Cities suffer amid exodus to commuter-belt counties


While the population of Co Laois increased by one-fifth in just five years, Dublin and the other four cities lost population share

IN THE late 1990s, when strategic planning guidelines for the greater Dublin area were being drafted, nobody involved in this ultimately fruitless exercise could have imagined that, less than 15 years later, Co Laois would lead the population growth scorecard – followed by Co Cavan.

As the figures from census 2011 show, the population of Co Laois increased by one-fifth over the previous five years – more than double the 8.2 per cent growth rate for the State as a whole. Co Cavan grew by 14.3 per cent and Fingal (which at least is part of Dublin) went up by 14.2 per cent.

Yet again, the commuter-belt counties were the main areas of population growth – up by more than 10 per cent since 2006. So it comes as no surprise that Leinster grew marginally faster than the State overall and now accounts for a whopping 54.6 per cent of the population; Munster has only 27.1 per cent.

Depressingly, Dublin and the other four cities (excluding their extensive suburbs) lost population share, having grown by just 3 per cent collectively. For the second census in a row, Cork and Limerick both shrank, while Dublin, Galway and Waterford “grew modestly”, as the Central Statistics Office (CSO) noted.

It headlined the news that Ireland’s “urban population hits all-time high”, with the number of people living in urban areas surpassing 2.8 million (or 62 per cent) for the first time.

But the CSO’s definition of an “urban area” includes any town or village that has a population of 1,500 or more – not just cities or large towns. The fastest growing were small towns (population 3,000 or less), which recorded an average rise of 33 per cent, followed by large towns (10,000 or more), up 19 per cent. Rural Ireland had a lower rate of growth – 4.6 per cent – over the same period and is now home to 1,742,492 people.

Reversing 150 years of population decline, Co Leitrim has grown by 27 per cent since 1996. But the county also had the highest number of vacant homes, at 30 per cent, followed closely by Co Donegal with 29 per cent. The overall number of vacant units, at 289,451, represents 14.5 per cent of the total housing stock.

If 59,395 holiday homes are excluded, the vacancy rate drops to 11.53 per cent, as noted by Prof Rob Kitchin of the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis at NUI Maynooth. He estimates that housing oversupply would account for 110,365 vacant units, compared to 1.65 million occupied permanent homes.

Of the counties with the highest levels of vacancy, five – Leitrim, Longford, Roscommon, Cavan and Sligo – were included in the Upper Shannon Rural Renewal Scheme that “encouraged tax-incentive-led development”, as Kitchin said.

(That was the brainchild of former minister for finance Charlie McCreevy.)

“What is clear from the census data is that there is a wide variation across the country with respect to levels of vacancy and oversupply,” said Kitchin.

“Unfortunately, the areas of high vacancy/oversupply coincide with the areas of low or negative population growth, which would suggest that they will suffer ongoing issues of oversupply for many years.”

The way we’re living has also changed, as the census results confirm. While detached houses – including “one-offs” in the countryside – comprised 42 per cent of the 187,100 new homes built since 2006, the number of apartments went up by 27 per cent, while semi-detached houses increased by just 14.6 per cent over the period.

One-off houses with septic tanks now account for 25 per cent of all households, or a total of 410,523 units, and Co Galway leads the field with the highest proportion (60 per cent) of one-offs. Some 26 per cent of households outside towns and cities get their water from private sources other than public mains or group schemes.

Census 2011 found that almost 475,000 homes in Ireland were rented – a remarkable 58 per cent increase since 2006, reflecting the still deep uncertainty in the property market. Equally remarkable is the fact that 37 per cent of all rental properties were built between 2001 and 2011, during the “buy-to-let” boom.

Incredibly, more than two-thirds of Ireland’s housing stock was built in the 40 years between 1971 and 2011, with 28 per cent built in the first decade of this century – the period of the property bubble. As for how people heat their homes, four out of five use oil, natural gas or coal. Less than one in 50 now have no central heating.

People are living longer, with the over-65 age group rising by more than 14 per cent since 2006. At the other end of the age scale, the number of children rose by 9.4 per cent, intensifying the Department of Education’s school planning problems.

The average age of the population continued to increase and stood at 36.1 in April 2011, compared to 35.6 five years earlier and 34.1 in 1996. Fingal still has the youngest population followed by Kildare and Galway city (average age 32.9), while Cork city has the oldest (average age 38.7).

Dublin Chamber of Commerce focused on the fact that the greater Dublin area (Fingal, south Dublin, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Dublin city, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow) accounted for 40 per cent of the overall increase in population – and said this reinforced the importance of improved infrastructure for the region.

Chamber policy director Aebhric McGibney said this applied particularly to water: “Without action we will not meet the water requirements of citizens, businesses and our tourist industry in the future.”

475,000 homes in Ireland were rented – a remarkable 58 per cent rise

Leinster now accounts for a whopping 54.6 per cent of the population