Tuesday 27 September 2016

'If the town goes, it will be gone for good ...'

John Greene returned to his home town of Longford, once a thriving hub, full of energy and hope, to find that its heart has been ripped out by the recession

Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30

Outside Longford Town Centre — a shopping complex built during the Celtic Tiger which never opened. Photo: David Conachy
Outside Longford Town Centre — a shopping complex built during the Celtic Tiger which never opened. Photo: David Conachy
CASUALTY OF THE RECESSION: John Greene revisits his home town of Longford where many houses are boarded up.

Michael Gannon has lived and farmed on the outskirts of Longford town all his life. Now in his 80s, he is sometimes sad, sometimes angry, at what Longford has become. Today he is angry. He has lived through times of enormous change, yet he is not sentimental about the past. He believes in progress; he believes in each generation leaving things better for the one to follow.

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He has daughters with businesses in the town. He laments the state of the town centre but fears it could get worse. Shop after shop on Longford's three main arteries have been forced to close. "The town," he says, "is dying on its feet."

In a lot of ways, Longford is no different from so many other towns across the country which suffered greatly when boom turned to bust. And yet, the feeling persists that Longford fell further, and harder, than others. Certainly, when you compare it to its neighbours - like Mullingar, Cavan, Roscommon and Carrick-on-Shannon - the town, even the county, seems to lag a long way behind now. The heart has been ripped out of the town. The county no longer even has a TD.

This is a long way from the town I grew up in; a long way from the one I left in 1998. That town was thriving, full of energy, ambition and hope; there were plenty of businesses giving good employment, there were manufacturing jobs, there were plans to make Longford one of the country's first digital hubs and the county had two TDs. Longford felt like it was on the road to somewhere.

Yet, by 2009, it was Ireland's third most disadvantaged county, and only Limerick city, Donegal and Waterford city had higher levels of unemployment. Some areas of the county had well over twice the national average.

Today, Gannon is exercised by the issue of rates. The national revaluation of commercial premises has reached Longford and this has spread fear in the business community that smaller concerns will not be able to compete with the larger retailers, particularly the giant supermarkets.

This hardly seems the time for this kind of exercise. What kind of a system, he wonders, seeks to create extra burdens in an area which is already desperate for help? Gannon talks about one woman he knows who is renting a small shop. She is, he says, terrified her rates will be increased. She told him she would have to close if that happens.

"I hope I live long enough to see a level playing field," he says on the subject. "Isn't it better to be getting something than to close the town altogether? If the town goes, it'll be gone for good."

At a time when a place like Longford is in need of an injection of confidence, concerns that commercial rates are on the way up is spreading confusion and doubt. It will, agrees one prominent businessman, be another nail in the cross of the town.

* * * * *

At eight o'clock on Tuesday morning, the town's streets are quiet. It is five days since the marathon count in the Longford-Westmeath constituency ended, with confirmation that all four seats had gone to Westmeath candidates, and it is still headline news in Longford.

The top item on Shannonside's bulletin is that Fine Gael's James Bannon, who lost his seat, and Fianna Fail's Connie Gerety-Quinn, are likely to contest the Seanad election.

It is the first time in the history of the State that Longford does not have a voice in the Dail. Even the most cynical recognise that now, more than ever, the county needs to be heard and so the failure to elect a TD is a huge blow. But - as far this goes at least - the people of Longford have only themselves to blame, because even allowing for the lopsided nature of the constituency, there are still enough votes to return at least one TD.

In the Texaco filling station on the old Dublin Road, three men stand around the coffee machine offering opinions as to what went wrong. A town - and a county - already on its knees fears this could be a knockout blow. In the same way that the closing of a post office, or a Garda station, or a bank, are each seen as hammer blows to disadvantaged areas, so too is the loss of a TD.

In Longford, the much-maligned slogan 'Keep the recovery going' was more than out of touch, it was offensive. So too was the failure of the Taoiseach to include Longford on his whistle-stop tour of the country. James Bannon paid the price. And Connie Gerety-Quinn - who was put on the ticket as a gender quota candidate by party headquarters against local wishes - appears to have been the victim of a bitter backlash within the local Fianna Fail organisation.

By 11am, there is more life on the streets, but it's nothing like I remember it. The extent of the closures is now more apparent. The northern end of the town has been decimated. It is deeply dispiriting, and it's now easier to understand why morale is so low.

My uncle takes me on a tour of the town, and some of the housing estates that have been built since I left. There is a sense of desperation, which reminds us of the hopelessness of Waiting for Godot.

One estate in particular has become notorious locally and it is our first stop. It was clearly rich in potential, with green areas and fine houses of good quality. As we turn into the estate from the main road, we are greeted by three customs officials who are 'dipping' for marked diesel. A car with Northern Ireland registration plates has been pulled over. The deeper we drive into this estate, the more rundown it becomes, until we reach the point furthest from the entrance, where house after house is boarded up or in a serious state of disrepair.

It's hard to believe this is a relatively modern housing development.

Other estates tell an equally depressing tale, though none is as grim as the first one.

* * * * *

The town is dying on its feet, said Michael Gannon - words repeated by almost everyone I speak to. What happened? Why did Longford fall so hard?

It didn't happen overnight, says county council chairman Gerry Warnock. "We forgot what we were all about. We were always a good commercial town, we were a good commercial county, a good agricultural county, but everybody became a property developer."

Longford became a one-trick pony, putting all its eggs in just one basket - housing. The housing crisis here is very different from the one we are used to hearing about on the national airwaves. In Longford, there are too many houses.

"I actually work for the local authority, that's the day job," adds Warnock, "and I happened to be working in planning at the time - 2002, 2003, 2004 - when it was extremely busy. I remember asking a very simple question at the time: where are all these people going to come from to live in these houses?"

Warnock could see that unlike other comparable towns, there were not enough major employers being attracted to the area to support the building boom in Longford town, and in the surrounding villages.

"We were left in an unfortunate situation where, number one, we had an oversupply of housing which led to a huge problem with unfinished housing developments, and number two - and probably most critical for Longford, and bringing Longford forward - is that an awful lot of people were tied up in some way, shape or form with the construction industry, whether that was directly employed by the construction industry or whether it was a business depending on the revenues generated from construction projects.

"So what happened really, really quick in Longford, and particularly Longford town, is that all of a sudden, we had up to 25pc of the population unemployed. We had a serious problem then with vacancies in the town centre, something we never really had in the past."

Longford quickly became a welfare-dependent housing hub.

The failure to return a TD may focus minds. Longford needs help from central government, but in the meantime, it will have to help itself. There is a growing awareness that the time has come to act to reverse the steep decline.

The regeneration of the old street, St Michael's Road, with its beautiful stone-fronted houses, on the town's western edge, and the development of the indoor and outdoor amenities at The Mall along the River Camlin, are seen now as templates to follow.

Then there is the town's dominant feature, St Mel's Cathedral, which was re-opened in December 2014 after being gutted by fire. It has become a major tourist attraction, but the town has not been in a position to properly capitalise on the busloads of people visiting every week.

The vacant army barracks, now owned by Longford County Council, and Longford Town Centre - a shopping complex built during the Celtic Tiger which never opened - have been targeted to bring some momentum and positivity back into the town.

"We want to turn that area into a kind of a cultural quarter," says Warnock. "It's going to be a mix of community and commercial."

He continues: "Part of what we're looking at is a county museum and we're going to put that into one of the main buildings. We're obviously confined in what we can do with these buildings externally, because they are protected structures, but they would be ideal for a county museum. We're also looking to create a craft village. And we're looking at other stuff in a sporting sense, like an athletics track. We're also talking about a skate park.

"But the jewel in the crown - and this is the one I'm really pushing for - is a state-of-the-art expo/mini-concert venue. I've always said that we don't want to be replicating what they're doing in Athlone, or Mullingar, or anywhere around the midlands, but there's nothing like that in the midlands. The idea behind that would be that you could attract a lot of people to a small concert, or have job expos or travel expos... That would be kind of the nucleus of the site."

It will be fantastic if this can be the first significant step on the road to recovery for a town I have always considered great. As Vladimir says in Waiting for Godot: "Let us not waste time in idle discourse! Let us do something while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed." Only Vladimir and Estragon go nowhere and achieve nothing. Talking about it was enough. Talking about this won't be enough.

Warnock thinks back to the town he grew up in, and thinks of the town he wants to see again. "Everybody felt safe. Everybody went out and had a good time, everybody supported local businesses, never any hassle..."

Different times.

Sunday Independent

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