After the factory shuts its doors

 

UPTOWN/DOWNTOWN: A PORTRAIT OF LONGFORD:When B3 Cable Solutions pulled out of Longford it devastated not only the lives of its former employees, but the entire town, which had risen fast but has fallen faster

FOR MORE THANa year now, the factory on the edge of Longford town has been silent. The gates are padlocked and the cavernous steel shell is almost empty, stripped of the roaring machines that used to spool out mile after mile of copper cable. The only sound these days is the rumble of lorries hauling away the old appliances for use in factories overseas.

Unlike the clamour surrounding jobs losses at major employers such as Dell, SR Technics or Waterford Crystal, B3 Cable Solutions closed with barely a whimper. The numbers may have been smaller – 104 people lost their jobs – but the impact on a town with a population of under 9,000 was just as devastating.

“I feel like we were thrown on the scrapheap ourselves,” says Pat Kane (53), a father of three. “I got a call from a lad at work at lunchtime. He said, ‘the factory’s gone’. They just decided to pull the plug and left us all in the lurch.”

His colleague Michael Phillips was in Dublin airport, about to head away on holidays, when the call came through that the company was in trouble. By the time he came back, it was closed. B3’s fate was sealed when its foreign owner decided that copper cable could be produced more cheaply elsewhere.

Manufacturing ceased and was transferred to the UK and Spain. A receiver was given the fruitless task of finding a buyer over the course of a few days. In the end, after almost 30 years in operation, the company shut down in just over a week.

A few local politicians spoke gravely about the impact on the town and called for a task force or action plan.

Nothing happened.

The employees were left with the minimum statutory redundancy payments and say their union and the national development authorities just shrugged their shoulders and moved on.

It’s a story repeated in other factories across the necklace of quiet industrial estates that surround the town. For a workforce that is mostly middle-aged, in a town where job losses have been mounting, prospects are bleak.

“At least the young lads have some chance and are getting called for interviews,” says Phillips (42). “For the older guys – myself included – just getting an interview is impossible. And to think of the experience we have. We have a lot to offer. Now, I’ve to consider emigrating and bringing the family with me. There’s nothing here for us.”

The last few months have involved shuddering lifestyle changes for the former B3 employees, many of whom have never been out of work or on the dole.

Holidays have been cancelled, household budgets trimmed back, cars sold and social lives put on hold. They could have just sat on their hands. Instead, they have organised back-to-work schemes and computer training courses, as well as setting up an action group to try to attract new industry to the area. It’s the kind of work, some grumble, that State agencies are well paid to do.

As well as simmering anger, there is also the unspoken depression. “A few lads haven’t turned up, they don’t return your calls,” says one former employee.

“They don’t want to leave the house. For some, there’s still a sense of shame in unemployment, I think. You worry about them, you really do. Mental health is a fragile enough thing at the best of times.”

THE CLOSURE OFthe manufacturing industry and the collapse in construction have taken their toll on Longford town. The Mastertech business park is emptier than it’s ever been following the closure of a number of businesses. Some locals complain that it’s fast become a haven for people dumping household refuse.

As you head down the main street, a sign draped across the side of the landmark Longford Town Centre, a sleek Celtic Tiger-era shopping centre, proclaims that it’s opening soon. It’s been there for the past three years. The building is still vacant and surrounded by wire fencing. Beside it is Connolly Barracks, closed two years ago by the government as part of its spending cutbacks.

In all, traders estimate there are some 60 commercial premises now lying empty in and around the town centre.

One of the few business to start up in the town recently is Hatton’s Goldsmiths, whose sign advertises the that it “will buy any gold jewellery for cash”. Business is steady, says owner John McCay, with a mix of professionals and people out of work looking to make money from valuables.

For long-established firms in the town, the motto seems to be to take each day as it comes. “Disposable income is well down, so you find business is done just two days a week, on Fridays and Saturdays,” says Roy Davis, who runs the local Supervalu.

“The rest of the week, it’s very slow. People just spend what they need. Everyone’s just trying to get by.”

The welfare office, by contrast, has been busier than ever in recent times. The numbers signing on the Live Register have risen from 1,726 in February 2008 to 5,312 in February 2011, an increase of more than 300 per cent.

Like many towns or counties within the commuter belt of the capital, Longford’s population swelled dramatically during the boom years, with the numbers living in some areas increasing by an incredible 75 per cent between 2002 and 2006. Fuelled by Section 23 tax incentives, frenzied development resulted in the construction of thousands of homes across the county. Local government lapped up the development levies, while the construction provided more than enough employment to go around.

IF LONGFORD’S RISEwas steep, its fall was fast. Today, as the town feels the claws of the property crash and an economic slump, the ghost housing estates and glitzy shopping facilities resemble grim monuments to the over-exuberance of the boom years.

The county has among the highest concentrations of unfinished homes across the country. Of all the estates, Carriglas is among the most striking example of boom-time folly.

One of the last remaining walled estates in the country, it is host to 600 acres of meadow and woodland about a mile-and-a-half outside the town.

Originally the seat of the Bishop of Armagh, it was bought in the 1830s by Thomas Lefroy, the first love of Jane Austen. He is believed to have been the inspiration for Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. The Lefroy family conducted public tours of the Victorian Gothic manor house until they sold it in recent years.

In 2006, developers announced they would transform the estate into a four-star hotel with championship golf course and 200 exclusive homes. Brian Cowen, then the minister for finance, performed the sod-turning ceremony for what its developers hailed as one of the “most important developments ever to take place in Longford”.

Today, it is boarded up and there is no public access. Behind the walls lies what looks like an abandoned village. Houses lie in various stages of completion: some almost finished, others partially roofed, while weeds sprout from the gardens of the showhouses. Pipes, wires and trenches lie exposed, as if quickly abandoned ahead of a looming natural disaster.

In all, there are at least 77 ghost housing estates in Longford which public authorities say are in need of “urgent work”. Some are in the town itself, while others are located off unlikely country lanes or small crossroads in rural parts of the county.

Yet, the Government has allocated total funding of €5 million to deal with the most dangerous developments around the country. This equates to an average of just €14,000 per estate to address problems such as open excavations, unprotected upper floor levels in half-built houses or uncovered manholes.

Many of those saddled with homes in unfinished estates say bulldozers will be the only solution. That’s the view of karate teacher John Killane, who bought a house in the Silver Birches estate on the outskirts of the town three years ago.

The advertising brochures promised a luxury residential development with a creche. Three years later, the view out of Killane’s sitting room window is of other neatly maintained houses against a horizon of jagged, half-finished houses reaching high into the sky.

The developer has insisted that most units are occupied and he will finish the rest of the estate, though Killane and his wife feel their only hope is to wait for the intervention of local authorities.

“This was supposed to be our dream house and now look at it,” says Killane, as he points out the defects in his home.

The floorboard in parts of the house are warped from damp. Upstairs, the walls are wet to the touch and parts of the ceiling are black with mould. The hum of a dehumidifier in the corner is a constant background noise these days. He is worried about the effect it is having on his child’s asthma.

Like many others, he is struggling to pay his €1,200-a-month mortgage, but is simmering with anger. If the Government is going to default on its payments to other countries, he says, the occupants of ghost estates should do the same.

“Everyone living on these estates should get together and say, ‘We’re not going to pay any mortgages. We’ve had enough.’”

LIKE MANY OTHERparts of the country, Longford has made mistakes. Most business and community leaders say the priority now must be to help existing businesses survive. The town’s chamber of commerce is lobbying for rates reductions and to keep the cost of parking down to attract shoppers into the centre.

Businesses are battling for customers against other towns such as Athlone, which developed more modern shopping facilities during the boom years.

Jonathan Fallon of business consultancy firm EPS, which has an office in the county, says finding a niche will be key to Longford’s longer-term employment prospects. The worst thing, he says, is that in the hunger for investment, authorities adopt a scattergun approach to grabbing whatever they can.

“We need to plan for the future and play to our strengths. That means developing a nucleus of healthcare, pharmaceutical or IT firms, and going after them,” he says.

“We need to think 20 years down the line. Remember, we’ve lots of advantages now: a cheaper cost of living, lower property prices, we’ve good roads and a railway line. With the right approaches, we can do it. We’ve got to get over the negativity and move forward. These are challenges facing every town.”

An employer such as Abbott Diagnostics, which employs more than 300 people at its state-of-the-art plant in the town, could well be the key to Longford’s future. The company has invested heavily in new technology, along with research and development, and has the capacity to expand its range of diagnostic healthcare products further.

At a smaller scale, the county’s enterprise board is offering advice and support to those considering establishing businesses, while training provided by the Employment Development Initiative is helping to re-skill and educate people for new job opportunities.

The former employees of B3 Cable Solutions are also doing their best to up-skill and create new livelihoods.

In a room in an empty industrial estate on the edge of town, about 20 men have been gathering on a daily basis since earlier this year to to learn about the unfamiliar world of computers, writing CVs and interview techniques.

They hope it will come in useful if there are opportunities in the future. The past few weeks have also been a chance to get out of the house and regain some routine in their lives, and rebuild their sense of self-confidence.

“It’s important to have something to get up for in the morning,” says Pat Kane. “It’s easy to lose heart. Lots of us have been writing CVs, making phone calls and getting nowhere. It’s good to meet up, talk about the match or listen to the banter. It’s a bit like old days. We feel we’re doing something.” For Kane, the past year has been a jolting insight into how precarious it can be to rely on foreign direct investment.

His children have had to leave the town and base themselves in cities such as Edinburgh, London and Dublin. The loss of his own job has taught him that we can’t take any jobs for granted. The future, he says, should involve the town relying more on itself than outside investors.

“Since being let go from B3, I’ve learned how to use a computer, prepare a CV and hone my interview skills. I can use Microsoft Word, Access, Excel and look for jobs on the internet. I wouldn’t have been able to do that last year. I’m keeping an eye open for jobs all the time,” he says.

“All you can do is put yourself in the best possible position to get a job. We all have to pull together and create opportunities. During the last recession, a neighbour told me that when one door closes, another opens. It happened to me in the 1980s, when I found a job. And it’ll happen this time again, even if it takes a bit of time.”

Injecting some passion – and cash – into the recovery

IN WHAT sounds like the premise for a reality TV show, a group of executives with connections to Longford have pledged to invest €1 million in a new business which is prepared to base itself in the county.

The Longford Business Angel Network involves 20 business owners who have agreed to invest €50,000 each in the new company.

The idea is the brainchild of the newly established Longford Business Forum, which hopes the move will raise the area’s profile and enhance its appeal as a base for investment. The scheme will be launched officially later this month.

“We can’t afford to wait around for others to deliver investment,” says the group’s chair, Pauric Ward. “We must show that we’re a pro-business county and that we have self-designed support mechanisms and packages available for any potential investors.”

The organisers say they want to repeat local success stories such as Ibotz, a firm that supplies science labwear and other educational material to schools. It employs 12 people and expects to expand again shortly.

Ibotz was established just over five years ago by Vincent English from Achill, who returned from the UK and decided to set up a new firm in his wife’s home town.

“I had worked as the chief executive of a larger firm in the UK which was involved in a similar line of business,” he says. “I saw there was great potential to get market share both in Ireland and internationally.”

While the downturn has hit most sectors, he says the education sector has fared remarkably well due to Government spending. The company has also become the European agent for one of the biggest US players in educational scientific equipment.

“Our motto is ‘helping to teach better science’, which we’re passionate about,” says English. “For us, it’s about being part of teaching solutions. We’re not here to just shift boxes.”

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