Engine room of the boom grinds to a halt

 

HARD TIMES IN THE COMMUTER BELT:BY HIS own admission, Clive Lumley has only ever seen good times. A chartered accountant, he rose through the ranks of a property development firm in Meath, eventually becoming its financial director. The money rolled in, the business expanded and the only way was up. Then the property market crash-landed.

"I suddenly found myself at home, with no job and nothing to do," the 36-year-old says. "The blow to the ego was probably the biggest thing.

"You see your wife heading off to work in the morning. The weeks begin to feel very long. What was worse was because I was in a senior position, there was nothing available on the jobs market."

His home patch of Ratoath was a standard bearer for the boom. Just 15 miles from Dublin, it swelled from a small rural village to the fastest-growing centre in the entire Leinster commuter belt since 2000.

The suburb isn't your typical dormitory town for struggling first-time buyers. Despite rampant development and 32 new housing estates, it managed to market itself as a rather exclusive enclave, with house prices to match. But behind the detached homes with their neatly maintained gardens and expensive cars, there is hidden hardship.

"It began to change last September," says Nick Killian, a local councillor who is general manager of Ratoath's community centre.

"People with no history of unemployment are coming to me regularly, wondering what their social welfare entitlements are. Some are in very expensive houses which they bought for €500,000 or €750,000.

"Now, they're having to adjust dramatically. It's really testing people's dignity."

The full scale of job losses across Co Meath is beginning to emerge as official figures show its towns are bearing the brunt of some of the fastest rising dole queues across the entire State. Live register figures, for example, have jumped by 122 per cent in Trim, 111 per cent in Kells and 94 per cent in Navan.

Much of the reason job losses are higher in Meath than many other areas is that it became the engine room for the construction boom.

Companies supplying the building industry - Kingspan, Gypsum, Kingscourt, O'Reilly Bros - were barely able to cope with demand, while locally-based auctioneering and engineering companies flourished.

But the foundation for the industry was built on sand. Orders have dried up, the firms are haemorrhaging money and hundreds have either been let go or are working on reduced hours.

The statistics, though, only hint at the hardship behind them. For people like Tommie Curran, who works at the Money Advice and Budgeting Service in Navan, the emotional turmoil many find themselves in can be gut-wrenching.

Many clients have been driven to depression or even suicide, he says, as they slip further and further into debt. Trying to get them to admit to the problems is the first step. Clawing a way out of debt through a structured plan is the next.

"Lots of people have problems opening up out of sheer embarrassment," he says. "It's pushing people to desperate measures. There was one man who went into the Boyne, but he was got in time. There are others who haven't been so fortunate." The key, he says, is helping people to realise there is a way out of debt by adjusting lifestyles, realigning finances and agreeing repayment strategies with banks and creditors.

Some aren't even trying to repay debts, though. At a shiny steel-and-glass fronted car sales room in the country, the owner, who declines to be named, says he has several cars which were dropped in for a service which will never be picked up again by their owners.

"I know the next person to come for it will be the repossession company," he says. "One of the cars here hasn't been collected in seven weeks. Others are trying to sell their vans, but no one is interested."

He tells the story of one man involved in construction who bought a van for €25,000 last year. Six months later he tried to sell it for under €20,000. There were no takers. The repossession company eventually took hold of it and sold it at auction for €10,000.

Many whisper that things will get worse before they get better. Gerry Dillon (34) feels like his job is on borrowed time. He works at Geith International, a Slane-based firm which manufactures shovels for diggers. Twenty-five workers were laid off a few weeks ago, while many employees have been put on reduced hours. Its plant in Wales closed last month with the loss of 45 jobs. He wonders whether his will be next.

"Orders aren't coming in, so we're all worried," he says. "A company can't keep going forever without a decent supply of work." Management at Geith did not respond to a request for an interview.

Dillon's girlfriend works for just over the minimum wage at a hotel, while they are paying off a mortgage in the region of €200,000.

They're expecting their first child in March.

"It would be tough for me, of course, but it would be worse for others in there on €300,000 or €400,000 mortgages," he says. "My problem is I came straight out of school and I don't have qualifications, so you'd need to be very lucky to find another job."

Mark Curtis (36), who is married with two children and runs a plant hire firm near Nobber, Co Meath, is also worried. But he's angry, too. His five diggers are lying idle in the front yard with nowhere to go.

"I remember the banks telling me we should buy some more machinery, when I'd be renting them. Now, it's 'what are you going to do to repay the loans?' They have a lot to answer for, if you ask me."

He adds: "The local bank managers who helped provide finance are often taken out of the loop and things are being dictated by head office, so there's room for manoeuvre."

The downturn is stirring up memories for many of the bad old days in the 1980s. But local Meath Fine Gael TD Shane McEntee, who is inundated with constituents seeking help, says this recession is much different.

"The difference back then was that the country had borrowed to the hilt; this time, it's the people who are up to their necks in debt," says McEntee, who's frustrated that nothing - as he sees it - is being done to help ordinary people.

He also says the failure of some banks and financial institutions to pass on badly-needed reductions in interest rates in full will have severe repercussions.

"It's going to drag more people under. Not only are people's businesses at risk, but their homes will be as well. I'm inundated with calls about this."

Even in the teeth of the recession, some businesses and companies are fighting back. In an attempt to dissuade shoppers taking the short journey up the M1 to Newry, town authorities in Trim are offering free parking for the three Saturdays in the run-up to Christmas.

Over in Ashbourne, they are distributing 40,000 gift guides to Christmas shoppers as part of their "stay local, shop local" campaign. In Kells, traders are participating in a Christmas shopping voucher promotion, which can be used in most local businesses.

"The downturn in trade is visible on the streets: we don't have the traffic jams we'd normally have or the shoppers on the pavements," says Jess Olohan of Kells Chamber of Commerce.

"This voucher scheme is an idea we borrowed from Mullingar. It's about targeting customers who are spared the hardship of traffic jams, parking and other charges by shopping locally. Employers can also give a tax-free bonus of up to €250 to employees, so we're trying to encourage them to give vouchers."

Meanwhile, people like Clive Lumley are an example of how patience, determination and hope can help you through the tough times. After about four months looking for work, he eventually found a job and the pressure has lifted.

"I was lucky in that I got a redundancy payment, my wife was working and I don't have children. I just focused, concentrated on going for interviews and it worked out well in the end," he says. "But I worry about moves taken in the budget. I think increasing taxes and Vat rates are crazy moves.

"You need to encourage people to spend money, yet, as I see it, it's walking out of the country at the moment. If we're going to recover, getting the right policies will be a start."