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Carol Hunt: Heart of communities is in failure

Some of my earliest memories are of being woken up by my father, at around 10 or 11 at night, and brought downstairs to the kitchen to be "fitted".

My mother, pins in her mouth, foot on her Singer sewing machine pedal, would drape me in various pieces of cloth, pulling, stretching, pinning me into place until she was satisfied she had the cut just right.

By the time I learned not to resent these nocturnal awakenings and appreciate the value of homemade clothes, Dunnes and Penneys had started to supply many of the basic items that would have been made at home.

But still, for special occasions like Holy Communions, debs and weddings, the sewing machine would be taken out and the city's haberdashery shops explored for ribbons, ruffles, buttons, bows and all manner of delightful frills and flouncy stuff.

Last week my mother replaced her old sewing machine. She still works in fashion and loves her style, so as the recession deepens she's an enthusiastic proponent of 'make do and mend'.

"I bought my first sewing machine from your grandfather," she told the delighted owner of the family-owned Singer store on Talbot Street.

Dublin used to have a plethora of haberdashery stores. Now many of our young folk don't even know what the word means, and those who do have little or no use for them. And sadly, one of the most famous, the Dublin Woollen Mills, is closing its doors. Not, as managing director Valerie Roche was keen to point out, so much for financial reasons, but because they would like to leave the business "honourably".

"It is a decision by the shareholders that there isn't a prospect for the future. It is very difficult to trade in Ireland at the moment as an old-style, honourable business," she said.

Last week in Dublin, we saw the closure of another "old-style, honourable" business as the electronic store Peats of Parnell Street announced that it was shutting its 11 stores, with the loss of 75 jobs. The closure was, according to Ben Peat, due to the "impacts of recession, high

rent costs and online competition". "It is evident from our experience that consumers have little discretionary spend at this time," he added.

While Enda flounces around the world telling multinationals to set up shop here, our own indigenous industries are facing catastrophe. Quietly and with little more than the odd media mention, family firms that have staunchly endured previous recessions are finding it impossible to cope with the devastation caused by current austerity economics.

Small traders -- the local butcher, greengrocer, coffee-shop, hairdresser, beauty-parlour, hardware store -- all those businesses that make up the heart of a community, are closing down all over the country as so many of us, with very little disposable income to spare, cut our spending to the marrow. When we do spend, we are forced in many cases to do so at the cheaper foreign supermarkets and chain stores. And yes, we know that by doing so we are killing local enterprise, but what can we do, with children to feed and oversized mortgages to pay?

And it's not just in Dublin but small towns around the country where main streets now hold an increasing number of empty properties, gaping holes in the midst of what used to be busy meeting points -- social centres so vital to the well-being of society.

Enda says his highest priority is to create jobs, but what about protecting the jobs that are already there? What about protecting businesses that have survived for centuries, through the Emergency, through past recessions and depressions, births, deaths and emigrations but are facing extinction now? (About 85 per cent of Irish firms are classed as micro-firms, employing less than nine people.)

We really are a nation of small businesses. And as a share of total jobs created in the economy from 2006-2010, small firms (up to 49 employees) accounted for 62 per cent of all jobs created. Which is great news, right?

Except for the fact that, during the same period, the share of jobs lost in small businesses was 60 per cent.

Do we blame the disaster of upward rent reviews? Partly, though many small businesses have managed to get some sort of concession from their landlords. The problem would also seem to be with some banks, which are refusing to allow rents to be lowered.

Can we point to government inaction? Well, it has published an enthusiastic-looking Jobs Action Plan. It is also proposing a development capital scheme, micro-financing and loan guarantee schemes, which will hopefully help improve the flow of credit to small businesses.

All these initiatives are great, but they ignore the one underlying issue that will ensure their failure. And that is that most of the people who support these small business -- the young families up and down the country who shop local, get their hair done, take the kids out to dinner at the weekend, enjoy a few pints with their mates in the local when there's a football match on -- have little or no disposable income left.

On paper we -- those of us who are still working -- may look like we have good salaries but in reality we're finding it hard to have a spare fiver left over at the end of the month. And God help us if the kids get sick, the washing machine floods or the car breaks down.

Instead of spending our very hard-earned cash in the local economy, hundreds of thousands of us are putting most of it into the bank -- not as savings but as mortgage payments for homes that we'll probably never own.

And the ones who aren't completely smashed are hoarding their cash away like paranoid Scrooges just in case that rainy day ahead may prove to be the perfect storm.

So Enda and the rest of the boyos can put together whatever action plans they like to try to stem the flood of closed local businesses, but unless they tackle the real problem -- the horrific level of mortgage debt that is crippling hundreds of thousands of families -- all of these fine promises are worse than useless. And we won't have two buttons left to rub together, let alone a haberdashery to buy them in.

Sunday Independent