A one-way ticket to Commuterville
Dublin’s commuter belt has changed – again – as have the lives of those who live there. To explore the boom and bust in microcosm, we visited Kildare town
As the smoke of the national implosion clears, there are few surprises. And the winners are? The city settlers; the ones who put down roots within range of sustainable jobs and a decent public infrastructure.
And the big losers? By the index described in Carl O’Brien’s accompanying article, they are the commuters; the ones who were either pushed out of the cities by escalating house prices or exchanged old, small suburban homes for a new, bigger house and a rural-ish lifestyle.
So it’s no surprise to find that in overbuilt Portlaoise, Co Laois, and Virginia, Co Cavan, more than one-quarter of the men and a fifth of the women are unemployed. In Edgeworthstown, Co Longford, and Rochfortbridge, Co Westmeath, more than one-third of the men are out of work.
But in rural areas, unemployment figures are by no means the whole story, says Trutz Haase, a social and economic consultant who developed the index used in these reports. Asked to pick a microcosm of the average commuter town, he chooses Kildare. That’s a surprise. Yes, the town expanded greatly until 2006, with the population soaring by 28 per cent in both 2002 and 2006 against a national average of 8 per cent. But thanks to a poor waste-water-treatment capacity, almost all development ceased in the mid-2000s, leaving it with none of the ghost estates or half-finished centres that scar comparable towns.
It also has the inestimable benefit of the M7, which brings Dublin city within 40 minutes’ drive on a good day, a railway station, and the highly successful Kildare Village shopping outlet a few minutes away. Unemployment is high, but no higher than in Portlaoise or Virginia. Nonetheless, the town’s HP deprivation index has plummeted by 9.1 since 2006, which is considerably more than the average.
Haase drills into the town’s statistical profile and reveals age-dependency ratios, below-average educational attainment, a scarcity of higher or lower professionals, and growing local-authority housing rentals, alongside a huge increase in private rentals – now nearly a quarter of the housing stock. This, he feels, confirms his long-held theory: this commuter belt attracted many lower- to middle-class nonprofessionals to areas with temporary employment opportunities. It was always going to be deeply vulnerable to a downturn.
Tony O’Donnell, a 33-year-old native of Kildare town, has no argument with Haase’s conclusions. As a Fine Gael councillor and the head of research at SAP, the huge IT multinational, he knows his figures and the town. “For the people who bought here, it was about affordability. The majority would have been three-bed semis of a decent size; there was no struggle with schools, and they were only 30 miles from Heuston.” But crucially, he says, the housing mix in the town did not attract the ABC1 socioeconomic groups and this has led to a deadening monoculture.
“I see it as a two-speed town, with people on the one hand who are from the area or settled here for the long term, and on the other, people [who have] no stake in the community and aren’t that bothered.”