Walking around a flooded Carrick-on-Shannon it’s easy to come to the conclusion that 2009 was an Annus Mirabilis for County Leitrim.  On so many fronts the county has been badly hit by the recession and has a range of challenges stockpiled for 2010 and beyond.

Leitrim has the smallest population of any county in the Republic, with 28,950 population in 2006 (up from 25,301 in 1991).  Accompanying this modest population growth has been a building boom, with new industrial estates and shops, along with housing estates, added to towns and villages, and a frenzy of one-off housing developments.

This building frenzy nose-dived after the peak of the property boom, but the damage has already been done – the housing vacancy rate is above 30 percent.  In April 2006, housing vacancy in the county was 29.3 percent.  Since then many new properties have been built, and with very low demand few have been occupied.  Whilst the growth in housing and industrial units to large degree mirrored population growth, it outpaced demand driven by tax 23 incentive developments (through the Rural Renewal Scheme introduced in the Finance Act 1998) and a strong pro-growth strategy in an area that was only ever likely to sustain relatively weak growth given its peripheral location to major urban centres, its population make-up, and its indigenous economic base.

Animation of new housing growth in Leitrim since 2003 in 1km grid squares

What this means is that the county has a massive oversupply of housing and industrial units that, even with sustained growth (and this is unlikely for at least a few years, possibly longer), will take many years to fill.  The result has been plummeting house prices, with a significant fall in asking price and the second lowest average price for homes in the country after Longford (according to daft.ie average asking prices in Leitrim are currently in the region of €181,285, which represents a year-on year fall of 18%, and a 28% fall from peak prices) and the creation of a small number of ghost estates (for example in Cootehall and the grounds of Kilronan Hotel).  For those that bought property post 2003 (and perhaps earlier) this will mean living with negative equity, and probably doing so for quite some time.

In addition, cuts in funding from central government have meant the curtailing of many social schemes and to the halting of local infrastructural projects such as road improvements.  The county is particular vulnerable to further cuts due to the division of the Leitrim constituency into two new constituencies – Sligo-North Leitrim and Roscommon-South Leitrim – for the 2007 election which leaves Leitrim with no locally based TD.  Moreover, the county would be highly vulnerable if the An Bord Snip (2009) proposal to merge county councils to gain economies of scale where implemented.

To add to Leitrim’s woes, claimants on the Live Register have more than trebled from a low of 1040 people in April to 2006 to 3482 in October 2009 (a 235% increase).  The national unemployment rate for the second quarter was 12% (males 15.1% and females 8.1%), with a rate of 13.4% for the Border region (the finest spatial resolution available).  In addition, for those working in agriculture in what is a largely rural county, the CSO has recently reported that farm operating surpluses are down by 30.3% in 2009, on top of a fall of 10.9% in 2008.

Unemployment has the potential to rise further and some parts of the county are prospectively quite vulnerable to a significant increase given the reliance on a small number of large employers that also help maintain the broader local economy.  For example, in the south of the county, Bank of America and Masonite are two major employers and any job losses in these cases will have serious ripples throughout the area.

As a border county Leitrim is losing some retail revenue to Fermanagh.  Another CSO report details that 41% of border residents shopped in the North between July 2008 and June 2009, a fair number making fairly regular trips.  Another indicator of consumer confidence is reflected in new car registrations which for January and February, 2009, nose-dived (leading, for example, to Casey’s Ford garage in Carrick on Shannon closing).

Carrick on Shannon flooding

Then to cap, what has been a pretty awful year, the unprecedented rainfall of November led to the River Shannon bursting its banks and flooding large parts of Carrick-on-Shannon, Cootehall, and Leitrim Village.  It has to be said that the devastation that followed seemed almost inevitable given that much of the recent development had taken place on the Shannon’s floodplains.  Nevertheless, for a struggling economy it was a bitter blow that will require millions of euro of state investment in flood management to address.

Leitrim people are a resilient and proud bunch, and while the recession will take its toll, they’ll continue to get on with life.  It would have been a damn sight easier though without the woes of 2009.

Prime development land?

Declan Curran, Justin Gleeson and Rob Kitchin