Of all the towns in Ireland the recession hit Gort the hardest, falling from the top 10 per cent in 2002 to the bottom 10 per cent by 2011, according to a Teagasc supported research conducted by the Commission for the Economic Development or Rural Areas (CEDRA ).
The research, which was presented to councillors at a recent meeting of Galway County Council, looks at the impact of the economic downturn on rural areas and found that in terms of unemployment there was a 114 per cent increase in urban areas compared to 192 per cent increase in rural areas. Professor Cathal O’Donoghue, Teagasc head of rural economy and development, told the chamber “Galway is relatively well represented” as it “has the highest proportion of small to medium towns with relatively low unemployment rate (in the top 10 per cent )”. However, he added that “of all the towns in the country Gort fell the furthest”.
The performance of various towns in County Galway between 2002 and 2011 was outlined in the research (0 being the top 10 per cent and 90 the bottom 10 per cent ) and was based on unemployment as well as emigration/immigration. The town rankings showed: Athenry went from 10 to 20; Ballinasloe fell from 60 to 80; Barna improved moving from 10 to 0; Claregalway fell from 0 to 30; Clarinbridge remained the same at 0; Clifden improved moving from 40 to 0; Craughwell was ranked 0 in 2011; Gort fell dramatically from 10 to 90; Loughrea fell 20 to 60; Mountbellew remained the same at 20; Oranmore remained the same at 0; Oughterard fell from 20 to 30; Portumna improved moving from 40 to 30; and Tuam also improved moving 70 to 60.
Prof O’Donoghue explained that Gort and Oranmore were compared and that despite being quite similar towns between 2006 and 2011, Gort lost 400 jobs and as a result nearly 15 per cent of its population. In contrast, during the same period Oranmore gained 150 jobs and 12 per cent population. “Gort had been heavily dependent on construction and manufacturing related jobs,” said Prof O’Donoghue who cited the reason for the gain in Oranmore was due to “a higher education profile, half the share of unoccupied housing, and it is closer to Galway city”.
“Gort’s decline mirrors but magnifies the decline seen nationally due to an over reliance of construction prior to the crash, an unsustainable increase in economic activity over a short period, and an unsustainably fast population and housing rise prior to 2006. It had been a real boom town with rapid planning that was unsustainable. However, Gort is a town of potential but given what has happened in the last five to eight years it needs to pick up its feet again,” said Prof O’Donoghue.
The report noted how Gort has “high historical ranking” which provides economic potential and attributes to grow again if the right decisions are made. Its potential is magnified by the “higher education axis” that follows the road between Limerick and Galway, excellent road, rail, and airport links, close proximity to major tourism assets such as the Burren, Coole Park, Galway Bay and Lough Derg, and significant cultural heritage.
According to Prof O’Donoghue recommendations include taking steps to ensure towns are “more attractive to live, work, and visit, make it easier to do business, increase consumer demand and sentiment, improve access to finances of SMEs, and develop rural based businesses”. He stressed that local authorities play an important role in developing new structures for local development and it can have an important impact if it is properly researched, proactive, development focused, and leadership is provided.
“Rural Ireland is in freefall,” said Independent councillor Tim Broderick, who called for more joined-up thinking and proper resources for local authorities. Cllr Broderick also called for post offices to be retained.
This was echoed by Fianna Fáil councillor Gerry Finnerty who put forward a motion calling on the Government to put an action plan in place confirming new businesses to the post office network all of which are on existing computerised network and to allow An Post to be a primary payment option on Department of Social Welfare payments and pensions, not letters to customers requesting bank details as first payment option. Finally that An Post take note of the Grant Thornton report which clearly proves that the Government could save up to €76.8 million if motor tax, banking and hospital charges were payable through An Post.