A one-way ticket to Commuterville

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00

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.”

O’Donnell is optimistic, though. “We’re not starting from a minus position. We have roads, rail, water, schools, very good community facilities and a huge involvement in GAA and rugby. We’re the heart of horse country. We have the National Stud, the Japanese Gardens and Kildare Village.”

Old and new

On a damp Wednesday morning, the town looks less than lively. On the upside, there are few boarded-up premises. In fact, the old-fashioned hardware shop run by Kit Harhen is only two years old. “Every good business starts in a recession,” he says.

At its old heart, says 34-year-old Brian Flanagan, who runs the Silken Thomas pub, the town still has the five takeaways it had before, the seven or eight bookies’ shops, 13 pubs, seven cafe-restaurants, a few pharmacies, beauty salons and a Eurospar. Obviously, no one would be mad enough to open a clothes shop, with the Kildare Village outlet three minutes away.

Then again, says Flanagan, “the town never was a retail presence, so in many ways, it didn’t have a whole amount to lose. It has always leached off what’s around it, rather than what’s in it.”

What is remarkable is that apart from Tesco and the expanding Kildare Village, which employs about 400 people, there has been no big employer in the town for a long time. So the new homeowners fully expected to have to travel for work, probably back to Dublin. In many cases, the Dublin commute goes on. Yvonne O’Neill, who lives in the Ruanbeg estate, reckons the majority of people around her commute to Dublin every day.

When Ballymun-born Nicola McGrath moved with her husband Larry from a Dublin city-centre rental to a house here in 2002, she had no expectations. There was no Kildare Village, she says, no Eurospar, no Whitewater centre in Newbridge, no Tesco in town. “The industrial park in Naas where I work now wasn’t here. And there was no motorway. Kildare had nothing. I had zero expectations . . . But I never felt I was being pushed out of Dublin and I don’t know anyone who feels that way.”

She moved out of choice, she insists, because she wanted to invest in a good, four-bedroom house. She was not expecting developments such as the Kildare Village, which has been such a boon to their lives.

“There is nothing I miss, not ever. The kids love Kildare; they’re Kildare kids. Larry still works in Dublin and I’m lucky that I’ve been in the same job for a long time, but even if Larry or I did lose our jobs I still don’t see how that would have anything to do with where we live.”

Brian Flanagan echoes that thought. “The downturn here wasn’t about what happened to the town; it’s what happened to the area. Everyone in my estate of 35 houses works outside the town. A lot of Kildare people work in Wyatt and Pfizer in Newbridge, for example. The 900 Kerry Group jobs announced for Naas aren’t just jobs for Naas.”

More significantly, Cathal Keogh echoes that thought. “Location is irrelevant,” says the 40-year-old, who was made redundant from a Dublin fire-alarm company in 2010. In 12 months, he applied for 220 jobs, all within his capabilities, and got 10 acknowledgments and two job interviews.

“I was in despair . . . It’s soul-destroying. I remember queueing for the dole and how it snaked around the foyer of Eurospar; 80 per cent were men, and I’d say 90 per cent of those were tradesmen.”

He is now self-employed and designs, installs and services fire alarms as Ozone Fire Services, much of it for a north Dublin company. This, he admits, takes a heavy toll in diesel costs. “It’s the big downside of commuting. It’s just not feasible to have only one car. I run a van and I spend €120 a week on diesel. It costs [my wife] Niamh, who works in Dublin, about €75 in fuel to drive up and down. She tried taking the train but just found it too unreliable.”

Keogh is from Kildare, and he and his wife, a Dubliner, bought their Lucan home for £73,500 in 1997. Both became “claustrophobic about the concrete jungle rising around us” and sold it for £150,000 in 2000. “My wife said she’d never leave Dublin but she found this house in the end. We got it for £175,000 – about €220,000 – and it didn’t seem a lot of money at the time.”

Financial motivation

Yvonne O’Neill, a social-care worker, play therapist and mother of two small children, has just set up a business, Childhood Therapy Service, in the town to reduce commuting costs. She admits her primary motive in moving here from Tallaght seven or eight years ago was financial.

“We just couldn’t afford a home in Dublin. It was just the next step of life; I’m not put out by it at all. I’d be put out now if I had to leave my country to go to Australia.

“I did find it very quiet at first. It probably took me up to two and a half years to settle. But now 10 of us who grew up together have settled around this area and that’s probably what helped us to settle. Whitewater made a big difference when it opened . . . The two kids moved us into the next part of settling and I’m feeling very much more local now.”

She knows there are problems locally with unemployment. “But to my eyes social problems are way more obvious in Dublin. I don’t see drug users hanging out at the bus stops here. When I go to Dublin now, I find it stomach-churning to see homeless people on every corner, the trails of puke, the mothers off their heads dragging their children down the street. It’s really in your face in Dublin. I don’t see that in my community here. I wouldn’t move back in a million years.”

What the statistics fail to show are the hopes, dreams and concrete plans for a better town: the creative thinking around the closed army barracks, the vision for arts and crafts outlets to complement the offerings in the Kildare Village. They see hope where others might see depredation.

Keogh welcomes the arrival of a large Tesco, simply because it will keep locals in the town. “I reckon it’ll take five years but this will come back to being a community town, I’m sure of it.”