Not too long ago I found myself in Rathdrum, a beautiful town in Co. Wicklow. While I had a lovely time, I noticed that a lot of buildings were vacant, with areas of the town centre feeling deserted at times.
Unfortunately, Rathdrum is not unique in this regard. Ireland has 166,000 vacant properties, according to the latest statistics, with many of these being outside the cities and bigger towns. It seems absurd to have such a huge amount of unused buildings during a housing crisis, as these properties would be enough to house the country’s homeless population ten times over!
A lot has been said about Ireland’s vacant properties. Dr Lorcan Sirr of the Technological University of Dublin recently called the vacant property policy a “blind spot,” remarking that only three local authorities have full-time staff in charge of vacancies. Dr Rory Hearne of Maynooth University called vacant homes “an opportunity we are ignoring.”
Dr Cian O’Callaghan of Trinity College, Dublin, while agreeing that using vacant housing can alleviate the housing crisis, noted that vacancy rates are higher where housing demand is lower. Specifically, in the west and the midlands the vacancy rates are high, with Cos. Donegal, Roscommon, Mayo and Leitrim all having vacancy rates of over 10 per cent. It is a common criticism that these properties are vacant simply because no-one wants to live in them.
I think one important aspect in this discussion is overlooked, and this is the role of public transport links throughout Ireland, or more accurately the lack of them. To go back to Rathdrum, this town has a direct railway connection to Wexford and Dublin. However, this slow diesel train takes more than 90 minutes to complete the 60 km journey to Connolly Station, and has a frequency of 5 times per day (3 times at weekends). By comparison, a similar distance in the Netherlands can be travelled in less than an hour, with rural stations having a half-hourly service. Such speeds and frequencies are not uncommon throughout continental Europe and Asia.
Maybe the critics are right and no-one wants to live in the houses that are now vacant. This is something that will not change if it continues to be difficult to reach large parts of the country.
With an eye on the climate crisis, good public transport will become even more important—not to mention the high fuel prices making it expensive to get anywhere by car.
We need a public transport strategy that is not limited to the few bigger urban areas. A good start would be electrifying the railway lines that already span the country, and running high-frequency trains and connecting buses to towns and villages. This, combined with a focus on the local authorities redeveloping vacant properties, can provide relief to the housing crisis and decrease the threat of isolation of rural communities and smaller towns.