can go after your property tax and withdraw it from your bank account with your consent they could not also simply allow a concession of about 100 euro tax-free income in everyone else’s account – with the production of a signed membership card from the local committee every year. For people on pensions, I am sure the 100 euro allowance could also be worked out on their property tax – if they are putting in the hours week after week with their Tidy Towns committee.

At the end of the day, the state is actually saving millions of euro due to the contribution made by these voluntary committees. For instance, can you imagine how many street sweepers would have to be bought to do the work of the hardy annuals in the hi-viz vests? These people are helping the Irish countrywide attract thousands of tourists – visitors who then invest in the community. Therefore the money set aside on a tax break or paying for a committee’s insurance policy would be well spent.

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