In 1841 the population of county Leitrim stood at 155,297. By 1901, however, it had fallen to 69,343, dropping further to 41,209 by 1951, before reaching a nadir of just 25,057 in 1996. The 2022 census records a population of 35,087 – a significant increase, but still a staggering 77% reduction on the 1841 figure.
No other Irish county has experienced such a dramatic decrease over that period; although all witnessed varying levels of decline apart from two Northern counties, Dublin (which experienced a 289% increase) and its adjoining counties. The Western seaboard’s demographic pattern merits comparison with the impact of European colonisation on the native populations of the Americas.
The presence of both abandoned stone cottages and tumbledown bungalows bear witness to this long-running decline; these are nestled in a bewitching but ecologically scarred landscape of craggy mountains, gushing falls and still pristine lakes. Lough Allen, the source of the majestic Shannon, divides a mountainous north from the flatter lands of the south. A short stretch of coastline positions the county on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, according to CSO data the vacancy rate for Leitrim in 2022 was 15.5%, down from 19.9% in 2016. Indeed, Leitrim has the highest rate of vacancy of any county in Ireland, followed closely by its neighbours Roscommon and Mayo. In contrast 5.5% of Dublin properties were vacant – still an unsatisfactorily proportion given there are currently (as of February 10, 2023) just under six hundred properties available rent for all of Dublin city and county listed on daft.ie.
There are various explanations for the stark population decline along the western seaboard since the Great Famine (1845-51), most obviously the Famine itself, but also a shift in agricultural priorities from tillage to pasture after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1847, which brought cheaper grain to the British market.
As John Mitchel wrote sarcastically for The Nation in 1847:
You may be surprised to hear of a country having, at one and the same time, a “surplus produce” and a “surplus population” – too much food for its people, and too many people for its food. Your surprise arises from ignorance of the great principles of political economy. All produce that can be spared for export is, in the technical language of that science, “surplus;” and all people who cannot get profitable employment are also “surplus.”
Pastoral agriculture depends on low labour inputs for profitability, meaning few children from any family could stay on the land. After independence, it became state policy to encourage beef and dairy exports. Since then, European subsidies have calcified an agricultural system that produces (as of 2020) just 61,800 tonnes of fruit and vegetables for the domestic market, compared to imports of 890,000 tonnes.
It is also notable that two railway lines serving Leitrim were dissolved in the 1950s: the Cavan and Leitrim Railway running between Dromod and Belturbet with a branch from Ballinamore to Arigna; and the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway, which ran between Enniskillen and Collooney near Sligo, taking in the north of the county, including Manorhamilton.
The land question has haunted Irish politics since time immemorial. Frank Armstrong attributes the current acute housing crisis to the colonial settlement.https://t.co/7Qp4K5wQrr@broadsheet_ie @BowesChay @vincentbrowne @connolly16frank @caulmick @RoryHearne @fallon_donal
— CassandraVoices (@VoicesCassandra) August 17, 2021
Vacant Property Refurbishment Grant
The Vacant Property Refurbishment Grant provides for a sum of up to €50,000 to refurbish a vacant property. It appears tailor-made for a significant proportion of the housing stock of Leitrim. As of February 7, 2023 there are 33 properties for sale under €100,000 in the county out of 197 according to the website daft.ie. Many appear suitable candidates for the Grant.
In line with national trends, property prices have been rising steadily in Leitrim, albeit from a low base. Research on daft.ie indicates a 13.8% increase in the average price of property in the county over the course of 2022, the second steepest increase for any county apart from Donegal. Such a figure could be skewed by a few expensive purchases, but is a good indicator nonetheless.
The prospect of purchasers receiving a Vacant Property Refurbishment Grant might lead vendors to apply a premium. Anyone availing of the Grant, meanwhile, must retain the property as a principal primary residence, and be a first-time buyer or qualify for the fresh start scheme.
After receiving the Grant, if you decide to sell up or rent the property out within ten years of a successful application local authorities will claw back the Grant. If it is less than ten years, you must repay it in full; over five years, but less than ten, you have to repay 75%.
Anyone availing of the Grant would want to be sure of their desire to live in a particular area, and of this fitting with their employment prospects. Moreover, the sum involved would hardly put a roof on many of the dilapidated properties dotted around the Irish countryside, given the current cost of building materials.
The Grant does not apply where an individual is living in the house after the purchase. One contributor to boards.ie, who claimed to be sleeping on a mattress in a house in need of significant refurbishment, said he was denied the Grant on this ground alone, which seems unfair.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the onerous terms and conditions, there has been little uptake. Last year, 765 applications were made for the Grant. 105 of these were approved while another 102 were rejected. The remaining 558 are still in progress.
One can understand a need for due diligence before pay outs are made. However, assuming the Department is insufficiently staffed to carry out numerous inspections, it is surprising to hear ads on the radio promoting the Grant. Perhaps this is simply to create the impression that a beleaguered Government is taking action on the hot topic of vacancy.
Frank Armstrong explores the historical origins of capitalism, as the steady financialisation of property threatens the good life we have a right to expect.https://t.co/Lq7z4PeWCP@broadsheet_ie @BowesChay @liamherrick @williamhboney1 @KevinHIpoet1967 @VillageMagIRE @RoryHearne
— CassandraVoices (@VoicesCassandra) September 15, 2021
Vacant Homes Action Plant
On January 30 2023, Minister Darragh O’Brien launched the Vacant Homes Action Plan 2023 – 2026. In its preamble the Minister sensibly stated that the ‘most efficient home to deliver is the one which already exists’.
The report points to Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025, a Government policy launched in March 2021 that purports to provide a framework for the development of rural Ireland:
One of its key objectives is to support the regeneration, repopulation and development of rural towns and villages to contribute to local and national economic recovery, and to enable people to live and work in a high quality environment.
There is, however, scant evidence that Government measures are encouraging people to settle in rural Ireland, in contrast to insatiable demand for Dublin property, where almost thirty percent of the population lives. In contrast, less than 15% of the UK population inhabits London, which is generally considered disproportionate.
The rather insipid planned actions include further budgeting for the Better Energy Homes Scheme; reference to the previously established Rural Regeneration and Development Fund; plans to harness European Regional Development Funding; and perhaps significantly a new programme for the Compulsory Purchase of vacant properties ‘for resale on the open market.’
Housing: A Banker Speaks Out | Cassandra Voices https://t.co/8ZdsOID2bt
— Brian Reilly (@j_reilly33) September 20, 2021
Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs)
Use of CPOs is the most obvious means of addressing vacancy, as well as bringing land into use for housing and other development projects. Historically, Irish Governments have evinced a reluctance to use CPOs to generate land for housing, notably the failure to act on the recommendations of the Kenny Report (1973) recommending that local authorities should be empowered to acquire undeveloped lands at existing use value plus 25% by adopting Designated Area Schemes.
Historically, the Courts have also generally weighed a constitutional right to property over what is, arguably, a concurrent constitutional right – flowing from a generalised Right to Life – for citizens to secure reasonable accommodation. Father Peter McVerry has pointed to a paradox whereby a constitutional right to property is ‘being used to prevent Irish people getting their own home.’
The Vacant Homes Action Plan is thin on ambition, merely stating that with ‘regard to compulsory purchases/acquisitions is being reviewed with a view to streamlining and consolidating the CPO process. This will arrive alongside a review of the Planning Act and the Law Reform Commission’s examination of the use of CPOs which is ongoing.’
Although the Plan states:
The Department in partnership with the Housing Agency will examine each local authority’s Derelict Sites Register with a view to identifying potential properties that could be brought back into use through compulsory acquisition. Local authorities will be requested to review these properties in the first instance with a view to engaging with owners.
Under Action 19.9 of Housing for All, it was agreed that all Government Departments would examine their existing portfolio of properties and, subject to any obligations under the Public Spending Code, the Land Development Agency Act 2021 or the State Property Act 1954, would place them on the market if they were not required and may be suitable for residential housing.
The Plan also refers to the Ready to Build Scheme, which was launched in September, 2022:
Under the Scheme, local authorities will make serviced sites available in towns and villages at a discount on the market value, to individual purchasers for the building of their home which will be their principal private residence. It is intended that the local authority will develop existing sites in their control or purchase sites.
And to The Living City Initiative, a scheme of property tax incentives first enacted in the Finance Act 2013 and commenced on 5 May 2015 aimed at the regeneration of older heritage buildings in the historic inner cities of Cork, Dublin, Galway, Kilkenny, Limerick and Waterford.
The Plan acknowledges that there been a low take-up of this initiative, but points to a number of measures included in the Finance Act, 2022 aimed at accelerating uptake.
The Vacant Homes Action Plan also says that in Budget 2023, ‘the introduction of a Vacant Homes Tax was announced. Legislation providing for the introduction of the new tax is included in the Finance Act 2022.’
It estimates that 57,206 (3.2%) of all Irish properties were indicated by their owners as being vacant. A property is considered vacant for the purposes of a forthcoming tax if it is in use as a dwelling for less than 30 days in a 12-month chargeable period. Owners of vacant properties are to be charged at a rate equal to three times the property’s base Local Property Tax liability for 2023, which will apply in addition to a property’s LPT charge.
This, however, will only apply in relation to vacant properties ‘that are habitable, and therefore suitable for occupation as a dwelling.’
The Plan also provides for important exemptions to ensure, as it puts it, ‘property owners are not unfairly charged for temporary vacancy arising from genuine reasons.’ These include recently sold properties, or those currently listed for sale or rent.
It would seem that simply by putting up a property on the market for sale or rent – at whatever price – the penalty may be avoided. We seem to be in the realm of performative politics again, rather than substantive action.
There appear to be two broad categories of vacancy in Ireland. An awareness of this distinction might inform policy and the law. The existence of designated rent pressure zones already distinguishes between regions of the country.
We may observe the first category occurring in mainly urban areas – rent pressure zones – especially Dublin and its hinterland where housing is in short supply. Here, a dominant player, or players, could collude by withdrawing accommodation from the market in order to maintain, or generate an increase in, rental income. This is especially insidious and severe penalties should be available to stamp out any suspicion of any such monopolistic practices.
A second category of vacancy arises in a rural county such as Leitrim which has experienced historic de-population, leading to the abandonment of many houses. Draconian penalties serve little purpose here. Instead, there should be greater incentives for renovation and refurbishment. Here at least, the Vacant Property Refurbishment Grant should not be restricted to principal primary residences.
In the case of much of county Leitrim, even for people to live for a part of the year there would be a boon for retail and hospitality businesses, and could restore life to sleepy villages that have experienced emigration over many generations. For the Vacant Property Refurbishment Grant to inhibit sales for a period of ten years seems prohibitively restrictive, and would likely deter many from availing of it.
It is in the public interest for the stock of quality housing to rise through the availability of such grants. A three year restriction seems sufficient.
A second, ‘holiday’, home would offer an opportunity for residents of built-up urban areas to undertake small scale agriculture on a part-time basis in summer retreats, as one still sees in Central and Eastern European countries where an apartment in the city is often complimented with a rural residence that includes a market garden. The availability of alternative garden space for the summer months might lead “empty-nesters” and retirees to downsize from houses into apartments.
A sparsely populated country like Ireland ought to have available a stock of affordable housing in low density rural locations for second homes, such as is the case in Scandinavian countries.
Policy makers need to look beyond housing itself to encourage re-population of rural Ireland, while confronting car dependency. We require a radical improvement in public transport. Extending quiet ways on treacherous roads would also allow for safer cycling. E-bikes could be a game changer for rural Ireland, permitting extended journeys for older less physically fit people, while expending far less energy than even electric cars. Buses and trains need to offer free and secure carriage for bicycles.
Hopefully the Department of Housing is working in conjunction with the Department of Transport, following Eamon Ryan’s recent proposal for rail lines to be restored in the West, to identify areas suitable for development in rural Ireland.
Reversing the decline in Ireland’s rural population, especially along the western seaboard, requires joined-up thinking and innovative approaches. Cheap, modular housing might be considered for new housing arrangements that depart from the conventional idea of the family home in a changing society.
Co-operative agricultural enterprises, inspired by the tradition of the Clachan, offer the prospect of sociability and affordability, while potentially reducing greenhouse gas emissions and decreasing reliance on imported foodstuffs.
One way to address a seemingly intractable housing crisis concentrated in the city of Dublin is surely to make other parts of the country more attractive to live in, especially in an era of remote working.
There have been encouraging trends over recent decades along the Western seaboard, with renewed appreciation of resilient traditions and greater opportunities for adventure sports – but there is a hidden Ireland, generally at a remove from the coastline, that tends not to see benefits from tourism.
As we approach the bicentenary of the Great Famine novel approaches to life in Ireland ought to enter the mainstream. Government should act decisively and imaginatively to encourage more people to live in counties such as Leitrim.
Feature Image: Carrigallen, county Leitrim.